"An Unforgivable Offense to Progress!"

|

Caitrin Nicol's appreciation of Brave New World over at The New Atlantis (the novel is now 75 years old) is fun reading throughout, but the selection of negative contemporary reviews really jumps off the screen.

"As prophecy it is merely fantastic," dismissed essayist Gerald Bullett. Wells's friend and fellow writer Wyndham Lewis called it "an unforgivable offense to Progress." Marxist literary critic Granville Hicks began his review by asking, "With war in Asia, bankruptcy in Europe and starvation everywhere, what do you suppose Aldous Huxley is now worrying about?" and ended it with several personal attacks. Economist Henry Hazlitt sarcastically remarked that "a little suffering, a little irrationality, a little division and chaos, are perhaps necessary ingredients of an ideal state, but there has probably never been a time when the world has not had an oversupply of them."

J. B. S. Haldane's then-wife Charlotte penned a snide review for Nature, complaining that Huxley's great-uncle Matthew Arnold, the conservative literary critic, had taken demonic possession of him, and that in any case, "biology is itself too surprising to be really amusing material for fiction." Even G. K. Chesterton thought Huxley's book sadly laughable, observing that, "However grimly he may enjoy the present, he already definitely hates the future. And I only differ from him in not believing that there is any such future to hate."

I'd not known that Henry Hazlitt made fun of the book. The rest of the criticisms have dated, uh, poorly.

Back in 1999, Virginia Postrel patiently explained why the future was nothing to be afraid of.

Advertisement

NEXT: Off the Map

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. For some context, and for the benefit of those who don’t know, Aldous’ grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his rabid defense of Darwinism. Aldous’ brother is also a famous figure in evolutionary biology in his own right.

  2. I think it’s too early to say that we’ve safely evaded the BNW scenario.

    If the basic thesis of the novel is that progress may make it possible to biologically alter Man to make him fit better into the role a technological society demands of him, it may be too early to pass judgment.

    Frankly, up until now it would have just been too damn hard to get done. It would have required total social control of a kind no dictatorship has yet possessed to seize control of reproduction and childrearing and use that control to malform 80% of the population while using drugs, sex, and brainwashing to control the rest.

    But ultimately we’re going to have total control of the human genome, and ultimately that technology will proliferate out until the average blogger has access to it. When that happens, it is likely that there will be a broad experiment in modifying Man to better fit the current environment – it just won’t be directed by a totalitarian government. It’s definitely not difficult to believe that some people will choose to use that technology to create people it’s easy to control.

  3. “a little suffering, a little irrationality, a little division and chaos, are perhaps necessary ingredients of an ideal state, but there has probably never been a time when the world has not had an oversupply of them.”

    hmm…

    I always read the book as a criticism of curmudgeons rather then one of painless utopias.

  4. And Aldous was a great scholar of different schools of mysticism. One of my favorite Huxley quotes (paraphrased): “Advertising is the most evil of professions. Desire is the root of all suffering, and it is an advertiser’s calling to increase desire at all costs.”

  5. it just won’t be directed by a totalitarian government.

    There was a government in Brave New World?

    I really think people need to reread this book and you know actually read the book.

  6. ultimately that technology will proliferate out until the average blogger has access to it

    Could Urkobold bio-engineer a troll so powerful that even he could not mock it?

    I guess it’s not a question of would he, but rather, should he…

  7. Yes, there was a government.

    Who set up the bottle baby process?

    Who machine-gunned the Simple Lifers?

    Who conducted the Cyprus Experiment?

    I think you are the one who needs to read the book, dumbass.

  8. That was a fantastic article.

    I love HG Wells, but he sure was a bit of a tool.

  9. “Even G. K. Chesterton thought Huxley’s book sadly laughable”
    No page turner like those classic Father Brown mystery books, eh? Chesterton has the literary excellence of any partisan authoritarian Catholic that hates humanity. Huxley’s novel was really great, it was redone in way with Idiotacracy. Most of humanity watches their feelies, chooses their soma (prescription only of course) and lets Our Ford do the thinking for them.

  10. huxley was a ridiculous prude and brave new world is dripping with the worst kind of catholic guilt.

  11. huxley was a ridiculous prude…

    You mean sexually? I never associate prudes with LSD experimentation.

  12. The problem with Huxley is that if you read his utopian novel, “Island,” you find that his idea of utopia is just like his dystopian “Brave New World,” except run by people he likes.

  13. …and brave new world is dripping with the worst kind of catholic guilt.

    Also, if you think Huxley was a Catholic, I suggest you do some research before you embarrass yourself further *gunnelsscoff*

  14. Chesterton an authoritarian? Wow. And to think one thing David Friedman and Murray Rothbard agreed on was that Chesterton was actually pretty libertarian.

  15. One of my favorite Huxley quotes (paraphrased): “Advertising is the most evil of professions. Desire is the root of all suffering, and it is an advertiser’s calling to increase desire at all costs.”

    It’s a good thing advertisers don’t actually have this voodoo-like power, or else the First Amendment would be too dangerous to honor.

  16. Why is it that all serious “futurist” fiction imagines everything going to hell, the future as a nightmare? When, in fact, the future has always been better than the past? Why would that trend change now?

  17. If the criticisms of BNW have dated, how about the book itself? Do we date our calendars from the invention of the Model T? Do we use artificial wombs? Are we joylessly and mechanically happy?

    Huxley’s book largely reflects the frustrations of a cultural elite that saw itself useless in a “mass” age. Like Virginia, I like progress. As for Nicol’s review, which ends with a paean to Dostoyevsky, I’d point out that Fyodor was a hideous anti-Semite who wanted to spread Christianity by having the Russian army conquer the world. (But, yeah, the Brothers is a great, great novel. Just don’t believe everything a novelist says!)

  18. Brian,
    If advertisers can’t make some difference in how much people want a product (I’m not saying they have mind-control powers), why do people pay them?

  19. Actually, I found Mustapha Mond’s explanation/justification quite convincing. It’s certainly a better society than 99.9% of those that have existed up to this point.

    Also I can’t wait until “Centrifugal Bumblepuppy 2008” comes out for the Playstation.

  20. “If advertisers can’t make some difference in how much people want a product (I’m not saying they have mind-control powers), why do people pay them?”

    Advertisers are paid to mark territory in much the same way that a dog chooses to take a piss on a fire hydrant.

  21. BNW wasn’t about the 25th century, it was about the 1920’s.

    1984 wasn’t about 1984, it was about 1948.

    Likewise, The Diamond Age isn’t about the early 22nd century, it’s about the early 21st (and the late 20th).

    The best science fiction isn’t about the future; it’s about the present.

  22. Okapi says: “Why is it that all serious “futurist” fiction imagines everything going to hell, the future as a nightmare? When, in fact, the future has always been better than the past? Why would that trend change now?”

    Like when the Roaring Twenties improved into the Great Depression, then further improved into the Third Reich’s close call on taking over Europe? When Britain went from their deplorable act of few cameras, to cameras everywhere equipped with bullhorns so the hectoring nags behind the camera can berate you? Like when Venezuela went from a deplorable quasi-democracy to Chavez’s brave new socialist paradise?

    Maybe the average for Americans has been going up … so far. But the socialists have had some near calls at taking over, and keep trying every conceivable variation that hasn’t yet been completely discredited, and a few that have.

  23. “Are we joylessly and mechanically happy?”

    Judging from some Dan T. posts, some of us bloody well are.

  24. huxley was a ridiculous prude and brave new world is dripping with the worst kind of catholic guilt.

    That’s an interesting interpretation, especially in light of Huxley’s utopia in Island.

    There was a government in Brave New World?

    Yes, it was called the Council of World Controllers. Mustapha Mond was one of them

    Judging from some Dan T. posts, some of us bloody well are.

    Bashing someone who hasn’t posted in the current thread seems like bad form to me.

    Huxley always seemed to have some good ideas floating around in his fiction. Indeed the idea of doping your people into compliance with wealth, sex and drugs is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.

    If there is any angle of attack on Huxley, it is his style. I find his narratives shallow and his symbolism obtuse.

  25. Indeed the idea of doping your people into compliance with wealth, sex and drugs is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.

    When did this start, and where is my share? Was I supposed to take a number or something?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.