Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Compulsory Promiscuity!

So we're now onto Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and, yes, compulsory promiscuity is part of this dystopic future. Though, I must say, I've known a few fellows for whom this wouldn't be, um, exactly dystopic. But let us go onward nonetheless!

I enjoyed this book, and it was a relatively easy read despite some of its flaws. And yet for all my liking, those flaws still jump out at me - though Huxley does his best to dance around them.

The first word that came to mind while I was evaluating how this book was structured was "clumsy". Yet that's not exactly right. Certainly the craft in this book is not clumsy, indeed it is often quite fine... but it's a fineness, I think, often put to use in disguise, in trying to hide the essential flaw of this book.

In my eyes, at least, that flaw is that the characters are provided as symbols, as opportunities to create philosophical scenarios, and their specific nature, their basic humanity, is mostly superfluous. It starts with their names, of course. Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne (Lenina being the Russian feminine for Lenin), John Savage. And there's even an Engels!

But the author's concern with ideas over characters is clear early on, and at much deeper levels than the naming of characters. The first real character in the novel, Bernard Marx, isn't introduced in the novel until the middle of chapter 3. Lenina comes in not long after. Yet what comes before? Well, today we'd call it worldbuilding and info dumps.

Now, part of this is our distance in time from the conception of this novel. The novel form has changed, and this delay in action is partly a result of that, of more relaxed views on pacing and narrative. But part of it, too, is that the real central character of this novel is the setting itself, the dystopic world Huxley has created.

For the first part of the story we follow Bernard Marx, a man who feels different in this homogenized world of the future, and yet it's mostly because he's a runt for his class, and feels shut out from the full privilege he feels is his due. He thinks about cultural change, but mostly because of this sense of isolation, and his sense of frustrated entitlement is grand indeed. He mewls and whines a lot (and is rather hard to like).

On a side note through this part we follow Lenina Crowne, who we want to like... and yet she, too, falls short of real humanity and our hope for some sort of transformation is never really realized. She finds herself liking the people who are different, first Bernard Marx and then John Savage, and yet she never really finds her own real sense of individuality or difference and is used mostly to reflect the culture of the dystopia back at the male characters, a lens to focus their struggles. She is a cultural mirror, in a sense, whose only real difference - her love for John - is used only to delineate a philosophical conflict rather than to explore her character in any sense as a real person.

This, perhaps, is the nature of the story in a nutshell, a sort of human construct to explore ideas and philosophical/political structures.

At the midway point in the story we meet John Savage, whose parents were from this dystopic world, but who grew up in an untouched free reserve (remember, his name is Savage...). The reserve is people mostly with Native Americans (whose representation I found a little troubling - and the fact that the one who's taken back to shake the dystopic world is seemingly the one and only white man there... also a little troubling). At this point the story half-forgets about Bernard Marx. He has served his purpose, perhaps, his sense of difference used as a way to explore the dystopia, to set up a contrast. And there's a feeling, too, that Huxley simply got bored with Bernard (perhaps not surprising). That contrast accomplished, we now have John Savage, who provides a different contrast, a contrast between cultures, between someone who actually knows freedom and the totalitarian world of the dystopia. This, in a sense, deepens the philosophical conflicts and adds a depth to our understanding of the ideas at play. And yet it's a little disappointing from a character standpoint. I mean, we follow Bernard along for the first half of the novel, without anything really happening, hoping that something will... and as soon as it does he's practically dropped. He was a vehicle of transmission, really, and that's all.

John Savage does bring in new conflicts, and he is a little more likeable than Bernard. And yet he still has the feel of a symbol - he represents something, and rarely is he ever uniquely himself. He quotes Shakespeare relentlessly, even though that seems unlikely given the context provided to us about his upbringing. And yet he provides a mouthpiece for the philosophical and political contrasts that Huxley is interested in.

Even the climax comes quickly, with little set-up, and it turns out to be, in truth, a little anti-climactic. An attack? A fight? A trial? No, a very long lecture by the World Controller, after which they're sent on their way.

And yet, for all that, it's quite readable. The pace is much better than you would expect for such a didactic piece of writing. There's some interesting craft at work, as in the third chapter. Huxley knows he's basically dropping bomb after bomb of pure information and backstory, much of it in dialogue. "As you know, Bob..." Yet what he does to combat this is to fragment four or five separate scenes into one, each with different characters and engaging in different conversations. He splices the dialogue from each one in one sentence at a time, so you start and leave each conversation and then circle back to it after you cycle through the others. It's disjointed, yet after a bit you can follow each conversation. What's lost in flow, however, is made up for in the contrasts created by the method. Bits of information and character responses from different conversations are juxtaposed against each other to create meanings and tensions. It's an interesting thematic move to provide drama abstractly, in the absence of any sort of literal dramatic action.

So here we have some of that disguise, that sense of pulling the veil over the reader's eyes. Doing his best to cloak his ideas in flesh, and when failing waving his magic wand in a way to distract the reader and create something new.

And still the book works, in the end. It works because the central character is vivid and fascinating. Not Bernard, not John... but the world itself. Huxley pulls you into it, deeper and deeper, and then he sets it on edge, plays it against the tensions provided by Bernard and John. It's an interesting feat, really, and there's depth to this world.

I'm not sure there if there is any certain indication that Huxley read Zamyatin's We, yet it seems likely, as this world he's created seems built on the bones of Zamyatin's. So many of the themes and ideas are mirrored here. Huxley has taken them and run with them, playing out possibilities, reflecting them back and forth off each other. As a philosophical work it is the greater, and yet it lacks the humanity of We, the pleasure, the vibrancy of the voice and prose. In the end, I think, We is the better story.


Mesmerix said...

I couldn't have explained Brave New World better. When I read it a few years ago, I had exactly the same response you did. Somehow, despite the lack of truly interesting characters, Huxley makes the book readable, and a seemingly rapid read as well. I suppose now I'll have to read We as you've given it the thumbs up.

Josin L. McQuein said...

But isn't the inhuman-ness of the characters part of the point? their whole life is a pantomime and they have no one to show them how a real person acts. They're like people raised by puppets. there's no one who can teach them what they need to know within the caste systems because it's lost knowledge.

That disconnect between the reader and the characters highlights that gap.

In a very strange way, the people become aliens on their own planet. They learn the hows without the whys because the former is a concrete while the latter is an abstract. Abstracts have no place in a totalitarian regime because they're organic and in constant motion, so it's best for TPTB to satisfy any quest for knowledge with a how.

Teach them how to heal a bone, but not why you'd show compassion to an injured man.

Teach them how society is structure, but not why some people are labeled contrary to their abilities.

Teach them how to answer questions, but not why answers matter.

Once the outside influence is introduced, it makes the contrast starker. The person who wants to know the "why's" of the society is trying to understand it and the people in it. But the society can't explain itself because it's not programmed for those answers.

Bane of Anubis said...

If I recall correctly... doesn't this book have the word 'propitiately' in it. Some crazy adverb usage that just makes me smile.

Overall, not a huge fan of this or most dystopian message books b/c they come across too heavy-handed, IMO.

Mira said...

I like this review, and I thought it was funny that you said Huxley became bored with Bernard.

I honestly don't remember the book - it's been too many years, but I really enjoyed reading your review.

I liked what Josin had to say, too.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I agree with that - partially. The key thing about such totalitarian regimes is that they enforce surface compliance and homogeneity. But the history of such regimes is that beneath the surface people still think, people still hold to concepts of themselves as individuals. Rebellion of thought is constant.

The problem with this story is that no one seems to think, and if they do have a thought it's treated like "OMG! They had a thought!" And yet this is what it is to be human. The basic function of the brain is to make connections and patterns out of the chaos. Shutting this down seems unlikely, even with the conditioning they undergo. But even given this eventuality as a thought experiment (that is, the almost perfect mental conditioning) the real problem with the characters is that even when they begin to think they're still not really individuals and more like mouthpieces. And all the more so for John Savage, who has known nothing but freedom and has not been mentally conditioned... and yet he's still, mostly, a two-dimensional mouthpiece. John, say, rejects Lenina because there are thematic points to be made, and not because of anything unique or inherent in his character. The characters, at least to me, too often feel like pawns, moved about the board to create certain scenarios, certain philosophical conflicts. Rarely do they seem to act out of any kind of logic natural to their character.

I suppose I felt that there was never a real attempt to engage in the human experience of this world. How does the mind work under this set of conditions? What would it mean to someone?

WE, I think, gets closer to this, though I still wouldn't call it a great psychological portrait, the main character being too inclined to extremes, to jumping back and forth.

1984 seems a better psychological portrait, so far (I'm not done yet), although its plotlessness is driving me a little nuts. And still there's the idea that an original thought is some kind of rare and extraordinary thing, and the individuals who experience them unique on that account. Embracing the impossible, in a way, though I'm hoping with 1984 there will be a realization that many more people are still thinking for themselves, and that it's the ability of the regime to isolate these people, from others and themselves, that is their true power.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


It's sort of funny, I was reading a few chapters in and I told my wife (whose read it), "Hey, it takes a long time for him to introduce the main character in this book."

"You mean John Savage?"

"No, um... Bernard Marx?"


She'd completely forgotten him. And I think that says something. I think all these characters are eminently forgettable. You might remember John because he's different, because he stirs things up... but not really on account of himself, on account of him as a specific character.

D-503, now, from WE... I'll remember him. His voice is still fluttering around my brain.

I think the difference for me, so far, is that Zamyatin seemed to be, among the three writers, the most interested in his story as a story.

Mira said...

Bryan - I don't remember 1984 either, but I do remember it's very dark.

I wonder if there's an undefined genre here. Seriously. Where it's not so much about story, but about the idea behind the story. Just a thought.

Although, again, I don't remember it, but it seems to me that Huxley missed the boat. Doesn't it seem like any book with compulsory promiscuity should be a non-stop page turner? Or is that a different genre too?

Donna Hole said...

I'm pretty sure I read this one a lot of years ago. I didn't find it especially memorable, but didn't dislike it either.

Maybe you put your finger on what made it readable for me - the world itself was interesting.

Informative reveiw, you make some valid points.


Raquel Byrnes said...

I agree with Josin. I think the point of them being such plastic facsimiles of what humans used to be is on purpose. I don't think we could really appreciate their sterile relationships and lack of intimacy without it.

Matthew Rush said...

Bryan, did you re-read both We and BNW in the last few days? Where do you find the time?

Can't wait to hear your thoughts on 1984.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Read 'em for the first time! Halfway through 1984 right now.

zz said...
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zz said...

Hi Bryan,

I love that we're talking about BNW! I read it in high school. I'm not a fan of dystopian fiction but I have always been facinated with this book!

I can understand your criticism of the characters in BNW. The characters are pretty uninteresting and contrived. But they are devised to highlight what Huxley believes are the effects of living in a culture of mass consumerism, self-centred living and control. The notion I got was that if people are satiated enough they will become acquiescent to the controls put in place in their lives - hence no rebellion of thought.

It's an exaggeration and it may not be an accurate conclusion, but like you mentioned it is a didactic text, so I think that's kinda the point. I don't know a lot about the elements of dystopic literature, but based on BNW and 1984, exaggeration and deplorable, empty protagonists seem to be a common thread - serving as a warning rather than a true reflection of human psychology. (Although, I do think Huxley has a point about consumerism numbing us the world around us - but that's another debate all together, and I wouldn't want to give you the wrong idea about me (flipping tofu burger patties and sewing hemp skirts) :)

Despite the 2D characters I loved reading this book for the reasons that you highlighted - including the strange and sensory-rich world. Also I think Huxley's vision and genius was decades ahead of the times he lived in - quite a feat!

Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

Matthew Rush said...

Wow. When do you sleep?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Do you think if I queried my middle grade dystopian science fiction novel and said, "But the WORLD is the central character!" I'd have any luck?

Me either.

Your insights about the characters being symbolic rather than real, reminds me of a lot of the dystopian and SF novels (including Brave New World) I read in my youth. I think I would have less tolerance for it now, and would be more demanding of the human experience, rather than just the philosophical constructs (although I still heart those with a passion). I do still remember feeling like the female characters got short shrift in many of these stories (back when SF was still a male dominated genre) - where the female characters merely reflected the male characters (like Lenina), rather than being interesting beings in their own right. My younger self noticed this more as a shocking discovery when I would stumble across a female character that went against type, more than any real cognizance of it at the time.

Now, I write my dystopias the way I'd like to see them: viewing societal forces through the lens of the people they affect. How does slavery change the way a young girl views her mother-substitute? How does persecution of an "other" minority affect a teen girl's desire to fit in? I think these questions have more power when filtered through the human experience.

Exceptional review, Ink! :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Yeah, I'm thinking there's probably some pretty harsh feminist criticism on this book out there if I were inclined to look. A return to academia!

Okay, having some sort of acidemia flashback now...

(I love inventing words)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ew, sorry didn't mean to send you on a nasty trip there. Hey, I would think the acidemic feminists would be way into the compulsory promiscuity! *ducks* Kidding!

Um, yeah. I was over on the left-brain side of campus.

Mira said...
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Mira said...

Hey, I'm a feminist - staunch one, actually, and I'm not acidic about it.

That sort of hurt my feelings.

And actually, I think feminists would say compulsory promiscity was explotative.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

OH, Mira! That was a really, really bad joke on my part! I'm sorry it hurt your feelings - that certainly wasn't my intention.

OF COURSE compulsory promiscuity is exploitive - of everyone involved. That's why it was a joke: the stereotype is that guys wouldn't find it "exploitative" and so therefore a truly "liberated woman" wouldn't find it "exploitative" either? Clearly, having to explain the joke means I didn't tell it very well.

As a woman who's worked extensively in male-dominated fields, I'm either a feminist or perhaps I'm learning sailor humor. Perhaps both. :)

Mira said...

Susan - thanks! That's really nice of you to respond - thank you. :)

Okay, that makes sense - I couldn't follow what you meant exactly. Blogs are so difficult. It's easy enough to misunderstand someone when they're standing right in front of you - blogs, you can't even see expressions!

Thank you - that was really nice of you, Susan. :)