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.