97 & 98: Brave New World and The House of Silk

There is, of course, no reason why the new totalitarianism should resemble the old.

Huxley wrote those words in his 1946 Foreword to Brave New World. The book was originally published in 1932, the year before Hitler rose to power but after the rise of Italian Fascism and Soviet totalitarianism. The foreword is not, therefore, just some old figure penning a few lines about how this is a young man’s book, and he hopes you will forgive a young man’s faults. It actually discusses the book, how he now feels about it, what he might do differently if he were to write it now. If you can get your hands on a copy, I thoroughly recommend doing so.

Everybody’s happy now.

The scariest thing is that, pace the odd exception, it’s true. Everybody is happy with risk-free sex and soma and the genetic and social conditioning that together constitute the endgame of the Romans’ crude but effective bread and circuses. The lower castes, dosed heavily with alcohol as foetuses, are rendered too stupid to be at risk of desiring anything else; they are as close to automata as it is possible for them to be, and provided with the only things they are capable of wanting. The higher castes, the Alphas of the world, are more complicated. Their minds are needed free of this indiscriminate numbing fog. They “are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behaviour. But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform. It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination.” But even they are indoctrinated as children. Even they are given soma. Even they find the order of things good, and drive away the doubts that they are capable of feeling with the animal pleasures that are provided so freely.

Happiness is a hard master – particularly other people’s happiness.

There are only two choices for Alphas who peer past the veil, who pursue art or science for their own sakes or – like Bernard – see the inner workings of the indoctrination process and find the behaviour even of their fellow Alphas all too mechanical and predictable. Two choices for anyone who dares to try, or can’t help, being an individual. They are sent to a remote Sub-Centre like Iceland, banished from civilisation; or they believe, truly and actively. They sacrifice the pursuit of truth or beauty in full knowledge of what they are giving up, to serve the programme.

O brave new world, that has such people in it.

So says the Savage in his Shakespeare-fuelled reaction to the civilised world. Such people! Happy people, perhaps; people whose needs are met and whose wants are satisfied. Useful people, so far as they go, each convinced that their own role is of paramount importance and everyone else is merely an important but not central ancillary. Free people, if it is freedom to act exactly as you please when what you would please was decided long before you were born. Fulfilled people, if it is fulfilment not to expand your achievements to fill your ambitions but to limit your ambitions. Such people! And such a world!

There is no reason why the new totalitarianism should replicate the inefficiencies of the old, or be instituted for the good of its leaders. Every intention in Brave New World is good – the elimination of war, of suffering, of existential malaise, and the promotion of happiness and stability. Those intentions, though, are accompanied by an attitude either of chilling indifference or of reluctant sacrifice to every other good – to knowledge and beauty. The road to Utopia is paved with good intentions.

I don’t know what the attitude is among Sherlock Holmes aficionados to Anthony Horowitz’s authorised novel The House of Silk. As a Great Detective dilettante, I hugely enjoyed it. It is sobering, confusing, and an excellent mystery as well as a homage to the characters we know and love. It avoids what is, in my opinion, the greatest besetting sin of any attempt to write a “definitive”, “final” or “quintessential” story for a given character or cultural icon. To say what that is would be to give something away, and I am particularly concerned not to reveal things about mysteries. If you like Sherlock Holmes (and here I stick my neck out), I think you will like this. Tonally, I suppose, be warned that it is far from being one of those innocent puzzle stories where no actual crime has been committed, and that’s as far as I’ll go.

Brave New World
Author Aldous Huxley
Published 1932
Pages 229
Best character Mustapha Mond.

The House of Silk
Author Anthony Horowitz
Published 2011
Pages 294
Best character Dr Watson, if that’s not cheating.


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