Brave Old World

“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

It’s not new to argue that Brave New World is a more threatening and likely version of the future – or our present – than Nineteen Eighty-Four, although the latter gets more attention. The above quotation comes from an article in The Guardian from earlier this week in which Andrew Postman points out that his father predicted our current state in the mid-1980s. I first encountered the argument when I was listening back through the archive of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, before I had even read Brave New World, but a while after I’d read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley, of course, thought so himself, and told Orwell as much.

When I eventually read Brave New World  in 2014 I found comparison to Nineteen Eighty-Four “inevitable”, but secretly also compared it to The Lego Movie, and its insistence that “Everything Is Awesome”. Reading Postman’s article, though, I couldn’t help but think of the Ray Bradbury quote: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” I was never quite as enamored with Fahrenheit 451 as perhaps I should have been, but it, too, contains the message that people can be persuaded to remain uninformed.

The problem, I think, is that we phrase these things as a competition between books, rather than admitting that we have to read more than one. I have been slowly listening to the audiobook of Nineteen Eighty-Four because it has been so long since I listened to it and I wanted to remember what it was actually like. The obfuscation, the rewriting of the past, the surveillance, the daily hate, the scapegoating – these are features of the book that resonate in the current political climate. But, as the elder Postman pointed out, an Orwellian dystopia is easy to recognize because Orwell places us right in the middle with a protagonist who knows what’s what. More significant is Animal Farm, which looks at the rise of totalitarianism and the re-writing of the past; more significant still Brave New World, where the characters are immersed in it and it takes an outsider to realize that something is wrong. When reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, we should think not only of what it takes to be Winston, but also what it takes to be everyone else.

In the spirit of that advice, I started to think about what other science fiction novels I would recommend as a way to think about the current situation and how to tackle it. Here is a brief list:

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also Animal Farm by George Orwell
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (because dystopia will disproportionally affect women, but Orwell and Huxley won’t tell you that)
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  4. Infomocracy by Malka Older (on trying to inform the electorate)
  5. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (don’t watch the film believing that it is an acceptable substitute; it really, really isn’t)

I am also interested in suggestions to further my own reading on this topic! We by Yevgeny Zamyatin has already been recommended.

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