The best authors of dystopian fiction don’t attempt to predict the future. They’re not prophets. What they do is that they look at existing trends in the society they live in and push them to their most radical conclusions. In other words, these authors try to think about what the future would be if things carried on in the direction they were headed. Thus if Orwell or Huxley are envisioning a totalitarian world, that’s because they’ve had a deep look into the heart of already existing totalitarian societies.
And that’s probably why reading dystopias of the 20th century–1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451–feels eerily prescient today. Many of the visions in these novels have in fact become reality. From Orwell’s nightmarish conception of “Big Brother” to Huxley’s grim vision of genetic engendering, here are the most important examples:
1984 by George Orwell
Written in 1948, 1984 depicts a totalitarian world where citizens are constantly spied on by the inaccessible face of the Party known as “Big Brother.” The image of Big Brother appears everywhere–on coins, on telescreens, and on large posters with the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”–reminding individuals both inside and outsides their homes that their every move is being watched.
Surveillance: Just as Orwell imagines, ubiquitous (video) surveillance has become part of our daily lives. It’s no secret that CCTV cameras today can track our every move and all our personal data is tracked and stored online. A series of leaks has shown that, despite data protection and privacy laws, no data is ever secure (most famously seen in the N.S.A spying affair). Even more remarkable is the public acceptance of this: Many people don’t bother about electronic surveillance because they trust their own authorities. Welcome to Oceania!
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”George Orwell, 1984
Newspeak: Newspeak is the official language of Oceania (English being “Oldspeak”). It’s designed to limit people’s ability to think or articulate ‘subversive’ thoughts. For example, euphemisms like Miniluv, Minipax or Minitrue sound positive, but in fact mean the opposite. The Ministry of Love tortures and brainwashes citizens, the Ministry of Peace maintains a state of war and the Ministry of Truth spreads lies. This manipulation of language is also present in today’s political and media landscape. Consider, for example, the term “Department of Homeland Security,” the U.S. federal executive department responsible for public security. While the term homeland conveys a sense of unity and security, it also supports ethnic homogeneity, thus excluding immigrants who look to homelands elsewhere.
“Big Brother:” The reality show Big Brother is based on the novel’s concept of people being under constant surveillance (“Big Brother is watching you”). The show is just one example of how reality TV has contributed to the general acceptance of video surveillance as envisioned in 1984.
2 + 2 = 5: In Orwell’s novel “objective reality” only exists insofar as it conforms to the Party’s program. The Party deliberately spreads lies and expects the citizens of Oceana to simply accept them to be true. Considering Trump’s torrent of misleading statements and flat-out lies or the blatant lies of the Vote-Leave campaigners (“we send the EU 350 million pounds a week”), it’s obvious that politicians around the world have long moved away from presenting facts. And sadly there are enough people who accept these lies to be true.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In Brave New World, Huxley envisions a totalitarian World State in which the government controls its citizens using science and technology. In the dystopian world of the novel, total control of society is achieved through in-vitro fertilization, artificial laboratory breeding, conditioning and ‘cloning’ of the workforce. In addition, people are kept happy through a drug called “soma” and religion is replaced by a strong belief in science and technology.
Genetic Engineering: While Huxley’s vision of human mass-production in test tubes is still a far-off fantasy, scientific and technological progress has made it possible, at least in theory, to create a world of such kind. The means to influence the genetic makeup of babies–to create “Designer Babies”–are technically there.
Castes: The society of the World State is based on a caste system. Alphas and Betas are society’s elite, while the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons make up the working class. While the upper castes are intelligent and have managerial jobs, the lower castes do manual labour. In most societies, similar class-systems are very much alive today. Especially British society is still deeply divided by class.
“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Consumerism: In the World State, citizens are encouraged to throw old or broken stuff away and buy something new instead of fixing things: “Ending is better than mending,” is what they’re being told. Today, we use the term throw-away society to describe a society of just such kind. We constantly seek to replace items with ones that are bigger, better, faster, or simply newer, ignoring the consequences mass consumption has on the environment or people living in poorer corners of the world.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In the dystopian, futuristic world of Fahrenheit 451, firemen no longer fight fire to save lives and property, but use it to destroy books in an attempt to maintain social order (451 Fahrenheit being the temperature at which paper starts to burn). Everyone who is discovered to own or read books is arrested and has their books and homes burned.
The role of books: In the world of Fahrenheit 451, wall-sized TVs and in-ear radios have resulted in a society no longer curious about books. Television has numbed citizens to an extent that they’re no longer conscious of real-world events and don’t have thoughts of their own. Although we’re not at the point of burning books yet, it’s a fact that mass-media has reduced people’s interest in reading. In 2019, a research conducted by the National Literacy Trust has shown that just 26% of under-18s spent some time each day reading–which is the lowest daily level recorded since 2005.
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Anti-intellectualism: In Bradbury’s world, intellectualism and independent thinking are considered loathsome, the word ‘intellectual’ is even used as a swear word. This movement towards anti-intellectualism can also be traced in our world. Consider, for example, Michael Gove, senior Tory MP, declaring that “people of this country have had enough of experts” in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. In the U.S., likewise, the election of Donald Trump, a former reality TV star, contributed to people becoming more distrustful of the political and intellectual elite.
Earbuds: In the world of the novel, there’re radios the size of thimbles that people can put in their ears to listen to music and radio programs. Although the novel was written in the 1950s, the technology that Bradbury envisions here is eerily similar to the wireless earbuds we know today.
Admittedly, though some of these visions have become reality, our world hasn’t become a full-fledged dystopia yet. Nevertheless, the warnings are still valid. To quote from Aldous Huxley himself:
“This is possible: For heaven’s sake be careful about it.”
Have you read some of these dystopias? Would you agree with me? Let’s discuss in the comment section below!