💊 My first venture into fiction, turned out to be very non fiction-ey

My takeaways from Brave New World

Niki Birkner
7 min readAug 7, 2021

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My first venture into fiction just happened to be not too far from the reality we’re all experiencing today.

To back up, I’ve struggled to get truly invested in fiction books. This is not really “my first venture” into fiction — I’ve read other fiction books in the past. But, ever since I started binge-reading a book a week (October 2020), I’ve been completely immersed in non-fiction. One of my goals this month was to find a fiction book that I liked, and after expressing how much I loved non-fiction books, someone recommended Brave New World to me. I read the first few sentences in Wikipedia and was very intrigued… and that marked “my first venture” into fiction.

I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. But for what it’s worth this book felt closer to non-fiction than fiction to me. This 1932 novel predicted modern life almost to a T.

Welcome to the World State

A perfect society in 2540 where everyone is happy… all the time.

With advancements in reproductive technology, leaders genetically engineer humans that fall into different castes (Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons), in order of high to low status. To be clear: humans are not born, they are cloned. Their genetic makeup, as well as the classical conditioning that is performed on them as babies, dictates the kind of work they do and makes them perfectly content with their status in society… even for Epsilons, who were pretty much subjected to slavery.

How are they kept happy? Aside from conditioning, every human is continuously entertained with endless distractions, and they offer unlimited supply of a “happy” drug — Soma.

With the newest technological advances, people are kept young and healthy, but die early on (at around age 60), as old age can presumably lead to unhappiness. Some even die of a Soma overdose.

In the introductory part of his book, Huxley describes the society:

Not so far into the future, the world has become a single supranational state, ruled by a council of World Controllers. Consumerism has replaced religion, science has eliminated illness and aging; the happiness of all is ensured by genetic engineering, brainwashing, recreational sex and tranquilizing drugs.

Doesn’t this hit too close to home?!

In 2021, we live in a world where

Eugenics and genetic engineering are a reality

Eugenics, increasing the occurrence of heritable characteristics that are most desirable, started getting momentum in the early 20th-century America. It lies on the premise that “the fit” can and should procreate, while the “unfit” shouldn’t. On a similar vein, genetic engineering is “the process of using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to alter the genetic makeup of an organism.” Eugenics and genetic engineering are a reality today, and there are countless examples of this:

Social media controls us

Our world today is controlled by social media. If you haven’t watched the Social Dilemma documentary, I urge you to watch it ASAP. Here’s my favorite quote from it:

We live in a world in which a tree is worth more, financially, dead than alive, in a world in which a whale is worth more dead than alive. For so long as our economy works in that way and corporations go unregulated, they’re going to continue to destroy trees, to kill whales, to mine the earth, and to continue to pull oil out of the ground, even though we know it is destroying the planet and we know that it’s going to leave a worse world for future generations. This is short-term thinking based on this religion of profit at all costs, as if somehow, magically, each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result. This has been affecting the environment for a long time. What’s frightening, and what hopefully is the last straw that will make us wake up as a civilization to how flawed this theory has been in the first place, is to see that now we’re the tree, we’re the whale. Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we’re spending that time living our life in a rich way. And so, we’re seeing the results of that. We’re seeing corporations using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention toward the things they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.
- Justin Rosenstein

Some evidence of the impacts of social media in society today:

  • Adults in the US spend an average of 3 hours 54 minutes tapping, typing, and swiping on their devices and we pick up our phones an average of 58 times per day
  • Smartphones have given us an unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. “Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a like on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”
  • Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold likes on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. “There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst. By ‘experiments’, I’m talking about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.”

The other day at a work meeting we each answered the following ice-breaker question — If you could live in any time (past or future) what would it be, and why? A colleague’s answer really struck me:

I would like to live in a time period when technology was sufficiently advanced to adequately reap the benefits of it (e.g., connecting with people who live afar), but when humans were not so addicted to it.

I couldn’t agree more. A world without technology would be a hard one to navigate, but we’ve taken it too far.

We buy a lot and generate waste

Through “A love of nature keeps no factories busy” and “The more stitches the less riches”… you can see clearly that in Brave New World, humans are conditioned to have consumer wants which are met by mass production. Today, our society too tends to throw away stuff more often than trying to repair it, and as a result create a huge amount of waste. Clearly, incentives are misaligned —

We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate
retail analyst Victor Lebow

We want out with the old and in with the new

Our culture conflates youth with beauty, and people, especially women, are afraid of getting old or “looking their age.” Some evidence for this:

We ‘just want to be happy’

We’re obsessed with happiness. The addiction people have with “numbing the pain” and “being happy all the time” is not good… or at least, not sustainable. What you need is not happiness, but

Peace, not of mere vacant satiety and nothingness, but of balanced life, of energies at rest and in equilibrium. A rich and living peace.
- Aldous Huxley

Part of the beauty of being human is that we are gritty — we go through hard times, but come out stronger. There’s no joy without some suffering, there’s no happiness without a bit of pain, there’s no dawn without darkness… life is nothing but a balance… a tension of the opposites… a series of pulls back and forth… and like a pull of a rubber band, we ought to live somewhere in the middle.

My first venture into fiction, turned out to be very non fiction-ey, and it made me reflect on the tradeoffs between shallow happiness, and deep sustaining fact-based joy.

Begs the question: would you rather be happy or free?

I’d much rather be free.