If asked what the most prophetic dystopian fiction classic of all time is, most would likely point to Orwell’s 1984 or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While both have their crucial truths to maintain within collective consciousness, I would argue the novel which set its scope closest to where global society was (and is) headed is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece, Brave New World.
Set in the year 2540, Brave New World takes place in the fictional city of New London where society is organized like a well-oiled bee hive. The nuclear family and natural birth have been eliminated, replaced by test tube babies which are genetically engineered and brainwashed into designated spots within a strict hierarchy. The Epsilons are the dumbest of the dumb, then Deltas, Gammas, Betas, Alphas, up to the mega-smart Alpha DOUBLE PLUSES. Hierarchical structure commands stability, giving each individual a team and a duty to fulfill.
And if they ever feel like questioning the powers that be, there’s always an orgy to join instead, or shiny object to buy, or cinematic 4D porno to watch, or a powerful pleasure drug called Soma to take. The worries of the masses are drowned in a stimulating sea of irrelevance, and they love every second.
But why worry or question in the first place? In New London there is no war, no emotional or physical suffering, no lack of granted desires. Nothing but an endless stream of pleasure.
Sounds nice, right? But this is a dystopian novel…something must be wrong here.
When a Shakespeare-loving outsider named John the Savage is brought to New London, his puritan eyes are flabbergasted by the debauchery lurking around every corner. He refuses to integrate into this strange society and rebels against it all. To John, pleasure isn’t enough. To be human is to crave individuality, free will, and progress—to make a unique and self-determined impact on the world. But New London strips this away in the name of peace, comfort, and control.
John’s rebelliousness leads him to a confrontation with New London’s leader, World Controller Mustapha Mond, who explains how his structure ensures the survival of the species. If things are not tightly controlled, he says, they will eventually spiral, as the story’s bloody past has already shown.
John sees the logic in his words, but still rejects them, claiming his right to the good and the bad. To the beauty of poetry, to the dangers of adventure, to virtue, and to sin. Mustapha counters that to do so is to also claim the plights of aging, disease, hunger, anxiety, and a terrible death.
“I claim them all,” John replies.
And so he does, living out his remaining days in willful isolation, until regret and loneliness push him to suicide. Bummer ending if you’re Team John.
But are you Team John?
What I love most about this story is how closely it resembles our modern world. Albeit not by manufactured genetic pre-destination, most of us still fall into prescribed roles and linger without question. Instead of proclaiming to be an Epsilon or Beta, we say “I’m an engineer” or “I’m an accountant”. It’s a rare individual who replies with sincerity, “I’m a human”.
Likewise, with an ever-growing drive towards complacency we chase distraction and meaningless entertainment over personal progress and critical thinking. Fast food, endless streaming service shows, drinking culture, consumerism, smartphone notifications, rampant news cycles, and lyric-less beats that drop without depth.
Sinisterly intended or not, we are being led to prioritize fleeting pleasures over long-term betterment and individuation. But, as John points out, this goes against our very nature. Evolution seeks mutation and genetic variance to move the species forward and make it adaptable to new threats. The desire for individuality is hardwired in us, and we’d be remiss to keep such powerful fuel in storage.
The central question of Brave New World can thus be condensed to this: do we want peace or do we want freedom? So long as individuals strive for personal fulfillment and unmet emotional gratification, the assurance of peace cannot be sustained indefinitely. Yet, maintaining society in a state of perpetual bliss requires the ostracization of individuality and free will.
So, which would you prefer? A life of constant yet meaningless pleasure? Or one of boundless, but oftentimes torturous freedom that risks descension into catastrophe?