There are two great works of dystopain fiction from the 20th century, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. On this season finale episode of the Sci Phi Show we will consider the question, Which is worse?
There have been a host of books and films that deal with dystopian futures and two of the best known are 1984 and Brave New World. If you haven't read either book they paint pictures of futures that are horrible and unfortunately plausible. Both are horrible but which is worse? The comparison is difficult to make because the worlds are separated by several centuries. 1984 takes place 50 or so years after IngSoc has come to power and instituted its new order but Brave New World takes place in 632 AF. AF is “After Ford”, Ford being Henry Ford the patron saint of this utopian future, which would make it the early 26th Century. Perhaps 1984 could overtime mutate into Brave New World or something similar too it.
The term Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1561 in his book of that name. It comes from the Greek word “topos” meaning place and a play on words in the Greek with the suffix ou- and eu- meaning not and good respectively. The concept of a utopia goes back long before Moore's fictional Island paradise though and the earliest surviving conception of a Utopian Society can be found in The Republic by Plato. There are a large body if Utopian Literature that paints pictures, or possible pictures of perfected human existence. The Book of Revelation has been regarded by some as Utopian as it paints a picture of a perfected humanity living with God forever after the end of the world. Sometimes the Utopia's that are painted are fictional stories but sometimes they are serious political ideologies such as Karl Marx's dreams on a Communist Workers Paradise.
On the flip side of Utopia is a rich history, especially in the 20th Century of Dystopian futures. Dystopias are often similar to Utopias in that they are supposed to be perfected states of human society, sometimes they are portrayed as a paradise as we see in Brave New World but sometimes they are openly hellish such as Orwell's 1984. Although even 1984 seemed to set out to be a paradise in the Communist model until it was hijacked as real world Communist revolutions inevitably were. Dystopias have a rich history in film and story and we will definitely return to look at some of the fears and ideas embodied in these Dystopian futures as found in places like Gattaca, The Matrix, Logan's Run and Soylent Green.
Both 1984 and Brave New World are criticisms of ideas popular in the 20th century that the authors to exception too. George Orwell wrote 1984 at least in part as a criticism of the various manifestations of Communism that existed at that time in History. His work Animal Farm is a more direct allegory that deals with the process of communist revolution itself while 1984 paints a picture of what he saw as the inevitable end. It is ironic that Orwell was a life long democratic socialist and opponent of totalitarianism, when it would seem that even democratic forms of socialism inevitably tend in totalitarian directions because they will always need to employ force to bring about the sort of equality they desire. Brave New World by comparison is a strong criticism of an insatiable consumerism and the dehumanizing aspects of scientific and technological advancement. It is an open question which of these prophesies will prove to be the more accurate vision of our future.
There are a number of interesting similarities shared by the two disparate cultures, especially given there seemingly different origins and the outlooks that gave rise to them. The most striking of these is the rigid caste system each world contains, with Inner and Outer Party and Proles in 1984 and Alpha's, Beta's, Gamma's, Delta's and Epsilon Semi-morons in Brave New World. It isn't hard to imagine the higher ups in IngSoc craving the ability to craft citizens that is taken for granted in Brave New World and something they would do if they could. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, they are limited to doing things the “old fashioned way”.
But regardless of how it is constructed and maintained, both cultures have a rigidly enforced caste system that keeps everybody in their place. Are such caste systems inevitable in any totalitarians system? An enforced regime of haves and have nots? For the sort of orderly society that existed in Brave New World it probably is, a place for every person and every person made to order to fill that place. IngSoc lacks quite that level of control but they can always use the thought police to weed out any cogs that fail to fit.
One other aspect that I thought was interesting is that both cultures fear the past and this seems to be a common feature of the totalitarian dystopias. Anything from the time before the establishment of the new order is regarded as evil or at least as foreign. i suppose if you need to seek to remould your subjects then any reminder that the time before might have been different and perhaps better is best avoided. IngSoc go so far as to regularly rewrite the past to effectively obliterate it but the Brave New World prefers to simply ridicule it.
They also both seek to breed these new and better subjects from birth. Obviously the far future planners have better access to technology and so can usher in a future of the worst sort of designer babies but even IngSoc seeks to condition its subjects as it is able. That conditioning is more limited and seems to consist of the use of NewSpeak and control of the language but this is probably going to be sufficient once the task is complete. I think it is interesting that words like Thought Crime have found a home in English although usually as a derisive term used to describe the sort of crazy politically correct orthodoxy that is a sort of a watered down conception of NewSpeak.
The inhabitants of Brave New World are far more effectively and elaborately conditioned and are even deliberately retarded as needed to produce the right sort of cog for the social machine. Though they are also conditioned and programmed from a young age to accept the world as they find it, even inculcating them to prefer being what ever caste they find themselves in and being conditioned as much as possible to shun all pleasures not compatible with the insanely consumerist culture.
The stories are filled with a host of interesting characters but the two that i think are the most interesting are Winston from 1984 and his opposite number Bernard in Brave New World. Although John is the main protagonist in Brave New World it would seem that Bernard is Winstone's opposite. Both are subjects in the new orders but each is a misfit in their own way and acts out against the system. Both characters have been conditioned in and at least in part believe in the system they find themselves in. Winston is eventually caught by the thought police and ground down by the system while Bernard is simply exiled to the Island, not that we know what that really entails. But before hand it is hopeful to see Winston rebel as much as he is able while Bernard is tempted back into line by a little fame and the comforts that that brings him. I think in a way that makes Bernard's fate worse. He sees a glimpse of the greater world and yet willingly chooses to go back to the comfortable illusion. You saw a similar dynamic play out in the Matrix when cypher betrayed everybody to the machines because the artificial comforts of the matrix were more appealing than the difficult reality. Winston for his sad end prefers reality to the illusion even if it destroys him.
Another thing I found interesting were the slogans the people were indoctrinated with. Brave New Worlds slogans were simple and intended to indoctrinate everybody into the culture. “Everybody belongs to everybody”,”New is better than old” etc. However the slogans of IngSoc, the paradoxical “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength” are profound for the truths and falsehoods they contain. Each of them in their own way is true but in a more subtle way than the way they are obviously false. After all, the constant state of War that Oceania is engaged in, a war that amounts to news from far away and the occasional rocket bomb exploding in the city has done more to bring peace to Oceania than anything else might. The people will put up with all manner of privation and put aside resentments because all of these are required for the war effort. The civil society at home enjoys a remarkable peace and stability because of the constant war. Likewise with the final slogan, “Ignorance is Strength”, normally the reverse is true, “Knowledge is Strength” and generally this is true, but perhaps under IngSoc's reign the possibility for rebellion exists only among those who understand this slogan and take it to heart. Anybody who had a proper understanding of the daunting task of over throwing IngSoc and restoring a free world would give up and go home, but someone ignorant of the reality would be in a position to make a difference and possibly even succeed through good fortune. Finally the most profound slogan, “Freedom is Slavery”, the most true of the three paradoxes. In both 1984 and Brave New World this slogan and its opposite, “Slavery is Freedom”, are strangely true. Certainly in Brave New World everybody is a slave but with Soma holidays and endless games they are happy slaves and they all know their place on the slave heiracrchy, they are even bred to fill the role. Under IngSoc likewise, everybody is a slave but they know their place and have a role. This sort of slavery may not always be pleasant but it is predicable and liveable and in a sense quite freeing. Although it is the freedom of a good barnyard aniaml I suppose. Free from the predators and hardships of life in the wild but free only to roam the pen. However genuine freedom is also enslaving in its own way because you have to look after yourself and you are not only free to suceed but also free to fail. Even today we see people who are willing to take the freedom of the pen and its slavery in exchange for the freedom of not having to care for themselves.
So which is worse? Both are bad and a third option would be preferable but if forced to choose i'm not sure. In 1984 you are constantly under the watch of Big Brother and his Telescreens and any dissent is crushed in the halls of the ministry of Love and the dissenter reeducated into seeing things the parties way. But still even in such a jackbooted hell there is the possibility of true freedom and rebellion against the state, however limited and however ineffective. Even if you are only a rebel from the waist down. In Brave New World there is no chance for freedom. You are manufactured to fit a certain spot in the hierarchy and the subjects are tempted to conform with the distractions of centrifugal bumble puppy, Elevator Golf and when it all gets too much a Soma holiday. Brave New Worlds prison is in a sense all the worse because the cage is gilded and the bed looks comfortable. Which is worse? It depends on how highly you value freedom and virtue. The ancient philosopher Socrates told the story of a just and virtuous man who was unjust tortured and imprisoned and thought a man even in such a circumstance could have a blessed life because he was righteous even if he was condemned by the world he knew he was free. Would that be enough? If it is then IngSoc's paradise is preferable because rebellion and freedom is still possible. Brave New World's drugs, child manufacture and distractions seem to make rebellion nearly impossible. Even Bernard is tempted back into line by the pleasures and distractions on offer. The real horror on Brave New World for me is that the people in it are not really recognizably human any more, they have slipped into a profoundly subhuman state, little more than pigs content to wallow in the mud and never even capable of being more than that even if you are a high caste alpha. At least IngSoc still provides the possibility of true rebellion, if only for a time.
As noble as all that sounds there is an appeal to the nightmare world of Brave New World. Life is easy and pleasurable for the slaves. You know where you fit and you know what your role is. This does have some appeal as well. Given the choice between the two I don't know which slave state I would pick. Both are horrible in their own ways and the pleasures on offer in Brave New World make it superficially more appealing but even more horrible once you look under the hood. Which one would you choose?
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