July 26, 2012 3:12 pm
In the world of seminal science fiction, there are a few standout books: 1984, Jurassic Park, Dark Side of the Moon, and others. Certainly that list would include Brave New World, and its author, Aldous Huxley, would have been 118 years old today.
Aside from writing Brave New World, he was a children’s author, LSD connoisseur, French teacher and Swami supporter. In Brave New World, he imagined a world in which in which reproductive technology, drugs that sound suspiciously like a cross between antidepressants and xanax, and brain-washing transform society in sinister ways.
Like the best science fiction writers, Huxley’s work was strangely prophetic. In this video, posted today by Brain Pickings, journalist Mike Wallace read a passage from Brave New World about political campaigns. Huxley wrote:
All that is needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look sincere; political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate, the way he is projected by the advertising experts, are the things that really matter.
But Huxley didn’t only write science fiction. He also wrote a children’s book, The Crows of Pearblossom, about Mr. and Mrs. Crow and their adversary, the Rattlesnake, who keeps eating their eggs. It’s a strange, weirdly morbid story, as you might expect. Brain Pickings summarizes it:
After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”
The illustrations are creepy and awesome.
Like most science fiction writers, Huxley has all sorts of other quirks. There are loads of stories about his eyesight, namely that he was basically blind after an illness as a teenager. He once spoke at a Hollywood banquet, where it appeared that he was reading a speech from the lectern. But, Bennet Cerf recounts, he wasn’t reading it at all.
“Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonising moment.”
And, of course, Huxley was into psychedelic drugs. On his deathbed, he wrote a note to his wife Laura that read “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” She gave it to him, and he died the same day, just a few hours after the assassination of JFK.
Last fun fact about Huxely: he taught George Orwell French at Eton College. And while some might debate who was the greater science fiction writer, Huxley seemed to admire 1984 greatly. He wrote Orwell in 1949, saying:
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience
More from Smithsonian.com
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.