1984 vs. Brave New World

Whenever I’m confronted by a virtual bookshelf or asked to list my favorite authors, I always make sure that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are ranked among the top 10. Both of these men were immensely influential for me, inspiring not only my love of literature but also my desire to write. In that, I am hardly alone. Literally millions of people list these men as major influences, claiming that 1984 and/or Brave New World had a huge impact on their personal and/or intellectual development. It is probably for these reasons that I love teaching them so much, they’re just so chock full of all the elements a literary teacher likes to get into! Picture a quarry full of gold nuggets, one that never runs out and pays out for every new person who’s willing to mine it, and you’ve got a good idea of what these books are like.

Geez, was that sycophantic enough for ya? Okay, both books have their share of weakness too, and while I must admit that 1984 was certainly better structured and more serious than Brave New World, arguably it is the latter which proved to be more accurate. This is another aspect of these two books which has helped to establish their timeless nature: both are distopian visions of the future, both are works of satire that – like all works of satire – were set in the future but were really about the times in which they were written. And, most importantly, both were extremely critical of the day and age they were written in, addressing the many ways in which freedom was being suppressed. But since their approaches and their visions contrasted heavily , future generations were left to debate: which came true?

Huxley sought to answer this question himself in his essay “Brave New World Revisited”. Naturally, he thought that it was his vision that proved more accurate, but of course he’d say that! It was his vision! He also had the advantage in that Orwell had died shortly after writing his magnum opus so he wasn’t exactly around to rebut. But alas, Huxley’s contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars tend to agree with him. Between a future where humanity is controlled by a series of brutal dictatorships who suppress free thought and control their citizens through the destruction of language, the rewriting of history, and the constant manipulation of emotions, and a future where humanity belongs to a global state where people are made compliant through pleasure and conditioning, it is arguably the latter which came true. The jury is still out, and the trial never ends, but right here, right now, Huxley’s vision is still taking the lead.

Of course, a few years ago, proponents of the 1984 school of thought believed the odds might have been tipped in Orwell’s favor thanks to the rise of the Bush administration, Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic spying and the controlled paranoia of orange alerts and patriotic orthodoxy. However, with the worsening situation in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and a series of blatant scandals, each one a “slow-bleed” on Bush’s approval rating, those fears were put to rest. With every passing month after the 2004 election, it seemed that Bush’s “War on Terror”, which many believed to be little more than a justification for waging war on American civil liberties or launching a global neo-con agenda, was doomed to fail. So once again, the pendulum swung back to Huxley. Thank God too! I don’t know about you, but between Feelies and Soma on the one hand and he Thought Police and Room 101, I’ll take being amused to death over being brutalized to death any day!

Naturally, the debate shall continue, most likely well into the “information age”, a time in which new ways and opportunities for encouraging social cohesion or suppressing human freedom will present themselves. But it is such a good debate isn’t it? Not only is it fun, from an intellectual standpoint anyway, but it also forces us to confront the ways in which our personal, intellectual, and creative freedoms are not being addressed, by circumstance or design. It forces us to take stock of our society and think of ways with which we could address the ways in which our governments and even we as a people fall short. It forces us to think for ourselves, which, I don’t know about you, but to me seems to be the point of these novels in the first place. For it is only in individual thought and the freedom to do so that any kind of social control or attempts to make us compliant fail. Well, that and armed rebellion, but this way is much cleaner, I think you’ll agree!

Of Great Sci-Fi (and other non-affliated) Quotes:

alien-worldRecently, I’ve taken to posting quotes by the great science fiction authors on twitter. Most are from the authors I draw the most inspiration from, others are just from people I admire and who offered some wisdom along the way. Like a true nerd, I keep these things in a file on my computer, adding to it every time I find a new one or think up one myself. Might sound odd but I find it useful, it offers fresh inspiration and perspective whenever I’ve hit a wall or am not sure how a piece of writing is turning out. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the gems that have really inspired me over the years. To be fair, some of them are not science-fiction related, or even by authors; they’re just moments of brilliance captured in an utterance. Here are a few:

“We sit atop a sort of anthill of technologies. At the bottom there’s fire, and growing cereal grains, and learning to store cereal – all those things that people have to store edible energy and start building cities. Not that we’re the crown of creation; we are at the crown of technological creation at any given moment.”
-William Gibson during an interview after writing “Pattern Recognition”

“It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.”

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…”

“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.”

“. . . the street finds its own uses for things.”
-Other tidbits from Gibson, who’s nothing if not prolific in his observations!

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
-Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”

“Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: “What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young marines on their way to Guadalcanal?”
Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge!
“Just kill the one with the sword first.”
“Ah,” Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. “Smarrrt–you target them because they’re the officers, right?”
“No, fuckhead!” Shaftoe yells. “You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?”
-Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”. One of the funniest written passages I’ve ever read, and fitting because it puts Reagan in his proper, historically accurate place!

“I just think talk of suffering should be left to those who’ve actually suffered.”
-Jack (a First Nations former student I knew. As soon as he said it, I knew that I had just heard one of the smartest things ever said by anybody, anywhere, ever!)