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Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — a book which struck me as out-of-date when I read it at school — explores a fantasy of the perfect society which uses science to all-but abolish pain.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. ‘They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age.’
The conversation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond takes place towards the end of the novel, a device which allows articulate representatives of two contrasting societies to explore the implications of their choices. The dialogue makes explicit the values that underpin the World State: art and religion have been sacrificed to stability and the good of the collective. Even science, as the quest for truth about the material world, has been foregone. As a young scientist, Mond had nearly got himself exiled for his own, subversive enquiries. ‘I was an inquisitive young scullion once,’ he confides. ‘I started doing a bit of cooking on my own. Unorthodox cooking, illicit cooking. A bit of real science, in fact.’ Later, having realised the danger such truth-seeking posed to the stability of society, he mended his ways. Now, as one of the ten controllers of the World State, he was content with the choices his society had made, telling the Savage: ‘We prefer to do things comfortably.’
‘But I don’t want comfort,’ retorts the Savage. ‘I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin. … Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind … I claim them all.’
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. ‘You’re welcome,’ he said.
The shrug, that ultimate gesture of indifference, says it all. Mond’s society has chosen, deliberately and knowingly, a way of life that puts safety and stability above all else. The choice its government makes for its people is familiar as a personal dilemma, the struggle of many trying to work out how to live life. Is it better to go through with the expected marriage, pursue the conventional career, stay in the same place? Or is there something else which ultimately matters more — a passionate love, a vocation or cause, a distant horizon? The variants are endless, but the common theme is the dilemma between taking the path of least resistance, the one reflecting the values of a particular society and embracing life with all its risks, passions and discomforts. It’s the existential choice that confronts the hero/ine of many a novel.
But in the dystopian society those choices have already been made by the authorities so completely that most people are not even aware of their possibility. Their reclamation becomes a heroic enterprise, undertaken only by the exceptional: Winston in 1984, Offred in A Handmaid’s Tale, and the Shakespeare-quoting hero of Brave New World as he claims his right to poetry, danger and disease.
Essentially, the plots of dystopian novels are driven by the struggle to experience life when the power over the choices inherent in the human condition has been given over to the authorities. Yet, dark as it may seem, history suggests that this need to control entire populations is rooted in a fantasy of the perfect society, even a set of good intentions. I am mindful here of the attempts of dictator Enver Hoxha to make Albania a self-sufficient, industrialised nation in which everyone was healthy, educated and equal. Over the course of his forty-five year regime, he raised adult literacy from 5% to 98%. In his mind, the 43,000 Albanians who were imprisoned or executed for dissent were an acceptable, necessary price. A choice had been made.
Since the spring of 2020 I’ve been hearing something of this perfectionism in the voices of the scientists advising western governments. Those speaking on behalf of the World Health Organisation and, in my native Britain, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, repeatedly advocate the new set of behaviours required in the age of Covid-19: frequent hand washing, the wearing of face masks and keeping away from others. The tone varies from the cheerful to the stern: some are confident that we can learn to follow the rules of the New Normal; others threaten tougher, longer restrictions if we don’t. Sometimes, when elements of the population are clearly failing, the tone is regretful, as if addressing a group of children who haven’t yet, but eventually will, learn to avoid transmitting infectious disease.
Hearing these injunctions, I’ve been struck by a feeling that’s hard to place, with its absence of much positive or negative emotion: sheer incredulity. Early in the pandemic, keen to understand the science, I watched a YouTube video about how to use a face mask correctly. A public health expert was demonstrating the putting on and taking off of a mask, placing it in a clean bag which was then folded shut, sanitising her hands, taking a drink of water, sanitising her hands again, removing the mask from the bag and carefully replacing it across her face. This she repeated for six minutes, stressing how essential each action was. My incredulity stemmed from how inconsistent her expectations were with my experience of the world: I’ve never come across anyone who behaves with such precision in daily life, (not even those I’ve known with OCD.) The video seemed emblematic of the sheer impossibility of the scientists’ wider expectations of people, with their instructions to whole populations to isolate themselves for long, perhaps indefinite, periods, to prioritise the avoidance of infection from every other human need and instinct, from the material to the emotional.
It strikes me that the response to Covid-19 in countries pursuing a policy of suppression or eradication is rooted in a vision of the perfect society, a kind of epidemiological fantasy. In this public health utopia, an endemic coronavirus or any other disease whose transmission depends on human contact can be kept at bay by organising society, for the first time in human history, around the principle of keeping people apart.
In the UK, we’ve been repeatedly told the government is ‘following the science’ as if doing so forecloses the possibility of any debate. But putting aside the fact that scientists, like other human beings, have different views, this position ignores the ethical questions with which every society must deal. What is the balance between maintaining biological existence and quality of life? Safety versus experience? And — the political question — who decides?
Voices other than the scientists with the government’s ear are exploring what these questions might mean in a Covid world. As Imran Garda points out in this interview with philosopher Peter Singer, ethics has been left out of the discussion. ‘It seems as if we don’t know how to have this conversation … [how to] have a proper ethical discussion that is mature’. Singer agrees and offers a practical suggestion for the basis on which controlling measures should be decided: ‘Instead of talking about the numbers of deaths it would make more sense to talk about the numbers of years of life lost’.
Pointing out that Covid interventions are societal, ethical choices rather than scientific problems, Professor Francois Balloux argues that for a society to continue its current preoccupation with the threat of death would be ‘very unhealthy’. A regime involving routine mass testing of the population would over-medicalise people: ‘What I really wouldn’t want to see is that we slide into a world where this is becoming normalised,’ he says. ‘I think that’s extremely dangerous.’ Meanwhile, Carl Heneghan suggests that a response based on a cycle of lockdowns could set a worrying precedent for the way western society deals with infectious diseases. What happens when the next pandemic comes along?
Choices, whether we’re explicit about them or not, are already being made.
Brave New World ends bleakly. The Savage’s desire to experience life in all its rawness is so strong that he flees the city and establishes himself in a makeshift hermitage where he can live in accordance with his religious sensibilities. But even that bid for relative freedom fails when the public and media discover him. (The Chinese Australian students who, contrary to stereotype, don’t always do their set reading for homework, were surprised when they realised what was meant by the feet turning, turning …)
In the next essay, I’ll look at a dystopian tale with a happier ending, one in which an isolated humanity manages to recover its relationship with the living, breathing world. Forster’s novella The Machine Stops explores a fundamental question that takes us out of the realm of philosophy and into psychology. What drives humans into this retreat from life? Why are humans so susceptible to fear?