Aldous Huxley is a significant member of the great twentieth century British dystopian writers, though he spent much of the latter part of his life (after 1937) living in the United States.
Huxley was born into a celebrated and academic family, and had a start in life that was not afforded to many contemporary writers. He nevertheless made much of his talents and intellect after his education at Eton, which he followed by graduating from Balliol College, Oxford, with a first in English Literature.
Losing his mother at 14 and his brother Noel to suicide at 20, as well as experiencing temporary blindness for over two years in his late teens, Huxley faced tragedies in his early life that were to shape his beliefs as a humanist as he grew up. Success was at first elusive, so he was forced to rely upon his family contacts to get employment, first as a civil servant ordering supplies at the Air Ministry, and then briefly as a French teacher at Eton where George Orwell (then Eric Blair) was one of his pupils.
Huxley wrote his first novel at 17, but only became a serious writer in his late twenties, first published in 1921. It was his fifth novel, Brave New World, in 1931, that established him as one of the great dystopian writers. His influences for this, although unconfirmed, would almost certainly have been the great Russian dystopian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin and the concerns of his epic contemporaneous novel We. As an intellectual journalist, Huxley focused on contemporary theories and ideologies such as Pavlovian Conditioning, pacifism, the principles of mass production and the Alexander technique. These were all to influence his writing strongly. He also wrote the powerful Eyeless in Gaza, which developed these ideas in a more spiritual way.
Brave New World is a book that still seems modern almost a century after it was written. It follows or sets a pattern for dystopian fiction that was to be emulated by many writers in the second half of the twentieth century. Huxley uses the Zamyatin idea of expounding a critique of the future based on an examination of political and social trends of the moment. He also regarded the supposed advancements of technology with a jaundiced eye, reducing the so-called advancements in the condition of human lives to a crass subordination of people and a surrendering to the logic of the biological and genetic sciences. Huxley’s work, unlike Zamyatin or Orwell’s 1984, is essentially apolitical, and focuses instead on genetic rather than social control to create the differences in people’s make up. The differences between his invented idealised World State and the unkempt world of the Reservation are set in a cold visionary landscape that examines a science devoid of humanity or morality. Emotion is outmoded in the pursuit of scientific social doctoring. As with all aspects of the dystopic tradition, it is the characters in the societies that the writers create who examine and subvert their shortcomings. And this is very much the case in Huxley’s Brave New World.
John (the Savage) is Huxley’s Winston Smith, but the added interest is in the character of his mother Linda. They are two people separated from the preferable World State life and the introduction of a legitimised feelgood drug soma – a leap of some 35 plus years to the drug culture of the 1960s – demonstrates the ambivalence about what exactly represents progress. Huxley’s ruthless demonstration of so-called improvements to life is at the very centre of what makes this book both exciting and revolutionary.
Some of the ideas contained in the book are particularly ingenious, for example the use of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to demonstrate the laughable irrelevance of the concept of love in this new world (doubly ironic as the term Brave New World is actually culled from the Tempest, V.i.183). Then there is the idea that stability and happiness could be seen as more important than humanity, this notion fleshed out by the belief that the sacrifice of art, science and religion is worth making in the interests of social stability. The last of these may not seem quite as absurd nearly one hundred years on. Huxley’s Brave New World is a world supposedly unburdened by the follies of history, but he seems to be suggesting that these are some of the things we need to truly live our lives freely.
At the end of the novel John’s suicide seems to carry with it the same reverberative suggestion from Huxley as Winston Smith’s final comment has from Orwell, that in the end he ‘loved Big Brother.’ Both characters, potential dissenters and agents for commentary on the new state, are beaten into submission by it, and therefore they are the classic dystopian protagonists – characters that challenge the new order, and whose struggle provides the commentary and judgement of it, but only once it has destroyed them.
One thing that Brave New World has over 1984 is that Huxley lived to see its effect on a pre- and post-war British readership, and from his new home in California in the late 1950s with his eyes on the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Huxley penned Brave New World Revisited, in which he considered the fact that perhaps he hadn’t been cynical enough when writing his original novel! The second book has some interesting reverberations for us in 2016 after a referendum on Brexit that went a different way to the one expected. As Huxley says in the opening of his revisitation, ‘Nothing is certain.’ It’s interesting to think what Winston Smith might have made of 1984 if he’d lived long enough to see both its success and the world events that followed its publication.
Of the many literary supplements and Channel 4 Book Club programmes that have felt it necessary to compile lists such as ‘The Greatest 100 Books Ever’, ‘100 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ or ‘Tweet Your #BestBook’ – few, if any, omit Brave New World from their lists.
The shape of the worlds the writer creates perhaps best defines the success of dystopian literature. It’s part-genius, part-inspiration, part-luck, or perhaps all three, at least as far as the writers are concerned. They need to be in the right part of world history for their story, to have lived in ‘interesting times’, and to be able to see beneath the skin of what one world’s problems are, in order to see how they might develop in the next world. Zamyatin, Orwell and Huxley are certainly three writers who lived in the most brilliant and calamitous century in history, and who had plenty to say about just how it might foreshadow the next one.