Ethics & Public Policy Center

Brave New World Revisited

Published in First Things on July 30, 2020


H. G. Wells was a tiresome socialist, but an interesting futurist. One of the best books I read in my teen years was his novel The Time MachineThe storyline is simple. A man in Victorian London invents a vehicle that carries him into the distant future. He finds a beautiful world filled with beautiful young people, the Eloi, whose main tasks seem to be eating, playing, and having lots of carefree sex. Alas, paradise has a cost. At night, the Morlocks, the formerly human monsters who run the machines that run the paradise, emerge from their tunnels underground. As the time traveler discovers, the Morlocks raise and tend the infantilized Eloi as cattle. The Morlocks love the Eloi—for dinner.

I thought of the Eloi recently as I watched Brave New Worldthe latest effort to bring the 1932 Aldous Huxley novel to television. Brave New World lends itself poorly to the screen. Its appeal is mainly cerebral: the despair of a human being who suddenly finds himself in a society of immense comfort but without sin, freedom, real danger, poetry, love, or God. Previous TV productions, in 1980 and 1998, have been laughably bad. The good news is that the latest attempt, by NBCUniversal’s new Peacock channel, has a vastly better production quality. It also has a fine cast: Harry Lloyd (as Bernard Marx), Jessica Brown Findlay (Lenina Crowne), Demi Moore (Linda), and Nina Sosanya (a female version of the novel’s Mustapha Mond).

The bad news is the plot. John the Savage, played by Alden Ehrenreich, is a naïve but compelling character in the Huxley novel. He has some of its most powerful lines. But in the Peacock version, the role is weak and confused. And the story goes off the rails in the first episodes. A very un-Huxleyan feminist-led revolt in the primitive Savage Lands is cheesy and implausible. Or rather, impossible. Huxley envisioned a World State made permanent by compulsory happiness. Instability is unthinkable. Resentments and discomfort are abolished through genetic manipulation, social conditioning, drugs, free sex, erasure of the past, and an ecstasy of consumer appetites teased and fulfilled. In effect, the people of Huxley’s World State are Eloi. They’re managed by shrewd and vigilant therapists, not Morlocks. But as Mustapha Mond, one of the state’s World Controllers, says in the novel, they’re nonetheless “nice, tame, animals.”

Luckily for the series writers, just enough explicit sex weaves throughout the storyline to keep viewers from thinking too deeply about anything. But—something I never could have imagined at seventeen—even a 4K screenful of amorous naked bodies in their prime can become fatiguing. In the end, Peacock offers a mildly absorbing science fiction tale with lots of glistening flesh and technology. As an adaptation of Huxley’s sobering message, though, the Peacock drama fails.

This is bad, especially now, because Huxley’s ideas are obviously relevant today. For decades I believed that George Orwell was the better writer, but Huxley the better prophet. Orwell’s futurist novel 1984, with its Thought Police and shabby, dystopian brutality, seems dated. The technopoly that now envelops us seems much closer to Huxley’s sunny, pastel brand of coercion. That’s what Huxley himself believed. He argued in a foreword to his novel’s 1946 edition that “as political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase.” In a “welfare-tyranny of Utopia,” Huxley said, distractions and sexual license help to reconcile “subjects to the servitude which is their fate.” Later, in a 1949 letter to Orwell, whom he had taught at Eton, Huxley added that “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

Maybe so. Huxley sounds quite sensible. But I’m no longer convinced by his reasoning; it’s too reasonable. If today’s street violence and political extremism serve any good purpose, it’s this: They remind us that humans have a chronic appetite for destruction. Hate, revenge, the desire to vindicate ourselves by humiliating, or simply annihilating, others: These are poisonous feelings. But they’re also delicious ones, and we each have a dark, inner laboratory where we perfect the flavor of our grievances.

Huxley might argue that his World Controllers would have the power to banish all grievances and shape future generations in peace and plenty. But that assumes his Controllers would be genuinely benign and selfless, and always remain so. Nothing in human experience supports that view. The arc of absolute power bends toward pain, not paradise. Orwell may be wrong on the details. But in the long run, Orwell, not Huxley, reads the human heart more deeply.

O’Brien, the Inner Party official so brilliantly played by Richard Burton in the film version of Orwell’s 1984, captures the real nature of power: “Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” (Anyone who thinks that such things can’t happen here needs to read and share Rod Dreher’s bracing new book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents—a chronicle of how good people “sleepwalk into catastrophe,” and the means to survive it.)

Twice in Aldous Huxley’s novel, John the Savage quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O brave new world that has such people in it.” He speaks those words first in dazzled enthusiasm for the utopia that awaits him, and later in ironic disgust for the comfortable, subhuman life he finds. Here and now we have two paths before us. One leads to being Eloi on the menu. The other, much harder one, leads to inner freedom, God-rooted citizenship, and the repudiation of fear. As Huxley wrote in his 1946 foreword, “you pays your money, and you takes your choice.”

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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