The Dystopian Duo: Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
I love dystopian fiction. I’m not entirely certain what got me started on this kick, but I’ve been crazy about it lately. My guess is that it was 1984, which I read about a year ago and will review alongside my most recent classic read, Brave New World. Whatever the cause, I love dystopias–reading about them, writing about them, and considering the horrific possibility that we’re currently living in one. (Actually, that last part isn’t much fun.)
Still, one thing I particularly love about dystopian literature is reading the classics. The other day, I was listening to a program on NPR that discussed the sudden upward trend for dystopian fiction in the YA genre, and this blog post on Goodreads more or less illustrates the same thing. I’ll admit right now that I, too, loved The Hunger Games, but I put it in a different camp from the original wave of dystopian fiction for one main reason: The Hunger Games is reminiscent of (read: extremely similar to) ideas like Battle Royale, in which the government asserts power by means of pitting its youth against one another in fights to the death. In pieces like 1984 and Brave New World, the method of asserting power has potential to actually be on the horizon, at least from the perspective of an early 21st century reader. That’s not to say that the ideas within The HungerGames or Battle Royale are impossible, or even implausible, but maybe that they’re a little far ahead of their time. After all, these two original dystopian novels were written over fifty years ago, so at the time, they might also have seemed a little overly dramatic or premature, too.
I don’t plan on usually posting about two books together, since I think each book deserves its own individual analysis and commentary, but when I read Brave New World, I couldn’t help but compare it to 1984, even though they are really very disparate. That, combined with the fact that I still have a lot of previously-read novels to discuss, means that a two-book post seems appropriate for this one.
The plot – Brave New World
Brave New World takes place in England in AD 2540, a time in which reproductive technology has developed the ability to breed perfect human beings. However, “perfect” is a subjective word, in this case; in the hatcheries where babies are bred, not born, each fetus is placed under specific conditions to decelerate its growth in order to place it into one of five levels: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon. The Alphas’ conditions are not altered in any significant way, which allows them to naturally reach their full capacity for health, growth, and development within their decanting bottles. Any babies placed into the lower four castes are subjected to oxygen deprivation and chemical treatments in order to slow their growth to different levels, depending on their assigned caste. Babies within the three lowest castes are usually multiples, with the goal being to produce as many laborers as possible. From birth, a person is assigned to and bred for a specific role in life.
After the children are born, they grow in an environment where they are taught, through “neo-Pavlovian” conditioning, to be satisfied with their roles in life and scornful toward members of the lower castes. While they sleep, they listen to recordings that repeat key ideas, mantras, and platitudes that shape their developing minds.
“…so frightfully clever,” the soft, insinuating, indefatigable voice was saying, “I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because…”
And what is the point of this conditioning? The Director explains,
“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too–all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides–made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions! … Suggestions from the State.”
Thus, the book sets up the framework for the government’s control over the people. It is not seemingly oppressive, but only because it doesn’t have to be. In Brave New World’s vision of the future, people passively accept their laboratory-given roles and are rewarded with lives of hedonism. Promiscuity is encouraged (since love and physical reproduction are things of the past), and when disturbing thoughts plague those who are intellectually fortuitous enough to think, the thoughts can be muted by a gram of soma–that is, a little recreational drug use.
Once these parameters set up in the first section of the book, we are introduced to Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus, and Lenina Crowne, “a splendid girl… [w]onderfully pneumatic.” Bernard is physically small and weak (unlike the other members of his caste), but due to his Alpha-Plus status and therefore intellectually superior nature, he questions the system and does not like to blindly take soma to ease his anxieties. Lenina works in a hatchery and is often criticized for not being promiscuous enough. Her fascination with Bernard, along with her desire to appear less selective, leads her to accept his invitation to go with him to a Savage Reservation in New Mexico.
In these Savage Reservations, people still exist who live their lives in the traditional way, and it is an appalling spectacle for people from this “brave new world” to see these aging, “uncultured” individuals who reproduce naturally and have families. But it is there that Bernard and Lenina discover Linda, a woman who once belonged to the World State before she was abandoned in the Savage Reservation, and her son John, whom she birthed. The trouble comes when these two “savages” are brought to London, where Linda is delighted to relax and overdose on soma, and John finds himself an outsider in a place where only he is capable of thought, passion, mourning, and love.
The plot – Nineteen Eighty-Four
I’ll try to keep this one a little shorter, since I think people are more familiar with it, and I’m not sure why I bother giving a plot summary, anyway. Everyone knows how to use Wikipedia. In Orwell’s version of a dystopian future, a society called Oceania embraces a political structure known as English Socialism (INGSOC) with an omniscient dictator (or at least personification of a dictator) called Big Brother at the head. Oceania is a society of 24/7 surveillance, usually conducted via telescreen and microphones, and each person is expected to perform his or her daily duties according to the Party’s wishes.
We are introduced to this society through the eyes of Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party and an employee at the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for “updating” historical information in order for it to fall in line with current ideology. That is to say, Winston’s job is to rewrite history. However, because of his fascination with the truth, he rebels secretly and commits “thoughtcrime” by keeping a journal of his individualistic ideas and hatred for the Party.
Although even the act of writing would be enough to set the Thought Police on him, Winston commits a far greater act of rebellion: falling in love with a woman named Julia. Like in Brave New World, romantic relationships are frowned upon, but the reasoning is a little different. Whereas in Brave New World, sexual promiscuity is encouraged, in 1984, sexuality is completely repressed.
Essentially, the war-torn world we encounter in 1984 is one of paradox, and a blind acceptance of the contradictory ideas promoted by the government (described in the novel as “doublethink”) is what keeps the people in line.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
There are just a couple of main points I’d like to concentrate on in this entry, as I think these books do best when speaking for themselves.
The first is the issue of romance within dystopian fiction. According to the Goodreads post I mentioned earlier, the major themes of these two books are “oppressive government” and “lack of freedom/choice.” The several modern titles grouped into the “young adult explosion” category all list “romance” as a category, and a couple include “biological/reproductive issues” as well. Now, these may be labels that are placed onto the books by Goodreads users, but I think it’s a little odd not to take note of the romance and reproductive issues present within these two classic dystopian pieces. I don’t think I need to explain the reproductive issues in Brave New World (the above plot summary should make those self-evident), but I want to take a moment to discuss how romance is an extremely important part of both of these books.
Although the main issue of these books may not be that love is eradicated and while the main characters’ romance may not leave readers drooling, the fact of the matter is that love and sexual relationships are at the heart of these two original dystopian novels.
First, and more simply, the key portion of 1984 is the relationship between Winston and Julia. We see Winston commit thoughtcrime through his journal, yes, but the turning point for Winston is when he takes action. And, in this case, action is the act of rebellion he commits by falling in love with and pursuing Julia. (And this is only one instance of love as rebellion in dystopian fiction. We see it earlier in Ayn Rand’s Anthem  when The Unconquered singles out The Golden One as a mate, and we see it much later in The Hunger Gameswhen–surprise spoiler alert here, I’m sure nobody knows this–there’s a romance between Katniss and Peeta in the arena.) For Winston and Julia, it is their love for one another that makes them believe in a greater cause and the potential for freedom, and it’s that same love that betrays them both and causes them to surrender to the government that controls them.
Brave New World is a little less straightforward. Here, we have a society where birth control belts are all the rage, where it is considered odd to sleep with the same fellow too many times, and where too much excitement typically culminates in an orgy. When Linda, a former member of the World State, finds herself living in a Savage Reservation, her promiscuous behavior and lack of love for any other person, including her own son, turns her into what is essentially a prostitute. In the old world, she is the one who is considered uncivilized. On the other side of it, her son, John, is a spiritual young man who reads Shakespeare and was not bred under the conditions of a hatchery. When he arrives in London, he is both a fascination an an outcast–and when he finds himself attracted to Lenina, he is ultimately unable to stand her because of her overly sexual nature.
So, yes, Brave New World depicts a controlling government in which the citizens lack freedom and choice, but the true meat of the story is in the romances that cannot happen: Lenina cannot stay with Henry, since no one person belongs to another. Bernard is bothered by Lenina’s blind acceptance of the society’s ideals and her dependence upon soma. John falls for Lenina as everyone seems to, but not simply because she is so “pneumatic” or because he feels he should be more promiscuous; his feelings for her are genuine, but their relationship is thwarted because of their opposing viewpoints on sex. The problem of the piece, then, is not merely the scientific conditioning of the society’s youth–it is the effect it has on human relationships on the society’s adults. It is only through an examination of these relationships that we are able to see the dystopic nature of the society at all; without the reader’s ability to observe through Bernard’s heightened capacity for love as an Alpha Plus and John’s “uncivilized” perspective as an outsider, the society might actually appear utopian. After all, what Brave New World depicts is a society in which each person has a place, and not only that–each person ishappy in that place. And isn’t that, in effect, a utopia?
The second thing I wanted to bring up was about a little something included in the back of my copy of Brave New World: a letter from Huxley to Orwelladdressing the publication of 1984 on Huxley’s thoughts about Orwell’s dystopia. Now, I don’t want to argue author intent, here, but apparently Huxley didn’t mind doing so in this letter. Here are a the pieces I find most interesting:
My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. …
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.
In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.
The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.
Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
I don’t think I really need to discuss any of that. Suffice it to say: ouch. I doubt I’ll have my publishers send a copy of any of my novels to my idols. Ever. But hey, the phrase is “Orwellian,” not “Huxleyian,” so I guess Georgey did something right.
Brave New World: 288 pages, and I read big chunks of it in short spurts.
Nineteen Eighty-Four: 368 pages, and it reads a little slower, but is definitely worth it.
These two books are mentioned all the time, especially in the context of society as we know it today. People are constantly throwing around the phrase “Big Brother” and wondering about the fate of our brave new world, so it’s good to actually look at these books and see exactly what they’re talking about. If either of these novels is something you think you know, but have never read, I encourage you to try them out. They really will surprise you.
Oh, and if you’re wondering whether I like these books, I should think the answer is obvious. I named my car “Orwell.”