First published in 1932, Brave New World, a forensic study of a sterile dystopia, is author Aldous Huxley’s most celebrated novel. Anticipating many of the most controversial future uses of reproductive technology, eugenics and gene manipulation, Huxley’s novel imagined a future in which natural birth, marriage and social mobility had been replaced by artificial breeding programmes and a culture of loveless promiscuity.
In this new world, strict social stratification is maintained through the psychological conditioning of embryos brought to term in laboratory ‘hatcheries’: Alphas control society, while Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons labour in fixed menial roles. A collective ‘common sense’ orthodoxy of ideas is enforced on a population who believe their society embodies the natural order of things. In George Orwell’s 1984, many of its crushed citizens secretly believe the rule of Big Brother is wrong; but Brave New World presents a totalitarian system whose subjects accept as a social utopia.
Bernard Mark is an Alpha psychologist who finds himself increasingly out-of-synch with the expectations of the World State. His attitudes excite and unsettle hatchery worker Lelina, while he finds encouragement for his nonconformity from lecturer Helmholtz Watson. On a holiday trip to a ‘savage’ reservation, Lelina and Bernard discover a woman who was made pregnant (a repulsive idea in Alpha society) by Bernard’s boss. When he returns with her son John, the Director (played by Anton Lesser) is forced to resign in shame (Lesser has previously voiced a ten-part reading of Brave New World for BBC Radio 4 Extra).
As he articulates his unorthodox ideas about love, relationships, education and literature, John’s presence immediately becomes destabilising: questioning every foundation on which this new world rests. Alpha society tries to contain John as an interesting ‘oddity’, but he rebels against this role and becomes an increasingly threatening and uncontrollable figure. After his mother dies at a euthanasia facility, John’s reaction triggers a riot and the state’s Controller steps in: with life-changing consequences for Bernard, Helmholtz, Lelina and John.
Huxley’s novel is far stronger when presenting ideas and exploring contradictions than it is when choreographing action, and its characters often engage in lengthy exchanges on matters of philosophy and of social organisation. This new full-cast, two-episode adaptation of Huxley’s work (part of BBC Radio 4’s Dangerous Visions series) does well to foreground the thriller elements of the story, without losing sight of the author’s motivating concerns.
What this treatment of Huxley’s work captures very well is the emotionally empty nature of this world. Life is soporific and devoid of excitement or risk. Privileged citizens make regular use of ‘soma’ as a recreational relaxant, but this all pervasive drug is really nothing more than a tranquilizer and a sedative, which dulls critical faculties. Under the mantra that ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’, Alphas have numerous sexual partners, but nothing by way of emotional connection. As new learning and fresh ideas are shunned, society stagnates and norms self-perpetuate. This sense of a technologically advanced but crippled society is very well evoked in the performances and sound design of both episodes.
Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation translates Huxley’s text into an audio production of just under two hours with considerable care and judgement. A few liberties are taken (including resetting the novel 100 years into our own future; and downplaying some of the more distressing elements of the story’s finale), but this remains a faithful presentation of Huxley’s chilling vision. As with Orwell’s 1984, Huxley concludes his deeply cautionary tale with the triumph of tyranny and the abject failure of those fighting for liberty. More than eight decades on from the first publication of Huxley’s novel, there is little in our own modern world that is ‘new’ in that outcome.
BRAVE NEW WORLD / AUTHOR: ALDOUS HUXLEY / ADAPTED: JONATHAN HOLLOWAY / PRODUCER & DIRECTOR: DAVID HUNTER / STARRING: JUSTIN SALINGER, JONATHAN COY, PIPPA BENNETT-WARNER, MILTON LOPES, ANTON LESSER,, KARINA FERNANDEZ, NICOLA FERGUSON / PUBLISHER: BBC RADIO 4 RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW (EPISODE ONE - ON BBC RADIO iPLAYER & AS A PODCAST DOWNLOAD), MAY 29TH (EPISODE TWO)