BBC Radio 4, Saturday 28 May 2016
Written by Aldhous Huxley
Dramatised by Jonathan Holloway
Last month, President Obama addressed Hiroshima survivors with the message that 'the scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well'.
And yet, what if the 'moral revolution' should itself be manipulated to serve the interests of Big Pharma – of unscrupulous commercial interests and messianic leaders more interested in establishing control over the population? What if we lived in a world where debate was criminalised, promiscuity actively encouraged and behaviour regulated by a diet of hallucinogenics and performance-enhancing pills? As a 21st-century human you'll be familiar with all of these ideas: intransigent management systems demanding compliance in the workplace, capital punishment for dissent, cheating at sport and everyday addictions to food, nicotine, alcohol and drugs. And that's before we even consider the potential minefield that is biotechnology.
Aldous Huxley, writing 'Brave New World' in 1931, was no stranger to experimentation with drugs. In 'The Doors of Perception', written in 1954, he describes his quest for self-transcendence through mescaline. The mind-altering potential of narcotics to enhance perception and offer a 'better' version of reality no doubt influenced Huxley's vision of a world where mass sedation is the new normal.
As part of its 'Dangerous Vision' series on dystopian fiction, Radio 4 offered us an adapted dramatisation of Huxley's novel, written by Jonathan Holloway and set a mere 100 years into the future. 'Thank you,' begins a sardonic Helmholtz Swatson, 'for laying the foundations of the reality I have to live with everyday,' as he invites us to 'imagine' a world 'irretrievably corrupted' – where an 'immoral, aggressive gangster' has been elected leader of America, where a handful of wealthy people own almost everything, and numbskull consumerism has led to the breakneck consumption of sugar, drugs and no-strings sex. 'Sex,' he observes acidically, 'is the only proven commercial proposition.'
Secret dissident, teacher and Alpha male, Helmholtz provides an acerbic but reassuringly cosy narrative, interspersing references to 'The London Hatchery', with a barely disguised contempt for the 'neurotoxin of choice – Soma', which is used by the entire population to induce a Prozac-like docility. This is a world in which reproduction is now entirely the business of scientists and has been firmly removed from the traditional context of relationships, family and even motherhood – an outdated and disgusting concept to the promiscuous and highly medicalised transhumans in Huxley's dystopian future.
While the sensationalist expression 'test-tube baby', so common in the 80s, now sounds hopelessly quaint to our ears, Huxley's 1931 novel describes embryos in 'flasks', conjuring up a jolly picnic complete with tartan-patterned thermos à la 1930s. 'Ovarin' and 'placentin', a little agricultural sounding now, are quite plausibly the sort of drugs one would have injected in the course of an IVF attempt. Of course, the temptation to select and classify human embryos has become irresistible; embryos are not only classified in terms of physical characteristics, they are actively conditioned. Exposed to blasts of freezing nitrogen gas in the flask, they will go on to exhibit an aversion to cold weather, making them 'ideal for working in the Caribbean'. This world now classifies its humans as Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons, and there is no attempt even to justify rampant racism – something, Helmholtz tells us, 'you nearly succeeded in eradicating' in the 21st century.
The dialogue in the play has more than a tinge of 1930s RP, adding to the sense of disconnection for the audience while doffing its cap to the vintage provenance of the original novel. Helmholtz's real anger is reserved for the dullness of everyday life as prescribed by the benevolent 'Controllers' (this is no violently repressive regime – crowd control is administered via vaporised Soma). Eugenics is now 'a respectable trade', where embryos are manipulated and conditioned for a variety of precise roles. Women have been entirely 'relieved' of the burden of pregnancy and motherhood – the mere mention of being 'born' is greeted with disgust and censure. The past is frequently referenced in terms of contempt for the destruction reaped upon the planet, yet the new Utopia proves to be curiously unsatisfactory to the dissenting Helmholtz and his friend Marx, who yearn not for the blandly uneventful life prescribed by the Controllers, but for a reconnection to imperfect human emotions and meaningful personal relationships.
It is left to 'Savage John', brought back from a reservation in New Mexico with his sick mother Linda, to point out, in the manner of the little boy in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' that they have 'diminished the qualities that made us human', finding this placid Utopia 'infantile'. It is his moral certainty (and propensity for reciting Shakespeare) that challenges some of the complacent, mass-sedated New Worlders to question what has been imposed upon them by the Controllers.
The relentlessly unsettling messages in the play are leavened with humour. Who knew, for instance, that in the future all decision-makers would be Alpha-cloned members of 'Eton Upper School'? Shocking indeed. Even closer to home, however, is the disclosure by the Head Controller that poetry, literature and art are the preserve of this educational elite and unavailable to the population at large. At a time when education and life chances are, more than ever, linked to socioeconomic circumstances, and with schools being forced to dispense with expressive arts as a result of financial constraints, we ignore this message at our peril.
As a radio adaptation, 'Brave New World' works as a modern satire while remaining faithful to Aldous Huxley's novel. True, the ending of the original novel was more reminiscent of the later dystopian novella 'Lord of the Flies', but Jonathan Holloway's reworking has responded to the protagonists' disillusionment in a more poignant way, questioning the way human perception is so easily distorted by media and government and the de-humanising effects of a total absence of inner vision and critical thought. The message? Read poetry. Just read.