Wednesday 30 December 2015

My Back Pages

Looking back on 2015 it was quite a varied year in terms of reading, although I would liked to have read much more, if only time would allow it. However there were plenty of highlights during the year. Late in 2014 I met one of my musical heroes in the form of Steve Kilbey from the Australian band The Church. In January I read his excellent autobiography, Something Quite Peculiar (2014) and then met him again with the rest of the band in July when they toured the west coast (they were brilliant by the way...). When literature and music meet I’m a very happy man indeed.

My book club reads this year yielded both pain and pleasure, with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) taking the crown for the best book I’ve read this year. The Secret History was compelling, absorbing, manipulative and most of all just brilliantly written. Other book club related highlights include Ian McEwan’s succinct and stylish The Children Act (2014), Richard Flannagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and Joan London’s The Golden Age (2014), which managed to both charm and move me in equal measure. Book club pain came in the form of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), which was not mediocre by any means, just long winded and intensely and neurotically self-conscious. It was also a fascinating and challenging read, so in the end I’m grateful to have read it and I will certainly remember it for a long time to come.

If The Secret History was the best book of the year (in fact one of the best I’ve ever read...), then the biggest disappointment was Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977). Perhaps Chatwin had great adventures in Patagonia, but he managed to make it totally boring on paper. Luckily there were plenty of other highlights from my own (non book club) reading to make up for the tedium of Chatwin. Miranda July weirded me out in a good way with her debut novel, The First Bad Man (2015) and Michel Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976) was simply a great piece of experimental cult fiction. Other highlights were Axiomatic (1995) by Greg Egan and Seven Eves (2015) by Neal Stephenson, both of which left me wanting to read much more of their work.

As for next year I aim to finish the thousand plus pages of Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2006). I’m reading it a bit at a time, mostly late at night, so hopefully I’ll get through it! What I really have my eye on though is my first love - science fiction. After reading Egan, Stephenson and then recently Huxley, it’s time to catch up with contemporary science fiction and some of the classics that I’ve never got around to reading. Maybe I’ll even read Philip K. Dick’s crackpot The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011) this year - now there’s some holiday reading....

Monday 28 December 2015

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (1932)

Earlier in the year I was thinking about re-reading novels that I had first read in high school; the novels that were perhaps wasted on the young and naive. Brave New World was one of those books I read in year eleven when I was more interested in slacking off than absorbing important literature. Since those days I’ve read a number of Huxley’s books: Point Counter Point (1928) and some of his droll satires such as Chrome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923). Looking back I realize that I avoided re-reading Brave New World because of its classic status; it seemed just too obvious to read when there is so much unknown literature to explore. Now that I’ve rectified this oversight I’ve found that Brave New World justifies its place with the established canon of important literature.

Brave New World is so thematically rich and layered that it could power whole university literature departments. Set sometime in the twenty sixth century, Huxley’s future society features such science fiction chestnuts as genetic engineering, a rigid genetically based caste system, lab grown humans, subliminal conditioning and of course, permissive drug use in the form of soma. Of course this future Utopian society is not all it seems and Alpha class worker Bernard Marx is suffering from various inadequacies due to possible flaws in his development and conditioning. Thanks to his job at ‘Hatcheries and Conditioning’ he is able to travel and stay at a so called savage reservation, where he meets the son of a woman who was thought lost in the wilderness by Bernard’s manager during a past visit. John, the savage, and his mother, who has now slipped into an otherwise avoidable middle age, travels back with Bernard to the brave new world of modern humanity only to find, for all involved, disappointment and tragedy.

A colleague at work, the coordinator of the museum attached to the library, spied me reading Brave New World and informed me that she had recently read both Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). She then asked me to read both and tell her who got it right in terms of predicting the modern world. I am intending to read 1984 again, but probably not for a while. Coincidentally however, whilst looking at the Wikipedia’s Brave New World entry, I discovered a section discussing the differences and similarities between the two novels. In 2015 it is easy to see elements of 1984 throughout many societies, but Huxley’s visions are perhaps less obvious, but they are there. Orwell postulated a society in which books were mostly banned, Huxley thought they could become irrelevant (here Huxley is perhaps more on the money); Orwell foresaw deprivation of information and propaganda, Huxley postulated that we would lose the truth within a media of superficiality; Orwell foresaw control and captivity, whilst Huxley foresaw the irony of freedom without meaning. Thinking about it I came to the conclusion that both Orwell and Huxley were ‘right’ about the future, as far as any writer of futurist narratives can expected to be. One cannot consider the prevalence of CCTV throughout most cities and the online surveillance undertaken by authorities without thinking of Orwell. In turn one cannot help but think of Brave New World when considering the prevalence of escapist drug culture and most pertinently the alarming decline of serious journalism coupled with humanity’s addiction to mostly mindless entertainment.

With Brave New World Huxley originally aimed to write something that was a parody of H.G.Wells, but instead the work developed into a serious rumination on both Huxley’s own time and what the future could hold. No novel that is set in the future should be overly criticized for not getting it right, as it is all just speculation; however Brave New World contains themes that have strong contemporary relevance. One of the inspirations behind Brave New World was a book written by Henry Ford called My Life and Work that Huxley happened upon during one of his visits to the USA. Ford’s thoughts about capitalism and mechanization partly inspired Huxley’s future society in which humans are merely another product that economic rationalization could be applied to. As capitalism influences democracy and society in more intrusive ways how close are we to humans becoming something that can be owned by a corporation? Could a company grow humans and therefore own them? Could companies claim ownership over parts of human bodies? Far fetched perhaps? The recent supreme court battles over the ownership of a particular gene associated with breast cancer could well be merely the beginning of a brave new world that could be very chilling indeed.