Yesterday, Letters of Note unearthed a letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell upon the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He starts off by thanking Orwell for instructing his publisher to send Huxley a copy of the book, and compliments him on its importance, then goes on to challenge the plausibility of Orwell’s dystopian future:
The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. […]
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
What Huxley failed to realize, however, is that science fiction is crap at prediction. Very little of what has been written in the nearly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has actually come to pass. It’s a common conceit, although I believe William Gibson is most famous for saying it, that science fiction is never about the time being written about, it’s always about the time in which the author wrote the book. Orwell’s world of Oceania and Air Strip One is a thinly-veiled analogue to post-WWII England, down to the destroyed buildings, rampant poverty, and chocolate rations. He was never honestly trying to predict the future; instead, he created his counterfactual masterpiece to help ensure that this future never actually would come to pass.
This being said, Huxley was much more spot on about the path humanity was about to take in terms of how it is often distracted so that those in power can remain both wealthy and powerful. We may not have Soma, but we do have reality television, political punditry, LOLcats, and product worship (you’ve seen the queues for the new models of iPads, right?). In terms of loving our servitude, how many of us are addicted to Facebook? We’re not to the stage where the class system is concretized in utero, but we don’t need to be; the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else has never been more pronounced. However, while Huxley was an astute observer of human nature, Brave New World fails as a science fiction novel.
So Nineteen Eighty-Four was not an actual prediction, but it was a narrative masterpiece. Orwell was a student of Huxley’s at Eton, and had to have read Brave New World when it was published in 1932. Both men had read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ur-dystopia We, which both books bear a strong resemblance to in terms of premise. But in terms of sheer story, Nineteen Eighty-Four trounces Brave New World, which is really more of a thought experiment than a novel. To paraphrase Henry James, story is character. Huxley gives us an assortment of point-of-view characters, only one of which (John the Savage) has any kind of narrative arc, and even this is not present throughout the entire book. Orwell gives us Winston and Julia and O’Brien, characters with depth and humanity and tragedy that stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel. Thought experiments are fine for intellectual exercise, but a story is something that resonates and becomes part of who we are.
Both books have incredible merits, but only one of them remains my all-time favorite novel, and has held that number one spot for twenty years. I’m sure you can guess which one.
As a final note, I’ll point y’all to a webcomic drawn in 2009 that illustrates a passage in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death that contrasts these two books quite succinctly.