I try not to think about theme when I am writing. Falling in that pit is the quickest way to lose a story. In a literature class you were told that theme is what the author is trying to convey, a central idea or meaning to the story. In rare exceptions, that might be true. In truth, authors have no idea what themes will manifest when they start a work. A few will pretend they had a grand design to start, but I never believed it.
I view my writing as an argument I am having with myself. I am not writing to satisfy a theme, but to find one. When I am satisfied with the argument, I know I have finished, and I start editing and re-writing to strengthen the salient points.
The coronavirus pandemic makes writing without a theme difficult. Every word you write screams “you have missed the point. What about…” And that list is long, but familiar. The use of technology to control society, consumerism, the dangers of big government, individualism, and daily challenges our worldview are in every headline.
Theme in the Real World
If you run a business in the service or entertainment industry, the facts on how coronavirus spreads are nightmarish. You must ignore them. And you must convince your guests to ignore them if you are going to remain open.
If your income depends on someone spending money on your disposable, but unnecessary, item the pending economic collapse is more than you can bear.
If the idea of a government tracing your movements is antithetical to your political ideals, then tracking you so we trace an outbreak is a violation.
Regardless of where you fall on any of these themes, Happiness and Truth have never been more at odds in your lifetime. These are all themes explored in the great science fiction of the past. 1984? No wrong century. Animal Farm? No, way too political. Brave New World. Hell yea! My guidepost for a coherent, tightly written work that carefully weaves its themes into the lives of its characters is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And no single chapter in the history of science fiction does it better than chapter three.
Chapter three of Brave New World is an example of world building at its finest. The last time I read the book my fascination with this chapter prevented me from reading the rest of the novel. Chapter three introduces us to his fordship, Mustapha Mond, who relates the arc of history to a group of students. Interspersed with Mond’s exposition are the activities of some children in the park, Bernard Marx, Henry Foster, and Lenina Crowne. Mond’s broad strokes about the morality of community, identity, and stability play out as routine activities for our characters. Each character is confronted with situations that develop as themes in the story. The flow between Mond’s exposition and the character interaction is seamless. One paragraph is his fordship retelling the fourth world war, the next is Henry Foster bragging about Lenina Crowne’s sexual appetite. “She is very pneumatic,” Henry says after Mond has promised the students an emotionally easy life. Lenina informs Fanny she is spending another night with Bernard. Fanny is shocked. The students write in their notebooks, and Mond continues with a history on the short-sightedness of his ancestors.
“I once had to wait nearly four weeks before a girl I wanted would let me have her.”
“And you felt a strong emotion in consequence?”
“Horrible; precisely,” said the Controller. “Our ancestors were so stupid and short-sighted that when the first reformers came along and offered to deliver them from those horrible emotions, they woudn’t have anything to do with them.”
“Talking about her as though she were a bit of meat.” Bernard ground his teeth. “Have her here, have her there.” Like mutton. Degrading her to so much mutton. She said she’d think it over, she said she’d give me an answer this week. Oh, Ford, Ford, Ford.” He would have liked to go up to them and hit them in the face-hard, again and again.
“Yes, I really do advise you to try her,” Henry Foster was saying.
“Take Ectogenesis. Pfitzner and Kawaguchi had got the whole technique worked out. But would the Governments look at it? No. There was something called Christianity. Women were forced to go on being viviparous.”
“He’s so ugly!” said Fanny.Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
As you can see, it is not a chapter you take in casually while drifting off to sleep, or quietly pondering the day’s events. No, this work requires some concentration if you are to keep the pace. This is a tightly written novel that expertly weaves broad themes into the lives of its characters.
To this point in the novel, we had not met the key characters of the story. In chapter one and two we followed the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning touring a student group through the human embryo production process. Modeled after Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, embryo production is a pivotal aspect of the story.
In this brave new world, the Hindu caste system is perfected before birth. Embryos are denied or given vitamins at key markers in their production cycle. Need more Epsilon sanitation workers? Deny a thousand or so embryos some element at a certain meter along the assembly line, and in two or three years you will have all the sanitation workers society requires. Need more Alpha’s to consume production. Add a vitamin here, some extra care there, and you will have thousands of consumers.
“For in nature it takes thirty years for two hundred eggs to reach maturity. But our business is to stabilize the population at this moment, here and now. Dribbling out twins over a quarter of a century-what would be the use of that?”
Obviously, no use at all. But Podsnap’s Technique had immensely accelerated the process of ripening. They could make sure of at least a hundred and fifty mature eggs within two years. Fertilize and bokanovskify-in other words, multiply by seventy-two-and you get an average of nearly eleven thousand brothers and sisters in a hundred and fifty batches of identical twins, all within two years of the same age.
“And in exceptional cases we can make one ovary yield us over fifteen thousand adult individuals.”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Henry Ford’s Model T moving assembly line started rolling on October 7, 1913. It produced a new car every ninety-three minutes, faster than the paint could dry on the vehicles. Published in 1932, twenty years into the manufacturing revolution and three years into the great depression, Brave New Word was a satirical stab at H.G. Wells’s utopian novels of the time. As a negative utopia his satire manages to capture a fast-paced future where commercial cheeriness and sexual promiscuity consume personal identity. To prevent anyone from causing trouble sleep conditioning, Hypnopaedia, is applied to each caste so they don’t question their purpose or resent another’s position.
“Alpha children wear grey They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfuly glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able.”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Theme of Consumerism
Throw away the embryonic production process and concentrate on the lives of our characters and you are hard pressed to find a distinction between AF 632 (2540 CE) and today. Consumerism is the foundation for stability. For consumerism to survive you need some things to be true. You need production, you need consumption, and you need disposal goods and consumers.
“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches; the more stitches.”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Soma is the final ingredient. For the Alpha’s, who can think and create, soma is “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” Oxycontin without the side-effect (not really) soma allows our Alphas to endure their limited place in society. At the top of the caste system, they are all miserable in their own way. Before the end of the novel, even his fordship confesses a desire for a more savage life.
“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The story turns on its central themes after Lenina and Bernard take a holiday on the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. On the Savage Reservation people are natural-born. Sex for reproduction is a profanity in his fordship’s world. On the reservation Lenina and Bernard meet John and Linda who do not have last names. In the World State of two-billion people there are precisely ten-thousand last names given to individuals without family ties, but on the Savage Reservation, where people are natural-born, family names are absent. One point for what is to come.
Lenina and Bernard learn that John is the son of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. When Linda requests she return with them to London, they cannot refuse.
“Well, here,” the other went on, “nobody’s supposed to belong to more than one person. And if you have people in the ordinary way, the others think you’re wicked and anti-social. They hate and despise you. Once a lot of women came and made a scene because their men came to see me. Well, why not? And then they rushed at me. No, it was too awful. I can’t tell you about it.” Linda covered her face with her hands and shuddered. “They’re so hateful, the women here. Mad, mad and cruel. …”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Lenina and Bernard’s experiences at the Savage Reservation is one side of the theme coin, the other side is when they return to London, at Linda’s death. Death is nothing in the brave new world. Part of a child’s conditioning is to become unconditioned to death. When John learns that his mother is dying, he rushes to her side where such a conditioning is happening. The group of identical twins’s inability to feel or recognize the importance of the moment is too much for him and he strikes one before berating a nurse. The nurse ushers the children out of the room and orders a dose of soma for them. After Linda passes, John decides to free this brave new world of its soma induced haze and destroys the doses before the khaki dressed twins can consume them. Bernard and Henry attempt to stop John, but not before the incident incites a riot that requires police intervention.
Taken to his fordship for judgment and punishment—no trials in a stable society—the great Mustapha Mond relates, in no uncertain terms, the themes of this novel. Chapter Sixteen if you would rather skip ahead. In the process, Mond reveals his private desires, and how he has subsumed them to serve stability. Everyone belongs to everyone else, and stability is paramount for society. Of course, there are islands and reservations where the rules of this civilization do not apply. Without them, there would be no place to send the reprobate. How awful it must be in those places.
Certain the punishment will fit the crime, Mond executes his sentence, and here Huxley’s genius is at play again. One of our characters accepts his fate, even requests the most dank and dreary place to serve his sentence. Another begs for forgiveness, and, after throwing the others under the bus, Mond gives a reprieve. John begs to return to the Savage Reservation, but Mond denies him because the worst possible place for him is here, in this brave new world. As an ascetic, a prophet, a tragedy.
“O brave new world,” he repeated. “O brave new world that has such people in it. Let’s start at once.”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley