This is about a utopia gone wrong, where science has been twisted to an absurd extreme in an attempt to keep society happy. What makes this novel particularly interesting is how it all makes a sort of perverse sense. The obvious comparison when discussing this book is Nineteen Eighty-Four, both being dystopian futures with a brainwashed populace, and this is like the wacky uncle to that novel. It’s older, doesn’t take itself as seriously, but is clearly in the same family.
How do you keep a society happy? Firstly, each citizen must be content in their lives. The solution here is to brainwash them from birth. Each person is born, or ‘decanted’, in a lab and is conditioned through sleep-learning to love the caste to which they’re assigned (denoted with the Greek alphabet – alpha through epsilon). The benefits of their social class, and the drawbacks of the other classes, are repeated to them constantly in their youth to stop them from wanting to be anything else. They love their place in society, and couldn’t change it even if they desired. This removes the need to have greater ambitions in one’s life and therefore avoids failure in those ambitions. You do what you’re assigned to do, you enjoy that, and you spend your free time taking drug-induced vacations and having sex with anyone and everyone. The idea is to keep everyone content in a shallow and carefree existence.
In order to have control of each citizen from birth, no births outside of the labs can occur. To prevent this, not only are they citizens kept sterile, but they are trained to view motherhood and natural birth as vulgar.
And home was as squalid psychically as physically. Psychically, it was a rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane, obscene relationships between the members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children) … brooded over them like a cat over its kittens; but a cat that could talk, a cat that could say, “My baby, my baby,” over and over again. “My baby, and oh, oh, at my breast, the little hands, the hunger, and that unspeakable agonizing pleasure! Till at last my baby sleeps, my baby sleeps with a bubble of white milk at the corner of his mouth. My little baby sleeps…”
About halfway through the story, we’re introduced to a man born outside of this society, from a natural birth, and he acts as our eyes to view this perverse world. He is seen, from the society’s point of view, as a savage. He wasn’t brought up with their brainwashing, instead learning a lot of his life’s lessons from his collected works of William Shakespeare. They are fascinated with him, but he becomes increasingly agitated by the end of the novel, when it becomes clear that he has been conditioned in his own way.
There’s a scene where the two worlds finally come to a head. ‘The savage’ completely loses it when a woman tries to lure him to bed, and it results in him calling her a whore and an impudent strumpet (an insult from the bard) and trying to hit her. Up until this point, the label of savage seemed almost funny, as he’s clearly the reader’s representative in this bizarre future, but then the lines began to blur. He begins isolating himself, whipping his back for what he believes are his sins, and he really does start to live up to his nickname. In many ways, I found the him to be as unrelatable as the brainwashed citizens.
This apparently started as a satire on the utopian future societies imagined by H.G. Wells. Huxley wanted to take those utopias and present a frightening alternative, and it eventually grew into a more substantial statement on the state of, at the time, current society. No where is Huxley’s original intent of parody more clear than in the unforgettable, though you may try, orgy scene, in which a group of people, mesmerized with childish delight, chant a hilariously simple verse before getting down. This is their religion in a way, meant to give a sense of community and provide a release of human desires in a controlled way.
Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy-porgy gives release.
Michael York’s narration was fantastic. I’m always amazed at narrators who can switch between so many accents, although it did seem strange to me that he choose different regional English accents for different characters. If everyone’s grown in a lab, part of a group of clones essentially, then they would probably all have basically the same accent. I felt like the point of it was that, in a world this strict, human beings were expected to have no individuality. Henry Ford is their savior, and they are products of the assembly line. This narration didn’t seem to jive with that idea. Maybe this was explained in the text and I missed it, but it struck me as a bit odd. Apart from that, which may just be my misunderstanding, he did an exceptional job.
I had a few false starts with this novel, as I just couldn’t seem to get into it, but I enjoyed myself once it finally clicked. It’s such a thought-provoking world he’s come up with, and it still feels incredibly relevant for today. Maybe even more so than when it was written, with our advanced technology, consumerism and obsession with anti-aging. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I liked it enough that I’ll be seeking out his other novels eventually.