Brave New World Turns 80

Aldous Huxley's celebrated depiction of a deracinated future turns 80 this year. Perhaps no work in the genre infelicitously labeled science fiction has had so much influence or staying power. As a cross between SF and the utopian novelistic tradition, Brave New World integrates what were at the time of its writing more or less foreseeable technological innovations with Enlightenment notions of social and political perfection.

A far too common error of commentary on Brave New World and its ilk is to receive them as "prophecy." This error is even perpetuated by the writers themselves who like Huxley, live long enough to look back, as in his truly grim, and what is worse, far less lyrical 1958 essay, "Brave New World Revisited," proving that the author is as liable to the sin of retrospection that tarnishes the original work as anyone else.

Not a prediction in the pre-scientific prophetic tradition, Brave New World is a kind of evidence-based thought experiment: considering where we are now, where might we go? Dystopically but realistically speaking, how bad might it get? As I argue in my new book, The Body Politic, this is a key question in America's culture wars.

Nor is Brave New World a futurist fantasy like a few of those of H.G. Wells who, in his remarkably long and prolific career, produced dozens of works. Some of Wells' novels relied on devices that systematically defied contemporary science, like anti-gravity devices, or even logical possibility, like time travel. By contrast, in Brave New World Huxley stuck close to what was then known about Mendelian genetics, and his eugenically modified humans owed much to the timely introduction during fetal development of chemicals like alcohol.

Writing 20 years before Watson and Crick decoded the human genome and 40 years before recombinant DNA technology, Huxley did not have at his disposal the far more specific modifications made feasible by modern genetics. The chemical industry was, after all, far better developed in 1932 than was genetics, and what was supposed to be hereditary alcoholism was then a rationale for policies that attempted to weed out the "lesser types."

Again, unlike the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis or the "high fantasist" J.R.R. Tolkien, Huxley was not a mythologist or a romantic Medievalist who depreciated the Renaissance. For Huxley there was no turning back from the scientific revolution, in spite of the attendant risks of dehumanization, especially when combined with the characteristic malady of the 19th century nation-state: totalitarianism. Rather, his longing for solace amid modernity took the form of psychical research and experiments with mescaline and LSD, part of his quest for an expanded consciousness beyond both science and Western religion. In this part of his life, explored in The Doors of Perception, Huxley's ripples reached far and wide, including inspiring a young Timothy Leary fresh from Mexico with a suitcase full of mushrooms.

Besides eugenics, the happiness drug "soma" is the other technology most identified with Brave New World. But on re-reading the novel one is struck that a far more accessible, low-tech preoccupation is key to the order and stability of the 26th century: sex. In the London of 2540 virtually everyone is expected, and indeed virtually required, to engage in Bonobo-like promiscuous coupling. (Perhaps certain modern politicians and celebrities are in an advanced state of evolution, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.)

"Freemartins" (a decidedly unromantic term normally applied to masculinized female cattle), are sterile women who are therefore especially available. Again, as a man of his time who was au fait with the available technology, and as the younger brother of eugenicist Julian, Huxley knew plenty about sterilization but did not anticipate The Pill. The central character of Brave New World, and the only one who rejected sex without love, is "John the Savage," a state-of-nature creature who, having no place in either society or the wild, would have met the requirements of neither Hobbes nor Rousseau.

Brave New World remains a success not because of what it literally foretells. Indeed, as prediction the novel is a flop. Like virtually every other science fiction novel before the 1970s it totally missed the information revolution (though an argument might be made for H.G. Wells in The World Brain, 1938), and recent remarkable advances in neuroscience, for example, not to mention their combination in implantable brain chips (see my book Mind Wars for more on national security interest in neuroscience). It anticipated cloning for reproduction but not for therapy. An artificial placenta, the key to the "ectogenesis" performed in the Central London Hatchery, has proven surprisingly difficult to develop, even in an era of prenatal diagnosis, fetal surgery and intensive care nurseries, and incidentally would require grossly unethical experiments.

Rather, where Brave New World shines, and what makes it so fresh even beyond the biblical four-score-and-ten, is what it says about being human in any age: the longing for love and for a society that makes us feel truly human.

(I am especially grateful to my friend and colleague Mark Adams for deepening my appreciation of Brave New World.)