Dystopia is a recently coined word to describe negative utopias, and can be taken literally to mean bad place. In the 20th century dystopian fiction dominates utopian fiction. There was a generally skeptical or pessimistic view about science and technology among 20th century writers. Some of the reasons for this are historical, and follow from quite real fears of nuclear war and nuclear accidents, the escape of deadly viruses, the creation of intelligent machines to rival humans, cloning etc.
Two major works of dystopian fiction are Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) and George Orwell’s “1984” (1949). Both of these writers were influenced by H. G. Wells, but both had far more pessimistic ideas for the future society. Although there are superficial resemblances between “Brave New World” and “1984”, they are not really very much different. Huxley pictured a society of the near future in which technology provides all the material comforts required by human beings. There is no pain or illness, but there is also no knowledge and no creativity. Parents no longer give birth in the natural way, instead children are produced in test tubes with designer characteristics depending on their destined social status. Human beings are conditioned from their artificial birth to fulfill a social role in breeding centers. Society is divided into four classes, Alphas, Betas, Gammas and Deltas, each with different breeding, clothing and conditioning to perform different tasks in society. The individual is thus likened to a single cell in the social body, unable to function individually. Unhappiness and emotion are catered for through the prescription of drugs. Criticism of this perfect society comes from the Savage who has been brought up outside the New World, and cannot understand this reduced form of human existence, without Shakespeare, without love, without emotion, without individuality.
“Brave New World” has been hugely influential as a warning of the dangers of uncontrolled scientific research. It foresees genetic engineering, cloning, test-tube babies and direct social conditioning through drugs and the media. It foresees the replacement of culture and education by a form of mass entertainment, (crudely, of Shakespeare by Hollywood), and the subsequent loss of affect in human beings, the loss of the critical faculty, the inability to think for oneself.
In George Orwell’s
“1984” the world is divided into the three super-powers: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. Oceania is alternating at war with one power and allied with the other. The population of Oceania consists of three castes: the Inner Party (1%), the Outer Party (14%) and the Proles (85%). The Inner Party is the ruling caste and its sole desire is to gain power, have power, and keep the power – forever. The official face of the party is “Big Brother”, an oversized face on posters hanging on walls everywhere and staring from every telescreen, seeming to follow everybody with his eyes. Children are instructed to spy on their parents. Adults like the hero Winston Smith, are employed to rewrite history so that it always show that the dictatorship was right. There is no escape. Any attempt to express oneself as an individual is discovered and the person is brainwashed. At the time when Orwell wrote “1984”, it was fashionable for intellectuals to admire Stalinist Russia. They thought of it as the opposite of Nazi Germany. Not long before his death, Orwell published this warning in the hope that people would realize that all dictatorships are basically the same.
Huxley and Orwell are not the only modern writers to have looked into the future and seen disaster. But neither in “Brave New World” nor in “1984” was the atomic bomb responsible. It plays a major part, however, in “The Planet of the Apes” and its sequel (at least as far as the film versions taken from Pierre Boulle’s original book are concerned). In Boulle’s story there was a planet where apes and men had changed places in society. In the films, however, this theme was linked to that of nuclear war, making them more topical. The astronauts eventually realize that they have returned to Earth to thousand years later. If men have resigned themselves to becoming the slaves of apes it is because of a nuclear catastrophe.
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Visions of the Future: Huxley and Orwell