What to Read Next (No. 235): This Brave New World
Featuring Emily St. John Mandel's "Sea of Tranquility" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"
Happy Friday, readers!
You likely know the title of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic: Brave New World. What you may not know — I didn’t until this week — is the meaning behind the title. I wanted to know where it came from, so I did a little bit of Googling.
In the early 1600s, William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, a play about a sorcerer named Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who live on a remote island. At one point in the story, a group of impressive men land on the island. Miranda has never seen men like this before and she exclaims:
“How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!”
Her spirit is full of idealism about this new experience. She finally has her pick of strapping, worthy men to choose from!
But her father, Prospero, is familiar with the greedy, sometimes sordid nature of humans and responds simply, “Tis new to thee.”
“Brave new world,” as a phrase, signifies the ignorant optimism of new things — while something darker lurks underneath the surface.
Nuclear technology? Brave new world.
Social media? Brave new world.
Gene editing? Brave new world.
The books featured today, including Huxley’s dystopian classic, remind us that shiny new things and experiences shouldn’t necessarily be readily and uncritically adopted unless we’re able to look further down the road at the long-term consequences.
Let’s jump in.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
“Turns out reality is more important than we thought.”
I tried reading Mandel’s well-known Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic, but it hit a little close to reality and I didn’t finish it. But after hearing a lot about Sea of Tranquility, I wanted to give Mandel another try.
I’m glad I did, because this book is among my favorite reads of the year so far.
Transversing time and space, Mandel takes readers on a 500-year ride spanning from the early 1900s to the early 2400s, and then back again — giving the story one of the most unique structures I’ve come across.
Each chapter centers on a different character who’s experienced something strange — a sort of disruption in the usual laws of physics. Mandel weaves a few threads in varying directions and it’s not until the book’s final third or so where we start to find out how they connect.
I know I haven’t given you many specifics, but I knew even less than that going into it. This is a great one to read without knowing too much — or anything at all, really.
Sea of Tranquility is a fascinating mix of genres, including historical fiction, science fiction, philosophical discussion, and even an eye-opening meta-commentary on the success of Mandel’s pandemic novel.
It reminded me of Cloud Cuckoo Land (read my glowing review of that one), but in a tighter package. It’s a book that doesn’t hesitate to ask the big existential questions that I love to encounter in literature, while still giving readers a well-paced and often surprising narrative.
The ultimate lesson of Sea of Tranquility: No matter what’s going on in (or out of) the world, life is what’s found right in front of us, even if it can’t be easily explained.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
“I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”
I never had to read this classic dystopian novel in school, but I have heard a lot about it in the last few years, especially as compared to another dystopian classic: 1984.
George Orwell’s famous book tends to get a little more attention, but Neil Postman, whose work and ideas I quite respect, argues that Brave New World provides the more accurate analogy to modern life.
I finally got around to reading it this month with my pal Jonny and it made for one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time — even if it wasn’t always likable.
The start of Brave New World is all about world-building. Huxley forms a society in which humans are created and raised in a controlled, laboratory environment. Adults are assigned a position in society at birth and from there, life is basically about two things: efficient work and pleasurable distractions in the form of cheap entertainment (sports, immersive shows, etc.), mind-numbing drugs, and emotionless sex.
It isn’t until well into the story that we’re introduced the real star of the book — John the Savage — and get into the meat of the plot. John was raised away from utopian society (which is why he’s a “savage”) but gets brought there to see if he could be civilized. The project doesn’t quite go as planned.
The world that Huxley created is chillingly devoid of meaning. There’s no feeling. There’s no humanity. There’s no individuality. There’s no thinking beyond yourself — just what feels good here and now.
Brave New World is one of those stories where the message matters far more than the plot, which went in a few directions that I didn't like one bit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it was unexpected. Based on the story alone, I might have given it 3 stars.
But the message and philosophy contained within are so powerful as to render the critiques nearly moot. As one of the main characters says near the end of the book, in one of the great lines in any book I’ve read:
“I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
In a society where people choose a numbed version of decadence and a life free of inconvenience or hardship of any kind, choosing instead to feel things takes immense courage.
Brave New World is absolutely worth reading (or re-reading); its hundred-year-old insights into 21st century life are eerie, accurate, and immensely thought-provoking.
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I deeply appreciate it.
You've sold me on Emily's new book!
What a great pairing. I need to finally dip into that Sea of Tranquility, partly to feed an obsession with #histfic time-travel stories. If the link works, here's a BBC conversation with Emily St. John Mandel about time travel: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0018fs8