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!