I read a great vintage novel recently – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Written way back in 1931, the book illustrates a world more than 500 years in the future. Humans have mastered eugenics – the science of intrusively modifying the human gene pool to stave off regressive traits. Natural selection has all but stopped because people are not born, we are manufactured.
Familial relations, the holy bond between mother and child is considered smut. To call someone a parent is the worst possible insult. The book wastes no time in describing in detail a process called bokanovskification. This genetic process splits a fertilized human egg into 96 identical copies, thus, yielding 96 people out of a single egg – twins gone wild, if you will. One can compare this with a factory production line. Mass production of engines on an assembly line instead of hand building a meagre number everyday which was the norm at the time the book was written. As a result, a vast majority of the world’s people are replicas. Scientists have achieved mastery in the art of modifying human genes. They are able to boost immunity, modify IQ, instil affinity to either physical or mental work, even pre decide careers and all this even before the humans are ‘born’.
Anything that is outside the control of science is removed by brunt. Mosquitoes have been wiped out and only the most harmless of diseases still exist. Society has been divided into neat segments based on their genetic conditioning. Alphas are by far the most developed with most of their free will still intact. They are engaged in front line activities like science and development. Betas are the next rung followed by Gammas. Epsilons are manufactured to be dumbest of the lot and are used for repetitive physical labour. Each segment of society is instilled with a fondness for its own class. So an Alpha would not mingle with Betas and Epsilons would not imagine about talking to an Alpha. From the perspective of world leaders, this is a dream come true. Perfect segmentation. Every individual is conditioned right from birth by employing a technique called hypnopaedia – sleep learning. Phrases are repeated by a soothing robotic voice while children sleep. So, for example, a phrase like “I am afraid of Alphas” would be repeated hundreds of times to a sleeping Epsilon kid. When they wake up, the message has been impressed upon their subconscious and they would never consciously think of approaching an Alpha.
Now some of you may be wondering, if humans are manufactured, what happens to sex? The book is rather unsettling with its ideas and, I feel, is much too forward for its time. Huxley proposes that humans are in fact encouraged to have sex and erotic play is actually a part of every child’s curriculum. What’s more is that since there is obviously no need to for a father-mother bond, promiscuity is encouraged. A lasting relationship between two people is frowned upon. There is also a drug called soma which gives all the highs of our own drugs and alcohol without any of the side effects. Soma is available on ration and is freely circulated to the populations. One more marvel of the scientific advances is that old age has been rooted out. People don’t age after they are 30 years old and thereafter live till they are about 60 years of age and then simply die. That’s it – they just conk off. No one is mourned of course for there are no families, only an endless series of identical people. In a way, people never really grow up. They are adults physically but emotionally they are quite child like. Any anguish leads to the consumption of soma – ‘half a gram for half a holiday’ is the saying.
Such is this book with its sudden, deliberate and out of this world introduction of a futuristic world. I later learned that the book was also a satire based on Huxley’s first visit to America back in the day. The car manufacturing company, Ford, had recently launched Model T. The world’s first mass production vehicle. One can easily see the parallels between mass production of cars in real life and humans in the novel. In those days it was widely speculated that the future of America would be the future of the world. During his travels through America, Huxley observed growing divorce rates, promiscuity and the general advance of civilisation in a direction different from the rest of the world. One could say that Huxley’s prediction of the segmentation of society into neat bands of jobs was quite accurate. Today, we have civil engineers to erect structures, architects to design them, miners to produce the raw materials yada yada. Many tasks are carried out by individuals skilled in their particular field. The jack-of-all-trade persons are diminishing in number.
The book says that the calendar convention in use is After Ford (AF). 0 AF was the day Henry Ford died. Henry Ford is considered to be the pioneer and instigator of the eugenics revolution. Phrases like ‘my God’ and ‘oh my goodness’ are replaced with ‘oh Ford’ and ‘oh my Fordness’ – another not so subtle reminder of the satirical nature of the novel. The book is placed in 632 AF. The book says ‘everyone is happy nowadays’ presumably because no one holds any ill feelings. Wars have not been fought for many many generations. But the book describes a time around 150 AF when the eugenics revolution was opposed by humans in a way not dissimilar to the way GM crops are being opposed today. There were, the book says, nuclear wars for 9 years which resulted in the decimation of the eugenic opposing population. They nearly got wiped off the face of the Earth. Nearly. There are still a few pockets of ‘natural’ human beings who are referred to as Savages. The eugenic population is, implicitly, called Civilisation. The Savages, that is, us humans today, are described in a manner that makes them seem repulsive – disease ridden, wrinkled skin, smelly, unhygienic and, worst of all, viviparous – born, not manufactured.
Amid this chaotic and confusing description of an alien world, our protagonist is introduced – Bernard Marx. Bernard, a psychologist by profession, is a curious fellow as far as the norm in the book is concerned. He does not indulge in promiscuous relationships and does not wish to consume soma to ward off anxiety and ill feelings. He prefers instead to face reality and its burdens. Not surprisingly, he is not the most popular Alpha in social circles. Rumours say that his manufacturer may have mistakenly botched up his egg. Now I must conclude this post because it has gotten frightfully long. I will leave you, dear reader, to discover the rest of this exhilarating novel. It ends in a spectacular finale which revolves around a disastrous intersection between the Savages and Civilisation.
What I am interested in now is an analogy between the Savage and Civilised worlds in the novel and the rural-urban setup in our own world. To get the obvious out of the way, it is no mystery that people living in urban areas find one aspect or another of rural living appalling. Sure its all nice and dandy when you go to a village or a small town for a week long break, but would you really truly consider living there forever? If you are from a developing nation, I would wager my money on the negative. Most of us would find a fault with the way villagers interact, the lack of privacy, lack of healthcare, frugal infrastructure – you get the idea. Though we urban folk are far from being manufactured in test tubes, are we so different from the segmented society in the novel? Farmers grow food, taxis ferry people around, doctors tend to the diseased, planners setup amenities, office goers rake in the moolah for big corporations. It really is very structured. They say education nowadays is not so much about learning as it is about memorising. Makes sense when you think about the number of people employed in vocations well suited to people with good rote-learning skills – be it cooking a meal in an average restaurant or working the calculator at the local bank.
What Huxley and many more during his time did was assimilate a working model of the future of the world. And it actually fits! Sure you could put some of it down to chance and some more of it down to abstract concepts that can be moulded to fit the picture. But when you think about the details, when you absorb the colours of the Brave New World and empty your palette into our Modern World, the similarities are rather concrete. Suffice to say that I am still intrigued by what the future holds, where human civilisation is headed. For now, we have only to put one foot in front of another and follow the powers that be, as we have in the past.