The novel opens in the distant future at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. This institution plays an essential role in the artificial reproduction and social conditioning of the world's population.
As the chapter begins, the Director of the Centre (the D.H.C.) conducts a group of new students, as well as the reader, on a tour of the facility and its operations — a biological version of the assembly line, with test-tube births as the product. They begin at the Fertilizing Room, move on to the Bottling Room, the Social Predestination Room, and the Decanting Room. Along the way, the D.H.C. explains the basic operation of the plant — Bokanovsky's Process — in which one fertilized egg produces from 8 to 96 "buds" that will grow into identical human beings.
The conditioning that goes along with this process aims to make the people accept and even like their "inescapable social destiny." That destiny occurs within a Caste System (or social hierarchy) ranging from the handsome and intelligent Alpha Pluses down to the working drone Epsilons.
The chapter also introduces two workers at the Centre: Henry Foster, who will figure as a minor character in the story; and "pneumatic" Lenina Crowne, a major character who will affect the destiny of the novel's protagonist.
In the reader's first glimpse of the dystopia, Huxley drives home the significance of his futuristic world with the motto "Community. Identity. Stability." All the technology, planning, and conditioning of this World State exist solely to support and maintain these ends.
The Fordian world does not seem so menacing and sinister as Orwell's 1984, but the reader can see even in the first chapter that the cheeriness masks a dark reality. Personal identity — perhaps even humanity itself — is strangled by the demands of community and stability.
On the tour, the D.H.C. briskly explains the technology of fertilization — the most intimate human activity — as the carefully calculated, sterile procedure to produce identical people. In a brilliant adaptation of Ford's assembly line, the Central London Hatchery turns out (nearly) interchangeable human beings, who, like the D.H.C. and Henry Foster, can complement one another effortlessly, even to the point of completing each other's sentences.
Stability requires both the elimination of differences (except with regard to caste) and the end of dissatisfaction. The eugenics lab answers the identity challenge; conditioning manages satisfaction. The D.H.C. announces piously that virtue and goodness spring from the work of the social predestinators, whose job is "making people like their inescapable social destiny." With this statement, Huxley introduces a major theme — the role of choice and even pain in becoming a full human being. The D.H.C.'s dogma will meet a challenge with John, the "uncivilized" character (introduced in Chapter 7).
Huxley employs several narrative techniques to introduce his dystopia in the first chapter. The tour for new students affords a realistic opportunity for Huxley to explain the theories and practices of stability while immersing the reader in the physical world of the dystopia. A brief reference to the Hatchery itself — a "squat" building of "only thirty-four stories" — also gives a sense of the surrounding landscape, a city, by implication, of lofty heights. And, to further orient the reader, Huxley fixes a date — a.f. 632 — the number as well as the "a.f." emphasizing the difference between the reader's world and the futuristic world of the novel.
Note especially Huxley's comparison of technology with nature and his point of making technology more alive than nature itself. In the first chapter, Huxley describes the sunlight as cold and dead, except when it hits the tubes of the microscopes, which turn it a buttery, sun-like yellow. In this world, artificiality itself is a kind of power, competing with and augmenting the forces of nature.
Note, too, the inclusion of early twentieth-century prejudices in the dystopia; for example, in the racially charged (and unscientific) comparisons of human ovaries and in the all-male student group. Such details remind the reader that any futuristic fiction reveals as much about a writer's response to the present as hopes or fears for the future.
Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon the names of the castes of the dystopia. They are the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, used most commonly in British schools and universities as grades, equivalent to A, B, C, D, and F.
Bokanovsky's Process Huxley's phrase. A method for producing many identical eggs from a single egg. It is the basis for producing identical human beings.
Podsnap's Technique Huxley's phrase. A method for speeding up the ripening of mature eggs. The process makes possible the production of many identical human beings at roughly the same time.
decanting pouring from one container into another. Here, Huxley's term for birth.
freemartin an imperfectly developed female calf, usually sterile. Here, Huxley's term for a sterile woman. Most of the women of the dystopia are freemartins.
surrogate a substitute.
lupus any of various diseases with skin lesions.
demijohn a large bottle of glass or earthenware, with a narrow neck and a wicker casing.
A.F. Huxley's term, following all the dates in the modern era ("After Ford").
Henry Ford (1863-1947) U.S. automobile manufacturer credited with developing interchangeable parts and the assembly-line process. Here, the god-like figure of the dystopia.
lift British word for elevator.
corpus luteum a mass of yellow tissue formed in the ovary by a ruptured graafian follicle that has discharged its ovum; if the ovum is fertilized, this tissue secretes the hormone progesterone, needed to maintain pregnancy.
thyroxin the active hormone of the thyroid gland.