I’m going to review these books together, because they had been all mixed up in my memory. (Not anymore.) They are also both classics of dystopian fiction and are both books you might be required to read in high school or college. I was in high school when I was assigned 1984 and a college freshman when I read Brave New World for a perspectives class. In actuality, they are very different books, but we’ll get into that in a second.
This time around, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World first. And the first intelligent thing that is done in that book is to set it in a time after the present age, so that it could remain possible in time for a long, long while yet. (Think of things like Prince’s “Party Like It’s 1999.” These dates pass. Doomsday doesn’t happen. It gets awkward.) The book also has less historical or political roots, so it remains more immediate than some other dystopian literature because of that, too.
Here’s the gist: There has been an event in human history, after which everything changed and the dating system started afresh. The goal of the society, which during the book has been going on for a long time, is a happy populace. To achieve happiness, everyone’s every move is prescribed, partly by fetal modification and then psychological manipulation in childhood (and even a sophisticated type of osmosis). Castes are rigid. Relationships are banished (included the familial ones). Certain vices are required (like promiscuous sex which begins in childhood). Calming drugs are used daily. Only positive emotions are allowed. Disease has been eliminated. Death is normalized. And most of the population is okay with being along for the ride.
But not quite one of the main characters. (The story shifts between three of them.) When Bernard takes Lenina along for a trip to a savage reservation, they uncover a blast from their boss’s past. The two worlds collide and tragedy ensues. Nobody’s saving the day in this novel, where we are left instead with a sense of foreboding and our own thoughts about the future. It’s meant to make a difference in the actual world, instead, where we can still hang on to our freedoms as opposed to eliminating pain and suffering. That’s the dilemma here: freedom versus happiness.
It’s easy reading, thanks in part to it being more genre/science fiction than literary fiction. I didn’t really want to put it down. I wanted to find out more what this world was like and also what was going to happen to these characters. I never liked the characters (boo hoo), and I was uncomfortable with all the casual sex, especially the children’s “games.” Not sure either of these things took away from the book’s intention, and I would recommend it for young people to read and discuss. Like in school. Which is pretty typical already.
It was difficult to switch gears from Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984. While Brave New World is an easy read, 1984 is slower going. The writing style is very different. It’s denser and includes much explanation, especially during excerpts from the supposed Banned Book. It feels like older writing, which it is. Written in the 1950s, the dystopia that Aldous Huxley writes of talks place in approximately 1984. Clearly it didn’t happen in reality, but there are still things that a reader can learn from his or her reading. (Note to parents: there is sex in this book, as well.)
Also bleak and meant to make you think more than smile, 1984 takes place in a world where the twentieth-century world wars led to a regime which formed three unified governments that work in sync to submit the world population to such thorough oversight and surveillance that there is no rebellion, even in thought. 1984 does introduce several interesting concepts, including doublethink, but the story can be a little slow.
Ever hear references to Big Brother? That the government is watching us? This is where Big Brother comes from. Submitting the upper castes to constant surveillance so skilled that it can basically read your thoughts, this book is about a struggle of one man against his inclinations. When he begins his small rebellions, he understands that it will end in disaster. Occasionally we stumble upon hope (first in the form of a relationship and then in the form of an allegiance), only for it to be squashed again. If there is hope for the world, it has to be in the lower classes (possibly, theoretically) and Winston gets no part of it.
The world of 1984 feels old timey (like it would be made into a black and white movie with cockney accents and a haze of smoke). Everyone wears a uniform and, again, are rigidly classified. Violence and obliteration are the threats that hang over everyone’s head (even in the form of their own children), leading to a paranoid, rigid obedience. Even facial expressions are regulated, though these people haven’t been modified in any space-age way. This book is more about a government that is so absolute that it becomes a creature unto itself: a self-sustained, opposition-obliterating creature. It is no accident that Winston’s job is in the news department, where (like in many other places) irony is used to mock a populace that can no longer appreciate it. One of the most important aspects of this novel is the lesson that history belongs to those who hold the present: the past can be modified so that truth no longer exists and becomes, well, irrelevant.
Again, an important fiction read for encouraging thinking about our present and future. An appropriate book to assign to young adults for discussion, or just for doing some thinking yourself. Neither one of these books was a favorite for me, but I wouldn’t un-read either of them.