Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 27, 2012

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, Narrated by Michael York

My father gave me Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when I was an impressionable teenager in the 1960s, and I’ve always credited this satire with my resistance to conformity.  I read a swag of books by British intellectuals at that time: Huxley’s Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Brief Candles, and of course Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Collectively they taught me to be  sceptical of advertising, alert to the activities of politicians, disinterested in materialism, and extremely wary of any mind-altering drugs (including alcohol).  (Which is ironic, really, considering that Aldous Huxley in his latter years was apparently a champion of psychedelic drugs).

Whatever about that, I enjoyed listening to this 75th Anniversary Edition of Brave New World, narrated with compelling enthusiasm by Michael York.   This tale of a dystopian society masquerading as a utopian one is just as relevant today as it was in 1930 when it was first published, and Huxley’s gloomy prognostications in the 1946 Foreword to my elderly Penguin edition seem equally likely.  Revisiting his novel postwar, all his predictions were then predicated by the anxiety that the world might not survive the nuclear age, a future which he acknowledged that he might well have foreseen in 1930 because ‘the possibilities of nuclear energy had been a popular topic of conversation for years before the book was written’.  (What I noticed was the way his futuristic world had no internet and communication in times of crisis was so primitive.  Phones even still had bells!)

But these are minor quibbles and getting bogged down with what are now anachronisms misses the whole point of the book.  Like Orwell, Huxley cared passionately about the value of humans as individuals, in all their irritating, fascinating, smart-and-stupid variety.  The novel satirises a society in which everyone is happy, because everyone has been bred to fit into a rigid caste determined by IQ.  They are biologically and chemically conditioned to conform.  Any tendency to be unhappy is dealt with by taking soma, (a sort of Prozac).

As always in dystopian novels, women are at the service of men, but in Huxley’s Brave New World, they are happy to be sexual playthings, enjoying their careless promiscuity since it carries no social stigma. No, it is motherhood that is frowned upon, a tacky enterprise undertaken only in the ‘savage reservations’.  In this ‘civilisation’ life is crafted in test-tubes using the human-cloning Bokanovsky process to generate the required numbers of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons.  Alphas are clever but ‘difficult’ and Epsilons are stupid but malleable, but they and the variations in between are all bred to be useful one way or another.

Eugenics, ‘the science of improving human beings’ was a powerful force in the 1920s when Huxley was writing, even here in Melbourne and the moral implications are still under discussion today in the context of ‘designer-babies’ and genetic engineering to prevent inherited disease.

So, what becomes of a nonconformist in this society?  What becomes of love when human emotion is sanitized away?  We learn the fate of literature – and anything else that’s old – because the economy depends on endless growth, and we discover the cynicism and hypocrisy of the ruling class.

It doesn’t do to be paranoid (and you can see plenty of that in consumer reviews of Brave New World here and there), but Huxley is a salutory reminder that disengagement from current affairs is risky.    The collective oversight of all of us, keeping an eye on science, business, politics and education, is the best protection we can have against the excesses that Huxley foresaw.  As long as we don’t turn a blind eye, as they did in Germany in the 1930s…

Author: Aldous Huxley
Title: Brave New World
Narrated by Michael York
Publisher: BBC Audio Books, 7 CDs, 8 hrs 20  mins running time.
ISBN: 9781408410554

Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I just read this for the first time last year. I may as well point you to my post as it says more than I could in a comment: http://literaryminded.com.au/2011/04/28/20-classics-in-2011-6-brave-new-world-by-aldous-huxley/

    • Thanks for the link, Angela – you know some people are shy about adding their links, but I really like it when people share theirs this way. Your review is terrific, especially your comments about the women. What is it about dystopian novels that the women are always treated so badly?

  2. Great review. I’m curious if you experienced the story differently between the two media. I don’t think I’ve ever both read and listened to the same book before.

    On a separate note, I read “Herland” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in college, “a lost feminist utopian novel” which I despised — although in fairness, I was predisposed to hate required reading and should probably give it another shot now. It was written in 1915 and centers around an all-female society set during WWI. Might prove a refreshing take on femininity in utopia/dystopia!

    • Hello Brandy – thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      I’ve experienced a few books this way: if I can find them at the library I really like to refresh my memory of books I read a long time ago with an audio book. It is quite different because the reading rate is more controlled, and the narrator’s expression can really influence the experience too.
      I’me excited by your suggestion of Herland. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg and will check it out – thank you!

  3. I read this back when I was a teen too, I got a beat up copy at a library book sale and had no idea what it was about. I loved it. I have not read it since. Did you like it better, the same or not as much as when you were a teen?

    • Good question, Stefanie: I think I’m less passionately in love with it, more rational about the philosophy behind it, more admiring of the author’s skill in executing it and better able to place it in context.
      I was lucky that this kind of reading that I did had nothing to do with school, it was more a case of raiding the family bookshelves more or less at random, and wolfing the books down before greedily grabbing the next one. So there was no question of taking notes or reading with an eye to the inevitable essay.
      But on Saturday afernoons after a lazy, late lunch, my father and I would sit at the dining table among the detritus and talk about the books we’d read, a conversation that would eventually adjourn to the kitchen and the washing up. We would talk about the ideas in the books, and of course this one had enormous appeal for an adolescent who felt she didn’t belong and a father a bit taken aback by Australian consumerism.
      It is different now. I have read so many more books in the interim, and it feels like picking up with a familiar friend from a long time ago.

      • I like that picking up with a familiar friend thought. Also, what awesome memories of talking with your dad about books. neither of my parents were readers so I was on my own. In a lot of ways it turned out to be good though because it let me explore and read whatever I wanted and since they never asked what I was reading I got away with some very age inappropriate books. Though I was always afraid of them finding me out so I didn’t do that very often!

        • Uh yes, they did whisk Nana out of sight rather quickly!

      • That’s a lovely story about you and your dad. My mum was a reader but I don’t remember discussing books in that way with her.

        I first read BNW as a teenager and was amazed by it. Reading it ten years or so later I found the story a little simplistic, but the ideas still thought-provoking.

        • I still talk books with my father. We write regularly now he’s in Qld and he always tells me about the books he’s been reading, and I tell him about mine. I often send him books that Tom from A Common Reader has reviewed and he always loves them!

  4. I remember Huxley and ‘Brave New World’ and his vain hopes for a spiritual revival through Vedanta – and the guru, Sri Ramakrishna – with acolytes such as Christopher Isherwood. I was completely taken in, as they were, by the mysticism of Hinduism and mind altering drugs – mescaline and hypnotics – although I didn’t succumb.
    Later, of course. it degenerated into illicit drug taking, crime and the associated problems we have today. Huxley was something of a prophet, compassionate and humane, and like Isherwood, a superb writer.
    Thank you Lisa for your fine review.

    • I must read Isherwood. I’ve had him on my radar for too long!

      • Isherwood went to school with the poet W.H. Auden, with whom he collaborated on four books. He wrote, notably, ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ and ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ – and a dozen others.

        • I’ve got him on my wishlist because he’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read, so I will get to him one day…


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