The Shape of Things to Come
|August 2, 2012||Posted by Fergus Doyle under culture|
Dystopias are funny, aren’t they? They started off as a pessimistic response to the optimistic utopias of the later stages of the 19th century, they flourished in the darker parts of the first half of the 20th century and now they come in all shapes and sizes. For the majority of the time they focus on the authors’ own personal fears – for example, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is something of a reaction to the ultra-feminists of the 1970s, the fears of the cold war era, and a history of unfair relations between men and women – or as a vehicle for the authors to satirise their contemporaries, such as G K Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, written in 1908 and set in 1984, which sees kings picked by lottery to the complete apathy of the populace.
Some, like George Orwell’s 1984, capture the public imagination, inducing both fear and fascination in readers and leaving lasting images that can be easily transposed onto modern life, such as the surveillance state. Many people seem to think that this is the only way western civilisation can go from now: into a world of suppression and fear. But there are others that seem to have passed slightly under the radar of the popular consciousness in past years, which portray an equally chilling vision of the future and yet leave people scratching their head and wondering: “Is that so bad after all?” The perfect example of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Although written only 17 years apart, the two authors had had many different experiences that influenced their writing and their concepts of the direction in which the world was going. Orwell was a lifelong admirer of the Soviet system until the late 30s, when he fought as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war on the side of the Republicans. As such, he was in close proximity with communist troops and found out more than just the public perception of the oppressive Stalinist government. This influenced his later works, most notably 1984 and Animal Farm, which both criticised and satirised the communist regime. Huxley, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time in America where he came into contact with two of the driving forces of the early 20th century: the mass production line and Hollywood. The influence these had on his work is apparent in the clichés in which the Betas of Brave New World speak, as well as the way in which children are produced. On the other hand, members of his family were prominent Darwinist thinkers, and his brother Julian was one of the first to put forward ideas of eugenics, which, at its worst, was one of the core philosophies of the Nazis: the attribution of the Darwinist idea of “survival of the fittest” onto humans. This developed in Brave New World into state-governed evolution, wherein everyone is well suited to their environment, their functions and nothing else.
Given these differing situations, the novels show the world of the future in very different ways. 1984 sees the world split into three superpowers, Eastasia, Eurasia and Oceania, fighting a perpetual war among themselves for the limited resources left in Africa, India and south-east Asia. Each of these superpowers seems to follow a loose kind of communism based on Stalin’s Russia during the 1930s and 40s, such as Oceania’s “IngSoc,” or English Socialism. Within England – here called Airstrip One as a nod to our subservience to America, the main power in Oceania – the atmosphere is oppressive, with surveillance, censorship, propaganda and fear playing major roles in governance. Despite its communist intentions, it is the ultimate totalitarian society, with Big Brother at the top and society split into three distinct classes: the Proles – the proletariat, the working class – the outer party, or middle class, and the inner party, the ruling upper class. This is Orwell’s view, based very closely on the Soviet system under Stalin and transposed onto the rest of the world.
Huxley, on the other hand, presented a much different and altogether much more confusing world. Set in 2540 AD, the most overtly disturbing element of Brave New World is the way in which people are born. The opening chapter follows a tour of a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where we see how humans are created on the production line and then “conditioned” into thinking the correct way. Each child is destined to be either an Alpha, who are the governing class, through Beta, who seem to exist for the pleasure of the Alphas, down to Gamma, Delta and finally the Epsilon semi-moron, whose only functions seem to be as lift attendants or vacuum cleaner operatives. A child’s social position is determined before it is born, with the foetus being given just enough alcohol and nutrients to make sure that it only grows to a certain way, so that just by looking at it one can tell where it belongs on the social ladder. In the wider context, the planet has unified under the World State, which is ruled by a group of Alpha Double Plusses, the very best that the World State can produce. The economy is prosperous but needs consumption to continue, leading to the slogan “ending is better than mending” being embedded in the population’s mind from birth. The people are kept in control by a drug called Soma, which is a mild hallucinogen, the Feelies, a form of cinema that incorporates touch, and almost enforced promiscuity; as such, books are no longer needed, as they tend to make people feel emotions other than content and sexual arousal, the only ones really needed in this Brave New World.
Throughout the 20th century, these two novels have been seen as the two definitive visions of the future, with 1984 being seen by most as the most pertinent. It is true that Britain is the most closely watched country in the world, with a study in 2006 revealing that there was one camera for every 14 people. This led everyone to start shouting, in well rehearsed unison, that Britain was becoming an “Orwellian nightmare”, that we may as well just change the country’s name into Airstrip One and be done with it. If one scratches the surface, however, things are really not that bad. Nationalistic propaganda is limited – even now, during the London Olympics, patriotic fervour is still minimal – and the government is held in disdain, a government which, whether we like it or not, is still democratically elected and which we will be able to get rid of within a few years. If we want to see a true 1984-style state then we have to look quite far afield, to the regimes of east Asia. North Korea is definitely the closest to this goal of human oppression, with the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam close behind.
If we in the west look at ourselves next to the World State of Brave New World however, the similarities are disturbingly close. Take soma, the government-distributed drug to make sure that everyone stays quiet and “normal”, and compare that with the fact that a 2011 study revealed one in 10 Americans are on prescribed anti-depressants and 80% of the world’s opioids – opium-based pain killers – are consumed in the US. Similarly, the touting of clichés and phrases from popular culture is as frequent in Brave New World as it is now; people quote songs and TV shows because they say things in a better way than you ever could, and people instantly recognise them and feel a connection with you. I know, I do it as much as anyone else. Finally, the problem of babies: although many religious and humanitarian groups are against the idea of genetic engineering, cloning and “designer babies,” I feel it is only a matter of time before test-tube animals – a lamb or a calf – emerge on the scene, and maybe then humans will follow whether people like it or not. We are still quite far away from it, and it probably won’t happen exactly as Huxley says it will, but we are definitely heading more in the direction of the relaxed, structured decadence of Brave New World than the fear, suppression and perpetual war of 1984. The question really is: how bad is Huxley’s vision of the future? There isn’t much substance to it, but it’s peaceful, prosperous and organised; are culture and the 20th century vision of the perfect nuclear family price enough to pay for it? You don’t have to think about it right now, just take 25mg of soma and relax…
For more information (to be honest, they influenced the majority of this piece) listen BBC 4’s In Our Time episodes on “The Modern Utopia” and on “Brave New World.” The title of this article comes from the HG Wells’ future history, The Shape of Things to Come.