Literary Devotional: Brave New World

The genre of dystopian literature—fiction depicting a nightmarish, anti-utopian future—was one of the major innovations of twentieth-century writing.  The best known novel in this category is George Orwell’s 1984, which terrified Cold War-era readers with its vision of a totalitarian political state.  But today, the most troubling and relevant work of dystopian litearture is undoubtedly Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which envisions a nightmare society arising not from political tyranny but from science and technology.

Published in 1932, Brave New World is shockingly prescient.  The novel is set in a futuristic England in which production of human embryos is tightly controlled in government-run hatcheries.  Each developing embryo is either coddled or subjected to brutal chemical treatments so that it will grow—or be deliberately stunted—to take its proper place in the rigid caste system that dictates a person’s status and role in society.  At the highest rungs of the social ladder are Alphas, who are groomed for leadership and academia;  at the lowest are Epsilons, who perform only manual labor.  All children are conditioned rigorously after they are born, via schooling, hypnosis, and other psychological indoctrination.  As always, they remain segregated by class.

Although this system produces great social stability, it does so at the cost of individual humanity and free will.  This dehumanization has tragic consequences when a “savage” from a remote part of the American Southwest—one of the few human beings raised outside the system—is brought to London.   He is fascinated to be part of this “brave new world” he has heard so much about, but his transition to his new surroundings goes less than smoothly.

Brave New World is one of the few science-themed novels that also has enduring literary relevance.  Long a staple of English classrooms and book clubs, it has attracted especially close attention in recent years because of the growing attention paid to bioethics and cloning.  Indeed, Huxley’s predictions about the fearsome potential of science, which seem unthinkably remote in his own day, appear ominously imminent just decades after he wrote them.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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