Long ago at school, a school in the totally unfashionable town of Basingstoke, Hampshire, we used to be given various classics of English literature to read. I liked the stories even if I didn’t understand the deeper meanings and significance of the texts. Anyway, the books provided a welcome relief from the rigours of solving mathematical equations or learning Latin. (I was useless at Latin.)
One book that I read in those early years was Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Originally published in 1932 it was a strange book and I had only the vague-est idea of what it was really about. The story was set in the future; it articulated a vision, a conceivable vision, of the future, a future that would unfold in England. London and other places such as the city of Guildford, were named in the text. Guildford wasn’t that far from our family home so I could visualise something of what Huxley had in mind. Huxley’s image of what lay over the horizon (even from the opening page) was bleak and, in the main, highly unattractive. It was a world in which applied science governed human beings. However in the early 1960s – the decade in which I read the book – the central tone of the text seemed to chime with an idea that was abroad at the time; even untutored people like me knew something of this view: it was thought that the life sciences of biology, physiology and psychology would be so developed and their techniques so effective that they could and would be applied so as to bring about the truly ‘revolutionary revolution’, the most revolutionary revolution of all: they would yield super-technologies that could change and alter the very souls and flesh of every human being (or, at least, of every human being living in conditions of political and economic security).
Huxley thought that ‘we’ were heading for an invidious choice between living lives that were insane because we had been programmed to ‘love servility’ or lives that were semi-lunatic because of the primitive and fanciful nature of religious belief systems.
By chance I re-read Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ just the other day. But this time I began with the foreword that he had added to the novel in 1946 – just after the horror of Hiroshima. Huxley’s foreword is brilliant partly because he offers a partial critique of his original novel (he should, he reckoned, have allowed for the possibility in Brave New World of an arena in which people tried to pursue sanity!) and partly because he thought that his dysfunctional Utopia was nearer now in time than ever he had thought possible.
This all got me thinking: Are we more or less so invaded by science and technology that it has started that truly revolutionary revolution in which our souls and flesh are programmed and determined by – well, by what? By the ‘soft power’ of the prevailing culture(s)? Or has science and technology simply speeded things up to the extent that most of us just rush around trying to do more and more. Yet if we are doing more and more why do we want to do more and more? For pleasure – and more pleasure? Plainly the technologies of communication are working wonders on the human psyche …
I began to wonder just how far applied medicine, cosmetic surgery and mood-altering drugs had progressed in the quest to perfect the ‘ideal’ human – and just how far ‘science’ had succeeded in civilising the beast out of man.
But then something strange happened:
I was sitting in a deck chair engaging with the final chapter of Brave New World and, to my astonishment I discovered that the conclusion to the story was set in Surrey. In fact, the towns and villages adjacent to where I now I live were all mentioned. So was the landscape. And a hill that Huxley describes is where I go to get a sense of perspective. But then I was even more astonished to discover that Aldous Huxley had, in 1932, imagined the helicopters that buzzed and droned over Bordon in Hampshire and Farnham in Surrey.
Good heavens! Farnham!
Farnham! That’s where I live. And that’s where I was sitting in my deck chair. (Back in the 1960s I must have been so relieved to get to the end of the book that I never quite registered the fact that the action described in the closing pages took place in the Surrey hills.)
Just then a huge and very annoying Chinook helicopter flew overhead and cast a great shadow over me. It was on some sort of training run. I suppose it’ll be drones next. I couldn’t help laughing. I hadn’t realised that someone somewhere must be realising, perhaps unconsciously, Huxley’s vision.