There are books that get steadily better with every chapter that you read. And then there are books whose opening is promising, but then they get steadily worse. Brave New World is among the latter.
From the 2020s’ perspective, this 1932 novel is dated in many respects. Not just in its (as usual in older sci-fi writings) gruesomely imprecise predictions of future technology – nothing resembling miniature computers, the Internet, or mobile phones; television sets as large “boxes”, etc. But, no matter how far in the future the novel may pretend to be set, women still behave as stereotypical women, and men as stereotypical men. Plus, Huxley today couldn’t possibly get away with the many hints at underage sexuality and even sexual activity.
But that is not the novel’s main flaw; you can’t fault anyone for failing to predict the future, or future concepts of what’s considered “appropriate”. The book starts off on a refreshing note, depicting a future London overrun with (frequently flying) technology (from Chapter 3):
The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.
The satire is laid on thick, with quite a few hilarious descriptions that jab at the 1930s’ – and even today’s – media landscape (from Chapter 4):
In the basement and on the lower floors were the presses and offices of the three great London newspapers – The Hourly Radio, an upper-caste sheet, the pale-green Gamma Gazette, and, on khaki paper and in words exclusively of one syllable, The Delta Mirror.
Yes, the future London (and the world) is a society divided into castes (not too different, I’m afraid, from present-day India); so throughout the novel, you get lots of encounters with persons like this (again in Chapter 4):
The liftman was a small simian creature, dressed in the black tunic of an Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron.
But the novelty (and fun) wears off pretty soon; by Chapter 10 at the latest, it becomes repetitive – and there are no fewer than 18 chapters in Brave New World. This might have retained my interest on the scope of a novelette, or a “long short story” – but it’s not enough, to me, for a full-length novel.
The characters in Brave New World are dull and dire, if not wholly disagreeable; even the most likable “civilized” character, named Helmholtz Watson, is annoying in an important respect. The novel’s main hero, therefore (predictably…), is a “savage” taken from a reservation to visit modern-day London. It is, I’m afraid, a rather schematic and black-and-white setup for a plot.
I mostly dislike Shakespeare, mainly Othello, but also Hamlet, while I simply shrugged off Romeo and Juliet. It is, therefore, no surprise that I’m no fan of Brave New World, either, because it’s nothing but an enthusiastic ode on Shakespeare. The novel’s very title is a Shakespeare quotation.
But just like Shakespeare was confused about “the meaning of life” and about what constitutes human happiness, so are Huxley’s characters. Not only that: both Shakespeare and Huxley consider it a virtue to be confused and helpless. They’re proud of being desperate – that’s the gist of Hamlet, and Brave New World is merely a variation on this theme.
I find both Hamlet and Brave New World to be profoundly irreligious works of fiction, despite their, to use a traditional turn of phrase, “taking God’s name in vain”. There’s no requirement for works of literature to be religious, naturally – as long as there are other redeeming qualities present in the texts. But I’m unable to find enough of those in Hamlet and Brave New World.
I find Huxley’s repeated suggestions, especially in closing chapters of Brave New World, that being “happy” and being “smart” (devoted to arts and sciences) are irreconcilable opposites, nothing short of repugnant. Yes, he might have meant it as a joke, because Brave New World is a satirical novel, but Huxley doesn’t sound like he’s joking, and Shakespeare in Hamlet (no satire for sure) definitely is not.