Brave New World (1932) is one of the most bewitching and insidious works of literature ever written.
Tragically, no. Brave New World has come to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness.
For sure, Huxley was writing a satirical piece of fiction, not scientific prophecy. Hence to treat his masterpiece as ill-conceived futurology rather than a work of great literature might seem to miss the point. Yet the knee-jerk response of “It’s Brave New World!” to any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.
So how does Huxley turn a future where we’re all notionally happy into the archetypal dystopia? If it’s technically feasible, what’s wrong with using biotechnology to get rid of mental pain altogether?
Brave New World is an unsettling, loveless and even sinister place. This is because Huxley endows his “ideal” society with features calculated to alienate his audience. Typically, reading BNW elicits the very same disturbing feelings in the reader which the society it depicts has notionally vanquished – not a sense of joyful anticipation. In Brave New World Revisited (1958) Huxley describes BNW as a “nightmare”.
Brave new world Radio broadcast approved by Huxley..part 1
Brave new world Radio broadcast approved by Huxley..part 2
Thus BNW doesn’t, and isn’t intended by its author to, evoke just how wonderful our lives could be if the human genome were intelligently rewritten. In the era of post-genomic medicine, our DNA is likely to be spliced and edited so we can all enjoy life-long bliss, awesome peak experiences, and a spectrum of outrageously good designer-drugs. Nor does Huxley’s comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime of pain, disease and unhappiness can be. If you think it does, then you enjoy an enviably sheltered life and an enviably cosy imagination. For it’s all sugar-coated pseudo-realism.
In Brave New World, Huxley contrives to exploit the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism. He taps into, and then feeds, our revulsion at Pavlovian-style behavioural conditioning and eugenics. Worse, it is suggested that the price of universal happiness will be the sacrifice of the most hallowed shibboleths of our culture: “motherhood”, “home”, “family”, “freedom”, even “love”. The exchange yields an insipid happiness that’s unworthy of the name. Its evocation arouses our unease and distaste.
In BNW, happiness derives from consuming mass-produced goods, sports such as Obstacle Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy, promiscuous sex, “the feelies”, and most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, soma.
As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.
For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. The drug heightens suggestibility, leaving its users vulnerable to government propaganda. Soma is a narcotic that raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”
If Huxley had wished to tantalise, rather than repel, emotional primitives like us with the biological nirvana soon in prospect, then he could have envisaged utopian wonderdrugs which reinforced or enriched our most cherished ideals. In our imaginations, perhaps we might have been allowed – via chemically-enriched brave new worlders – to turn ourselves into idealised versions of the sort of people we’d most like to be. In this scenario, behavioural conditioning, too, could have been used by the utopians to sustain, rather than undermine, a more sympathetic ethos of civilised society and a life well led. Likewise, biotechnology could have been exploited in BNW to encode life-long fulfilment and super-intellects for everyone – instead of manufacturing a rigid hierarchy of genetically-preordained castes.
Huxley, however, has an altogether different agenda in mind. He is seeking to warn us against scientific utopianism. He succeeds all too well. Although we tend to see other people, not least the notional brave new worlders, as the hapless victims of propaganda and disinformation, we may find it is we ourselves who have been the manipulated dupes.
For Huxley does an effective hatchet-job on the very sort of “unnatural” hedonic engineering that most of us so urgently need. One practical consequence has been to heighten our already exaggerated fears of state-sanctioned mood-drugs. Hence millions of screwed-up minds, improvable even today by clinically-tested mood-boosters and anti-anxiety agents, just suffer in silence instead. In part this is because people worry they might become zombified addicts; and in part because they are unwilling to cast themselves as humble supplicants of the medical profession by taking state-rationed “antidepressants”. Either way, the human cost in fruitless ill-being is immense.
Fortunately, the Net is opening up a vast trans-national free-market in psychotropics. It will eventually sweep away the restrictive practices of old medical drug cartels and their allies in the pharmaceutical industry. The liberatory potential of the Net as a global drug-delivery and information network has only just begun.
Of course, Huxley can’t personally be blamed for prolonging the pain of the old Darwinian order of natural selection. Citing the ill-effects of Brave New World is not the same as impugning its author’s motives. Aldous Huxley was a deeply humane person as well as a brilliant polymath. He himself suffered terribly after the death of his adored mother. But death and suffering will be cured only by the application of bioscience. They won’t be abolished by spirituality, prophetic sci-fi, or literary intellectualism.
So what form might this cure take?
In the future, it will be feasible technically – at the very least – for pharmacotherapy and genetic medicine to re-engineer us so that we can become – to take one example among billions – a cross between Jesus and Einstein. Potentially, transhumans will be endowed with a greater capacity for love, empathy and emotional depth than anything neurochemically accessible today. Our selfish-gene-driven ancestors – in common with the cartoonish brave new worlders – will strike posterity as functional psychopaths by comparison; and posterity will be right.
In contrast to Brave New World, however, the death of ageing won’t be followed by our swift demise after a sixty-odd year life-span. We’ll have to reconcile ourselves to the prospect of living happily ever after. Scare-mongering prophets of doom notwithstanding, a life of unremitting bliss isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
The good news gets better. Drugs – not least the magical trinity of empathogens, entactogens and entheogens – and eventually genetic engineering will open up revolutionary new state spaces of thought and emotion. Such modes of consciousness are simply unimaginable to the drug-innocent psyche. Today, their metabolic pathways lie across forbidden gaps in the evolutionary fitness landscape. They have previously been hidden by the pressure of natural selection: for Nature has no power of anticipation. Open such spaces up, however, and new modes of selfhood and introspection become accessible. The Dark Age of primordial Darwinian life is about to pass into history.
In later life, Huxley himself modified his antipathy to drug-assisted paradise. Island (1962), Huxley’s conception of a real utopia, was modelled on his experiences of mescaline and LSD. But until we get the biological underpinnings of our emotional well-being securely encoded genetically, then psychedelia is mostly off-limits for the purposes of paradise-engineering. Certainly, its intellectual significance cannot be exaggerated; but unfortunately, neither can its ineffable weirdness and the unpredictability of its agents. Thus mescaline, and certainly LSD and its congeners, are not fail-safe euphoriants. The possibility of nightmarish bad trips and total emotional Armageddon is latent in the way our brains are constructed under a regime of selfish-DNA. Uncontrolled eruptions within the psyche must be replaced by the precision-engineering of emotional tone, if nothing else. If rational design is good enough for inorganic robots, then it’s good enough for us.
In Brave New World, of course, there are no freak-outs on soma. One suspects that this is partly because BNW’s emotionally stunted inhabitants don’t have the imagination to have a bad trip. But mainly it’s because the effects of soma are no more intellectually illuminating than getting a bit drunk. In BNW, our already limited repertoire of hunter-gatherer emotions has been constricted still further. Creative and destructive impulses alike have been purged. The capacity for spirituality has been extinguished. The utopians’ “set-point” on the pleasure-pain axis has indeed been shifted. But it’s flattened at both ends.
To cap it all, in Brave New World life-long emotional well-being is not genetically pre-programmed as part of everyday mental health. It isn’t even assured from birth by euphoriant drugs. For example, juvenile brave new worlders are traumatised with electric shocks as part of the behaviorist-inspired conditioning process in childhood. Toddlers from the lower orders are terrorised with loud noises. This sort of aversion-therapy serves to condition them against liking books. We are told the inhabitants of Brave New World are happy. Yet they periodically experience unpleasant thoughts, feelings and emotions. They just banish them with soma: “One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments”.
Even then, none of the utopians of any caste come across as very happy. This seems all too credible: more-or-less chronic happiness sounds so uninteresting that it’s easy to believe it must feel uninteresting too. For sure, the utopians are mostly docile and contented. Yet their emotions have been deliberately blunted and repressed. Life is nice – but somehow a bit flat. In the words of the Resident Controller of Western Europe: “No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy – to preserve you, as far as that is possible, from having emotions at all.”
A more ambitious target would be to make the world’s last unpleasant experience a precisely dateable event; and from this minimum hedonic baseline, start aiming higher. “Every day, and in every way, I am getting better and better”. Coué’s mantra of therapeutic self-deception needn’t depend on the cultivation of beautiful thoughts. If harnessed to the synthesis of smarter mood-enrichers and genetically-enhanced brains, it might even come true.
Of course, it’s easy today to write (mood-congruent) tomes on how everything could go wrong. This review essay is an exploration of what it might be like if they go right. So it’s worth contrasting the attributes of Brave New World with the sorts of biological paradise that may be enjoyed by our ecstatic descendants.