Huxley’s Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World titillated readers with a portrait of a dystopian world in which science and technology have satisfied every need at the expense of human freedom.

Summary of Event

By the time Brave New World was published early in 1932, Aldous Huxley was reaching the zenith of his fame as a novelist. Although he would publish much more over the next thirty years, he would turn increasingly to nonfiction. [kw]Huxley’s Brave New World Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism (Winter, 1932)[Huxleys Brave New World Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism (Winter, 1932)] [kw]Brave New World Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism, Huxley’s (Winter, 1932) [kw]Technological Totalitarianism, Huxley’s Brave New World Forecasts (Winter, 1932) [kw]Totalitarianism, Huxley’s Brave New World Forecasts Technological (Winter, 1932) Brave New World (Huxley) [g]England;Winter, 1932: Huxley’s Brave New World Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism[08180] [c]Literature;Winter, 1932: Huxley’s Brave New World Forecasts Technological Totalitarianism[08180] Huxley, Aldous Watson, John B.

Huxley grew up in the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of a family of prominent scientists and literary figures. His exposure to writing and matters of style came about as a natural consequence of his father’s editorship of the influential Cornhill Magazine. Huxley’s early writings included his contributions to the University of Oxford’s respected The Athæneum. During World War I, while still a student at Oxford, he published two books of poetry. Another volume of poetry and a book of short fiction immediately preceded the 1921 publication of his first novel, Crome Yellow, Crome Yellow (Huxley) which was a critical and popular success and established Huxley as a novelist of ideas and as a satirist.

Huxley’s world, from the beginning of his literary career up until (and certainly after) the publication of Brave New World, was one in which satire seemed to be the writer’s appropriate mode. The post-World War I era was crassly materialistic, skeptical, and cynical; at the same time, it was buoyantly optimistic owing to the explosion of research and knowledge in many areas of life. Huxley and his literary contemporaries also detected a moral and spiritual emptiness that focused their themes. Huxley’s 1920’s novels witheringly portrayed the same frivolous generation being explored and satirized in the works of Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis. Disillusionment, loss of faith, and spiritual shallowness received equal although less satirical treatment by Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Over them all loomed the genius of James Joyce, who liberated style and form in the novel and strengthened Huxley’s conviction that satirical fiction was the proper vehicle for the exploration of the modern human condition.

The beneficial effects of the literary atmosphere in which Huxley evolved as a writer were offset by some of the unpleasant social realities of the 1920’s and early 1930’s. England’s postwar economic woes belied the feverish consumerism of the privileged classes. The “Roaring Twenties” were punctuated by the 1926 General Strike and the global 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. In the new Soviet Union, power struggles unfolded that resulted in the ascent of Joseph Stalin. His aggressive totalitarianism was repeated in the equally ominous comings to power of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco. The economic disarray of their nations provided fertile ground for these dictators’ relentless repression of individual and cultural freedom; the progressive breakdown of European nations signaled the inevitability of another global war.

At the same time, exciting developments in the sciences, both physical and social, were occurring. These stimulated both Huxley’s intellect and his imagination. For example, mass production was revolutionizing industry (including arms production) through use of the assembly line, making inexpensive, mass-produced consumer goods widely available. Air travel technology, glamorized by the exploits of Charles A. Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, was rapidly developing, and the pace of achievement in communications technology was stunning. Explorations in genetics and genetic mutation were stirring public debate. Behaviorist and conditioning theories, pioneered by American psychologist John B. Watson, were stimulating controversy and influencing theories of child care and education. In 1928, Margaret Mead Mead, Margaret published Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead) forcing cultural anthropologists to redefine many ideas about human social behavior. Huxley’s considerable scientific knowledge enabled him to consider these advances, carried to their satirical extreme, in Brave New World.

Because of Huxley’s well-established literary fame, Brave New World provoked an immediate popular response when it appeared in the winter of 1932. In its first year, it sold a total of twenty-eight thousand copies in England and the United States. Eventually, it was translated into nineteen languages, and it continued to enjoy respectable sales throughout the remainder of the century. It evidently struck a chord in a population both fascinated by and fearful of the huge scientific and technological advances of an era beset by economic instability, the possibility of renewed global warfare, and a decline in traditional values.

As a novelist of provocative ideas and sophisticated style, Huxley viewed fiction as the vehicle through which the human experience, especially in his eventful times, could best be explored. Judging by the novel’s continuing popularity, Brave New World was the work with which Huxley came closest to achieving his goal of examining the dilemma posed by humankind’s equal impulses for good and evil, for creativity and self-destructiveness.

Significance

Although all of Huxley’s first four novels satirize contemporary life, Brave New World extrapolates the values and the scientific and technological achievements of that life into a world exactly six hundred years in the future. A global holocaust, the Nine Years’ War, has reshaped the world. Its spokesman in 632 a.f. (After Ford) is the world controller, Mustapha Mond. Early in the novel, he expounds the principles on which the society, portrayed largely in a transformed London, is founded. Stability is its cornerstone; relentless elimination of human individuality through biological engineering and superficially benign totalitarianism is its most chilling achievement.

Life is orderly and tranquil, owing largely to the technological wizardry applied to its daily functions. The showpiece is the assembly-line production of the five types of humans, ranging from the intellectually superior Alphas to the semimoronic Epsilons. The novel opens with a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. Huxley’s wit and evocative descriptive style are at their best here, as the hatchery’s director proudly describes the fetuses’ inexorable nine-month journey by bottle through a twilight world, controlled and manipulated at every phase, to “decanting” into a life already programmed and predestined. Although free of illness and old age, it is a sterile life without free will or emotional depth. All human endeavor is directed toward satisfying the population’s carefully conditioned impulses for material consumption and immediate sexual gratification. As the novel progresses, every aspect of life is scrutinized and ultimately trivialized by the jingles and slogans that have replaced thought and idealism.

Little in the way of a satisfying alternative to this frighteningly shallow (some critics said misogynist) society is offered. In keeping with the traditions of satire, characters’ names suggest to an alert reader the existing political and philosophical ideals that Huxley either rejects or admires. The central protagonists, everyday people through whose eyes the future society is mostly presented and who provide the measure of Huxley’s satirical intent, are themselves flawed and hopelessly alienated. Short, dark Alpha-Plus Bernard Marx, a psychological counselor, is set apart by physical deviation from the handsome, strapping Alpha and Beta norm, represented, for example, by the “pneumatic,” intelligent, but determinedly conformist Lenina Crowne.

Bernard abhors the casual, sterile sexual license that keeps the population docile. He also resists soma, the soporific drug carried by all citizens to provide them with an immediate “holiday” from any unpleasantness or stress, any pesky remnant of dissatisfaction or longing for a fuller life not quite bred out of the human psyche. Bernard consciously rejects the ideal of undisturbed, painless existence. Unfortunately, the courage he displays in doing this is offset by his tendencies toward egotism and whining. His eventual fate is exile to Iceland, suitably remote and cold for hopeless social deviants. John the Savage, nurtured (accidentally) on the poetry and humanism of William Shakespeare, also has been shaped by the degraded society of his birth, a New Mexican reservation where poverty, disease, brutality, and corrupted tribal tradition prevail. In England, to which Bernard brings John and his ruined Beta-Minus mother Linda, John is first an object of scientific interest and public fascination but finally a figure of fun. In both dystopian societies, he is an outcast from birth—indeed, by the very process of birth, natural reproduction being considered the most revolting of the old human habits known. Denied the nobility inherent in his Rousseauesque life and name, his dignity, and his Shakespearean outlook, John’s only possible response is suicide. The one protagonist clearly intended as sympathetic is Bernard’s friend and confidant Helmholtz Watson, a peripheral character marked for exile from the outset.

Critical response to Brave New World was contradictory. Huxley’s literary reputation caused the novel to command the immediate attention of a large group of intellectual heavyweights in whose circles Huxley had moved all of his life, and with whom he debated the heady ideas—literary, historical, philosophical, scientific, and religious—of the time. Much of the reaction was negative and focused on the novel’s satirizing of current scientific thought and research. Influential novelist and historian H. G. Wells, for example, reportedly was deeply offended by what he regarded as Huxley’s betrayal of science and the future. Critic Joseph Needham, a distinguished biologist, thought the novel would appeal only to special-interest readers such as biologists and philosophers. Other reviewers, unreceptive to the novel’s satirical intent and tone, dismissed it as frivolous. Some reviewers thought that Huxley was promoting the ideals of his anti-Utopia and were disgusted. Perhaps the most telling observations came from such influential contemporary thinkers as Bertrand Russell, Rebecca West, and Hermann Hesse, who all recognized in Brave New World its application to the present world, the anxiety it expressed about the human condition, and the serious intent beneath the surface cleverness and playful wit. This latter view prevailed in successive generations of readers, especially as some of Huxley’s projections about modern life seemed to come horribly true.

Brave New World was a watershed in Huxley’s development as a writer and thinker. After his 1932 introduction to mystic Gerald Heard, his interest in the spiritual parameters of life led him to controlled experimentation with drugs, which colored his subsequent writing and thinking. He continued to ponder his achievement in Brave New World in a foreword to a 1946 edition and finally in the full-length Brave New World Revisited (1958). Brave New World Revisited (Huxley) Paramount among the novel’s weaknesses, Huxley believed, was his own failure to recognize the ominous potential of nuclear fission, “for the possibilities of atomic energy had been a popular topic of conversation for years before the book was written.” Huxley came to believe, especially after the dropping of the atomic bomb, that individual freedom was much closer to extinction than he had suggested when he placed Brave New World six hundred years in the future. His fundamental optimism about humanity is also evident in the novel. Huxley observed, “The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals.” One artistic failure, he thought, was the character John the Savage, because he was not offered sanity as a possible alternative to the shortcomings of future life. Huxley hoped throughout his life that sanity would prevail to pull humankind back from the brink of annihilation.

Ironically, Brave New World is best described today by the adjective “Orwellian,” coined after George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell)[Nineteen Eighty Four] described the nightmare world of Oceania and its successful assault on individual freedom. In a 1959 review of both novels, influential novelist, playwright, and essayist C. P. Snow dismissed the two works on artistic grounds and especially for their pessimism about scientific progress and social purpose. Yet Huxley, like Orwell, simply tried to express the pervasive anxiety of the turbulent twentieth century, above all acknowledging the contradictory creative and destructive forces of humankind’s most potent capability, that of free will. Brave New World (Huxley)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brander, Laurence. Aldous Huxley: A Critical Study. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1970. Exhaustive, readable study covering all of Huxley’s writing except his poetry. Includes a short selected bibliography and an index of topics related to Huxley’s works and thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deery, June. Aldous Huxley and the Mysticism of Science. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. Focuses on the roles of religion and science, and the relationship between the two, in Huxley’s writings. Includes chronology and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Firchow, Peter Edgerly. The End of Utopia: A Study of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1984. Examines the novel as literature, as prophecy of future science and technology, as consideration of future humankind, as political anti-Utopia, and in comparison to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, Alexander. Aldous Huxley. New York: Russell & Russell, 1936. Describes Huxley’s life and assesses all of his writing to the mid-1930’s. An interesting if a bit pedantic study of contemporary thought on Huxley’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuehn, Robert E., ed. Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A variety of critical response reflected in ten essays and a critical symposium written for the London Magazine (1955). Includes chronology and selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Nicholas. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. Draws on previously unpublished material and interviews with Huxley’s family members and friends to show the complexity of the author’s life and place his work in context. Includes chronology and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nance, Guinevera A. Aldous Huxley. New York: Continuum, 1988. Chapter titled “Heaven and Hell: The Utopian Theme in Three Novels” explores this aspect of Brave New World. Analyzes the progress of Huxley’s vision from dystopian to positive, with hindsight offering a clear perspective. Interesting and readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, Donald, ed. Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage. 1975. Reprint. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1997. Indispensable collection of critical reviews of Huxley’s writings from beginning to end, listed chronologically by title and date of work. Includes an intelligent biographical introduction, interesting appendixes, bibliography, and index.

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