Well known for his part science fiction, part futurist novel A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley shortly thereafter in 1948 produced another novella, Ape and Essence. Also done in a futurist/sci-fi manner, Ape and Essence delves into the ideas of religious philosophy and theology and does so in a short piece, presented in the form of a prose-laden screen play complete with scene descriptions and narrator asides. This may sound a strange way to produce a storyline, but he utilizes it well. The screen descriptions are rather short and don't drop layer upon layer of details, and the narrator asides that punctuate the story before it moves to scripted scene areas (fortunately done more in a prose style rather than a labeled script) are done from a near-monologue point of view that add fascinating insights to the plot.
Apparent by the writing style and presiding plot, the novella is from the 1940s. It stands the test of time however by providing an interesting insight that isn't marred by being decades old from today. Sardonically written with a flair of satire, Ape and Essence is a study in theology and sociology.
In short, the story begins a century or so ahead of the current time. World War III resulted in the attack and radiation of most areas of the world. One area left unscathed due to location was New Zealand and now in the 22nd century they launch a team of scientists and explorers to the coast of California in an effort to see how things are getting along since the bomb.
One of these scientists is captured, botanist Dr. Poole, and put to work by the current natives of the area. These people follow a strict code and religious order dedicated to Belial; or Satan. Believing that the permeation of evil has been prevalent in history for so much time and that it was this permeation that caused the downfall of humanity, this religion now seeks to stay his wrath much like the old cultures did for their believed mythological deities. By tempering the current society with strict punishment for any infraction and with ignorance of most everything except the basis of what they need to be put to use, the religious order remains dominant in all respects.
But what is interesting here is that the high executives of the religious order of their society does not rule in any way corruptly - they don't hoard for themselves, or corrupt innocents, or the like. They truly believe in the prevalence of evil in their life - and respect it with worship and strict rules. The rules serve as much the society and culture as it does their expounded deity. Even the arguments towards the Belial dominance in the world are well presented by the Arch-Vicar of the order.
The story goes on to have Dr. Poole run off with one of the young ladies he meets in the society, Loola, because of their desires for love and monogamy - something sorely stifled in the Belial-raised community to the point that women are subject to ridicule, termed "unholy vessels" and are treated as subordinate. Even having to wear red NOs on their curvy bits to stifle sexual contact excepting for their one annual orgy that occurs on Belial Day. The ceremony of this day is very bloody and carnal, opening with the destruction ("liquidation") of any infants born from the last Belial Day the previous year that have been claimed as unfit to continue life - radiation causing mutations within the children and the society only allowing a certain number of extra toes, fingers and the like. Anything over or considered lacking in physical and healthy attributes are destroyed to stifle the wrath of their god. And then everybody fucks. Interesting party, indeed.
Huxley makes a strong case against much of the buzzword's of his days that are still popular today. Buzzwords like "progress," which in the long run actually sets races back, but over a period of centuries. Strong sentiments against overpopulation are shown by Huxley as well - but to such an extreme that it would curdle most laid back readers' blood (i.e. rather than overpopulate allowing those members of the society to live when they won't be beneficial to the group "hive," you "liquidate" them). It's a study in extremes - in reality today we have one extreme - everyone gets a chance. But it gets out of hand, and if I even were to whisper some of the sentiments I have I would be branded an elitist and, quite possibly, a dangerous psychopathic maniac. But meanwhile in Ape and Essence, Huxley takes it to the utter extreme - destruction before an infant has a chance to show whether they'd be helpful. The middle ground I guess would be to wait a few years and kill the stupid. But of course, that makes me a dangerous psychopathic maniac.
I enjoyed Ape and Essence. It's subtly satirical and evilly sardonic, but it is easy to read and virtually anyone can get through it. It's quite short, being a novella and not a full novel, so it goes quickly as well. It's not super exciting - there's no action or adventure really. So anyone not at least vaguely interesting in theological or sociological plotlines is not going to find anything worthwhile in here at all. The characters are very 2 dimensional, not developed (partly due to its script style of prose and short size) and really, in the scope of what Ape and Essence is about, really don't need to be. It's a subtle look into how a culture can adopt a religion that, terribly gory to most people today, might be just right for them.
"Ape and Essence" by
Published by Bantam Books
Copyright © 1948 by Aldous Huxley