Revisiting Brave New World

Published in 1932, Brave New World is worth re-reading in every election year when politicians promise us salvation through technocracy. Today is the first day of the Democratic National Convention and presumably we’ll hear a lot about how the government can take care of all of our wants and needs (but without significantly higher taxes, except on “billionaires” and “the rich who are not paying their fair share” and maybe “corporations that aren’t paying their fair share”). Let’s see how many of Brave New World’s promises will be repeated this week.

Huxley was all in on what was then the infant technology of helicopters. The term “main rotor system” had not been coined and therefore the book describes “helicopter screws” on a vehicle that sounds like a Lockheed Cheyenne (pusher prop in the back and stub wings). Then stub wings and a tractor propeller it seems. Perhaps the author, writing in 1931, was aware of work by Étienne Oehmichen (1922-24) and Corradino D’Ascanio (1930). All of the pilots are Alpha males, though already in 1930 Amy Johnson had flown solo from London to Australia. (Hannah Reitsch would fly a practical helicopter for a German audience in 1938.)

Huxley had no vision of progress in information technology, despite the fact that there were some extremely capable punched card machines prior to 1931. Hence the need for Epsilons to serve as elevator operators and for all of the helicopter-airplane hybrids to be continuously hand-flown. Televisions, in their infancy in 1931 (history), were cheap enough to place at the foot of every bed in a hospital for the dying, but the only phones were landlines. Presumably the signals for the televisions were being transmitted via radio waves,

It seems as though there is an equal distribution of sexes within each caste, but Huxley couldn’t find any jobs for the female Alphas. He completely missed the trend toward women in management and high-level technical jobs. (He also completely missed the Rainbow Flag religion. Everyone is either male or female, though some females are sterile “freemartins”. Nobody has sex with a person adhering to the same gender ID. Nobody changes gender after being decanted.)

Humans don’t age in Brave New World. Technology is used to maintain health and vitality at roughly a 30-year-old’s level. This wears out the body so that people end up dropping dead at 60, but without a period of decline first. If we’re going to spend 20 percent of GDP on health care, maybe we should ask for this (though with a later drop-dead date please!) instead of what we are getting, which is to keep the ancients (like me!) hanging on despite total decrepitude.

The optimized Brave New World includes an ample helping of racism. Low caste members are described as being “part Negro” or “Octoroon”. But this doesn’t make any sense given the goal of complete harmony among men and women, which drove the technocrats to seek to generate humans in batches of 100+ with identical genetics. Why have more than one race? Maybe the “one race” would contain some genetics from multiple pre-Ford existing races, but everyone should have the same skin color. It can’t be because Huxley thought that only certain races had the necessary genes for low IQ. The low-intelligence babies are produced by putting alcohol into their gestation bottles.

Huxley’s character, Mustapha Mond, seems to predict that Americans who want to feel heroic will refuse to be happy about a buoyant economy and stock market under Donald Trump:

The Savage shook his head. “It all seems to me quite horrible.”

Mustapha Mond: “Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

One thing that Huxley gets absolutely right about the modern-day U.S.: opioid addiction. It isn’t exactly clear what soma is, but it seems to be an opiate. People feel great after taking it and also sleepy. There is no alcohol-style hangover after moderate indulgence. People who take too much will die.

Readers: Please let me know what the Democrats promise this week at the convention and whether any of it aligns with Brave New World!


10 thoughts on “Revisiting Brave New World

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Fordism, the quasi-religious philosophy behind the structured, stable, orderly, artificial and mass-produced society, based on Henry Ford’s assembly line techniques. The science and technology were futuristic in one sense, but also deliberately hobbled and even crippled in another, frozen in place for the sake of “Community, Identity, Stability.” It was a perfect world designed and technocratically managed to exist for all time without disruptions. All manner of independent thought and discontent itself had to be engineered out of society and otherwise totally controlled. There was no entrepreneurship in Brave New World, and nobody wrote literature or produced works of art. Subversive thoughts like Bernard’s, Helmholtz’, etc., could not be accommodated in the World State (there was no way to productively discuss or share them with others!) and that is the central crisis. Hence the exiles to the Falkland Islands – which is revealed to actually be a *reward* (shhhh.)

    Soma was the magic, soothing psychoactive that enabled people to live contented lives in a pain-free existence without complaining or rebelling against the World State. It was a combination analgesic/antidepressant/anxiolytic without the nasty side effects. You could probably replicate most its effects through a cocktail of modern psych meds, and other drugs, but not quite so safely.

    We know from Medical School 2020 ( ) how primitive modern psychiatry actually is: “Think of psych disorders like trying to treat heart or kidney disorders 100 years ago. We barely understand them. We are in the Caveman age of psych drugs. We are just beginning to tap into the mechanisms of the brain disorders.” – Year 2, Week 26

    Aldous Huxley enjoyed making drug cocktails of his own, so it’s not strange he had this idea. But Soma was the only drug around and you took it not to expand your consciousness and open the “doors of perception” but rather to constrain anesthetize consciousness – to conform, not to rebel.

    Huxley was fascinated and mortified by the annihilation of identity required to perpetuate social stability. Sleep learning, the Bokanovsky process (which was cloning, at its root) and the rigid caste system enabled the World Controllers to manufacture a society with precise allotments of “people” whose lives and abilities were utterly predetermined, like parts on an assembly line stamped out to be assembled into cars.

    Now, all of this is just a preface. I’ll watch the DNC tonight, because we’re going to hear all kinds of things about Government, Wants and Needs. We’re going to need a lot more Government, that’s for sure. It looks like the opening ceremonies are going to be dominated by racial justice and coronavirus.

    • Related: About a month ago, I read one of Elon Musk’s tweets and immediately thought of Mustapha Mond. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I was shocked by his concept of the role of government in our lives:

      “Goal of government should be to maximize the happiness of the people. Giving each person money allows them to decide what meets their needs, rather than the blunt tool of legislation, which creates self-serving special interests.”

      How’s that for the idea of limited government based on our Constitutional principles?

  2. If you visit the DNC website, their choice of background video – all from the 2016 convention – is fascinating: big crowds, cheering, lots of handshaking and people in the hall, not a mask in sight. Is that the world of the past? Or are the Democrats implying that electing Joe Biden will magically return everyone to normal?

    It says to me: “We want to forget the past four years have ever happened.” Trump is a historical anomaly that will be erased from history, and the world will magically skip from 2016 straight to a happy, cheering 2021.

  3. I read both dystopian novels “1984” and “Brave New World” about the same time, in the 1980s. I thought the “Brave New World” description of civilization being smothered with a pillow was a better prediction of the future, and for late Cold War era USA it probably was. I now think “1984” is more relevant.

  4. Also, World State policy dictated that 70% of biologically female embryos were ultimately decanted as freemartins, so they were the majority.

    Everyone should make sure to read a woke critique of BNW:

    “Huxley stealthily weaves a patriarchy into every fiber of the World State…Mustapha Mond’s description of the World State and blatant omission of women as anything other than entertainment for men supports the Controller’s true motives behind the women’s genetic composition and perpetual conditioning.”

    That’s from UK Essays, an online service that helps folks write their essays, assignments and dissertations. For as little as £124 you can get a 1,000-word undergraduate dissertation on the subject of your choice, with 7 day on-time delivery or your money back! Very helpful during coronavirus, or any time, really. You can get a 40-page Ph.D. dissertation in Computer Science by September 14th for $11,739.00.

    “We understand the frustration that student’s face when trying to juggle work, a social life and university assessments, which is why we’re here to help you get the most out of your university experience.”

  5. The DNC is a train wreck. “Goal of government should be to maximize the happiness of the people. Giving each person money allows them to decide what meets their needs, rather than the blunt tool of legislation, which creates self-serving special interests.” – E. Musk

  6. Poor Aldous died a few hours after JFK, so it was completely overshadowed.

    Also, Octoroon was not coined by Huxley; it was used by the US Census Bureau as we really wanted to know how black you were (cf. quadroon, mulatto).

  7. Alex, since BNW was clearly supposed to be a bad thing by the intentions of its author, I’m not sure what claiming that the place is really a patriarchy, but the author kept it secret, does to make your point.

    With exceptions like Erewhon, which is really all over the place as a satire, the point of utopias and dystopias are really how the author wants to order society, or is warning that you don’t want to get close to ordering society this way, so there is not much room for subtlety. Stuff you want to stay away from in dystopias are presented straight out as the way the society is supposed to run. The most nuance you get is the situation with Winston Smith where the government lies constantly and he has to pick through the lies, but I think in Brave New World the government is actually pretty straightforward, the heroes just decide that they don’t buy the vision.

  8. I didn’t get the chance to watch the DNC last night. Someone drove a car into a telephone pole and knocked out my cable and Internet.

    So I watched parts of it today. I think the most important part, and all you really need to know, was Bernie Sanders’ speech. The fact that he was there on the first of the convention to give it, and the contents, which are true, tells you everything you need to know about the Brave New World of the Democrats.

    Everyone else there, you would have expected. Michelle Obama, sure. Cuomo, obviously. Even Kasich, who has always pretty much hated Trump. But Sanders has almost single-handedly changed the Democrat party into the Socialist Democrat Party and it happened in about 5 years. This was pretty well known to everyone who was watching closely.

  9. While Brave New World was never embraced as a thing everyone did (or ever wanted to do), that was not true of an earlier utopian vision (say what you will) that I ran across a number of years ago and found that (much like acetylene [carbide] lighting) it seems to have largely been forgotten. This is Edward Bellamy’s I did like that it was written by a New Englander and had some entertaining notions about the physical future Boston. There was once a utopian community exhibit at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, and maybe this was mentioned, but if so, I missed it. I arrived at Bellamy’s Looking Backward in a roundabout manner, being a film & video worker bee, I had been looking at some of the appearances of LA’s iconic Bradbury Building therein (Outer Limits, Blade Runner, many others) when I noticed a mention of Bellamy.

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