I like reading old science fiction from time to time. It’s interesting in the sense that you get to see what those people thought the world of today [or the far future] might look like. Some of these extrapolations are interesting in a sad sort of way, like the fragmented dog-lore of the “City” stories [by Clifford D. Simak, which is absolutely worth your time.] or the absolutely terrifying, a la “Fahrenheit 451.” [which needs to be read, but you need to be in a very specific mood to do so.]
I read two basic kinds of fiction, really: science fiction and fantasy. While looking at my bookshelf, I realized that I hadn’t read a good, solid, thoughtful piece of science fiction in a long, long while. “Ready, Player One” is an interesting book, but it’s not thought provoking. We already know that big media exists. We already know that it is desperately trying to take over the internet. We already know that this is something we have to stop.
So, I was looking for something that talked about the future and talked about what we might experience there. Speculative fiction.
I have a pretty bad habit of buying books and then almost never reading them [like I have a habit of buying games and never playing them, because they’re pretty cheap – that’s half the reason this blog even exists – to get through some of the morass of media I have at my disposal] and Aldous Huxley’s book has been sitting on my shelf for…a very long time. I bought it along with a couple of other far-fiction books [“City” and “Stranger In A Strange Land” – for the curious.] but then never got around to reading it.
So, I took it down from the book shelf and settled myself in the lounge, with a heater and got to reading.
My first reaction to the first third of the book? This is chilling. This is exactly the kind of future we don’t want. But that, again, is half of Huxley’s point.
So, let’s talk about that for a bit: in this particular work of fiction, it’s 600 years into the future. This particular future is a Utopia. [or, really, a very scary dystopia, if you’re thinking about it that way] In this particular Utopia, no one wants for anything. There’s all the food you can eat, no overcrowding, everyone lives in a decent house with enough room to spare, the people all look neat and tidy and clean and the cities are functioning, perfect units. People fly around in choppers that they have personal licenses for. [much in the same way you would take a car to work, you take a helicopter in this book]
It all seems wonderful until you realize how they got there, you see, people aren’t born, they’re made. You take an embryo, you stick it in a glass tube and then you let it grow slowly, while you do all kinds of “training” to the embryo. Are they lower caste and will they work in a factory? Get them used to sulphur and the like by making sure the baby gets a good dosing of it so that he can build up stamina against it. Will they be doing meaningless jobs? Put them in a room when they’re babies and then condition them through shock therapy that books and nature are bad. Jobs are good.
Most horrifying? All the lower caste jobs are reserved for thousands of identical twins that are grown specifically for that role in life. The only people who are free are Alphas, but…even Alpha-hood comes with a price.
Alphas have access to all the leisure time they want and all the sex they crave, just so long as they don’t think about the big things. And they’re conditioned to not think about the big things by hypnopaedia, a sleep-therapy that repeats “social messages” over and over again: Everyone is happy, here. Everyone belongs to everyone else.
And if you get unhappy? Take soma. Soma’s a kind of anti-depressant that sends people on a “holiday” – a little sends you “off” for a couple of hours, but a lot will send you off for a few days. In this drugged state, no one can reach you.
The only places left that run like the old world are “Savage Reservations” where people are allowed to cling to “the old ways” – having a mother and father, having gods – all of these are part and parcel of living in a Savage Reservation. And it is here [almost half way through the book, I might add] that the counterpoint to this world starts showing up in the form of John, a young man who wants to see “civilization” but is, then, nauseated by what he finds. [as anyone would be]
It’s an interesting, eerie read and – for the most part, Huxley’s prose is pretty good – sometimes, it’s even poetic and sings with the sort of intensity you don’t normally find in modern writing, but there are issues, too. He has a thing for the word pneumatic and he describes a ton of stuff with the adjective. Dear Aldous. Please don’t do that.
The other major problem is the last third of the book. There’s a very specific confrontation – a kind of clash of ideologies – that happens, but you have to absolutely suspend disbelief, because there’s no way that this argument should even work, and, thus, it ends up feeling a bit clunky.
But it will make you think. Make you consider the ideas of Utopia. Will make you question whether we should pursue absolute happiness above all else. And for that reason alone, it is absolutely worth reading.