Of baby factories, orgy-porgy & Shakespeare – Yes, it’s that dystopia!

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This week, having re-visited one dystopian novel I previously read as a teenager (click here), I was able to fit in another of the biggies of the genre in time for our book group discussion this evening.

I remember reading Brave New World, which was published in 1932, at school, but can’t remember exactly when; it would have been around O-Level time.  Re-reading it again after all these years, I was quite shocked, for although there’s no graphic detail at all, the whole thing is full of sex! Okay, it’s about so much more than that, but that was my first impression, and I do wonder if it’s still read so young these days.  I know, however, that the sexual aspects would have gone straight over my head – I’d have been more intrigued by the science fiction of baby farming.

It’s a good thing that Miranda’s line from The Tempest “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!” was said in irony, because the society of this book has had all brave extremes engineered out of it. Everyone is happy all the time, aided by frequent small doses of the drug ‘soma’ to lose their inhibitions.  Everyone is conditioned to always seek company, never to be alone, books are banned – Obstacle golf is the pinnacle of pastimes outside of sex… Sex is not for reproduction – the baby factories take care of that.  The words mother and father are now the equivalent of our c and f ones; sex is purely for recreation, the pleasure of leisure including a bit of orgy-porgy.  In theory, anyone can ‘have’ anyone else, but in practice the alpha males still really call the shots – and they prefer ‘pneumatic’ blondes like Lenina Crowne.

I’m getting ahead of myself for I haven’t explained the caste system. Babies are groomed from their artificial birth to be from lofty Alphas to drone Epsilons.  They are conditioned in their ‘bottles’ to develop the right kind of intelligence, and erotic education begins in the nursery. Only the alpha pluses are allowed to shine, which brings me to Bernard Marx.  For some reason, for Bernard is a weedy sort for an alpha plus, Lenina is attracted to him, and allows him to take her on an expedition to see the Savages – those few people permitted to live normal lives in reservations. Little is she to know that this visit and their encounter with John, the son of a visitor who went missing, will turn their lives upside down.

There are so many levels to the satire in this novel. For starters, virtually every name is a take on notable characters of the age – politicians, philosophers, industrialists and scientists in particular from Marx and Lenin to George Bernard Shaw. But the highest accolade is reserved for Henry Ford, who has replaced God as Lord of this society.  The whole book is also a response to HG Wells and his Utopian worlds, in particular Wells’s 1921 novel Men like Gods, and has parallels to the Russian author Zamyatin’s We which came out in 1921. (Another big dystopia in my TBR pile). But if you want to read more background on Brave New World – I suggest you head to its Wikipedia pages.

In the nature versus nurture debate, interestingly, Huxley’s is all about nurture. From the embryo in its bottle onwards, his humans have a programme to bring them on or hold their intelligence back, and later conditioning them to fear loneliness, difference, books, and revere sex and happiness.

The language is wonderfully arch in places – ‘two nightingales soliloquized in the boskage,‘ – boskage, nice woody word (as they’d say on Monty Python).  It’s also chock full of quotes from Shakespeare – not just the Tempest, but many others (there’s a list here). What got me chuckling all the way through though was his continual use of the word ‘pneumatic’ and using ‘have’ as a euphemism for sex …

‘Lenina Crowne,’ said Henry Foster, echoing the Assistant Predestinator’s question as he zipped up his trousers.  ‘Oh, she’s a splendid girl. Wonderfully pneumatic. I’m surprised you haven’t had her.’

Those chuckles aside, I found Brave New World to be another visionary novel, and once more it is so rewarding to revisit a 20th century classic that so influenced what came afterwards.  (9/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Brave New Worldby Aldous Huxley, Vintage pbk, 288 pages with an intro by Margaret Atwood.
Men Like Gods (Sphere science fiction) by H G Wells
We (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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4 thoughts on “Of baby factories, orgy-porgy & Shakespeare – Yes, it’s that dystopia!

  1. When I read your review I thought to myself this sounds so interesting, I really should read this book. And I’ve just found out it’s on my 100 book challenge list so I’m really stoked. Looks like it’ll be a great read.

  2. Pingback: Dystopias R Us – Book Group Report « Gaskella

  3. I remember reading this as a teenager and being very taken with its view of a future society. Someone (my English teacher I suspect) recommended “We” by Zamyatin which I also read but liked less. Perhaps 35 years later I should re-read them both and see how I feel now.

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