A Book By Aldous Huxley
I was perusing Twitter about a week ago, and a meme posted by non other than everyone’s least favorite multi-billionaire, Elon Musk, was going around causing quite the stir. Featured in the image was a venn diagram with three large circles intersecting in the center. That spot in the center was marked “you are here”, showing that whatever Musk felt the larger circles were about, they were playing into the zeitgeist of 2023. The three circles were, of course, labeled “1984”, “Fahrenheit 451”, and “Brave New World”. Pushing aside the obvious gut reaction of the meme being what a fifteen year old thinks is edgy, I chuckled realizing that half of the Elon-aficionados in the comments had obviously never read any of the books, nor had Elon considering the irony of a man of his stature posting it. Short of The Bible or Shakespeare, you will be hard pressed to find three other books so rarely read and yet somehow so frequently commented on as this trio. If a political commentator is not somehow likening the nefarious rival political party as being “Nazis”, they are undoubtedly referencing one of these books as somehow “exactly the same” as some minor inconvenience in their lives.
It has been decades since I read 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, and I had been planning a re-read for a while. Once I rolled this round in my mind, it hit me – The only version of Brave New World I’ve read was some kind of edited young reader version I read in school – and even so, I barely remember it. It may have even been selected passages in a larger book, I honestly cannot remember. So here we are, after I have officially read the real version of Brave New World, and I will be looking at how it stacks up against other similar dystopian novels, and how off-base guys like Elon Musk are when they invoke it’s name to look like some kind of cool outlier or new age philosopher. I may end up calling this my Elon Musk’s Books “Cool Guys” Pretend to Have Read Book Club, and do more of these as he cites things.
“Brave New World is a dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley, written in 1931 and published in 1932. Largely set in a futuristic World State, inhabited by genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning that are combined to make a dystopian society which is challenged by only a single individual: the story’s protagonist.”
First and foremost, I find it somewhat ironic that Musk (of all people) would be assuming that he would be on the side of “liberty” in a society such as the one found in Huxley’s novel. This is a society in which one of the more bizarre plot points is that Henry Ford’s mass-production would be attributed to all facets of life in such a way that “Fordism” has become the de facto world religion. Everything is automated and manufactured to a point where laziness is basically the way the world works. For me, the Musk/Ford connection is also made even more ironic considering Musk is almost undoubtedly destined to meet the exact same fate as Henry Ford – a man that was seen as the father of an industry, only to be pushed aside as everyone caught up and outpaced him. Musk, like many, has gleaned some of the most popular talking points from Brave New World from casual references to things that television pundits love to run with. Sure, the book features conservative talking points like the breakdown of the nuclear family, the sexualization of children, the loss of religion, and the use of drugs and state propaganda to placate the masses. This is ignoring what I would characterize as the most interesting “predictions” from Huxley – a world with intercontinental plane travel (if only we had rockets!), huge Television networks, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and genetic engineering. It’s one of those books that hits the “nail o the head” so many times that it’s really easy to forget that this book was written in 1932, and “cherry-pickers” can use pretty much anything from it to try to prop up just about ANY political argument.
Despite its otherworldly success rate at predicting the future, I feel that Brave New World is easily the weakest of all of the other dystopian novels it gets lumped into a group with. It’s far too facetious and farcical to be taken too seriously, and to an unimaginative person the overall theme seems to be that anything, and I mean ANTHING, short of living a life as a traditionalist conservative Christian in a heterosexual monogamous relationship cranking babies out to standard social norms is somehow a detriment to humanity and will push us all to the brink of collapse. No wonder why guys like Tucker Carlson mention this book, as it is the exact strawman argument they envision when a “culture war” battle starts brewing. That said, this “understanding” of the book is quite superficial, and can be read the exact opposite way. The society presented in the book is definitely authoritarian on social issues, they celebrate the Ford Motor Company, and discourage anyone to actually learn about the world, so it might be easier to argue that it’s a right-wing dictatorship and thus the book itself is left-wing. I honestly lean more towards the former, but I can see why the book sparks so much debate.
Aside from my issues with the themes of the book being muddied, the characters are not likeable in any way, and simply exist as parts of the overall narrative. We are supposed to experience the book through the eyes of a man named Bernard Marx, who for a great portion of the book can be seen as the voice of reason. He is bored with his life and gets little glimmers of emotion when he forgoes taking his mood altering drugs (Soma) or when he faces the smallest of ordeals – these are basically the only times he really feels “alive”. Narratively, this makes it seem like he is about to fall headfirst into trying to push aside his old ways, much in the way that the main character in the Russian dystopian Novel, WE, did years prior, or even later in Orwell’s 1984, both of which ended quite poorly for the non-conformist. Despite what the book copy I quoted above says, this does not happen as Bernard suddenly ends up in a position of power, and does a hard 180 degree pivot in pretty much everything he previously stands for. For the remainder of the book, he basically stops being the POV character and is basically no different than other authority figured previously featured. The rest of the book is basically about a character named John Savage, a man raised in a Native American reservation away from the “civilized world” that is aghast with how the world has turned out versus what he was led to believe as an outsider. John is belligerent when he doesn’t get his way, abusive, and resorts to self-flagellation in the name of the Christian God to avoid having any impure thoughts. Once again, not a character I could not get behind. Honestly, the only characters that are somewhat likeable are Lenina, a girl that sadly exists to be a sexual object in the story, and Hemholtz, who takes Bernard’s place after his ascension, despite barely being featured at all.
Honestly, I ended up disliking John so much because he is endlessly “preachy”, and I’m not sure Huxley intended the character to be perceived that way. John Savage seems to come to the conclusion that medically induced happiness is empty, and as a result evil and against his morals. I am of the mind that just because their happiness is derived from something alien to us (a drug called Soma) it does not make it any less real. One could even argue that Soma is basically a parallel to our own anti-depressant drugs, that despite being a societal joke to some, have helped many live a full fulfilling life. If the citizens of this world truly believe they’re happy, aren’t they? The only disagreement occurs when an outsider says “no! that can’t be happiness! Happiness is what I perceive to be good! it’s not real!” If anything, one could argue John is somewhat of a villain to the story, as his mere presence starts doing some real bad stuff to others, and since the book largely doesn’t fulfill any of it’s themes, this is left unresolved. His mistreatment of Lenina is especially gross, and I at least hope that character moved on after what happened in the book.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is definitely a classic that deserves a lot of respect for not only its uncanny predictions of the future, but the way it inspired many other books after its publication. That said, I personally like it far less than other similar books due to what I perceive to be a backwards message, and unlikable characters that can make the book somewhat unengaging. This was honestly a slog, and as with many satirical books trying to have a message, this one falls somewhat flat when it is all said and done. It’s funny to see how others like Mr. Musk make use of this book to back up their own twisted worldviews when the book can be taken from pretty much any viewpoint to mean 100 different things to 100 different people. I guess that’s why this book will stand the test of time, and at 90 years after publication, it’s scary how close to true some of the predictions were. We all know Elon Musk would not be the same as John Savage if this were real life. He would be happily living in the society in this book, have himself labeled as an Alpha ++, and start bragging about how many women he’s bagged. I mean, that’s what he already does now, and we don’t even live in the book. Hmmm I guess that meme wasn’t so wrong afterall, but not for the reason Musk intended.