With the recent GR blowups, phrases from 1984 have been on everyone's lips, and it got me thinking about the great dystopias. Although I haven't read them in a while, there are three supreme dystopian novels that have been irrevocably etched into my memory: George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Although all of the books were published within twenty years of one another, each story posits a unique path to societal destruction.
Brave New World --Aldous Huxley
Brave New World, published in the early 1930s, is the earliest of the set. Huxley posits a world where genetic engineering and training has codified a class system, where genetic engineering, brainwashing, conditioning, rampant sexual promiscuity, and drug use has made the populace uncaring and satisfied with their lot. Huxley's novel is interesting because outwardly, the system has the mark of a utopia, especially that of H.G. Wells. Everyone is (apparently) happy with their individual role--as they should be, since they are bred and trained from birth to satisfaction with their role in life. Each social class is brainwashed into seeing itself as the "best" and "happiest": the gammas, the lowest caste, feel satisfied that they do not have to do the hard thinking and work of the alphas. The alphas despise the gammas. Sexual freedom is not only acceptable but lauded; hence the phrase pounded into the children's brains: "Everyone belongs to everyone else." The society is rampantly consumerist and people are interested only in the moment. People within the society have no interest in the past, the future, or the world around them. The major question that Huxley's novel brings up is that if we are forced and bred to be happy and satisfied, are we really? It highlights the total emptiness of a society built only on gratification.
Catchphrases: "Everyone belongs to everyone else."
Nineteen Eighty-Four -- George Orwell
1984 is, in my opinion, the most influential dystopian ever written. Its phrases and ideas have imbued our culture, albeit in a simplified and often corrupted form. (The fact that a gameshow has been based on the idea of a universal idea and is actually called Big Brother would have Orwell rolling in his grave.) Phrases from the book such as "doublespeak" and "thought police" have become part of our own vocabulary. Orwell imagines a totalitarian socialist society where the world is without hope, where the past is rewritten to suit the present, and where the Party, epitomized by Big Brother, is always watching. 1984 is peculiarly powerful and memorable, not simply because Orwell is a wonderful writer, but because of the rage and very personal sense of betrayal that pervades each line and each idea. I would like to believe that such a society could not exist, but we have come so close in the past.... Catchphrases: "War is peace","Miniluv", "doublethink", "Big Brother is watching", "thought police," "thoughtcrime", "Room 101", "Newspeak", "proles"...the list goes on and on.
Fahrenheit 451 -- Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451, published in the early 1950s, is the last of my triumvirate of great dystopians, and in my opinion, is the closest (scarily close, in fact) to predicting the future. Fahrenheit 451 features no repressive government, no oppressive system controlling and conditioning the thoughts of the populace. Instead, the repression stemmed from society itself. As information became more and more ubiquitous, peoples' attention spans became shorter and shorter. Music piped into the ears, talking screens on the walls, replaced human interactions. Political correctness became paramount, and since each book would offend somebody, all books had to go. But this censorship stemmed not from a single autocratic leader but from a sheeplike societal pressure. People wanted to erase the past and ignore the future, and to remove the guilt of doing so, they forced everyone else to do the same. As the book says, "We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal." With their short attention spans and constant bombardment with tiny snippets of news made palatable, with a consumerist society where information is controlled and history is rewritten, Fahrenheit 451 combines the most terrifying aspects of the other two novels to create a future that becomes more likely every year. Despite improved communication, despite added leisure time, despite removal of all distressing history, no one in this grasping, superficial world can ever be happy any more than they can be satisfied. This one, to me, is the scariest. It predicts our isolation via ipods and ipads and hulu and facebook, a world (like ours) where news no longer even pretends to reflect reality, a world where depression and suicide rates skyrocket every year, where incorrectly applied attempts at "political correctness" cause us to erase our guilt rather than accept it, where ideas can be so uncomfortable that we tacitly allow their censorship.
Catchphrases: "Fahrenheit 451", "parlor families", "Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?"
In all three of the books, the main protagonist is apparently an obedient member of society who eventually becomes an outsider. Winston of 1984 is externally a submissive member of society, but has been a rebel from birth, constantly on the alert for other rebels. And in this society, it is difficult to determine how many people secretly feel the same way but are simply too afraid to come forward. He is discontented and nihilistic to begin to take action in tiny ways, but certainly never has delusions of starting a revolution. In Brave New World, Leonard has always been an outsider because of his appearance and intelligence. As an Alpha-Plus, he is effectively a genius; however, in a society where appearance and height are correlated with intelligence and social status, he is unusually short and unimpressive. He therefore has the intelligence to analyze society without any of the biases he might develop from being fully accepted. Guy Montag of Fahrenheit451 undergoes perhaps the most startling change. He is initially a card-carrying member of society, a bookburner, one apparently unquestioning of his lot in life. However, his conversation with the girl and his interaction with a woman who quotes lines from the books he burns begin to change him. Interestingly, in each of these novels, the women are portrayed as mindless tools of the state. Even those who rebel are thoughtless, driven by a shallow sexuality or curiosity rather than the deeper dissatisfaction that drives the men.
The government of 1984 is abusive and totalitarian. Outwardly socialist, it is divided into rigid social castes where each successive class receives both increased luxury and decreased freedom. Privacy has been removed and history is constantly rewritten. Everyone is unhappy, and this unhappiness is carefully maintained. This tyranny is apparently sustainable only through fear. Sexuality is carefully repressed, and sex, for Winston, becomes a symbol of freedom. Brave New World also has a rigid caste system, but it is maintained in a polar opposite fashion. Everyone is carefully maintained in a state of happiness and each person is born and brainwashed to be happy in their lot and to dislike the other castes. No one is discontented, the world revolves around careless sexual abandon, and drugs are provided constantly to keep anyone from thinking clearly enough to question their world. Unlike the despotic Big Brother, the Controllers of Huxley's world apparently feel that they are helping humanity by keeping them in this Edenic state of carefree irresponsibility. Fahrenheit 451 falls somewhere in between these two extremes. The government rigidly controls access to information, but partially achieves this by allowing so much access to "factoids" that peoples' minds quickly become saturated. In efforts of political correctness, as well as political expediency, people are accepting of the efforts to censor information by burning books. The government can spin the war, the economy, etc, however it wants, much as in 1984, but depends more on peoples' inertia and disinterest rather than on paralyzing fear. Sound familiar?
End results: (my personal feelings, at least.)
Closest prediction of the future: Fahrenheit 451
Most influential on society: 1984
Closest to the GR debacle: everything is wonderful on GR. I believe because the Ministry of Truth has told me so. 2+2=5.