I certainly had Huxley’s novel in mind when I was writing the Moscow chapter of Anyone’s Game. As I wrote in my first blog on these pages, in September 2012, novelists tend to have other novels in mind when they write, which can seem pretentious, but is more a way of situating what you’re trying to do in the great library of work that other people, great writers among them, have pulled off. I’m a British writer, writing in English, imagining Russia in the ten years or so after the Revolution. Huxley’s Brave New World was a response to that upheaval too, set in an imaginary English dystopia. But it looks all the more English, driven by a fear of half-digested ideas, when you consider what that post-Bolshevik world was really like. Huxley’s fears included a compulsory ‘materialist’ outlook which degraded personal human relations into mechanical exchanges, a devilish totalitarian system which regulated those exchanges, and, by limiting contact with art and knowledge, reduced adults to simple-minded blobs. From Helmholtz Watson to Polly Trotsky. Lenina Crowne, Bernard Marx and Mustapha Mond, the names Huxley gave his characters scattered a dusting of intellectual commentary over his fiction: these were the thinkers, in real life, who threatened to deprive the England of Huxley’s ken of its humanity. Huxley was above all of science taking over the organization of society. By 1932, the year of Brave New World, sociology was a booming new discipline more interested in functioning systems than ancient traditions.
The fact is that these new ideas had taken hold in Russia, only not as Huxley imagined they would wherever. My heroine Sophie Asmus encounters views of literature, and views of how human personality can be reshaped by techniques perfected in the laboratory, that were typical for the time. Anyone’s who’s ever looked at what Lenin’s one-time associate Vladimir Bogdanov got up to, performing experiments that would ultimately kill him, must get an idea of the madness of the age, with science revered as a new mysticism and dabbled with like a new alchemy. Detachment from the authority of tradition allowed brilliant new theories of language to emerge: poetry, painting and architecture were dazzling. The post-revolutionary atmosphere was a typically Russian mixture of brilliance and unhingedness; something too alive and serious to caricature. One of my inspirations for Sophie Asmus was the new women refashioned by the Ukrainian sculptor who left that word on fire for America, Alexander Archipenko.
What Brave New World does make me fear is something different: it’s a hyper-conformist anywhere, kept in bounds by state-controlled media. It’s a world of saturated politically controlled discourse that no one can get out of because the powers that be control all the means of expression and have shaped all the minds. The only way you can get a handle on this society of total dumbed-down satisfaction is to travel outside of the domain where technology reigns, back into the forgotten countryside, or ask for a transfer to a remote island. Even then John Savage has no peace when right-minded day-trippers come to gawp and taunt him in his refuge in an abandoned ligththouse. He hangs himself. He has no right to be an outsider. Now that really is something to fear.