[The rather lovely image at the head of this post is by Ben Frost and can be yours for a mere $950]
I've undergone, speaking personally, something of a volte face with respect to the role SF fandom, and more specifically that fan-labour of interrogating the in-text worldbuilding of this or that SF work with a view to reconciling apparent contradictions, might have in criticism more generally conceived. Why Klingons have smooth foreheads in TOS and big wrinkly ones in subsequent Trek franchises: that kind of thing. I used to think addressing such questions fun but outwith the proper business of criticism, a naive obsession with in-text plot and worldbuilding instead of attending to form, context, intertextuality, discourse and so on. Now, though, I find myself thinking that the intensity of hermeneutic pressure this kind of fan-attention manifests (at its best), combined with its special mode of suspension-of-disbelief unirony, treating culture industry ephemera as if they were at once holy texts and windows into a really existent world, can sometimes combine into something diamond-distinct and odd, something often surprisingly illuminating where texts are concerned.
At any rate, re-reading Huxley's Brave New World has tempted me down this path. So far as the novel is concerned you know the drill: Huxley's hygienic, sex-positive, radically happy utopian-dystopia is set AF (After Ford) 632 (which is to say, AD 2540). Citizens are hatched from artificial wombs rather than being born vivipariously, and are treated chemically and psychologically via Pavlovian conditioning in the hatcheries to create perfectly social individuals disposed into five separate classes (or castes). At the top are the Alphas who dress in grey and Betas who wear magenta, who do all of society's intellectual and managerial work. Then in decreasing status are the cloned Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons (dressed in green, beige and black respectively) who do all the menial, boring or repetitive work. Oxygen is deprived from these latter foetuses to varying degrees in their artificial wombs, creating degrees of brain damage, so that the Gammas are dim, the Delta's stupid and the Epsilons near moronic. All, though, are conditioned to love and feel happy in their pre-allotted roles, to shun solitude and seek out company, and to consume the products of capitalist production with unthinking enthusiasm.
In the novel everyone is happy except Bernard Marx, a clever but short and ugly Alpha Plus, living out an unconventional sexual morality. Although I don't know any critics who say so, Bernie is surely Huxley's unkind caricature of H G ‘Bertie’ Wells (whom Huxley knew and disliked). Real-world Bertie was clever but short, ugly and sexually unconventional in terms of his repeated extra-marital affairs. Since Huxley's satire inverts 1930s sexual convention, making monogamy a shocking moral delinquency and sexual promiscuity the social norm, Brave New World saddles his Bernie with a shameful singularity of desire, fixated as he is on the pneumatic but vacant Lenina Crowe. Marx takes Lenina to New Mexico, to visit a reservation where dwell a small population of primitive natives, still living by the old ways. Here they chance upon a Brave-New-World-er called Linda, who had been abandoned in the desert by misadventure some decades before, and has, without the benefit of Brave New World science, grown old and fat; together with her son John, who—improbably enough—has (a) learned to read, (b) chanced upon a six century old edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works that somehow hasn't crumbled to dust and (c) has not only read but memorised and utterly fallen under the spell of said Shakespeare.
Marx brings them both back to Britain, where Linda quickly overdoses on the (legal) happy-drug soma and dies. Meanwhile her son tours the new world and is suitably horrified by the vapidity and shallowness of things. John the Savage is a literary device, of course (fair enough, in a way) by which Huxley can test the balance of banal-but-happy and profound-but-miserable in different iterations of the human condition. The novel's climax, effective if talk-y, is a long interview with one of the New World's rulers, Mustapha Mond, who politely but firmly banishes Bernard Marx to an island and debates the novel's issues with John the Savage. John's immersion in Shakespeare has (one of Huxley's not-so-little ironies, this) conditioned him to yearn for beauty and tragedy, the numinous and sublime, for all those echt Shakesperian intensities, including intensities of suffering and anguished sexual frustration—all the things that the set-up in the New World is designed to smooth over and erase.
“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended—there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that's what soma is.”The older I get the more I find myself agreeing myself with Mond on this matter, I have to say. The bourgeois-sentimental attachment to ‘suffering’ seems to me always one of two things. It might be a sham, or if perhaps sham is unfair then a titillation: a touch of hot chilli powder on the tongue (which is to say: absolutely not a life lived malnourished, crippled by preventable disease, overworked, trapped with your family in a war-zone, raped, tortured and murdered as is the lot of too many millions of ordinary human beings in the world, even today). Or it might be, much more rarely, something morbidly masochistic. Either way it seems to me that the baseline comforts of life are that which not only validate but make fundamentally possible these artfully staged ‘I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed’ pressing-of-the-back-of-the-hand-to-the-brow poses. Then again, Brave New World succeeds or fails, I suppose, on the extent to which we concede that John the Savage has a point, actually: the sublime, Otto's numinous affect, something transcendent is precisely the element missing in this dystopian-utopia.
... “But I like the inconveniences,” [said the Savage]
“We don't,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you're claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right, then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I'm claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You're welcome,” he said. [ch. 17]
Anyway: re-reading the book recently, to teach it again, brought something else to my attention, something I'd not noticed before, more along the lines of SF-fan consistency policing. In that same end-of-book megachat, John asks Mond why his society must be socially stratified. Why starve the majority of foetuses of oxygen to diminish their mental capacity? Why mutilate four fifths of your otherwise perfectly potential population? Why not a society entirely comprised of Alphas? Mond replies that a society of Alphas has been tried, and found to fail:
“It's an absurdity. An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work—go mad, or start smashing things up. Alphas can be completely socialized—but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren't sacrifices; they're the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he's got to run. He can't help himself ... You cannot pour upper-caste champagne-surrogate into lower-caste bottles. It's obvious theoretically. But it has also been proved in actual practice. The result of the Cyprus experiment was convincing.”This has a patina of plausibility, I suppose. But a few lines later Mond reveals something else about the design of the brave new world he runs:
“What was that?” asked the Savage.
Mustapha Mond smiled. “Well, you can call it an experiment in rebottling if you like. It began in A.F. 473. The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn't properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen.”
“The optimum population,” said Mustapha Mond, “is modelled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”But hold on a moment, Mondy boy. So you're saying you do have the technology to generate food and to dispose of menial labour, but that you don't deploy it? And when you shipped those 22,000 Alphas to Cyprus, did you maybe provide them with such technological marvels, such that they didn't need to try and divvy out the menial work and so fall to blows? What's that? You didn't?
“And they're happy below the water line?”
“Happier than above it. Happier than your friends here, for example.” He pointed.
“In spite of that awful work?”
“Awful? They don't find it so. On the contrary, they like it. It's light, it's childishly simple. No strain on the mind or the muscles. Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for? True,” he added, “they might ask for shorter hours. And of course we could give them shorter hours. Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn't. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don't we put them into execution? For the sake of the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. It's the same with agriculture. We could synthesize every morsel of food, if we wanted to. But we don't. We prefer to keep a third of the population on the land. For their own sakes--because it takes longer to get food out of the land than out of a factory. Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don't want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That's another reason why we're so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive.”
It's almost as if you were deliberately sabotaging your ‘Society Of Alphas’ experiment ahead of time!
I know: the very idea. You are welcome, sirs, to Cyprus goats! and! monkeys! Except that, perhaps, rather than this being just Huxley compartmentalising different elements of his satire-leading-into-proper-novel project more or less roughly, with attendent worldbuilding inconsistency, maybe it's possible this inconsistency speaks to something more profound about the society of Brave New World. Perhaps Huxley's plastic utopia is predicated not upon comfort, or sex, or even soma, but instead upon precisely social hierarchy? Conceivably the core of this future society's stability is in the feeling of superiority that being an alpha offers, and which in turn depends upon the sheer existence of these lower orders. Rather than dissolving the distinctions of class, Brave New World absolutely concretizes class. And maybe that's the very point of this novel. The reification and eternalisation of class as such. Deeply English, I'd say.