In the early 20th century, two dystopian novels really set the stage for, well, all dystopian novels to follow, really. The first was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and then came George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949. Situated on either side of the Second World War, these two books paint for us two very different but equally horrible future societies where freedom is a thing of the past and mankind is permanently locked beneath the heel of some kind of World State. If you haven’t read them, then I suggest you do so. If you like sci-fi at all, you’ve probably been talking about them for years and don’t even realize it.
What I think is the most important difference between the two, however, is the underlying rationale behind the creators of the World States described in both books. In Brave New World, the society is one of wealth and the ensurance of social stability through endless entertainment, whereas1984 is primarily a society of poverty and need modulated and kept in check by a healthy dose of terror. In Christopher Hitchens’ forward to the most recent printing of Brave New World, he points out that:
“…it does deserve to be said that [Orwell’s] own fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. … The Nineteen Eight-Four is one of scarcity rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and indeed of conditioning cannot be said to have been overlooked.” (pg xvii)
So, given that, it is perhaps not fair to entirely characterize Huxley’s world as one of pleasure and Orwell’s as one of pain, but I feel it is near enough to the truth to work with. Big Brother is very different from Mustapha Mond, and intentionally so–Huxley and Orwell were going for different things.
This difference is crucial, I feel, when we assess which of these two works is the more prophetic. For a very long time it was said that Orwell’s future was the one we needed to fear. The Soviet Union was the West’s principal example of this, as its governmental policies mirrored (in a less extreme way) the behavior of Orwell’s Big Brother. Indeed, as we have entered this era of security cameras everywhere and hyperactive worry about the prospect of terrorist attack, the term ‘Orwellian’ is often bandied about and libertarians shake their heads sagely at the horrible things the government might choose to do at any time (put us in camps, shoot us, lock us in chains, etc.).
The thing is, though, I don’t think such fears are founded. Well, perhaps partially–there are places where that kind of thing happens and, indeed, it could potentially happen here, but those kinds of governments–the one’s ruled through fear and oppression–do not represent the future of humanity. Those governments inevitably collapse; there comes a point where the people have had enough and BAM–they’re gone. Consider the Arab Spring if you don’t believe me or, if you wish to contend that it was the free internet that allowed such to be possible, consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Shah’s of Iran, the overthrow of the Russian Czars, the French Revolution, and so on and so forth. Fear and Loathing do not a stable government make.
For Huxley, stability is the main thing. Stability is achieved through contentment, not oppression. Anyone who has owned and trained a dog knows this (or ought to know it): the dog that comes when called is the one that gets a treat every time he does so; the dog that runs away is the one that gets whacked when it comes (the whack being for its disobedience, but dogs seldom make the connection). Accordingly, Huxley’s society of unrestricted sexual enterprise, plentiful recreational drug use, endless entertainment, and non-stop distraction is more likely to keep people in line and docile than any amount of riot police, guns, detention centers, or attack dogs.
Consider, then, our present day society. The Internet, for instance, is an almost endless source of amusement. Companies like Apple and Google spend umpteen billions to get tiny devices in your hands that keep you entertained at all times in all places. Drugs are readily available to all of us–over the counter and without a perscription–to keep us comfy, stable, and happy. Television markets to us a kind of sex-as-amusement concept that would have horrified even my grandparents’ generation, and it stands to continue in that vein. Are these things bad? I don’t know–I like some of them, the same as you. I do think, however, that the dangers to our future thinking and free thought aren’t the obvious ones, but rather the ones that snuggle close to you everytime you ride the train or whisper in your ears anytime you take a jog. As soon as our kids believe that all knowledge is contained in Google (and, indeed, many of my students already believe this), the quicker Huxley’s prophesy comes true.
I could keep going, but let me leave it at that. Oh, and for God’s sake, turn off that damned Ipod for a few minutes and pay attention to the world around you. You aren’t going to die if you don’t hear Beyonce talk about what you should or should not have put a ring upon for the next ten minutes.