The new adaptation of Brave New World opens with white text on a black background:
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Everyone is very happy.
Or are they? 80 years on, few viewers will be unaware that, for the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s New London, true happiness is far from assured. In this totalitarian society, babies are all born outside of the human body in a state-controlled ‘hatchery’, and a biological caste system determines the social role individuals are permitted to play: Alphas are leaders; Betas are elite workers; Gammas and Deltas are servants; and Epsilons form a drone-like underclass. All are kept docile through the ready availability of pleasure: endless parties, casual sex, an immersive form of cinema called the ‘feelies’, and the regular administration of the drug soma, available in pill or liquid form.
In this version, the protagonist Bernard Marx doesn’t work at the Central London Hatchery, but is instead employed as a soma peddler for the Bureau of Stability. His job is to keep everyone in a consistent state of contentment, topping up their soma dose as necessary with pretty multicoloured pills (“how about a yellow?”). Citizens carry with them a clicking soma dispenser, the same shape and size as a fountain pen.
The prop allows the filmmakers to signal characters’ emotional distress with canny simplicity. Social anxiety? Click. Interpersonal conflict? Click. When the restless Bernard gets into an argument on a bus with a young Alpha, the other passengers are left disconcerted, unsure how to respond to an unusual display of social tension. Bernard the candy man dutifully proceeds around the bus, dropping pills into their trembling hands: click, click, click.
The true drama begins when Bernard and his sexpot Beta companion Lenina take a rocket across the Atlantic and return with John the Savage, a man born to New London parents, but raised in the ‘Savage Lands’. More like an Indian reservation in the novel, the Savage Lands are here cleverly reimagined as a theme park devoted to 21st Century American decline. New London visitors load onto a tour bus and gawp at the ‘house of correction’ (a prison), the ‘house of monogamy’ (a church), and witness a reenactment of what is presented as the most important event in the savages’ calendar, ‘the annual day of black’ (Black Friday), in which shoppers tear each other to pieces in their lust for bargains.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a barbed attack on late capitalism on primetime TV. A tour guide informs visitors cheerfully that the key elements of savage culture included “jealousy, competition, greed, and strife.” She’s not wrong, of course. The Savage Lands theme park is designed to demonstrate to New Londoners the perils of the old way of life, while its inclusion in the drama is designed to show us how tempting the 26th century could seem when set beside the 21st.
Unlike the other properly “conditioned” characters, John the Savage is burdened by unrestrained and unmedicated human emotion. He gets jealous, he hits people, he smashes things, and he feels grief and sorrow. His entry into New London proves destabilising because, for all of its emotional sterility, the restrictions placed on this society do work, in that they have managed to successfully rid themselves of conflict.
The lack of privacy ensures a lack of crime; the lack of family ensures a lack of in-group preference; and the lack of monogamy ensures a lack of sexual jealousy. The cost that citizens pay for all this stability is an emptiness that they find hard to put into words: a longing for meaning that soma can’t touch. And although we don’t see New London citizens pining especially for children, religion, or family – all of which are banned by the state – they do pine terribly for monogamous love, and sometimes attempt it, despite the state’s best efforts to stop them. With John the Savage on the scene, trouble is inevitable.
Certain elements of the story been emphasised — and others down-played — for a 2020 audience. Of course, we have our Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, all carrying out their various allocated jobs. But the new series represents the hierarchy as just a more explicit version of our existing class structure. The characters of this adaptation are more rebellious than those in the novel, and we see little evidence that they are innately biologically suited to their positions.
The series doesn’t engage with Huxley’s much more disturbing vision, in which people really are designed for either drudge or leadership, and really won’t resist, no matter how lowly their status. “We like cleaning up” chant the epsilons in the 2020 adaption, but we know they don’t really mean it. In the 1932 novel, they actually do. And at a time when technologies like CRISPR gene editing bring Huxley’s dystopia uncomfortably close to reality, it is curious to see how little interest the filmmakers take in this theme.
Instead, the element of the novel that’s drawn out – and effectively – is the numbing consequences of endless pleasure. In 1932, the culture of casual sex that Huxley described was a long way from reality in a Britain in which contraception was still primitive and abortion criminalised, meaning that sex and reproduction remained inseparable. Even elite eccentrics like the Bloomsbury Set, who famously “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, weren’t able to have truly consequence-free sex, given how many illegitimate children they produced.
But in Brave New World, Huxley had the foresight to imagine a society in which sex could be just one more consumable product among a host of other delights. The citizens of New London love novelty: no one wears the same outfit twice, new trends flash and fizzle within a matter of days, and sexual partners are just one more source of fleeting excitement, to be immediately forgotten.
The censors who attempted to ban the novel soon after its publication could hardly have imagined that sections of the 21st century elite would soon be openly enjoying soma-infused orgies and proudly tearing down bourgeois sexual norms, just like the Alphas and Betas of Brave New World. As Emily Chang puts it in a Vanity Fair piece on Silicon Valley sex and drugs parties:
“Many participants don’t seem the least bit embarrassed, much less ashamed. On the contrary, they speak proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule.”
Media references to Brave New World are often misapplied, typically used to refer to the arrival of new reproductive technologies. But what’s interesting about Huxley’s story is not so much the prospect of babies grown in bottles — still a long way off — but instead the far more immediate prospect of a population that has been stupefied by limbic capitalism: that is, the skilfully designed and addictive forms of entertainment that drip-feed us dopamine.
Porn, junk food, celebrity media, gambling, gaming, smoking, opioids: all of these products tap into our longing for nourishment, excitement, and pleasure, but do so while draining the consumer of health, happiness, and – most importantly – money. If there’s one thing that Huxley got wrong, it was in assuming that soma would need to be coercively administered by the state. As it turns out, private corporations are more than up to the job.
In his delightfully titled 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman recognised Huxley’s prescience:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
In this adaptation, a designer of New London’s social structure speaks at one point of the ease with which the population were persuaded to adopt her new regime. These people embraced passivity, irrelevance, and trivia because they couldn’t bear to experience normal human emotion: “they would have done anything to avoid those agonising moments when there’s nowhere else to look but inside.” The designer offered consumers short-term pleasure over long-term happiness. Centuries later, and far too late, she regrets what she’s done.