In 2018, the London-based media company Intelligence Squared hosted a debate entitled “Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty-Four,” introducing these novels as books that, “speak to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality.” So urgently do they speak to us, that the organisers decided to be topical and settle a burning century-old question once and for all: “Which one does that more than the other one?” Who would be adequate to such a profound task? Thankfully, the Trump-obsessed Adam Gopnik and the insufferable Will Self were on hand. Gopnik argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four, while Self asserted that Brave New World, speaks to us in our own time with greater urgency and topicality.
Self answered Gopnik’s obsession with Trump with an obsession of his own: his audience’s attachment to their cell phones. And thus were two of the most prescient authors of the twentieth century, Orwell and Huxley, reduced to chasing Trump, cell phones, and amphetamines amid a slew of gratuitous audience insults and apocalyptic prognostications concerning Trump. Doubtless, there will have been audience members hoping for some insight from these two novels considered together, some kind of synthesis. Instead, we were treated to a slanging match of each debater trying to show how many predictions the other’s novel got wrong. At least as an allegory, the event reflected the fragmented identity politics freak show our society had been reduced to. No-one cared to mention Islam, the obvious candidate for Nineteen Eighty-Four. It took an audience question on China, right near the end, to quite literally shock Self out of his indulgence. China, yes! But it was too late to turn the juggernaut; in any case, Self had clearly never even thought about it.
China is the obvious candidate for Brave New World, with monosodium glutamate in the role of the ubiquitous Soma, the numbing drug of the brave new Third World. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first isolated as a taste substance in Japan early in the 20th century. When the ‘People’s Republic’ and its famines came along, MSG turned out to be the magic ingredient to transform the disaffected into the apathetic, through giving the only food available to the people, vile and void of nutrition, the illusion of taste and goodness that would make them proud. It worked.
Ajinomoto swept through Japan's island colony of Taiwan, but initially failed to make the jump to the Chinese market, which had very similar cuisine to Taiwan. The reason? Ajinomoto was a symbol of Japanese imperialism, profoundly offensive to the Chinese. Yet it was an excellent fit with Chinese cooking, especially as a savory vegetarian alternative to meat. So the Chinese knocked it off, selling their own copies with Chinese names and Chinese packaging; and very soon, these copies were outselling the original. —Brian Dunning, MSG: How a Friendly Flavor Became Your Enemy.
To be clear, monosodium glutamate is freely available as a flavouring and food additive in many countries. What MSG does to the body has been the focus of many studies, the most obvious and immediate side-effects being intense thirst and heart palpitations. In most cases of its use, it is added to food to enhance an already palatable, if not wildly exciting flavour, or to out-taste a rival product on the market. In China, though, in the 1950s, when there was no flavour to enhance, and instead only a revolting taste to conceal, it was pressed into service to create flavour. What you taste is only MSG, nothing else. The trick is to add "just the right amount" of MSG to avoid the nasty side effects. I offer my personal experience with MSG.