Brave New Worlds
Futurists, when describing the world-to-come, often conjure up utopian ideas such as disease-free societies, peaceful nations, and utter wealth and happiness for every individual. These worlds, almost always, include extraordinary accounts of the amazing fruits of future science and technology. Although Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World is one such example on the surface, it is in fact, a dystopian world, masquerading as a utopian heaven ruled by science and technology. Published in 1932, Brave New World depicts a future society created and ruled by a bio-technological social system. In this “brave new world,” stability and order is achieved through genetic engineering, subconscious brainwashing, and a totalitarian regime. Under this system, members of society gain their social status before birth, enjoy life under the conditions given unto them, and retain their position happily until death. However, free thought is suppressed, independent science is forbidden, and individual activity is state controlled. In essence, technology governs, and “humanity” is destroyed. Comparatively, the film Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol in 1998 conceives a similar dystopian future. Written over 60 years later, Gattaca portrays a society dominated by genetic engineering, and more specifically, eugenics. In Niccol’s future, reproduction, law-enforcement, employment, and even dating involve genomics. Genetic discrimination permeates society as individuals are reduced to their DNA sequences. Although Huxley and Niccol’s works include fantastical descriptions that may never come true, these works are not just irrelevant musings on what the future can hold. In truth, Brave New World and Gattaca reveal humanity’s fears of science and technology stemming from the societal context in which they were written.
Through various literary devices, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World vividly reflects the scientific and technological social climate of the 1930s. When Huxley wrote his novel, mass-producing factories were at full steam, chemical research companies such as DuPont were huge, and society was growing increasingly technocratic. Additionally, eugenics was becoming popular as Hitler formed his plans for world domination with Nazism. Surrounded by this technological landscape, Huxley’s fictional novel took on an eerily realistic tone. In his world, babies are mass produced in factory-like hatcheries using methods such as the “Bokanovsky” and “Podsnap” processes. Implementing specific chemical and psychological procedures, developing babies are predetermined to live in a rigid caste. Intended to provide social stability, Brave New World’s social system classifies all humans into five groups: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. Alphas, being the smartest, are destined to be leaders. Epsilons, at the other end of the spectrum, are weak-minded and perform menial labor. Further controlling society, children are conditioned using Pavlovian methods to dislike the arts and fear nature. Hypnopaedia, or sleep teaching, brainwashes children into accepting standardized “morals” including sexual promiscuity. Even though technology dictates this “brave new world,” science is not supported beyond what is necessary for societal control. Science, in essence, leads to truth, and Huxley’s world suppresses truth in favor of social stability. Interestingly, Brave New World is not so much as a fictional glimpse of the future, as it is a satirical jab at the world in which he wrote it. Huxley’s vision of a cookie-cutter future clearly shows society’s fear that technology may one day eliminate all that makes us human.
Similar to Brave New World, Gattaca also sheds light on society’s perception of science and technology. The main impetus for Niccol’s Gattaca was the rapidly advancing biotechnology industry of the latter 20th century. When asked why he wrote a screenplay about the future of genetics, Niccol responded:
“My genes made me do it. I don’t know when I first thought of it, but you can open a newspaper today, and I’m certain that you’ll read something about a new gene, and it became inescapable for me as a story idea” (Study Guide to Gattaca).
With the recent success of the Genome project and with scientists isolating genes for particular traits and diseases everyday, Niccol’s future is not far from reality. In Niccol’s world, children are commonly genetically engineered with parents selecting only the best traits for their offspring. Upon birth, lifespan and cause of death are immediately determined for the child. Consequently, society is divided into a class system based on genetic quality. Similar to Epsilons in Brave New World, those born of natural births (affectionately known as “degenerates” or “invalids”) are genetically discriminated and toil at the bottom of the social ladder. With “discrimination down to a science,” there is little hope for the genetically inferior. Love, even, is reduced to a DNA compatibility check. In short, Gattaca presents a world where individuals are merely genetic sequences, lacking freedom and identity. Evidently, Gattaca expresses the modern day fear that genetic engineering may cause more harm than good when used improperly.
Although Brave New World and Gattaca are fictional works, they present very realistic issues that we tackle today and may face in the future. Science and technology, with advances in computerization, biotechnology, and engineering, have the power to improve the quality of our lives in countless ways. Through this “progress,” society can become more productive, healthier, and safer. However, as technology increasingly pervades every aspect of our lives, we must ask: Does society control technology, or does technology control society? Superhero Peter Parker (Spider-Man) once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” In the near future, humanity will most likely possess God-like power not unlike the scenario presented in Gattaca. With this power, humankind must truly understand the ethical, social, and political consequences of such technology before implementation. As shown by Huxley and Niccol, science and technology have the potential to cause greater harm than good on many levels. Brave New World and Gattaca both envision worlds where social stability and harmony are achieved through sacrifice of that which makes us human: art, curiosity, freedom, religion, love, and individuality. A technological society minus the “human element” is merely a purposeless, mindless, robotic association of slaves (to technology). Consequently as a society, we must be responsible and cautious when exploring the latest scientific and technological endeavors so that humanity, as we have come to know it, will continue.
Study Guide to Gattaca. 23 Aug. 2001. Trinity College Bristol. 1 Dec. 2002 <http://www.becal.net/toolkit/damaris/gattaca.html>.