2017-06-01

Book Review: "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

I generally don't read works of fiction, as I don't have as much interest in them as I do in well-crafted nonfiction works, but Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the classics of dystopic science fiction; in particular, many comparisons have been made to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, with the latter surging in popularity in the last few months in the context of the current political climate in the US, so I figured I might give this one a read instead. This book is set in a time where society is explicitly stratified into castes and everyone is conditioned, through physical, chemical, and psychological means from [artificial] fertilization through death at age 60, to behave in ways that would never lead them to question their roles in society; this is further helped by the omnipresence of a pleasurable drug called soma and by the omnipresence of this very conditioning, such that social ostracism is feared perhaps above all else. With that in mind, the main story primarily involves two characters, one named Bernard Marx who is born and raised in this society but finds himself dissatisfied with the society and his role in it, the other named John the savage who is born to a woman (named Linda) outside of this society and becomes repulsed after understanding the superficiality of the existence of members of that society.

The initial parts of the story seem to drag a little bit as it isn't initially clear to which character the reader's attention should primarily be drawn, but after the introduction of Bernard Marx, it becomes much clearer that the initial parts paint the setting of this world to make it clear why Bernard Marx is out of place. Additionally, in terms of movement of the narrative, the extended dialogue between John the savage and the controller Mustapha Mond drags a little, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the author's true view of such a futuristic world. What I found most interesting is that both Bernard Marx and John the savage keep trying but failing to escape the oppressive social confines of their world, though the issues at play are different. Bernard Marx feels socially isolated due to his short height relative to his upper caste and due to his (perhaps related) desires to have time from himself, away from the rest of society. However, his psychosocial conditioning is fairly thorough, such that even when he visits the tribe of savages and has a chance to live a simple and isolated life among them, he chooses instead to bring John the savage as well as Linda back to the main society in London so that he can gain credibility in that society that he finds hard to come by; when John the savage rejects further gawking visitors (which reflects poorly on Bernard Marx, being the custodian of John the savage), rather than joining John the savage in solitude, Bernard Marx becomes despondent about his renewed feelings of alienation and ostracism from society at large. This deepens near the end of the book, when he is exiled to Iceland; his thoroughly conditioned worry about social alienation overcomes any excitement he may have felt at realizing that he would be among high-caste misfits like himself instead of in the superficial society for which he ostensibly does not care so much. Likewise, John the savage is initially delighted by what he sees after traveling from his tribe to London, but having been raised and conditioned outside of that society, he is disgusted by the superficiality, free love (though that may have more to do with his early childhood trauma of seeing his mother, who was brought up in the society, attempt to practice free love with the men of the tribe, consequently leading to his and his mother's ostracism from the tribe by the women and children of the tribe, respectively), and inability to find solitude in the main society. Yet at the end of the book, when he attempts to escape and live an ascetic penitent life outside of the city, the other members of society relentlessly hound him as an exhibition for their amusement; even at the very end, when he takes his own life, his limp hanging body is seen as another cheap spectacle, so even in death, his earthly remains cannot escape the superficiality of that society. Overall, I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the jump to see more discussion of my thoughts about how this relates to today's society in the US (disclaimer: this is coming from a lay observer of American politics and society, so don't take anything too seriously; moreover, I'm sure that many of these observations have been made in the past by various people at different times).

Comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell are easy to make, and there are a few obvious differences. In particular, that book explores total control through saturated fear and reprogramming, whereas this book is about total control through saturated pleasure & social ostracism. It's interesting that in some sense, the former is classical conservatism (government diktat) run amok, while the latter is classical liberalism (individual assortment) run amok. The latter can be seen in both sides of the political spectrum in the US today, with ideological bubbles becoming stronger (whether they are characterized by extreme conservatives claiming that everything that doesn't align with their worldview is "fake news", or extreme liberals claiming that everything that doesn't align with their worldview should be ostracized for being "racist"/not politically correct). That said, it helps to take a broader and more careful view of how this book (as I'm not going to talk about the other book in a review that isn't about it per se) relates to the present day.

In the book, the main society can already make anything desirable to satisfy the masses (with all other knowledge generally suppressed, not through explicit coercion, but through silence in the midst of everything else) using ever more complicated machinery. The leaders of that society have decided that the perceived happiness of its denizens is paramount, and come to the conclusion that any potential for social instability is detrimental to that goal (as well as to the sustained existence of that society). As a result, those leaders eventually decide that even though most jobs could be automated, it is more efficient for continued social stability for all humans to have jobs, and that further sustenance of happiness would require thorough physical, chemical, and psychosocial conditioning along with large quantities of psychedelic drugs (soma), coming from the top on down. Essentially, the jobs already exist, so the question just becomes how to sustain society. By contrast, right now too many people in the US are faced with jobs disappearing due to offshoring, automation, or structural shifts (like coal miners faced with environmental regulations that make energy extraction from natural gas or clean energy sources much more competitive). Moreover, while the people in the book are contented with 8 hours of work each day that doesn't strain them too much, here, people who have been hit by these changes in the labor market have generally not been happy with their underemployment, especially those formerly in manufacturing who have had to work for far less pay (and without doing skilled manual labor) in the service sector, so the analogy fails there.

While the conditioning & sustained happiness of people in the book is a top-down process, in modern American society, it is an [ironically] decentralized process thanks to the Internet (and Facebook and other such sites in particular, for which I will henceforth use just "Facebook" as a crude shorthand) amplifying & sustaining nearly tribalistic social divides. Plus, while Facebook's machine learning algorithms are designed to promote posts that provoke emotional responses that Facebook can in turn further sustain through those algorithms, those emotions are not typically superficial satiated happiness; that said, one could argue that the siloing of online political discourse in the US is reflective of people across the political spectrum being superficially satisfied with news reports & analyses agreeable to them, without bothering to dig deeper. In a sense, while the emotion that Facebook provokes may be anger/outrage rather than pleasure, this could be just as effective a distraction for ordinary people to miss out on and not care about what the people at the top are doing (just as in the book). With all of this in mind, it seems like we live in a weird alternative version of the society in the book.

(The remainder of this post deals with the foreword, rather than the book itself.) In the foreword, the author predicts inevitable centralization of power in response to social unrest, either through perpetual conflicts among nationalistic militarized dictatorships or through a single world government, but this has arguably not really come to pass thanks to the democratization of weaponry & devolution of government, both aided by the Internet, as evidenced by the not-really-a-state nature of ISIS, the UK leaving the EU, et cetera. The author's belief in decentralization as being the only way to resist totalitarianism is due to his death prior to the dawn of the modern information age, showing how a decentralized network can amplify existing silos in social networks while also being co-opted by groups like ISIS or countries like Russia to sow chaos (as opposed to imposing order); the time of his death also means that he couldn't have foreseen that the Internet could in some ways be a larger driver of society than his prediction of nuclear power/weaponry (especially following the Cold War). Likewise, the author was unable to see how Facebook makes use of sophisticated machine learning algorithms that learn what we want in a decentralized neural network-based (not top-down) and individualized manner, making his dichotomy of humans mastering technology as opposed to technology mastering humans (and his hope that the former happens) seem a bit too simplistic; that said, it does feel more difficult now for people to disconnect from Facebook without facing significant social blowback/ostracism, just as some of the characters in the book felt ostracized when they vocalized desires to have time to themselves (away from the rest of society).

Overall, one could argue that while we in modern American society have successfully invigilated ourselves against a top-down authoritarian tyranny of force & punishment, we have swung to the other extreme of social atomism/individualism leading to coalescence at a narrow tribalistic (and not broader) level, thereby facing a tribalistic decentralized tyranny of lack of curiosity, satiation, and fear of social ostracism, though the lack of broad-based economic security (present in the book) makes the sustainability of such social atomization over the long term less clear. That tribalism seems to be accompanied by a general lack of curiosity for a lot of people regarding the world around them. I felt like that, as seen in the parts of the book dealing with people's lack of interest in things like Shakespeare and science, really spoke to me, especially with my interests in making science and general STEM advances accessible to a broad audience. Plus, most people, including myself, would be saddened to think that their lives and deaths would be forgotten by even those whom they would see as closest to them, and their deaths becoming temporary spectacles (to also be forgotten soon enough) would just add insult to injury (in a manner of speaking); this too spoke to me, especially as exemplified at the end when John the savage, in his ascetic life and death, cannot escape the shallowness of the society that surrounds him and refuses to see him as anything other than short-term amusement (from which they will quickly move on).

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