Brave New World is looking pretty good, all things considered

Given the COVID-19 hellscape we are now living in, I'll take it. Seriously: Is it time we start looking at our old dystopias as sources of inspiration for improving our society?

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New London, the backdrop of Brave New World

Image: NBCUniversal/Peacock

In 1932, British novelist Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, considered by many to be the seminal work of modern dystopian science fiction in the English language. Along with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and then, later, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, these nightmarish masterpieces have given society pause on the dangers of technological progress throughout the decades and have become part of many high school and college literary reading lists.

At the time of Brave New World's publication, the world was still recovering from the horrors of the 1918 pandemic and World War I, each claiming millions of lives. Society had entered an age of mass industrialization, pioneered by Henry Ford's assembly line. These developments, along with the emergence of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin's dictatorship, created a perfect backdrop for Huxley to create his dystopian future, one of a single world state, with no privacy, no individuality, no families, and no self-determination. 

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The Huxleyan future we have all been taught...

Huxley's future takes place in 2540 AD. Its test-tube gestated, genetically engineered citizens are fed an endless supply of mood-stabilizing drugs. They are kept happy with all forms of sensory distractions, including non-stop sexual activity. It frightened and titillated the public in 1932 and, perhaps, still does.

There have been several attempts to update Brave New World in television and film. However, the original work, when adapted, hasn't resonated particularly well with most audiences. As with Nineteen Eighty-Four, which took the idea of the world state, conformity, and mind control even further, it is a depressing, emotionally taxing tale. But it remains an essential, even foundational work of literature that others have shamelessly copied over the almost 90 years since its initial release. 

We have seen echoes of the novel's dystopian themes in later works of film and television: THX-1138, Logan's Run, Brazil, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Minority Report, GATTACA, Equilibrium, The Island, The Hunger Games, Elysium, Westworld, and so many others. 

Brave New World has finally gotten the update it deserves with the launch of NBCUniversal's Peacock streaming service, in the form of a nine-episode series that expands upon and diverges from the original work. It even leaves open the possibility for a second season. The cast and characters are all outstanding, and it's well worth watching, especially with the service's free 7-day trial, which you can view on your web browser, mobile devices, and other supported hardware

As with the original work, civilized society appears to be controlled by a single world government. Its citizens are kept in a state of constant emotional bliss by the use of "Soma," the generic pharmaceutical that appears to be infused in all the food and drink the citizens consume. It's the ever-present nonpareil candy that drops out of each citizen's Pez-like candy dispensers, which make their appearance with unnerving spring-loaded, double-clicking sounds in virtually every scene. They pop it, effortlessly, like Tic-Tacs. And they never run out.

Doors do not have locks, and everyone is fitted with an augmented reality contact lens "Optic" that provides the ability to recognize one another's status (signifier) as well as experience the life-logs and intimate thoughts and feelings of any individual, on-demand, connected to a network and decentralized AI known only as "Indra."   

All citizens have and know their place in life, predetermined at conception, which is done artificially and using genetic engineering to determine intelligence level. Children are conceived in a laboratory rather and are raised and "conditioned" by the world government rather than growing up in a family environment.

Also: 2084: What happens when artificial intelligence meets Big Brother

...may not actually be a dystopia

On the surface, it does sound awful. Except that there are too many upsides to ignore. 

Let's begin with Soma. Sure, everyone is on drugs, but it's not like anyone is nonfunctional and can't go to work the next day after partying with it the night before. Nobody ever gets truly upset or completely emotionally distraught. At least in this TV version, it doesn't appear you can overdose on regular use of Soma (although there is an allusion to a "Soma Red" for euthanasia), nor does it appear to be physiologically addictive because nobody seems to go through withdrawal when they stop using it. It works instantly, and it appears to have a relatively short half-life. It's like super-CBD. Sign me up, tomorrow, on Amazon Subscribe and Save. 

Compare this with benzodiazepines like Xanax and related drugs like Valium and Klonopin, which have been a first-line psychiatric medication for treating anxiety and depression for over five decades. Benzos, unlike Soma, create a physiological dependency to the point where discontinuing their use can result in seizures if not correctly weaned off. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs like Zoloft can cause debilitating side effects, including sexual ones. Can they help people? Sure. They're particularly useful for treating acute conditions and short-term issues, but withdrawal is also a problem. 

The citizens of New London seem to have no dysfunctions at all. Not only are they incredibly sexually active (to the point of it being their primary source of entertainment, because "everyone belongs to everyone else" and after-hours life, night after night, is one big party), but everyone seems to be in perfect physical shape, attractive, and they never grow old. Violence and crime of any sort are unheard of, and are remnants of the "before times."

Oh yes, people do die, and there are a few scenes that discuss death and how people cope with it (spoiler: they don't have to), but it's never fully explained just how long people can live. Many citizens appear to live to at least a hundred years old, and the society's leaders, the Alpha Pluses, when shown, never look a day over fifty. Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, looks like she could be maybe 55 -- but we never really know just how old. She could be as much as two centuries old based on what is revealed in later episodes. So, medical technology in this society is absolutely top-notch (at least by 20th century standards). 

Seriously, given the COVID-19 hellscape we are now living in, I'll take it.

Because it's clean, beautiful, and free

Let's get into the world of New London itself -- it's so freaking clean, with beautiful open-air modern architecture that looks like Star Trek and Logan's Run had a love child, with none of the Trantor-esque downsides of futuristic overpopulated cities we've seen in Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, The Fifth Element, or Star Wars

Gorgeous, huge towering white buildings, advanced public transportation systems, silent flying autonomous driven vehicles, beautiful public outdoor spaces with greenery, all interspersed with the technology. And absolutely no pollution whatsoever; it's always crystal clear even when it inevitably rains in New London. If you get bored with your surroundings, they have rocket ships that will take you on a sub-orbital parabolic flight to the other side of the planet, Virgin Galactic-style, in less than 15 minutes. Citizens can visit the "Savage Lands" theme park in New Mexico and view Epcot-like re-enactments of what life was like before everything became perfect and clean, in all their trailer park glory.

 I'm trying to come up with a potential downside to this, and I can't.

Did I say it was clean? It's so spotless that, when people occasionally drop their Optic Interface contact lenses on the floor, they put them right back into their eyes! Who doesn't want to live in an environment like that? Everyone also has their own gorgeous, spacious condo -- well, at least if you are an Alpha or a Beta. But even the lowly Epsilons get their own single bedroom apartments and their needs are taken care of. Have you ever tried to rent an apartment in San Francisco on even a $200,000-per-year salary without a roommate? Yeah.

But that caste system. Oh yes, let's not forget about that. Society is led by a small number of Alphas, who are engineered to be smarter than the Betas (who, in addition to making up most of the skilled workforce, are there for everyone's sexual pleasure, because monogamy is taboo and considered destabilizing). Society would fall apart without the blue-collar Gamma servants, the Delta proletariat, and lastly, the Epsilons, which are clones with no emotional state whatsoever and do all the lousy menial labor (but, interestingly, get to live out in the verdant English countryside, which Alphas and Betas never see). 

Yes, a caste system sounds terrible, but in this world, nobody is truly upset about their place in life, and everyone knows from early childhood based on the conditioning that they have a purpose. In some ways, that's better than billions of people on this planet who live short, unfulfilled lives in complete squalor and despair. And, yes, the idea of being raised by the state in high-tech orphanages is hideous, except when you compare that possibility with the fate that will befall hundreds of millions of children on this planet who grow up with no care at all, discarded, despite many having known who their parents were. 

We should also point out that on the TV show, yes, there are castes, but (in an important departure from the novel) there's also no racism whatsoever. Races appear to be well-distributed across all the ranks -- World Controller Mond herself is a black woman. There's also no sexism; women are equal to men in seemingly every profession and also appear to occupy positions of significant societal importance. 

Additionally, there are no moral implications or judgment applied to any form of sexual congress between people of any identity, either. Although it is not readily apparent that a concept of "trans" or "queer" even exists in this world, that's something they appear to have weeded out of us. Everyone consents, everyone gives themselves to everyone, when it is asked. When your average person attending a public orgy physically looks like they came out of the Sports Illustrated Year 2540 swimsuit calendar, why not? I doubt that these people even smell unpleasant after their fierce rounds of racquetball.

What may have been viewed as horrifying, repulsive, or shocking in 1932 sounds pretty liberating in 2020, as so many people are still struggling to be accepted just because of who they are and what they want to be, and who they want to be with. I'm not suggesting that life should be a Huxleyan orgy, but how New London's people conduct themselves as it relates to each and everyone else's bedroom antics is far more advanced than our version. 

We could learn something from what Huxley calls these "decanted" folks, who emerge from a test tube into the world.

Also: Grandpa, tell me about the days before the Great Distancing

O brave new world, that has such people in it!

What else? There's no organized religion. Unlike the book, in which Henry Ford is worshiped as some sort of prophet, there is nothing worshipped here other than the technology itself. Their "god" is Indra, which fulfills the purpose of social network and an ever-present watchful eye (which everyone can tune into) and even the algorithm that runs and plans society itself. 

Then there are all the distractions such as "feelies" (virtual and augmented reality taken to the dimension of physical sensations), all the crappy house-style music with no words, and no works of fiction or art, per se. 

It's a society that operates in a Roman orgy-like state with virtually no culture, which is what Huxley viewed socialism and communism to be when taken to the absolute extremes.

But in many ways, we have our own "Indra." We have Facebook and Twitter, which serve as constant distractions and are cancerous sources of misinformation spread, which continuously make people miserable and help to create endless division and strife. 

We choose to be endlessly connected to them, and we allow them to influence us, with all sorts of altered versions of the truth. It's true that the citizens of New London have no privacy and are under constant observation. Still, they can get the unfiltered truth anytime they want. That's not the case with our society, where competition for our collective attention originates from a never-ending feed of crap from questionable sources, and academic expertise and science are always questioned.

Whatever else this imagined future society has done to dehumanize itself, it has still managed to erase humanity's absolute worst social evils. We may not have "castes" in the strict Huxleyan sense, but we now have societal division among political, gender, ethnicity, and race-motivated lines that threaten to tear us apart. 

Maybe it's time we start thinking about our old dystopias as sources of inspiration to improve our society. Talk Back and Let Me Know.