What’s It About: Well, our future sucks.
Why: Because CriticKate would yell at me if she found out that I hadn’t read this book. And I love me some dystopic scifi.
Thoughts: So many! Okay, let’s address writing first. The first few chapters are fantastic. Experimenting with style while giving us an immersive introduction to a genetic engineering factory. The chapter that switches points of view between Lenina, the Controller and Bernard is really just expertly crafted and subtly suggestive. After that, I feel like the writing loses momentum until the very end, but still maintains interest primarily through the moral and social themes at play.
I can also see why all my Catholic friends love this book. The “God” chapter, a discussion between Mond and John about the nature of God and faith, seems a firm testimony to the redeeming qualities of religion and the benefits of a society that holds belief in God quite seriously. As Huxley argues, a belief in God equals a belief in the dignity of every human person. In contrast, a Godless society focuses on immediate pleasures and utilitarianism. This, of course, is quite a black-and-white understanding of religion’s role in society and I’d argue from a humanist perspective that a society doesn’t need religion to value human dignity but that’s another post altogether.
What Huxley doesn’t directly engage in enough is how the power systems within our own capitalist society produce the same effects that his futuristic totalitarian society engenders. For example, in the “God” chapter, John argues that a belief in God would stop the masses from degrading themselves with vices, such soma and loveless sex. With God, there’s reason for chastity and self-denial for the sake of individual empowerment. He says, “God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic.” Mond replies that in a “politically efficient” society, one that is free from war and social unrest, where everyone is happy in their allotted state via scientific conditioning, there is no opportunity for nobleness or heroism. True, yes. As Huxley points out, the best art is produced out of distressing moments in history. However, what if we take this notion of nobleness and heroism a little further? How do we distinguish those with these qualities? It would seem that the historical treatment of nobility, heroism, and adherence to the law of God has produced more inequality, more complacency than Huxley is comfortable to acknowledge. This God chapter remains blissfully ignorant of the negative social implications that such a belief system can hold – one where anyone who does not follow the law of God is not only committing a crime but also innately sinful, one where those who are fortunate and powerful are seen to have obtained fortune by their innate goodness or by being favored by God instead of the way they accumulate power at the hands of those who have none.
Similarly, Huxley discusses “human diversity and genetic uniqueness” in Revisited. He argues against the popular conception that children are all born with equal abilities and the idea that science has eliminated the notion of a “great man.” Instead, Huxley says that the value of individual freedom relies on the fact that men are all born differently, not that a human is just a product of his social environment, and that without this uniqueness, we’d become a society that despises the individual and extols the mass, as in his novel. Okay, yes, this makes sense. But doesn’t it also make sense then that we’d then attribute a person’s success to supposedly intrinsic greatness instead of the socio-economic factors that have affected him, thus perpetuating an ideology that ignore very real life circumstances.
In Revisited, Huxley does target Big Business and Big Government. He shows how the evolution of technology, the rise of overpopulation, and the over-organization of our society puts power in the hands of few. But he only really discusses it as a problem with social organization or with propaganda techniques, not as a social injustice. Although maybe a solution to it all would be to tax the 2% and give to the regions where the effects of overpopulation are most terrible? In the last chapter, he does mention the distribution of property as a possible solution to world problems. But it’s a quick gloss kind of thing. Sort of like a “you know, just putting that out there… Please don’t blacklist me. I’m not a Commie” sort of thing,
So boo to consumerism and neo-liberalism! Yay to democratic socialism! And fancy birth control belts for EVERYONE!