In this dystopian classic, humans are bred rather than born. Using eggs harvested from a small proportion of women allowed to be fertile, embryos are created and then conditioned according to which class they will join; from Alpha-Pluses, who are allowed some amount of intelligence, to Epsilon-Minuses, who are cloned and subjected to oxygen deprivation to stunt their development. Emotions are viewed as suspect and the experience of emotional pain has been completely removed from human experience through conditioning and the availability of soma pills. When everything you want is freely available and your wants and desires have been carefully controlled to reflect your circumstances, feelings become irrelevant.
But Bernard Marx does feel unhappy. Slightly different from his Alpha peers (perhaps due to an accident during the embryo development process), he longs for more than mechanically induced pleasure. He desires solitude, meaningful relationships and for a way to express his soul. When he takes Lenina Crowe on a trip to a Savage reservation, where humans have been left to their own devices, he begins to question everything he knows even more. Is a life with pain in it more inherently valuable than a manufactured one without it?
I enjoyed Brave New World. It contains a lot of themes that you see explored in later dystopian novels, but at the time it really was a trail-blazer. Huxley's rather depressing vision of the future is well thought out, and you can't fault his world building skills. I enjoyed the philosophical questions about the role of emotions and pain bought up in the later sections of the book, and I appreciated that Huxley didn't present a clear answer. It's easy to say that human life had lost it's value in Huxley's dystopia, that pain is at the heart of what makes us grow and develop as humans, but at the same time even Bernard began to long for soma when faced with an actual experience of emotional pain. Reading Brave New World made me think about what it is to be human, and how unpleasant experiences can shape us just as much as pleasant ones.
At times, Brave New World felt a little dated, very much a twentieth century novel. The whole process of conditioning was based on behaviourist psychology, which was cutting edge in the 1930s, but it no longer seems like a plausible base for world building now. There is much fretting about big society, and Communism hangs over the text like a 'big bad wolf'. It's also not a book to pick up if you are after a strong plot; Huxley's strength is very much his ideas and the way he makes you think.
Despite this, Brave New World was always enjoyable to read. I sped through it in a matter of days and can certainly see why it is a classic of the genre. It's an important book that is truly thought provoking.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1932
Score: 4 out of 5
Classics Club: Book 21/72