For those of you interested in the literature of utopias, and dystopias, there’s an interesting article in a recent issue of The New Atlantis (‘a journal of technology and society’) looking back at Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and how it was received on publication and afterwards.

I don’t think I’ve read Brave New World since my late teens (so not recently), and certainly not since I became professionally involved in futures work. Caitrin Nicol’s article is quite long and quite literary, exploring, for example, the connections between Brave New World, Doestoevsky, Alexander Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We, and of course 1984. All I’m going to do here is to pick up three thoughts; about the futures in Brave New World, the critical response (and the reasons for it), and an intriguingly oblique quote by Huxley.

No history, no future

The futures first. Huxley’s world, set in a far future, was one of almost unlimited pleasure, in which our desires were corrupted into the means by which we were controlled.

This world described is striking for its modernity. Reproduction is in vitro while sex is promiscuous and for pleasure (“Dribbling out twins over a quarter of a century—what would be the use of that?”). Erotic experimentation begins at six or eight years old. Consumers spend their labour mindlessly producing the things that in their leisure they mindlessly consume, as Caitrin Nicol puts it. And if boredom sets in, relief is only a pill away – combining pleasure and travel for as long as you want. There is no history, and no future either, because ‘history’s ends have been accomplished’.

Given that it was published in 1932, when British unemployment figures reached 22%, the highest figure of the 20th century, it is perhaps unsurprising that when it came out some critics thought the book implausible.

‘An offence to Progress’

The doyen of British science fiction, HG Wells, a great Utopian, wrote that “A writer of the standing of Aldous Huxley has no right to betray the future as he did in that book.” Wells’s friend, the writer Wyndham Lewis called it “an unforgivable offence to Progress.” Essayist and supernatural fiction writer Gerald Bullett: “As prophecy it is merely fantastic.” Marxist critic Granville Hicks began his review by asking, “With war in Asia, bankruptcy in Europe and starvation everywhere, what do you suppose Aldous Huxley is now worrying about?”. The economist Henry Hazlitt commented that “a little suffering, a little irrationality, a little division and chaos, are perhaps necessary ingredients of an ideal state, but there has probably never been a time when the world has not had an oversupply of them.” And G.K. Chesterton observed, of Huxley “However grimly he may enjoy the present, he already definitely hates the future. And I only differ from him in not believing that there is any such future to hate.” One critic said that Huxley’s problem was that he had been born “seventy years’ too late.

Clearly much of this response was embedded in a contemporary worldview which was ‘progressive’, and with good reason, perhaps, given the daily evidence in the depression-era newspapers that capitalism had evidently failed. Socialist ideas were widespread. Stalin was not yet revealed as a murderous tyrant. The idea of the perfectibility of mankind was widespread. Huxley’s response to these notions of progress was dismissive: “Get rid of priests and kings, make Aeschylus and the differential calculus available to all, and the world will become a paradise.”

Competing narratives

One of the few good reviews came from the distinguished biochemist and Sinophile Joseph Needham (his subject is probably relevant since Huxley was the grandson of the biologist T.H. Huxley, an early champion of the theory of evolution). Needham wrote,

“Only biologists and philosophers will really appreciate the full force of Mr. Huxley’s remarkable book. For of course in the world at large, those persons, and there will be many, who do not approve of his ‘utopia,’ will say, we can’t believe all this, the biology is all wrong, it couldn’t happen. Unfortunately, what gives the biologist a sardonic smile as he reads it, is the fact that the biology is perfectly right.

From a futures point of view, perhaps one could say that the desire of “progressive” readers to see a particular sort of narrative, about the improvement of man- (and woman-) kind, had blinded to them to the possibilities of other, competing narratives. The story which says that our biology will always catch up with us in the end is a common one now – but very strange in 1932.

And finally, the quote. Regular readers will see in it some of my interest in notions of the past (William Faulkner here and Alvar Aalto here):

The future is the present projected. Our notions of the future have something of that significance which Freud attributes to our dreams. And not our notions of the future only: our notions of the past as well. For if prophecy is an expression of our contemporary fears and wishes, so too, to a very great extent, is history.”

Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for the pointer.