17 March 2012


Locus Focus: Take Sixty-Five

Who knew that the desert could be such an amazing setting? This really should have been a proper themed challenge, promoted way in advance. I'm no longer putting up linkies, but if anyone has published a Locus Focus post about a desert setting, please let me know so that I can link to it! =)

So far, we've seen what deserts might mean in a coming-of-age novel and in an adventure story. There is at least one other genre in which big barren settings are just as a big deal, though in a very different way.

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley

"I don't like it," said Lenina. "I don't like it."

She liked even less what awaited her at the entrace to the pueblo, where their guide had left them while he went inside for instructions. The dirt, to start with, the piles of rubbish, the dust, the dogs, the flies . . .

"But how can they live like this?" she broke out in a voice of indignant incredulity. (It was not possible.)

Bernard shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "Anyhow," he said, "they've been doing it for the past five or six thousand years. So I suppose they must be used to it by now . . ."

The Dystopian genre all but demands deserts. Sometimes they are the dramatic foil to the incredible technological advancement (and parallel spiritual regression) of the future civilisations; at other times, they are all that is left after those civilisations have found a way to blow themselves up. Either way, they're not what a positivist mindset expects the distant future to look like--not when they're much closer to modern ideas of the prehistoric past.

Aldous Huxley's Malpais is a Native American Savage reservation in New Mexico that was "left behind" when the rest of the World State "moved forward" into its clean new world of sterile science and soma. To some of the more adventurous and curious citizens of the World State, Malpais has all the fascination of a circus freak show, and they occasionally book guided tours to gape at the savages and their unsanitary ways. It is no surprise that Bernard Marx, who has always felt like a bit of a freak himself, thinks that Malpais is a great place to take the pretty but shallow Lenina Crowne on a date.

Now, there's no reason the desert can't be romantic. I remember a Christopher Pike novel from my misspent youth in which a young man with an interest in astronomy tries to work up the courage to ask the girl he likes to go star gazing with him in the desert, where the stars show up clearer than they do in the city. (I will be so impressed by anyone who knows the title.) But Bernard has different intentions: he mostly wants to shock Lenina.

He also succeeds in shocking us.

There's a primitive brutality to Malpais that makes the social engineering of the World State seem like the better alternative. Yes, humanity is still one big, glorious mess here--but it's also an unsanitary mess. Its society is rife with superstition, suspicion, racism, and its own share of substance abuse to block out reality. The World State may be sterile by choice, but Malpais is a horrible place to raise a child. Perhaps the cultural memory of the latter was the direct cause of the former--just like a traumatic childhood that convinces one who survives it never to be a parent himself.

This is one desert with no oasis hidden in its heart.

Image Source: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley


Jenny said...

I've yet to read Brave New World but something tells me I'm not going to understand half the symbolism. I just finished The Magicians be Lev Grossman and I think I missed the point completely. You might have to read it, if you haven't, and explain it to me. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


To be honest, I didn't understand half the symbolism in Brave New World the first time I read it! =P I needed three readings (over several years) and a bit of (accidental) research on the side to see the details of Aldous Huxley's "master plan."

I think lot of his "obvious" references from the 1920s got dated really, really fast, which puts all post-war readers in the same boat when it comes to his symbols. He also presents the more "timeless" elements with a desire to shock that is as bad as Bernard's, which makes their message harder to see as well.

But I don't think anyone comes away from this novel without a very strong reaction to its themes. I'd love to read your review, when you're done and if you're planning one. =)

I haven't read The Magicians, though, and have no plans to at the moment. =(

Kate said...

Oh my gosh! I didn't realize this was back on! Ok, I've been negligent...will hop to it. Yay!

Enbrethiliel said...


It's great to see you again, Kate! =) I'll be sticking with the desert theme this and next week, then taking a break for Holy Week. I still don't know what I'll be doing for the rest of April, though! It will have to be a mini-theme because there are only three Saturdays for it. Theme challenges will begin again in May. Any suggestions for either month?