By using a quote from Shakespeare's The Tempest, this classic novel shows how the 'Brave New World' isn't so new or brave after all.
The story is about controlling people in such a way that they are happy about their lot in life. This is done by reproducing in laboratories and altering the genetics so that the babies are born with the required amount of intelligence and ability to fit a designed structure in society. So there are alphas, betas and so on, manual workers bred to be content with menial tasks. To avoid the programme being spoilt by romantic attachment, children are encouraged at an early age to indulge in 'erotic play' and not to form traditional loving relationships. Promiscuity is the way forward and the women, in this brave new society, do not receive the moral judgement that has plagued them throughout history. Everyone takes birth control and 'happy drugs' to avoid pregnancy (what a primitive and disgusting thing that is, they believe) and be happy.
So this book should be about utopia, the perfect world, but one alpha isn't happy that he is shorter than average (even genetic engineering can't get it right all the time) and he protests that people should have freedom to choose their careers and mates. One woman is a little too fond of one man instead of mixing up her partners without emotion. And then, on holiday in Mexico, they come across a 'savage' - a man who has developed naturally and born from a human mother. He is taken back to the perfect society, which torments him. He has been educated through the works of Shakespeare, hence the title of the book.
The themes of this novel are what makes it the revered work it has become. The idea of social control is not a new one, of course. Religion, political ideologies such as communism, and rules set by kings with divine rights have all tried it and not without success. But written at the time of a worldwide economic depression following the First World War, many people were hopeful of a better world without fighting whilst fearing the loss of freedom. Even the recent invention of the zip was a freedom from the trussed up women's clothing. Easier to be promiscuous in the brave new world.
Like many books focusing on grand ideas, this book falls down on both the plot and the characterisation. We read on to discover how the world runs, what happens in the laboratory, instead of being driven by a plot or people. What the characters are doing is living their daily lives, which, for the women, seems very similar to British women of the 1930s - frivolous and fascinated by zips and camisoles. Perhaps that is the point.
The writing at times seems frightfully pretentious with an alarming number of different adverbs attached to 'said'. I wonder if this is satirical, but I'm not sure. And far too much use of the word 'queer'. So very 1930. After the fist part, the story drifts and loses direction and purpose. The central character begins as the disaffected alpha and ends up being the savage. Such a change of the point of view is a little jarring. Whose story is this?
The concept of conditioning and social engineering will always be a fascinating topic. This is what will keep Brave New World one of the most read novels of all time.
Originally published in 1932 by Chatto & Windus. Latest publishers are Vintage Classics.
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