Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The Other Kind of Dystopia
There are lots of ways for the world to turn to doo-doo. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in which a totalitarian state takes control of everything and rules with an iron fist--surveilling all citizens, and abducting and torturing all dissenters. Fear is one way to control a population. But there are others. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, another dystopian classic, for instance, pleasure is used readily to control the population. The citizenry of Brave New World is fed drugs to keep them happy and ignorant, encouraged to be as sexually promiscuous as possible and is distracted from questioning the status quo by endless entertainment, games and sports. Science and technology are applied to every aspect of human life. Babies are gestated in factories and both their genes and their development environment are strictly controlled. Children are educated in a similar factory-like setting. Distinct classes, or castes, are created by a combination of genetic engineering and brainwashing. But the state in A Brave New World claims a higher purpose. While in Nineteen Eighty-Four the totalitarian Party sought only to maximize its own power, the World State in Brave New World at least pretends that it's out to eliminate suffering for its people, even if that comes at the cost of also eliminating freedom, love and passion. A number of characters in Brave New World don't find the combination of lots of sex, heavy doses of drugs and ample entertainment options as fulfilling as the World State would expect and their struggles with finding something deeper drive the plot of the book.
Commentators have found reasons to compare Brave New World with Nineteen Eighty-Four and most have concluded that Brave New World more accurately predicted what the twentieth century would ultimately bring. After all, we worship technology, we have all our entertainments, our 3-D movies, our immersive video games, our passion-inducing sports. We promote a kind of sexual promiscuity among our youth (at least according to a lot of reality TV) and we dull our dissatisfaction with our lives and work by taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. If you believe the hype, our consumerism has reached such a level that for many the release of the next iPhone is a major reason to keep on living. It's true that we don't have a class system that is as strictly enforced as the one Huxley describes (or we have at least convinced ourselves of that) and most of us still hold onto many of the ideals missing from the World State: love, commitment, family. How threatened are these things by the infantile desires our culture so prominently displays? Is our entertainment culture just a way of distracting us from realizing that our lives have no meaning?
Brave New World is a weird book, at times funny, at times disturbing and at times almost impossible to follow. It gets into all kinds of philosophical and religious argument so if you tackle it, be prepared. But if you do give it a try, when you're done, look around you. Do you see the Huxleyan dystopia, a world full of doped up people out to substitute true fulfillment with rampant consumption? Or is there still enough deeper feeling out there to convince you it's not all completely mucked up, at least not yet?