Brave New World?

I’ve been re-re-re-reading Brave New World recently.

My thoughts on Huxley’s writing style aside (it’s kinda crappy, but seems almost deliberately so, which is sort of endearing), it’s quite clear why it’s treated as a hallmark. Huxley’s postulations on the future are strange, terrifying, and captivating, making it (for me) an incisive warning on the transformative power of scientific advance, akin to Orwell and politics. And, as you read the rest of this article, it’s vital to remember that Brave New World was published in 1932.

It’s interesting to consider that the way of the world in Huxley’s novel is not necessarily presented as evil. The way the World Controllers took control certainly is, but as for everything else… It’s just that it’s so different – hypnopaedia, ectogenesis, the lack (or sheer horror) of parents – that it seems scary to us. The only exception to that is the prenatally determined, biochemically enforced caste system, which it is very easy to morally object to.
And yet… as Henry Foster argues in the book, the lowest caste, the Epsilons, are nevertheless happy as they can be. They’ve never known any other life, nor do they want to, nor can they even conceive of being an Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta – they’ve been taught from birth that they’re glad they’re not of another caste, and happy to be Epsilons. The same is true for every single caste. Still, it would is very easy to argue against the morality of that, as this mentality is just the result of pure propaganda. The key point is that the quality of life is markedly different between the castes: Alphas and Betas enjoy going to the “feelies” and playing obstacle golf, while Gammas and Deltas are specifically taught to hate the wilderness so that they want to spend more time slaving away in factories.
But for the most part, the people in the world, the subjects of the story, are no more good or evil than us. The reason I bring up Foster’s argument is that, in the same way that a Delta would be horrified to live the life of an Alpha, and vice versa, so do we, the readers, feel the same about our counterparts, the subjects of the novel, as they do about us. Our world, to them, is a dystopian past. “Mother” is practically a swearword, and the concept of having time to be alone and think is practically reviled. This raises an interesting point about subjectivity, and cultural hegemony. Just because something “is”, does not mean that is how it “should be” – neither in our current world nor in Huxley’s future.

(That is, with the exception of the caste system, which I absolutely do not endorse.) But the way the caste system is enforced – prenatally, by treating specific embryos differently – is not necessarily evil. It’s not cruel and causes no pain. It just better prepares the humans to survive and live in a system which, arguably, is evil. This, for me, demonstrates the most crucial point about scientific advances – that science, like energy, knowledge, or power, depends entirely on how you use it.

On the subject of scientific advances, there’s one other point that has really stood out to me. In Huxley’s world, thanks to all the genetic tooling around and the drugs and pills the characters take, they “look the same until age sixty”, and simply drop dead soon after. There’s no explanation given; it’s just a thing that seems to happen. Moreover, if left alone too long, or if they stray too far from their easy lifestyle and pleasure-loving activities, the Alphas soon begin to grow inexplicably distressed and need to take a gramme of soma to calm down. All of their activity is designed to keep them away from thinking and contemplating for their whole lives… until they drop dead.
This fight against the ageing process… is it so different from what we’re working towards today? Google is already working on Calico, a project that seeks to “devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age‑related diseases” – that is, to put off death entirely. As for the easy lifestyles – are we not very nearly there? Certainly in the developed world, compared even to fifty years ago. But it’s a well-documented fact that our sedentary lifestyles, a result of ease-of-living and technological advances, are also killing us. Furthermore, there’s an odd correlation between countries with the most advanced infrastructures/lifestyles and disturbing psychological conditions. Japan for me is the stand-out example; a place where you can go into a restaurant, be seated by touchscreen, order by touchscreen and have your food arrive on a little electric train.* Japan’s technological prowess is world-famous, but they also have one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world, and is one of the worst cases of an ageing population (where fertility decreases and life expectancy increases). Germany, probably the most advanced country in Europe, also has the worst case of population ageing, while famously free-and-easy Sweden has one of the highest suicide rates. Population ageing – or at least, the fertility decrease, the more concerning part – is often credited to a lack of interest in sex among the younger generations. This could be due to any number of factors, but the almost perpetual entertainment we now enjoy – be it games, films, or the ease of accessing pornography – absolutely plays a part.
*N.B. not every restaurant, of course

In short, we don’t seem to be all too far from a brave new world already, and some of the negative consequences on society are already evident. Maybe they’re not as Huxley imagined, but they’re there. Moreover, with my generation being one of the first in the ‘Information Age’, we haven’t actually seen the consequences in later life of all this prolonged exposure to the radiation of smartphones and computer screens – not to mention all the chemicals in everything we breathe, eat, or drink  (but I really don’t have time to go into *that* kettle o’ fish). We may be finding ways to prolong our lives beyond anything seen in history, but we seem to be facing some unexpected consequences. And if Calico finds a way to “put off” death indefinitely… we may just start dropping dead anyway, just like the Alphas in Brave New World.

What I’ve written here is probably old news to a lot of you, or things you’ve thought about/discussed before. It’s just amazing to me that it’s all encapsulated in a slightly-pulp book written in 1932.


[some of this post is built on a previous discussion with Kishan Rajdev about our bodies vs. technological advances]


The Wheel Of Time

[I might update this post more as I continue to reflect, in which case SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW – and the column format of my blog is problematic]

Well, that’s that.

Ten years after I bought the first book, and exactly a year and fourteen books of solid reading since I decided to start again from the top, I have finished reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

It really is one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, and probably the best I’ve ever read. It may have been long-winded, and excruciatingly slow in places, but the last three books (co-written by Brandon Sanderson) made it SO worth pushing through. It’ll take me a while to get over the emotional rollercoaster of the last book – and it’s been a long time since any book has made me feel that way.

It was like the most amazing blend of characterisation on a Robin Hobb/GRRM level, and world creation on a Tolkien level. And that magic system… completely RJ’s own. I don’t think any other author I’ve read has come up with as comprehensive and powerful a magic system. The whole series simultaneously used, abused, averted and created fantasy tropes like nothing else I’ve read. I’m glad it’s been with me for the last ten years.

I cannot recommend the series highly enough, if you’re looking for an epic story for at least the next year. Myself, I’m at a loss…

Egwene… 😥 Honestly the most shocking moment of the entire series. I’m still getting over it. Why, of all the main characters, did it have to be her? Sure, I was sad at Siuan and Bryne and Bashere and Lan (I thought), but Egwene was one of THE main characters. One of the TEOTW crew.  And it was such a glorious, epic sending off, it’s going to stay with me for a long, long time.

I think it was so shocking because there was none of that reflection on her old life – you would’ve thought there’d be some of her thinking back to being Bran al’Vere’s daughter, the innkeeper’s girl, who had come so far, in her final narrative. But no, none of that. Perhaps it was appropriate, as she was then the Amyrlin, and no longer Egwene al’Vere.

But she had just conquered balefire, had single-handedly un-broken the Pattern, and then went to die without passing on how she did that. And the lack of reflection from other characters on her death, the lack of recognition of what she had actually achieved, combined with the rather quick ending of the series, meant the whole thing feel really abrupt. I guess that’s why it was so shocking.