Neil's News

Brave New World

10 May 2007

The shuttle to and from work is an excellent place to read. I'm chewing my way through the books that most people read in high school. Lisgar concentrated on Shakespeare, so I've got some catching up to do.

Even though it is eighty years old, Brave New World is still a surprisingly viable story. Examining where it missed reality is interesting.

One trivial issue is aircraft propulsion. Huxley tried to look beyond propeller driven craft and saw rocketry as the next big thing. A logical guess in the 1930s. However within ten years the jet engine appeared and rocket-powered planes never went anywhere. Obviously there was no way for Huxley to have known about jet engines. In retrospect he should simply have mentioned the six-hour trans-Atlantic flight time, but omitted the details of the technology.

A more serious issue is that Huxley populated his novel with an entire class of mentally retarded people (Epsilons) who were given menial tasks that nobody else wanted. Two examples given were elevator operator and vacuum cleaner operator. Modern elevators are computer controlled, as are an increasing number of vacuum cleaners. A microprocessor is cheaper and more reliable than a human, artificially retarded or otherwise. As computers get smarter (or in human terms, less retarded), Huxley's proposed class system will slowly be eaten away from the bottom up.

Huxley consistently got his predictions right, but the details wrong. The moral is that when writing about the future, talk about what can be done, but try to avoid the specifics of how it is done. If one is convinced that one knows the specifics then be an inventor not an author.

Here's a quote which probably sounded futuristic when it was written, but now sounds charmingly retro:

"I beg your pardon," said the reporter, with genuine compunction. "I had no intention …" He touched his hat—the aluminum stove-pipe hat in which he carried his wireless receiver and transmitter. "Excuse my not taking it off," he said. "It's a bit heavy." [...] And rapidly, with a series of ritual gestures, he uncoiled two wires connected to the portable battery buckled round his waist; plugged them simultaneously into the sides of his aluminum hat; touched a spring on the crown—and antennæ shot up into the air; touched another spring on the peak of the brim—and, like a jack-in-the-box, out jumped a microphone and hung there, quivering, six inches in front of his nose; pulled down a pair of receivers over his ears; pressed a switch on the left side of the hat—and from within came a faint waspy buzzing; turned a knob on the right—and the buzzing was interrupted by a stethoscopic wheeze and cackle, by hiccoughs and sudden squeaks. "Hullo," he said to the microphone, "hullo, hullo …" A bell suddenly rang inside his hat.

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