Funny thing about science fiction: it seldom stays fiction for long. This is similarly true of the dystopian genre. It is difficult to study writers like Orwell and Huxley without seeing ourselves reflected in the literary mirrors they hold up to us. Did I say difficult? I meant impossible. As Dalrymple writes in his essay “The Dystopian Imagination”, both 1984 and Brave New World “retain their power to alarm because they are prophetic, almost in a biblical sense: they issue permanent calls to resist trends that, irrespective of the political regime we happen to find ourselves under, will impoverish human life.”
Cold as Orwell’s vision undoubtedly is, for me, Huxley’s remains the more chilling of the two: perhaps because I believe there’s truth in the old adage that politics is downstream from culture. Neil Postman (that ever-piquant observer of pop culture) says it best in the forward to his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
The idea of pleasure being inflicted is a graphic one. It evokes something damaging, something potentially ruinous, and pleasure isn’t often considered in these terms. It’s worth remembering, in our efforts to avoid being undone by external oppression, how much easier it is to be undone from the inside out. The Entertainer can be far more tyrannous than the Tyrant. Feelies will castrate a society as effectively as any state-run torture chamber.
One facet of Huxley’s ultra-sexualized, trivia-oriented culture – one hitting painfully close to home – is the complete evaporation of the family as an institution. Great pains are taken to ensure that nobody loves anybody too much. The ties between siblings, parents, lovers: all are broken. Promiscuity is not only encouraged, but required. Mother is a smutty word, while father is not obscene but “merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety.”
Further, when it becomes known that one of the characters has had a son, he is greeted with outrage and scorn from his colleagues – not because the sex was extramarital, but because it resulted in a child. We already have a “mild” case of this insanity. Sleeping around is considered the norm; being devoted to one bed and raising a family is not.
On a final, if rather cynical note: it is unsettling to think that we have men and women in places of power and influence who seem determined to think of books like 1984, Brave New World, and even The Hunger Games as blueprints rather than warnings.