I first read Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World when I was in high school, and it completely freaked me out. Nothing about the plot or characters stuck with me, but the situation depicted haunted me for years. In Huxley’s version of the distant future, babies are manufactured, each one designed to fit in a particular strata of society. From infanthood, they are conditioned to always be happy and to live in ways that protect the industrialized society where Henry Ford is God and where authentic human emotion is replaced with the quest for pleasant physical sensations, usually found through sex or a mood-altering drug called Soma.
The best dystopian novels include just enough that is familiar to make readers shudder in recognition. In Brave New World, children are explicitly taught to throw away old things and buy new (“Ending is better than mending”). We may not hear that exact message today, but the message to buy, buy, buy because society depends on it is certainly familiar. Citizens of Huxley’s world are taught that community is everything; some people today look askance at people who prefer their own company to always spending time with others. And then there’s the sex, which is treated as a basic human right; not having it with whomever you want, whenever you want is considered deviant behavior. You don’t have to look far to see what could be the roots of much that Huxley imagines.
With Brave New World, the characters are secondary to the world depicted. There is a story involving Bernard, a man who is considered rather odd for not solidly embracing the community spirit, and Lenina, a woman who finds Bernard intriguing but who has no interest in being different herself. The two travel to a reservation of savages, essentially a Native American reservation where people live a more primitive lifestyle. There they meet a “civilized” woman named Linda who was accidentally left behind during a similar trip years ago and the son that she bore and raised in the reservation.
Although Huxley’s vision is brilliant and terrifying, the story itself leaves a lot to be desired. The characters are simply not people who are easy to care about. There’s enough variety among them to give readers a sense of how different people might live in this brave new world, but they are little more than types. There are lengthy passages where characters explain how they live and what they think, but these passages do not add to the story. Their purpose seems to be to add texture to Huxley’s world, not to further the plot or develop character. Listening to this book immediately after Never Let Me Go made this particular quality of Huxley’s work very clear; in Never Let Me Go, the characters are central, and the setting is just a backdrop that only becomes important as it has a direct effect on their lives. I don’t think one approach is better than the other, but they do make for different reading experiences. Brave New World stirs my brain, not my heart. But what stirring it does!