Source: Dave Pearce, BLTC Research
Brave New World(1932) is one of the most bewitching and insidious works of literature ever written.
Tragically, no. Brave New World has come to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness.
For sure, Huxley was writing a satirical piece of fiction, not scientific prophecy. Hence to treat his masterpiece as ill-conceived futurology rather than a work of great literature might seem to miss the point. Yet the knee-jerk response of “It’s Brave New World!” to any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.
So how does Huxley turn a future where we’re all notionally happy into the archetypal dystopia? If it’s technically feasible, what’s wrong with using biotechnology to get rid of mental pain altogether?
Brave New World is an unsettling, loveless and even sinister place. This is because Huxley endows his “ideal” society with features calculated to alienate his audience. Typically, reading BNW elicits the very same disturbing feelings in the reader which the society it depicts has notionally vanquished – not a sense of joyful anticipation. In Brave New World Revisited (1958) Huxley describes BNW as a “nightmare”.
Thus BNW doesn’t, and isn’t intended by its author to, evoke just how wonderful our lives could be if the human genome were intelligently rewritten. In the era of post-genomic medicine, our DNA is likely to be spliced and edited so we can all enjoy life-long bliss, awesome peak experiences, and a spectrum of outrageously good designer-drugs. Nor does Huxley’s comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime of pain, disease and unhappiness can be. If you think it does, then you enjoy an enviably sheltered life and an enviably cosy imagination. For it’s all sugar-coated pseudo-realism.
In Brave New World, Huxley contrives to exploit the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism. He taps into, and then feeds, our revulsion at Pavlovian-style behavioural conditioning andeugenics. Worse, it is suggested that the price of universal happiness will be the sacrifice of the most hallowed shibboleths of our culture: “motherhood”, “home”, “family”, “freedom”, even “love”. The exchange yields an insipid happiness that’s unworthy of the name. Its evocation arouses our unease and distaste.
In BNW, happiness derives from consuming mass-produced goods, sports such as Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy, promiscuous sex, “the feelies”, and most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, soma.
As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.