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Socratica Reads - Kimberly Hatch Harrison EPISODE 7, 30th June 2021
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
00:00:00 00:08:56

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Have you been snacking on a steady unwholesome diet of Dystopian Science Fiction? Does anyone write Utopias anymore? Kimberly revisits Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and considers how this work influenced her thinking (and ultimately influences her work with Socratica).

Buy your copy of Brave New World here: https://amzn.to/2TjyH9C

My first book - How to Be a Great Student

ebook: https://amzn.to/2Lh3XSP

Paperback: https://amzn.to/3t5jeH3

Kindle Unlimited: https://amzn.to/3atr8TJ


Welcome everybody, to Socratica Reads. My name is Kimberly Hatch Harrison, and I’m the co-founder of Socratica. We make beautiful - really, incredibly gorgeous videos about math, science, computer programming, and even learning about HOW to learn. At Socratica, we like to say we’re building the education of the future. It should come as no surprise, then, when I say that our work has often been inspired by the LITERATURE of the future - science fiction. That’s what this podcast is all about. 

There are lots of book review podcasts, but this... is not that. 

This is a personal journey. I’m retracing my steps. How did Socratica come to be the way it is? To quote You’ve Got Mail - “You are what you read.”  (I think the Finnish astronomer Esko Valtaoja may have said it first.)

or...Dr. Seuss, when he said 

The more that you read, 

the more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

the more places you’ll go.

It’s a sentiment shared by a lot of people. And I do really believe that the books we read influence our thinking. There’s a reason why oppressors like to burn books. They want to control the message. But more than specific information, what we read can influence our very outlook. Are we hopeful? Are we fatalistic?

That’s why I’m focusing on Science Fiction in this podcast. Reading science fiction trains you to think simultaneously about the future - the possible future - and where we are now, and to think about the road we’re on. 

We can’t KNOW the future. So - going to college, trying a new job, starting your own business, like Socratica - these are all acts of faith and hope in much the same way science fiction is. We assess where we are, think about where we want to go - and try to point our feet in the right direction. I think the books we read about the future are enormously helpful to us, even just on a subconscious level - especially when we’re facing transitions in our lives. Every time we read another book, we add more experiences we can draw on. We’re not on our own.

Today I’m thinking about a book I read just as I was about to start high school. I went to a very high-powered prep school for 9th through 12th grades. 100% of their graduates go to excellent colleges. It was kind of like a dream world - perfect students, perfect teachers -  and when I got in, I thought okay, I’m on my way. The future is bright. It turns out, I was woefully underprepared. I had attended rather indifferent schools up 'til then, and I really didn’t have any study skills, other than being a voracious reader. 

I share the story of how I figured it all out, the hard way, in my book How To Be a Great Student - you can find a link in the description. 

The book that helped me make this leap into a new society when I was 13 was Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. And here’s why I think it was so helpful at the time, and continues to be helpful, virtually every time I start a new endeavor. It’s because this book describes a Utopia. No one starting a new job or a new school thinks to themselves they’re making a bad decision. We’re all too willing to just see the superficial nice things, so we feel good about our choices in life.

A Utopia, by definition, is an idealized place that doesn’t exist. It’s interesting to me that so many current writers go for the obviously unpleasant dystopian picture of the future. Of course as readers we’re going to reject that and feel repulsed and think that could never happen here. We’d see it coming and make different choices. Books that feature utopias work in a more subtle way. You’re seduced by all the pleasantness, all the happiness and security. Then at some point the bottom falls out, and you’re horrified by what you thought was a good idea. This is MUCH MORE like real life, and that’s why I think Utopian novels are actually more effective. 

The book begins with an epigraph in French written by the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdiaeff. I’m going to roughly translate it for you. 

Berdiaeff says, 

“Utopias appear to be more achievable than we used to think. Now, we have to ask ourselves how do we PREVENT utopias? They ARE possible. Life marches on TOWARDS utopias. Maybe a new era is beginning, one in which the intellectuals and the cultured class of people will dream up ways to avoid utopias and return to a society less PERFECT and more FREE." 

Huxley’s choice of this quote makes it very clear that this book is to be taken as a cautionary tale.

The setting of Brave New World is especially provocative to me as a biologist, because we’re not reading about how society might be changed by a warp drive and interstellar travel. Instead, almost all of the science fiction in this book comes in the form of applied biology. Basically, eugenics, with some psychology and brain washing thrown in. Using these tools, a new peaceful society has emerged in the year 632 A.F. That’s 632 years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T, so sometime in the 26th century. Say THAT 3 times fast. 

There are a lot of fun references where Ford has basically replaced God, even in mild swear words, and people make the sign of the T instead of the cross. Religion doesn’t exist anymore in this society, neither does literature or anything that might bring about strong emotion like romantic love or family. No one has parents anymore. Mother and Father are obscene words. Babies are decanted from artificial wombs - children are raised by the state. The elites are all very attractive, and they spend most of their time as consumers, dressing in fancy clothes, swapping partners and they’re drugged into a state of simple-minded bliss. There’s also a huge artificially created population of clones who do all the grunt work that keeps the trains on time. Everyone has their place in society, and because of psychological conditioning, they’re all very happy in their predetermined roles. 

Well, almost everyone. We meet Bernard, who is not quite as perfect of a physical specimen as he should be, and mentally - something has happened. His socialization didn’t quite take. He doesn’t fit in, and he’s resentful. Despite this freelove society, women reject him. Wanting to make a big impression on a girl, he takes her on a vacation to visit a reservation where a small population of Native Americans live like they did before this Great Society. It’s like a zoo for people. On this trip, Bernard discovers a young man named John, a Noble Savage who quotes Shakespeare and has a secret connection to Bernard’s world. 

Bernard brings John back with him and introduces him into society as a novelty and Bernard’s social ranking rises. But really, this device allows us to step back and see the world fresh through John’s eyes. While he was initially seduced by the vision of a beautiful young woman - here he quotes Miranda from Shakespeare’s Tempest  “Oh Brave New World that has such people in it!” - the more he learns about how this Great Society works, and what mindless drones the citizens are, the more horrified he becomes. 

This is the big takeaway for me. Just because a new place is shiny and exciting, and it’s easy to be impressed by new people living a different kind of life - there is probably a tradeoff. You don’t get a fantasy for free. How much of yourself will you have to give up to live this way?  

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