Grant Morrison's career is one big contradiction. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, the celebrated 60-year-old writer got his start in the UK's alt-comics scene before breaking into the mainstream with acclaimed books for Marvel and DC. He is now a television writer, and you can stream his most recent work on the Peacock streaming platform: Brave New World, the latest (and by far most lavish) adaptation of Aldous Huxley's prescient 1932 science fiction novel.
But how does an aging punk author adapt a sci-fi novel for a giant media conglomerate? Let alone a novel that condemns the endless spectacle that modern television has become? In an interview, Morrison tells Inverse he doesn't know the answer. All he knows is that he tries to be as radical as possible.
"I just try to express through the work of the contradictions," Morrison admits. "Johnny Rotten used to say, 'I use the NME, I use anarchy.' It's the world I live in."
Streaming now on Peacock, Brave New World takes place in a future London ruled by class hierarchy. The populace is kept sedated by abundant use of drugs and free-wheeling sex. Life is good until an outsider, John (Alden Ehrenreich) turns New London upside with new ideas like freedom, individuality, and love.
Overseen by showrunner David Wiener, Grant Morrison and creative partner Brian Taylor worked out the original pitch for NBC. Although the two were also busy working on the second season of Happy! on Syfy, both Morrison and Taylor remained as series writers. Morrison says he and Wiener agreed on a key concept that defined the show: Brave New World was a utopia, not a dystopia.
"That's what got us the pitch, Morrison says. "Brave New World isn't one of those Marxist sci-fi stories like Metropolis or Elysium where there's an exploited underclass waiting to rise up and bloody the noses of the seat to civilization. We knew we didn't want to do that story."
In a conversation with Inverse, Grant Morrison talks about what lets Huxley's book stand out from other class-conscious science fiction, his awe at the original book's, possibilities on a Season 2, and just what he fears about our imminent future in our real world.
What does the future look like to Grant Morrison?
I think it looks dicey. Our only hope is to get rid of a lot of authoritarian old men and have more collective ideas, hopefully, driven by women who haven't had to drive the boat for a long, long time. I think that certainly the next five years being an authoritarian nightmare, that's strong. The pandemic's loose. The planet is kicking back against seven and a half billion people chopping up rain forests and drilling through mountains. I'm hopeful we'll get through it, but back in the '80s and '90s I kind of thought we'd get through it quicker. Telepathy and space travel are the only things that might get us through this, and all these old fellows die and other people take over.
Take me back to the beginning of adapting Brave New World. What did you share in common, or didn't share, with Aldous Huxley and his ideas about the future?
I thought he was completely right. Guessing that one of the best ways to take over a population is to sedate it with entertainment, sex, and frivolous things. I felt that was reflective of the culture we're in, particularly in the west. People sedated by the internet, by Tinder, by whatever, avoiding what was going on in the real world around them.
But just as a vision it was kind of incredible. The notion of mass-produced humans, Huxley was reacting to the time. The Model T and things replicated endlessly. That's the McDonald's burger. The talkies were coming in. We're still in that world of the spectacle, what I call the "Oblivion Machine." The books and TV shows, no matter how good they are, they're really eating away at your mortal selves. You're not living your own life. Huxley was onto that. That's what drew me, the life that we're living and the life he predicted.
For a long time in the 20th century, it looked like 1984 was the correct prediction, the idea of the brutality of an aggressive authoritative regime. With Huxley, there was a really smart regime that would give people happiness, the ultimate commodity. If you guarantee happiness, people will be happy, even if they were up to their necks in dung. I thought his take was clever. I see a bit more 1984 in a lot of the world. If you look at Hong Kong and places where the authoritarian regimes are really kicking, that is a bit more like what Orwell said.
As a writer, how do you warn audiences of the "Oblivion Machine," as you call it, in comic books and TV shows? How do you reconcile that conflict?
I'm aware that every time somebody reads one of my comics and stories, they're losing time from their life. But I'm embedded in that world, what Guy DeBord called The Society of the Spectacle. I wind up either contributing to or being affected by it. I don't know if I reconcile.
You and David Weiner say that Brave New World is a utopia, not a dystopia. What do you mean?
I don't like stories that end with people in rags standing in the ruins of civilization, because there's nowhere to go from that. Come back in ten years and bullies are running the world. Huxley wasn't telling that story, either. It's why the Epsilon uprising doesn't really work. John, who comes from a previous iteration of civilization, thinks he can stir them up to start rising up, but the world has moved beyond that. He can't do it. It doesn't work, ultimately.
We wanted to go in thinking: if we belong to this world, what would make it positive? At the same time, how would we question it? We wanted to think [New London] is kind of good. It has a lot of problems but it's better than the world we're living in now, where people are in poverty, pain, and misery. This world solved those problems. That was the utopia we saw.
The TV show has plenty of sex scenes audiences say they don't remember in the book. So, Grant Morrison, let's talk about sex.
It's more mental than anything we put on screen. No, Huxley didn't [write sex scenes], but it was intended to show that sexuality in this world is so different from ours. There's no guilt, no shame, no division in genders and sexuality. Everyone belongs to everyone else. "One body" as we say.
Showing those sex scenes was to show what they are [in New London], they are kind of "social duty" meets "going to the gym." They don't feel sexual or arousing, they feel quite weird. We wanted to find a way that would take it away from the kind of Playboy version of sexuality towards something a bit colder, a bit stranger and makes us feel different.
Critics and readers consider you a "punk" writer. Yet you've found success in mainstream media. Do you still agree with the "punk" label? How do you maintain a punk identity in a corporate environment?
You don't. I labeled myself "punk" when I was younger because the movement seemed to tick all the boxes for me. Everything I loved fit into punk. But I'm much older now. I don't find any labels that actually correspond to my ever-shifting sense of self. So no, I wouldn't call myself a punk. I wouldn't say I'm exemplifying any punk ideals at this point in my life.
I grew up punk and those attitudes informed how I thought. I'm punk in the sense that I'm self-taught. I was a working-class kid trying to make my way in the world. That came from punk. We were able to believe as people, as working-class kids with no talent, we could do something with what we had.
Aldous Huxley didn't write sequels to his book, but are there any plans for future seasons of the TV show?
Right now it's early days with that stuff. I think there's a really good chance [of it happening]. Huxley's characters meet a grisly end [in the book]. We changed that because we want to open up more potential. So yeah, there's definitely potential for a Season 2, and it will venture into different territory but still carry on the themes. It's a much bigger world. New London is only one of the cities and the Savage Lands is the size of North America. There's a lot of places to go and a lot of stuff that from the show's bible that hadn't even been touched yet.
Brave New World is streaming now on Peacock.