By a strange and dystopian coincidence, during this pandemic I’ve been teaching Brave New World to a group of Chinese Australians in Melbourne. If history shows us the lessons of the past, dystopian fiction, through its exaggerated envisioning of the present, offers an insight into a possible future.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — a book which struck me as out-of-date when I read it at school — explores a fantasy of the perfect society which uses science to all-but abolish pain. The physical causes of human suffering — ageing, disease and death — are controlled to the point where they are either eradicated or pushed to the edge of experience. ‘Civilization is sterilization,’ the people of the World State are taught from earliest infancy.
When model citizen Lenina is horrified at her first sight of an old person on the savage reservation, her date explains why no such people exist in their own society. ‘We don’t allow them to be like that,’ says Bernard. ‘We preserve them from diseases. We keep their internal secretions artificially balanced at a youthful equilibrium … So, of course, they don’t look like that. Partly,’ he added, ‘because most of them die long before they reach this old creature’s age. Youth almost unimpaired till sixty, and then, crack! the end.’
Citizens pass their final days in the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying, serving to inoculate parties of visiting children against the sense of significance that naturally accompanies death. The grief of the Savage, newly-arrived from the reservation, at his mother’s dying is considered disruptive of the ‘death-conditioning’ of the young. In the World State, all emotions and close relationships are discouraged, a policy which creates a society in which promiscuity is good, fidelity bad — an inverted social morality which is Huxley’s joke on his conservative English society. Instead, human impulses are channelled into the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, and the maintenance of a bland happiness based on the absence of feeling. ‘People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get,’ the Controller of Western Europe tells the Savage…