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HUXLEY'S DYSTOPIA: What would you rather be – happy or free?

SCIENCE FICTION: The TV series based on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World contains – by including digital surveillance – also an essential element from George Orwell's dystopian vision of the future.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Together with George Orwell 1984 mentioned Aldous Huxleys Brave New World from 1932 (Wonderful new world in Norwegian) often as the most important dystopian future novels of the last century – not to mention the times. With its depiction of a totalitarian and thoroughly monitored fascist state where "Big Brother sees you", Orwell's book in particular has become a well-known scare image of an authoritarian and unfree society that few would want.

Still, it is perhaps not so surprising that it is Huxley's novel that has now been adapted into a TV series. His vision of the future of a society where the population is controlled through the feeling of happiness instead of fear, is perceived as just as relevant to the time we live in.

Brave New World fits into the tradition of TV series Westworld og The Handmaid's Tale as lavish science-fiction series with dystopian and at the same time contemporary content. This new nine-episode series is produced for NBC's streaming channel Peacock, but is available on HBO Nordic here at home.

Difference between novel and series

We are taken to New London in the 2500th century, a society where the slogan "Everyone happy now" almost appears as an order. Privacy, family and monogamy should not occur, because everyone belongs to everyone else. Births take place in laboratories, and sexual distraction often takes place in the form of organized orgies. Humans are divided into castes or classes named after the Greek alphabet, where the alpha performs the most advanced tasks, and beta is the next class, while gamma, delta, and epsilon are a kind of servants. Through genetic modification and "conditioning", however, everyone is programmed to be satisfied with their class affiliation. And should the slightest discomfort occur, it is cured immediately with the help of a soma pill.

However, there is an alternative world with more in common with how we live today. This continent is called Savageland and is an attractive destination for New Londoners, who can take a safari here to see how the "wild" people live. When beta beta Lenina Crowne and alpha Bernard Marx embark on such a journey, a series of dramatic events lead the savage John to join them back in New London. Here he becomes an exotic curiosity for the population, and eventually a germ of rebellion and change.

All this is more or less in line with the series' literary premise, although the plot is not surprisingly significantly re-imagined and adapted to a more conventional dramaturgy. The novel was admittedly written two decades before the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule, so Huxley does not directly depict genetic engineering – and he emphasizes to a greater extent "neo-Pavlovian" condition according to the principles of behaviorist psychology. Nevertheless preceded Brave New World the enormous and no less disturbing possibilities that exist in today's genetic technology, and this aspect only makes the TV series adaptation more relevant today.

A seemingly moneyless society where the happiness of the population is based on both material goods and a continuous supply of pleasurable experiences.

However, an essential element of the book is largely left out in the serial version. Huxley's description of this society emphasizes the function of human beings as economic consumers, where, for example, the joy of nature experiences has been abolished in the lower classes, since this did not result in the consumption of goods. One of the novel's most obvious satirical aspects is the car and assembly line production founder Henry Ford's god-like status, where the worship of him has replaced the traditional religions: Crosses have been replaced with T's (after the car model T-Ford), and people use terms such as "Mr. Ford" and "Ford Shell Law." The action even takes place in the year 632 after Ford, which corresponds to 2540 after Christ.

With the mentioned character names Lenina and Marx (which by the way correspond to the novel), the series can consequently be perceived as a more specific warning against a communist social system – while Huxley seems to direct as much protection against market-oriented ideology. It is to be expected that the creators of the series have had to opt out of parts of the novel, and especially the satirical tribute by Henry Ford could easily have been plump in a modern adaptation. It is not as easy to understand that one has downplayed the more general criticism of a society built on ever-increasing consumption, which is obviously very relevant to our time. But this aspect is still not completely absent in the new TV series, with its depiction of a seemingly moneyless society where the happiness of the population is based on both material goods and a continuous offer of pleasurable experiences.

Surveillance or entertainment?

In addition, the creators of the series have made an important addition, which not only suits the novel's universe well, but which also makes the story even more relevant. In this edition of New London, everyone is connected to the same network, even with the expectation that you are always logged in. The Indra network gives the population access to each other's experiences through their "feed" and is connected to an artificial intelligence that knows and controls everything. The parallels to our need to be logged in as well as the many possibilities for digital surveillance are obvious – but the series also provides a thought-provoking description of how a society without private spheres can fade away. This can be frightening and dystopian, but you do not have to look long for technology experts who claim that our privacy is already dead and buried – for example, you can watch the documentary iHuman (2019) on artificial intelligence.

I'm hardly alone in thinking that the world is gradually beginning to have significant similarities with both Orwell's and Huxley's dystopias. The former's surveillance society has by far become a reality, while Orwell's totalitarian regime probably appears less recognizable to many of us. Then it is easier to see the current affairs in society Brave New Worlds description that the people are doped down by entertainment and consumer mentality – and of course that there are pills against almost any concern, drugs that in a more literal sense are "opium for the people". The question asked in the TV series is whether one would rather be happy or free, since the two states are not necessarily compatible.

Too smooth and streamlined?

Brave New World has received relatively lukewarm reviews, where it has been objected that the series is too smooth and streamlined. I do not necessarily completely disagree – not least I think the script focuses more than a lot on love and the characters' budding longing for monogamy. But this universe undeniably wears a smooth and streamlined expression, and the negative reviews may be due in part to the fact that they are only based on the first three episodes – which is what reviewers often get available from TV channels or streaming services ahead of series premieres. It is unfortunate that this has become a widespread practice, as it is a bit pointedly worded as reviewing a cinema film based on its first 30 minutes.

This series picks up considerably as one gradually gets to know the wonderful new world. We do this in part through John from Savageland's arrival, with his gaze from the outside. But just as interesting is to follow Lenina Crown's inability and unwillingness to adapt to society after experiencing a different reality. Brave New World depicts a form of conformity that does not arise through fear of reprisals, since deviant behavior is basically unthinkable – and even "reconditioning" is for one's own as well as the "social organism's" best. Therefore, people hardly know how to react when Lenina breaks the conventions, as in a borderline tennis match with a friend – beyond of course taking soma.

The series picks up considerably as one gradually gets to know the wonderful new world.

 

The TV series is a lot more action-driven than the book, but in both there is much of the fascination in the actual depiction of the environment. Here, the characters are meant to be one-dimensional. Their unwanted impulses to feel on more and more emotional sides of themselves allow for strong acting performances – especially from Harry Lloyd and Jessica Brown Findley in the roles of Marx and Crowne, respectively. Throughout the episodes, one can possibly criticize the creators of the series for being a little too close to the HBO series Westworld, but at the same time, these elements add a disturbing sense of ubiquitous artificial intelligence, which is this world's "big brother sees you".

In my opinion, the recent series is a good update of Huxley's novel, which by including thorough monitoring in a way embraces the best – in the sense most relevant – of two possible dystopias. Maybe not entirely wonderful, but so definitely worth seeing – and reflecting on.

All nine episodes of Brave New World (Season 1)
are now available on HBO Nordic.

 

Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.
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