A Brave New World

There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed against [sleep teaching]. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.

You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.

Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.

I had to read A Brave New World over the summer before my senior year of high school, the first book for AP English. I hated it, and it was from that experience that I developed my theory that I had a natural aversion to books I had to read. (My love of The Great Gatsby is the exception that proved the rule.) While some of the books read for high school still hold no appeal for me, this is one I’ve been meaning in to re-read for some time now. As with Fahrenheit 451, 2018 seemed like an appropriate year to work through some of these classic dystopian stories.

The brave new world in this book is a perfectly stable global utopia achieved through artificial reproduction, genetic manipulation to create a clear caste hierarchy that descend from “alpha double plus” through “epsilon”, and conditioning to ensure the each person not only accepts their place in society, but embraces it as ideal. Free love is mandatory as a way to prevent jealousy and possessiveness, and everyone is regularly treated with powerful emotional stimulation and, more importantly, with doses of soma, a drug distributed by the state. Doped up by pleasure, people abandon interest in anything else.

There are drips and drabs of how this utopia that worships Henry Ford came into existence, a compromise after a series of destructive wars in the distant past. Despite genetic engineering, the world is not even. Places deemed too inhospitable are left as “Savage Reservations” and islands like Iceland and the Falklands, far from the Metropole, are the preferred landing place for people with mildly heretical ideas.

A Brave New World follows two arcs, tied together by the mildly unorthodox alpha, Bernard Marx. In the first arc, Bernard sets a date with the “pneumatic” Lenina Crowne. Lenina is herself under scrutiny for becoming too attached to her current partner, and so she sets to date the uncommonly short and aloof, particularly for an alpha. The arc concludes with the pair going on a vacation to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. The second arc carries forward their return from New Mexico, taking with them a dark secret from another vacation taken decades earlier: a woman who had been left behind and the child she bore–not entirely by choice–against all strictures of society.

The narrative tension of A Brave New World largely centers on the fate of John, “the Savage,” and his choice between submitting to the constraints of a society that would provide his every pleasure and the pain of freedom. (In his forward to the volume I read, Huxley wrote that if he were to write the book over again, he would include a third option.) I appreciate Huxley’s social commentary more now than I did in high school. This new world is one of abject consumerism were it is verboten to repair an item when you could just replace it and maximum pleasure is the highest calling. Possessiveness breeds jealousy, pain breeds strife, and independent thought leads to both. Thus the central authority maintains its power by tamping down those instincts.

And yet, I found the characters rather flat and the plot thin such that it becomes reduced to a deterministic parable about freedom and happiness.

The larger question I had going into this book, though, was how it stacked up against Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. On the one side, A Brave New World shares with Bradbury’s dystopia an emphasis on pleasure and freedom from heretical thought, but the latter suggests communal enforcement. On the other, it shares totalitarianism with 1984, albeit one of a consumerist make.

1984 receives too little appreciation because it was assumed that it could never happen here where society is governed by liberal political institutions. (Note: this judgement may be undergoing revision in light of recent events.) Where the state in 1984 exploits difference, the one in A Brave New World has a single world state that erases them in any meaningful way other than caste, but then conditions each caste to appreciate its position in society—and then only see the world from the perspective of people in the top two classes. This is a world that doesn’t have to address the consequences of unapologetic waste and that has no enemies outside certain tendencies in human nature. In short, A Brave New World is a dystopia for a happier time.

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The semester is in full swing, but I’m still carving small slivers of time to read. I finished Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, a slim, irreverent novel about a poor family in small town Mexico with middle class delusions, and started reading Sarah Kendzior’s collection The View from Flyover Country.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Cram them full of noncombustable data, chock them full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

Once, years ago, I picked up this book, possibly to complete the triptych with 1984 and A Brave New World. I found it painfully dull at the time and never finished, until now. (I only have vague memories of being bored by A Brave New World, too, and should give it a fair shake outside of English class.)

Fahrenheit 451 is fundamentally the story of Guy Montag. Guy’s profession is “fireman”, his job is to burn contraband books, to prevent the spread of illicit knowledge. Houses these days are fireproof, but books still burn, so the firemen simply turn on their kerosene-spewing hoses. “It was a pleasure to burn,” Guy thinks in the opening line.

But Guy has a crisis of faith that is prompted by two events. First, Guy meets his neighbor Clarisse on the way home from work. Clarisse, he thinks, is a little bit strange, and so is her family. She walks places, for instance, and looks at the stars and the moon, and her family sits on their porch and talks to one another, rather than surrounding themselves with the usual immersive video screens. Clarisse asks questions that make him think. Questions like “are you happy?”

The second strikes to the heart of things, when Guy discovers one night that his wife Mildred has gone through her usual routine of putting on her seashells (headphones), but also consumed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, forcing him to call for medical aid to revive her. Instead of doctors, he gets technicians, who revive Mildred, but also callously dismiss it as a plumbing problem. When she wakes, Mildred has no memory of what happened and returns to her stories.

These two things cause Guy to reevaluate life and start to ask questions about the books he is sworn to burn. His crisis is kicked into overdrive when a woman decides that she is going to burn with her books. Despite the best efforts of Captain Beatty to rein in his man and Mildred’s horror at the changes in her husband, Guy becomes a pariah, an unlikely devotee of the written word and slips into a conspiracy to revive book culture.

While Fahrenheit 451 didn’t stand out as one of my favorite books, there was a lot I liked about the world Bradbury dreamed up for it. This is a world where people are surrounded by screens, but instead of the screens watching you or being watched, they become an immersive experience to make the viewer feel like part of the action. At the same time, Mildred seems to represent a facet of the existential emptiness that this “engagement” creates, particularly when juxtaposed with Clarisse’s habit of looking at the stars and talking with people in person. (I also appreciated that while Mildred and Clarisse represent a binary, almost allegorical choice between civilization and nature, Clarisse was never an object of sexual interest.) There was also a fascinating moment near the end of the book when Bradbury (perhaps unintentionally) opened the door to the return to an oral culture. Memorization of individual texts was offered as a way to legally preserve knowledge, with the idea that each person has a text that they could then pass down to another generation until such time that books were legal again. But any student of oral tradition could tell you that there is a tension between the amazing longevity of oral knowledge and the fact that it is not a static text the way that a book is. So my question is what do these texts look like in multiple generations?

Perhaps I’m just being contrary, but I did have a beef, not with the book, but with the marketing. The key conceit in Fahrenheit 451 is that people need to be sedated, calmed by unimpeachable facts and seduced by immersive stories. There is a war about to happen, so perhaps there is a government mandate on these policies, but it comes across as self-policing since it is a book about the people who burn books and the people who snitch on those who read books. Any totalitarian apparatus is largely invisible. Moreover, we are told that the problem with books is that they make people melancholic, confused and troubled by the contradictory ideas. Is this censorship? Maybe, but I think there is a difference between cutting a single book or parts of a book for expressing ideas deemed inappropriate, and burning all books for having ideas, while filling minds with advertisements, immersive soap operas, and anodyne facts that are the facsimile of thinking.

In sum, I liked Fahrenheit 451 and understand what makes it a classic, but it spoke to me less as a broad critique of society and more as a critique of its time of which there are still resonances.

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Things are starting to pick up since the semester starts next week and job ads starting to come out, but I am determined to keep reading. Right now, I am in the middle of Charles Mann’s 1491, the companion to 1493.

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood

Note: this discussion includes the second and third books of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. I already wrote about Oryx And Crake, the first book in the series.

I cannot think of another trilogy where the contemporary timeline covers as little space as it does in this series. The Year of the Flood covers the same period as Oryx and Crake, introducing the perspectives of Toby and Ren, two women who live in the Pleeblands outside the compounds and find themselves caught up with the God’s Gardeners, a pacifistic nature cult that rejects the course society has taken.

Ren, born of the compounds, accompanies her mother into the Pleeblands where she spends many of her formative years, before returning to a life on the margins of the compound school. Toby’s life is harder, hiding from the authorities by working at a SecretBurger (real meat, a rarity!) joint for Blanco, a manager with a temper and a penchant for choosing female employees, compelling them to perform sexual acts on him, and in time raping them to death—if he doesn’t kill them some other way first. Toby joins the Gardeners the moment she quits because they hide her from Blanco. She doesn’t really believe the doctrines that say there is a Waterless Flood on the horizon, but is tough and resourceful, and the God’s Gardeners are willing to protect her.

Much as Jimmy/Snowman from Oryx and Crake, both women survive the flood, Toby through clean living in her job at AnooYoo Spa, Ren while in quarantine at “Scales and Tails,” the upscale strip club where she works. The Year of the Flood is thus a re-visitation of OaC, bringing the stories up to the present. MaddAddam adds a fourth core character, the enigmatic Zeb, Ren’s adoptive father among the Gardeners and Toby’s secret love, while Toby continues the work that Snowman began, teaching the Crakers about the world.

Most of the strengths of OaC carry through the rest of the series. The world remains disturbingly plausible, and its monstrosity is heightened by the Gardener point of view. We are introduced to their saints, such as Rachel Carson, their veneration of the natural world, and all of the cracks in the Utopian ideal of the Compounds. The Year of the Flood introduces Painball, a death-match between teams of convicts. The victors receive pardon, but leave something of their humanity behind. (By the contemporary timeline, Blanco is a three-time Painball victor.) MaddAddam explores the world of the PetroBaptists and the rise of CorpSeCorps security services through Zeb and his brother Adam, the original founder of the Gods Gardeners.

My main complaint with these two books was that everything fit together too well. That is to say, the world is large enough that people can vanish for years at a time, but small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else—and Jimmy in particular. The result is that the book feels like it is written around Oryx and Crake and reliant on that book, or at least Jimmy to give it meaning. These characters are more interesting than Jimmy (his dullness being one of my issues with the first book), but the whole process came off as reductive. MaddAddam deals less with the earlier time period outside of nested stories and thus mostly circumvents this issue.

The Year of the Flood was my favorite of the three, despite it suffering the most from the issue I described above. I liked the characters of Toby and, to a lesser extent Ren, and the God’s Gardeners are a fascinating set. I still believe that the strongest part of this series is the worldbuilding, at once fascinating, disturbing, and plausible. The storytelling is expertly done in all three books, but I found the characterization and plot lacking when held up to Atwood’s best.

I called Oryx and Crake an origin story, and this comment needs to be amended. The entire MaddAddam trilogy functions as a multi-faceted origin story wherein the ambitions of humankind climbed too high, leaving only a select few Adams and Eves and Crakers left to rebuild after a flood.

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I finished Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io over the weekend and will post some thoughts about it soon. I’m now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the Columbian Exchange and the development of the “Homogenocene” Epoch.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

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I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. they blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. the entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.

Margaret Atwood’s books have been on my radar for some time and I just kept putting off reading one. This was a mistake.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an eerily familiar, dystopic Boston. After waves of natural disasters and toxic spills caused upheaval through the United States by making resources scarce and child births scarcer, a group of biblical fundamentalists enacted a coup, creating a new country called Gilead.

Gilead is a rigidly hierarchical state, with strict separation of the genders. Men (Commanders, Guardians, Angels) are soldiers and professionals. Women primarily serve in household roles, such as wives, cleaning and cooking (Marthas), as well as overseeing other women (Aunts). Only Aunts are allowed to read any longer, and women are not allowed to hold jobs or have money. The most prized women, though, are those capable of having children. Some wives are capable having kids, but the elite men who have no children are allotted, based on biblical precedent, handmaids, whose entire purpose is that of surrogate womb—-so fully that the fertility ritual involves symbolically linking with the wife once a month while being visited by the head of household. If she fails to become pregnant, she will be transferred to another home; if she passes childbearing age, she will become an and transferred to a job like sweeping toxins.

The story is told in choppy and furtive sentences from the point of view of a woman known for her current station as Offred (named so for the man she’s attached to). She had a husband and a child, once, but they were captured while trying to escape to Canada and she was taken to the Red Center, a place for training the first generation of Handmaids. After graduating she is assigned.

One detaches oneself. one describes…

The tension in The Handmaid’s Tale emerges from the treatment of the new reality—the killings, the subjugation of women being treated as a privilege, the deprivation—as completely normal being juxtaposed with memories of freedom and choice from the past life.

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

Some of the characters take pleasure in their positions of power or receive enough benefits that they are not interested in challenging the status quo, but others, particularly the younger generations that don’t remember what it was like before, who are true believers.

Despite being published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale holds up exceptionally well, the difficulty of reading at times being entirely by design. The only point that seemed a bit dated was the technology, but, by and large, the themes (totalitarianism, militarism, control of a woman’s body) are still painfully relevant.

I loved this book and the highest praise I can give is that I eagerly await when I get to read another of Atwood’s novels.

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Next up, I am currently reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which, thus far, is an engrossing story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of some other science fiction I have read recently.