Welcome to the third installment of The Time Machine! This month, we’re going to take a deep dive into the early 20th century, or as I like to call it: the awkward teen years of the science fiction literary genre. No longer a cute baby, but not yet a fully formed adult, the period of time between the start of the 1900s and the early-1930s is often treated simply as an uncomfortable precursor to the Golden Age of science fiction that followed.
But fear not! While the decades leading up to the Golden Age may be somewhat neglected in the annals, this period, referred to by some as the “Radium Age”, ultimately produced a collection of proto-science fiction stories that had an undisputed influence on the genre. Of particular interest to us here is one of the most well-known (second only to George Orwell’s 1984, in my opinion) dystopian social science fiction novels: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
The Radium Age
During the first three decades of the 20th century, science and technology were advancing in ways not seen since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. A large branch of the global scientific community was focused on exploring the nature of the atom with the intention of harnessing nuclear fission. Additionally, during their exploration of radioactivity, Pierre and Marie Curie had discovered radium and polonium, which revolutionized the field of medicine. The West was alight with scientific optimism. But as is with all great advancements, the world seemed less prepared, or willing, to address the potential pitfalls of such rapid change. During this time, the global political landscape was fraught with conflict. Nations were struggling to recover from the First World War and the continuous Russian revolutions set the rest of the world on edge.
In tune with this political strife and the potential hazards of unfettered technological change, the science fiction literature that emerged during this time period did so as a direct criticism of this scientific optimism. American writer and editor Joshua Glenn coined this period the “Radium Age” of science fiction:
“Radium-age sci-fi tends towards the prophetic and uncanny, reflecting an era that saw the rise of nuclear physics and the revelation that the familiar — matter itself — is strange, even alien. The 1896 discovery of radioactivity, which led to the early twentieth-century insight that the atom is, at least in part, a state of energy, constantly in movement, is the perfect metaphor for an era in which life itself seemed out of control.”
Notable contributions to this time period include:
Rudyard Kipling- With the Night Mail (1905)
Olaf Stapledon- The Last and First Men (1930), Odd John (1935)
E.E. “Doc” Smith- The Skylark of Space (1928), Triplanetary (1934)
H.P. Lovecraft- The Color Out of Space (1927)
(A full list of Glenn’s 100-best Radium Age recommendations can be found on his website HILOBROW.)
For Glenn, and many others, what defines the Radium Age is not necessarily what was happening in the world, but rather how society was reacting to what was happening. The scientific and technological advancements were changing so rapidly that we were quickly losing control, and the science fiction literature that emerged during this time was trying to warn us that a loss of control was sure to lead to destruction.
It is no coincidence that the end of the Radium Age (and the emergence of the Golden Age of science fiction) coincides with the Second World War, a war in which the United States deployed two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The optimism of scientific discovery was replaced with unimaginable death and destruction. Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, squarely between WWI and WWII. As we will see, he warned of the dangers of taking scientific and technological advancements to the extreme, but he couldn’t have predicted how harshly he would see those warnings come to fruition. In the foreward to the Perennial Classics edition of Brave New World (written in 1946, just one year after the dropping of the atomic bombs), he wrote:
“All things considered it looks as though Utopia were far closer to us than anyone, only fifteen years ago, could have imagined. Then, I projected it six hundred years into the future. Today, it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us within a single century. That is, if we refrain from blowing ourselves to smithereens in the interval” (xvii).
The Brave New World
I distinctly remember not reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in my senior high Brit Lit class. That is to say, while I think it was required reading in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s high school English curriculum, I most definitely did not complete the reading as assigned.
I’d like to say that it was because I was too busy reading other, better novels, but the truth is that I was just super lazy in high school. However, many years later, I can say with the utmost confidence that at 18 years old, even if I had read it, my brain was absolutely not mature enough to understand the writings of Aldous Huxley.
For those of you who also skipped this novel, either intentionally or unintentionally, Brave New World is a prophetic satire warning of the dangers of commercial production, social conditioning, excessive uniformity, and of course, drug-induced pleasure and blissful ignorance. Huxley tells a story of a future world that has advanced science and technology to the level of mass producing human biology. That is, humans are made and conditioned in a laboratory to precise specifications, with predetermined social classes, skills, likes and dislikes, etc., all in service to the good of society.
While a significant degree of the social conditioning happens as embryos and during childhood, it also continues into adulthood. Uniformity, and thus, happiness, is maintained by the World State (the unified global government) primarily through the ingestion of soma tablets (mood-altering drugs) coupled with the feelies (intense, full-sensory movies), orgy-porgies (group rituals designed to promote sexual conformity and solidarity), and a host of other state-sanctioned and controllable activities.
(Just as an aside, why wasn’t anyone on the school board concerned with how much sex was happening in Brave New World?)
The primary plot of Brave New World revolves around the introduction of the character of John (“the Savage”), who–instead of being created in a test tube–was born via natural birth on the Reservation, an area in New Mexico insulated from the technological reach of the World State. When John is transported from the “savage” Reservation to the “civilized” society, he initially functions to highlight the absurdity of the social conditioning inherent in the World State. However, as the story progresses, it is apparent that the seemingly “uncivilized” world that he left behind was no less susceptible to social conditioning, albeit from a different set of religious beliefs than those found in the Utopia. As a rational, free-thinker, John is ultimately an outsider both on the Reservation and in the World State, and he struggles to reconcile his own values, which were influenced by the writings of William Shakespeare, with those of the worlds around him.
When we left Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the 1800s, the world of science fiction was still exploring the scientific romance of fantastical voyages and technological Utopias. While Wells was critical of those Utopias for predictably making humans complacent in their own downfall (e.g., in The Time Machine), dystopian social science fiction takes a much more sinister approach to rapid technological change. Huxley wrote Brave New World during a time of unprecedented technological and scientific advancement. While many saw these changes as opportunities to build a better world, Huxley envisioned a frightening future where those changes were left unchecked. The brave new world, at its core, is a world controlled by technological advancement. In a futuristic dystopia, technology doesn’t just aid in the destruction, it is the destruction. We will advance and advance and advance until there is nothing left to do but destroy ourselves.
While science fiction literature is undoubtedly an exploration into scientific and technological advancement, it serves a much greater purpose. In Huxley’s own words: “The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals.” For Huxley, along with all science fiction authors during the Radium Age and beyond, there is a real danger when advancement is taken to the extreme. Who and what do we become when science and technology are pursued without restraint?
Reflecting on the Brave New World
Since we’re being honest with each other about our reading habits, I must confess something else: until quite recently, I was the kind of person that never, and I mean never, read the forewards in books. They’re so boring, right? Just get to the story already! I have since seen the error of my ways, and I now revel in the chance to read an author’s critique of their own work.
Take for example Huxley’s self-reflection on the shortcomings of Brave New World (from the foreward in the 1946 Perennial Classics edition):
“Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book–and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid of not only some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else” (vii-viii).
I have honestly never related to Huxley more. Fortunately, I consider myself a relatively young writer, so I am very much looking forward to the day when I can look back on this piece (and all of my pieces for Bel Esprit) and wonder what the hell I was writing. And then I can leave it well and ill alone and think about something else.
For now, I suppose I had better leave you with something profound.
I’ve had a copy of Brave New World on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember, and evidently after my failed attempt to read it in high school, I gave it another chance a few years later. When I picked it up again earlier this year, I found the stub of a boarding pass from a flight that I took in the 2012 tucked unceremoniously into the pages as a bookmark. I was in grad school at the time, so I’m not sure why I decided to read it during my summer vacation, but I must have been serious about it since I annotated it… in pen. In true academic fashion, I underlined a boat load of passages; however, I only wrote three comments throughout the entire book.
During a scene where John the Savage is being seduced by a woman in the World State (as is normal and expected in “civilized” society), and he is resisting all forms of non-romantic, sexual attraction (as is typical in his Shakespearean stories), I wrote in the margin, quite plainly:
“Is anything not conditioned?”
In the context of Brave New World, this answer is simple: no. In Huxley’s future, humans face social conditioning whether they were born on the Reservation, created in test tubes in the World State, or grew up reading Shakespeare.
In a world so consumed by scientific and technological innovation, by mass consumerism and endless social media, by the corporatization of everything, can we ever truly escape the social conditioning Huxley warned us about? When we really break it down, how much are we ultimately just products of society and how much room, if any, is left for free, rational and individual thought?
Huxley prophesied a much bleaker future than I would like to imagine, but as we will see in the remaining installments of this series, the science fiction literary genre, in the decades following the Radium Age, was not done handing out warnings.
By JL Snyder