Brave New World of the 21st Century

I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World.  So much so, in fact, that I chose to write

my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it.  Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure.  I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed.  What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life.  Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World.  So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.

The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class.  While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon.  Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.

Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics.  There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc.  They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line.  This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today.  Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population.  Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own.  There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth.  If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time.  You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume.  I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.

Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size.  I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level.  (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes.  However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world.  The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability.  So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption?  I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible.  At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive.  The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing.  While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me.  Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.

Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World.  Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination.  Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.

Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged.  There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma.  Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc.  We are far from abolishing unhappiness.

In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined.  Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?

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American Gods (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve somehow managed to become a fan of without having read a single book he’s written.  I first became aware of his existence upon watching the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, which despite its name turned out to be one of the best episodes I’d ever seen.  Soon afterwards I watched the film adaptation of Coraline, which also proved to be a very well-written story.  I’ve enjoy reading his insightful Tweets on his Twitter account for over a year now, and so I decided it was high time I came into direct contact with one of his books face to face.  American Gods (2001) has sat on my shelf for a while since I spontaneously bought it in a bookshop,  making it the obvious candidate to be my first foray into his work.  I had high expectations which, I suppose, were never going to be met.

The first thing I noticed was that the characters were well developed and instantly engaging.  Shadow, the protagonist, is a very likeable and unassuming character who undergoes real development throughout the novel.  Beginning as a broken, lifeless ex-convict, through the events of the story he rediscovers his soul and manages to move on to a newfound sense of life.  This progression felt convincing for the most party, although I don’t entirely understand the effect the Passion on the Tree had upon him.  It took death to discover and partly resurrect his father to metaphorically bring himself to life?  Sounds very Biblical!  I imagine it would become clearer upon a second reading.  I did enjoy the Tree sections however, even if they did lose some credibility by the fact that Shadow, seemingly inexplicably, volunteered to be tied to it for nine days.  Again, would probably require a second reading.

The other characters which particularly impressed me were the more minor ones, such as Sam Crowe, whose attitude was enjoyable to read, and the majority of the residents of Lakeside – their diversity creating a village which felt very full of life.  I also liked Laura’s character, though her unexplained state of being undead irritated me slightly (which applies to most of the business to do with coins, in fact), though it was described to gory satisfaction.  It was an interesting decision to make most of the Gods decrepit, unhealthy, corrupt old men and women, but one which perfectly makes clear the idea of these Gods being ancient and abandoned.  I think Gaiman may have overstated this point, though – I tired of the drugs, crude dialogue and general sense of “disgusting adultness” which pervaded the novel very quickly.  Wednesday was an interesting character, characterised well enough so that when he is revealed to be the villain of the novel, sacrificing the other Gods for his own gain, it’s a surprising plot twist without being an unbelievable action for the character to take.  The contrast to the ‘new’ Gods is well established: the new Gods are chic, technological and efficient, wielding a deadly charisma – precisely as you’d expect modern Gods to be.

The principle of the Gods is probably the best crafted idea in the novel.  Having physical manifestations, personified figures of these mythical beings is genius.  Gaiman’s research is clear, with each character based on a ‘real’ God.  It’s fascinating to examine the idea of immigrants to America bringing their Gods with them, effectively replicating them (as the original stays in the homeland).  The Gods feed on faith and sacrifice, becoming weak and withered when these dry up.  In this way, Gaiman has achieved the extraordinary feat of making the human condition appear desirable in comparison to Gods.  The Gods in America are particularly weakened, because, for some mystical reason, although America is a good place for humans Gods do not survive well there.  Which is a fine idea, although doesn’t ring true.  The USA is one of the most religious developed countries in the world -often fanatically so.  Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the lack of the Christian God? Or Jesus?  What about Allah?  None of the ‘Big’ Gods make a presence, which is quite a major omission, if you think about it.  This blog post discusses the omission well.

 

Another criticism I have is that the novel simply drags on for too long.  I read “The Author’s Preferred Version,” with several thousand words added in which weren’t included in the original publication.  Considering at least 50% of the novel is spent travelling around the US on a ‘road trip’, advancing the plot or very little as they do so, I would really have preferred the edited down version.  This kind of story isn’t necessarily bad – for example, The Road achieves it marvelously – but American Gods lacks the substance to make it engaging, despite how well written it is.

I really wanted to like American Gods, which is why it’s paining me to criticise it so much.  Have I been to harsh?  Not given it a chance?  Certainly, there’s much to enjoy and it did pick up towards the end, but on the whole, I was a bit disappointed.

Final rating: 6.5/10