Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Recently, I read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It's a piece of dystopian fiction, and it's interesting in that about midway through the book, the character of John, otherwise known as "the Savage" or "Mr. Savage," is introduced, seemingly as an avatar for the audience. It seems that his role in the story is to allow the audience to see the problems with the perfect society that has been created and maintained, and he does so, mainly (to me, anyway) by making it clear that despite the conditioning that the World State applies to make its citizens happy with their assigned lots in life, they were unable to engineer away the craving for novelty. This craving eventually pushes them to pursue John to the point of his suicide. This was interesting in the fact that John had effectively advocated for the right to be unhappy; but it really seemed that he sought the right to encounter the world on his own terms, and when that proved impossible, he takes his own life.

While the World State's aims are somewhat banal; being social stability and a level of consumption that keeps factories humming and people employed, it's never portrayed as openly evil. The measures that it takes, while they would strike many people as authoritarian and repressive, are seen as trade-offs in order to achieve a goal that is itself understood as good for the public at large. And in this, it's an interesting contrast with 1984 and the Orwellian school of fiction that posit that dystopian societies are a result of an élite class that understands that it is entitled to a good life at the expense of "the people." The result is a society that one can understand the attractions of. John's out-and-out resistance to it comes across as being indicative of a level of conditioning less directed, but no less thorough, than what the citizens of the World State have endured.

And in this, it becomes a reminder that to someone who has different ideas of how a society should be organized, anyone who supports a given system may be described as "conditioned," even if they demonstrate that they understand the choices, trade-offs and price that they are subject to. The World State is not a dystopia because it is evil. It is a dystopia because the bargains that keep it running are imposed upon its citizens by a regime that thinks for them. But if all societies work that way, to one degree or another, perhaps the label of "dystopia" is misplaced.

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