Aldus Huxley's famous dystopian novel, Brave New World, was written over 75 years ago, yet is because it's some of it's predictions about future society are seen to be amazingly prophetic. This is certainly one of the reason's the novel is considered a modern classic, since as Huxley writes in his 1958 introduction to the novel "a book about the future can interest us only if it looks as if it's prophecies can conceivably come true (7)." Of particular aptness in today's times are his descriptions of feats of biological engineering, his characters' aversion to aging and ugliness, and the constant use of drugs to provide happiness in the novel's vision of the world. These particular vision's of the future are all extremely relatable to today's society in the modern United States.
A great many essays on cloning, bioethics, genetic engineering, and related topics make casual references to this novel. Partially, this is because Huxley's description of the "Bonkonovsky's Process" at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning center are so evocative. He writes:
One egg, one embryo, one adult-normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress (15).
The idea of having an embryo made outside the womb is not uncommon in this era, where many people use medical intervention to help them conceive children. This description is evocative enough to make modern day readers think of cloning, a technology that while not developed on the scale that Huxley imagines, has been one of the major advances of the last 15 years. As Malcom Gillis writes, "Huxley's world has yet to encroach much on ours, but at the very least, it stands as an unsettling reminder that today's biotechnology involves ethical thickets and moral issues that society has only just begun to plumb, much less resolve (67)." Still, the jaunty tone that Huxley describes as the people are being formed sounds plausibly casual: "Buzz, buzz! The hive was humming, busily, joyfully. Blithe was the singing of the young girls over their test-tubes, the Predestinators whistled as they worked, and in the Decanting Room what glorious jokes were cracked above the empty bottles! (116)."
Along with the fears of bioengineering are the fears of genetic engineering leading to people choosing preferred characteristics over other characteristics, in other words, eugenics. Genetic engineering is how the society in the novel organizes its caste system, and the characters in the novel are greatly aware of the visible differences between each caste. This phenomenon is very apparent when the author describes Bernard Marx's insecurity with his own physical characteristics, particularly his height. Even though Bernard is a member of the highest caste, some probable defect made him much shorter than the usual Alpha Plus citizen. Because of this physical characteristic, Huxley writes, "Contact with members of he lower castes always reminded him painfully of this physical inadequacy (58)." This perception of being physically deficient in relation to one's peers is quite present today -- recently there has been controversy over parents giving their children growth hormones in order to ensure that they are not too short, and thus at a societal disadvantage (Hall). After all, who would want their children to be sneered at in the way that Huxley has Fanny sneer at Bernard? "And then so small.' Fanny made a grimace; smallness was so horribly and typically low-caste (44)." Breeding people for certain characteristics has ominous overtones, however, and as this novel makes clear, we as a society may not be that far off from this idea.
Huxley's novel is also quite precedent in its description of fear and aversion to ugliness and the physical effects of aging. This is first apparent with Huxley's initial description of the Director; he writes, "Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say. And anyhow the question didn't arise; in this ear of stability (14)." The first time Lenina sees a visably aged person, on the Reservation, she is completely dumbfounded, then sickened. "What's the matter with him,' whispered Lenina, her eyes were wide with horror and amazement (89)." This reaction seems ridiculously naive, but it's less so if one imagines a typical suburban white American who was raised in an upscale environment encountering a person with rotting teeth. While it is still considered rude to react out loud in the way Lenina does, many privileged people do feel a sense of revulsion when they see such a sight, and often cannot bear to look a person with a severe physical deformity. In the 1930's, when the novel is written, rotting teeth were probably not an uncommon sight. Thinking of the issue in this fashion, Lenina's reaction does not seem so bizarre after all. "And where Huxley imagines a people fixated on preserving their own youthful images, we have laser hair removal, plastic surgery… and Botox injections to remove wrinkles," Terry O'Neil writes (38).
The focus on the prevention of aging is particularly significant. In the novel the characters undergo a series of procedures to prevent the aging process, which Bernard explains to Lenina in this way:
"That's because we don't allow them to be like that. We preserve them from diseases. We keep their internal secretions artificially balanced at a youthful equilibrium & #8230;. So, of course, they don't look like that. Partly," he added, "because most of them die long before they reach this old creature's age. Youth almost unimpaired till sixty, and then, crack! The end (89)."
This state is not terribly far from the condition that Leon Kass, writing about bioethics, describes our situation today, "With respect to the pursuit of "ageless bodies," we can replace worn out parts, we can improve upon normal and healthy parts, and, more radically, we can try to retard or stop the entire process of biological senescence." Many people use various products or undergo medical procedures, including injections of Botox and plastic surgery, in order to prevent the ugliness of aging, and very slowly it is becoming less common to see people who are severely affected by visible signs of aging. As cosmetic enhancements become cheaper, one wonders if a naturally aged person will be viewed like Linda is viewed by other characters in the novel. Even when she is dying she is gawked at by people in the hospital: "They had never seen a face like hers before -- that was not youthful and tautskinned, a body that ceased to be slim and upright (155)." Perhaps eventually the time will come when we will look on people who have aged naturally in the same way.
The last prediction that one should find perceptive is the constant use of drugs to mediate mood and constantly placate people. In the world of the novel it is only one drug, and that drug is called soma. Bioethicist Leon Kass feels that the medical climate of today is similar, for example he writes: "There are simple euphoriants, like Ecstasy, the forerunner of Huxley's "soma," now widely used on college campuses; and, finally, there are powerful yet seemingly safe anti-depressant and mood brighteners like Prozac, capable in some people of utterly changing their outlook on life from that of Eeyore to that of Mary Poppins (12)." While in the novel soma is viewed by most characters as a great invention, "All of the effects of Christianity; alcohol and none of the defects...Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology (51)." The plot revels, however, that soma is a way of escaping that numbs people…