In 1984, the world is ruled by a totalitarian, self-perpetuating system that brutalizes its own upper echelons most of all. In Brave New World, Huxley paints a different picture of the future, one where human interactions are mandatorily shallow, where casual sex is expected, and where bad feelings have mostly been bred and conditioned out of the docile, fun-loving population.
It is too easy to make fun of science fiction that is already out of date. There are anachronisms such as scientists taking notes with pencil and paper, manual laborers who are still required in large numbers, liftmen (elevator operators), and English women who are slim and attractive.
But good science fiction aims to comment, not to predict, because the latter is impossible. Huxley envisions what some of his contemporaries might have considered an ideal society: one where the family has been done away with, children are born in test tubes and raised in nurseries, trained from infancy to enjoy their assigned roles in society, and kept happy throughout their lives by generously provided rations of the feel-good drug soma.
Bernard Marx (yes, I yawned too) doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t want to be happy all the time. He wants to feel passion, ramble in the countryside, read and write literature, appreciate beauty and, most unforgivably, to be alone. He sometimes refuses soma.
“I’d rather be myself,” he said. “Myself and unhappy. Not somebody else, however cheerful.”
Bernard dates Lenina, but it is hard going. She is more properly trained than he. She likes soma. She doesn’t want to be alone, suffer silence, or look at the dark sea. When they end up in bed too easily he is disappointed.
The Brave New World reminds me more than anything of the Nietzschian concept of the ‘Last Man’, as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra. This man, living in an imagined future that Zarathustra despises, is the counterpoint to the Superman. He needs for nothing. He works moderately, is responsible, obedient, safe, well-nourished, cooperative. He has hobbies. He lives long. He is a post-religious Ned Flanders whose society has technologically perfected life so far as can be done.
The people laugh at Zarathustra and say, ‘I want to be the Last Man!’ And when I read about it, I, too, couldn’t see what was so bad about being the Last Man. Perhaps I still don’t.
Both Huxley and Nietzsche imagine a perfected future, and hate it. What do they want? Huxley wants individuality, love, sadness – poetry in life, whatever the cost. Nietzsche wants the strong to rise, to become more than what they are, not only as individuals but as a species.
They make their point. Perfection is dull. But life can be far worse. Trust me on this: when you turn on the tap and there’s no water, even though this has been the wettest year in recorded history, and hiring a water truck has been prohibited, test-tube bred manual workers who can fix such problems and the administrators who can manage them sound wonderful. When you’re too scared to venture on a date because the locals are grouchy live-wires who like to bear a grudge, casual, soma-fueled sex with pretty girls who brainlessly parrot their conditioned lines seems very attractive indeed. And when there’s a real risk of being detained in the country if you get up the wrong person’s nose (including one I need to deal with presently), the Last Man’s safe and dull society glows golden in my troubled mind.
Let’s face it, dear readers: I am a shallow man. I yearn only for peace and quiet. I could enjoy myself in the Brave New World if only they would allow me to continue writing my problematic material, though in that place even fewer people would read it. I could tolerate being the Last Man just so long as I was free as well as safe.
The trouble with 1984, as others have noted, is that some governments have viewed it as an instruction manual rather than a cautionary tale. Like here. Perhaps my reader fears I similarly advocate creating a world like the Brave New one, where everything is artificial, managed and trouble-free?
Not so. While I would probably enjoy myself there (so long as I was created an Alpha and not an Epsilon), I wouldn’t like to impose it on everyone else. People should have options.
In the end, poor Bernard is allowed to live apart but he is finally hounded to death by the mindless NPCs who flock to see him, the ‘wild man’. A society works best when there is the safety-valve of acceptable alternative lifestyles. Here, the government only survives because two thirds of the population have fled. In Australia one can freely leave, move to the outback, join a hippie commune, or become a Hare fucking Krishna.
It is not a technologically sterile, safe and dull future that discomforts me. It is a future where we have no choice about it.