Brave New World took me longer to re-read than I’d expected, given its length, and on reflection, the similarities between it and Atlas Shrugged are more tenuous than I’d remembered. I think this is in part because, as Huxley himself notes in the preface to my edition (a Bantam paperback), he spends no time whatsoever in the islands to which the recalcitrant Alphas get sent. These islands would appear to be somewhat analogous to Galt’s retreat, with the significant difference being that people are sent there involuntarily for failing to fit in.
A quick summary
Brave New World takes place some six centuries in the future. A World Government has taken over the planet, with the goal of eliminating misery and maximizing satisfaction and productivity. Huxley’s primary theme of satirizing hypermachination at the cost of human identity is front-and-center, with Henry Ford being a God-like figure; dates are given in years “After Ford,” and “Ford” replaces “Lord” in various sayings. Sexual reproduction is done exclusively through factories; actual sex is hedonistic, unattached, and socially mandatory. Soma, a wonder drug with no side effects, is handed out daily, freely. The factories program people into five major castes, each with minor castes, based on the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, and children are raised to believe their caste is best.
Bernard Marx is an Alpha Plus who is unhappy with his society, but he doesn’t know why. He takes a woman, a Beta named Lenina Crowne, on a holiday to a Savage Reservation (places which the World Government didn’t feel would be feasible to enculturate), where they meet Linda, another Beta who had gotten lost on a similar vacation, and John, her son (and also the son of Bernard Marx’s boss and nemesis). The four return to civilization; Bernard is motivated by a wish to humiliate his boss, who is on the verge of sending him to Iceland for his inability to fit in.
Linda can’t take the strain of being returned to her paradise after years in hell, and the shame that goes with being made into a public spectacle, so she winds up on a constant diet of soma until she dies in the hospital. John at first marvels at the new world, but following the death of his mother and the lack of anyone expressing sympathy with his pain, he becomes violent and disrupts a soma distribution. Mustapha Mond, the regional World Controller, blames Bernard Marx and another Alpha Plus, and sends them to one of the islands where Alphas who can’t fit in are sent. John, meanwhile, moves to a lighthouse as a hermitage to get away from the public eye.
Eventually, people figure out where John is living and make him into a spectacle again. He has a violent confrontation with Lenina, whom he loves and who loves him, but in ways appropriate to their contexts (and hence, differently from each other). He beats her savagely, then, in remorse, kills himself.
Overall, Huxley’s future strikes me as far more pessimistic, but also more realistic. Atlas Shrugged is, as dystopian novels go, very optimistic: The good guys win in the end (the bad guys win in Brave New World), and it’s relatively easy to tell the good guys from the bad (Mustapha Mond, in Brave New World, is not clearly evil; he’s living within a pre-existing system, and he feels he’s doing the right thing [unlike Jim Taggert, who comes to the realization, too late, that he’s wrong-minded]).
On the other hand, when Huxley’s Bernard Marx acts against his principles (briefly becoming a jet-setter in the wake of his fame in bringing John from the reservation), he later comes to his senses. He does have pettiness against his boss, but he also appears to have complex feelings about it (indeed, it’s his complex feelings in general that cause him problems in the simplified civilized world). In contrast, when Rand’s characters act against their principles (most notably, when the anti-lie John Galt tells Dagny to lie about their relationship, and when the anti-force Scooby Gang use force to free him), such violations pass without comment or with coy demurrals about contradictions not existing.
A point of similarity in the two books is that each author comments on the ability of Alphas to do Epsilon work (to use Huxley’s classifications). Huxley, through Mond, insists they cannot: There was a brief settlement where Alphas alone were established to do everything, and the manual labor simply didn’t get done properly. Rand, through Galt, insists they can and will. I am more inclined to side with Huxley on the issue.
In the real world, the John Galts of the world struggle in menial positions for a time because they arrogantly (and often accurately) believe that it’s a means to an end, that their hard work will eventually be rewarded through not having to do it anymore. If there’s no promise for such a day (and even within the Galt Gulch commune, despite the implications to the contrary, there is already the seeds for such labor stratification), the enthusiasm to do hard work simply won’t exist in most cases.
There are, naturally, parts of Brave New World that are patently absurd and unfeasible. It is an allegory, and clearly presented as such, and as such many inanities are inevitable. It’s unclear why the government is so obsessed with reproduction, merely for the sake of reproduction. It’s clear why the government is so obsessed with making sure everyone is happy and productive, but a point Huxley returns to again and again is how much emphasis is put on quantity of children. Likewise, the government is obsessed with everyone having as much sex as possible, to the point that children are coerced into sex games, and monogamous adult relationships are extremely suspect if they last more than a week or so.
Huxley also makes a point of saying that each caste wears a different color, that Gammas wear green, that Betas wear green some other color, and that Lenina wears green. But Lenina is identified as being a Beta. However, there’s the implication that Pluses and Minuses wear different colors. At any rate, though, Huxley seems to have gone halfway with the color issue, and created an apparent contradiction.
However, I think Huxley had a more astute understanding of the complexities of human existence than did Rand, overall.