What does this dystopian novel highlight about today’s society?
A disclaimer: I may or may not reveal spoilers here. Odds are, a) not many people will see this, b) you weren’t planning on reading it anyway and probably won’t, and c) maybe this will actually make you More likely to read the book.
High level summary: In Huxley’s dystopian society, the alphas reign supreme. They are the smartest, best looking members and the betas, gammas, deltas, and even epsilons think everyone deserves their place. Familial structure doesn’t exist because everyone is genetically engineered. There is a high level of education in the form of repetitive rhymes that reinforce the social constructs designed by the Ford. However, a few people, whose creation tubes may have been slightly botched aren’t comfortable with things as they appear. Whenever they want to talk about it with others, their peers react with the same message, horror at those ugly thoughts and a prescription to take the happy medicine known as soma. Eventually, on a vacation to the savage land, a couple meet the son of a civilized person who was stranded and, upon finding his strange way of being, bring him and his mother back to civilization. The savage, who (un)ironically finds the behavior of the society ridiculously immature, demands answers to deeper questions, much like our outcasts. Eventually they find the Chancellor, with whom they discuss who designed these strange rules and why.
The premise: Civilization is made of a society where everything is always new and shiny. The caste system is biogenetically engineered in a way that everyone is content with their position. Everyone is dogmatic in their thinking, leading to a pristine order where no one has to suffer. If ever you are subject to pain or fatigue, you simply lay back with your grammes of soma, which instantly satiate your mental state for hours. In fact, it’s so good and widespread, that the working class finishes their days only to be paid with a few pills.
The savage: A striking feature of the savage is his aversion to soma. His mother, the original civilized person who got stranded in the land of savages, has been craving soma this whole time. Upon re-entry, she is considered old, ugly, and therefore detrimental for society, self-isolating with huge doses of soma at a time. John, missing his intimate connection with his mother, becomes quickly disillusioned with the medicine. In fact, he takes pride in suffering for the things he cares about, often quoting Shakespeare, whom no one in the civilization has even heard about.
BNW explores many questions, one of which is “Why be sad when you can be happy?” Living in an abundant and technologically advanced society, every base need you could want can be satisfied within minutes (yes, even that base desire is something that all members of society expect from each other simply if you ask). And if your life can be curated to have all of your needs taken care of, what more could you ask for?
Some other questions that arise from the book
- What are the modern day somas?
- What does a society like that strip from what it means to be human?
- Who decides the rules? (spoiler: physicists are in charge)
- Convenience and order vs pain and freedom
Some reflections on the current state of affairs
At the end of the book, one can be somewhat sympathetic to the Chancellor. Given the option to keep society like a well-oiled machine and let people suffer and figure out things on their own (like most 20 something year olds), you might well think it wise to design everyone’s happiness without having to question the system. One could easily argue that the world has operated in this way on some level, except those who are less privileged are painfully aware of it. With many world events going on at the same time, it feels like the world is collapsing on itself. In some ways I think we have been forced to deal with our lack of soma. There are no distractions to keep us busy from thinking. We are all stuck in our homes, with no respite from the tragedies, the injustice, the racism, and perhaps most importantly, from ourselves. If I’m being optimistic, this pain, this ache, this suffering will awaken us to our humanity, allowing us to rethink our society.