Recently I picked up a book at Costco: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Having been a longtime fan of Orwell’s 1984, and writing a dystopian series myself, I figured now was the time to finally dive into this titan of classic dystopian literature as well. One thing I learned is that it’s impossible not to compare BNW to 1984 when one has read them both. In today’s blog, I have decided to do just that for your reading pleasure.
First, viability. Of course, nobody wants either of these grim images of the future to come true — I rather fancy Roddenberry’s vision, myself — but if one of them were to happen in our world today, I believe it would be Huxley’s, as Orwell’s wouldn’t last long enough to permeate the whole world. Here’s why: We have Huxley’s dystopia, where the citizens are genetically bred to be happy, and we have Orwell’s dystopia, where the citizens are violently forced to be complaint with the government. Happiness, even fake happiness, is a much stronger and longer lasting system of controlling a human populace. We have seen this fact in our own societies. America, with its rallying cry of “for the people”, grew into THE great superpower of the world in a very short time, and has lasted as such for two centuries, while the Nazi regeme in Germany, with its iron fist of control over its people, lasted only a few years (thank God). Sooner or later, no matter how strong your control is, enough people will get mad enough to overthrow a 1984-style government, but if you make your people feel like they are happy and content, your government can go on for much, much longer. For this reason, I believe BNW is more realistically viable than 1984, so round one goes to Huxley. Feel free to disagree with me. I love a good debate.
Second, entertainment value. Nobody expects a dystopian story to be lighthearted or have a happy ending, but fiction is, above all else, an entertainment medium. Both BNW and 1984 are depressing and end badly, as per the norm for their genre, but of the two, I enjoyed 1984 much more. Being a character-driven reader and writer, I have to have characters that I like and want to root for. Orwell’s main character, Winston, was that for me. Rooting for him to escape, caring what happened to him, that made reading 1984 fun. Even the ending worked in that I still cared about Winston, and therefore was genuinely unhappy for him. It mattered because Winston mattered, which made it entertaining. Brave New World, on the other hand, was just depression with no entertainment value whatsoever. The vast majority of its characters had no empathy-rating for me at all. At first I cared about Bernard, but then he showed himself to be a selfish jerk. Then I cared about John… until he showed HIMself to be a crazy fanatic. I never liked Lenina, whom I saw as stupid and shallow from the get-go. In the end, the only character that I could truly care about was Helmholtz, who isn’t even a major character, and is absent most of the time. When the story was over, I didn’t care what happened at all, because none of them mattered, so it didn’t matter. So round two goes to Orwell for being far more entertaining.
Three, social commentary. One of the most important aspects of dystopian fiction is its use of social commentary. After all, the whole purpose of this genre is to point out the flaws in humanity and warn us where those flaws could take us if we’re not careful. Both 1984 and Brave New World are full of these warnings, though the bases of each are very different. In 1984, Orwell warns the reader of what could happen if a world government is formed with the inevitable crushing power over the people, while BNW is all about complacency, and fighting for your right to be an individual despite the cost. One fights against pain, while the other fights for it. In this way I believe both novels work together to give a poingient warning: all things in moderation. So round three is a tie.
In the end, I believe both novels deserve their reputation as grandfathers of the dystopian genre. Please take the liberty to agree, disagree, and/or add more to what I have discussed in the comments. Certainly this is a vast and varied subject, and one I would have a blast discussing with you all.