For decades, it has been common to call authoritarian new laws, norms, or government actions “Orwellian.”
In 1984, George Orwell so brilliantly portrayed a nightmarish future that his name became synonymous with almost anything one wishes to describe as oppressive.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, meanwhile, provided a rather different but equally bleak vision of the future that is frequently invoked to illuminate our current malaise.
Amid the technological chaos and Western culture wars of the 21st century, thinkpiece writers sporadically debate which of these novels more accurately foresaw our present predicament.
Modern China most clearly embodies Orwell’s vision, and elements of both novels can be found in contemporary Western societies.
However, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offered perhaps a more accurate warning than either. Published in 1953, Bradbury’s novel is as gloomy and prescient as either Orwell’s or Huxley’s, but its explanation of how a dystopia is created comes closer to providing an understanding of our new reality.
The primary difference between Huxley’s dystopia and that described by Orwell is the methodology through which humanity is controlled by authoritarian governments.
Huxley argued that humans would be tricked into embracing their own enslavement via anti-depressants and various hedonistic distractions, while Orwell held that compliance would more easily be achieved through censorship, mind control, and violence.
In a letter to Orwell (his childhood French teacher) upon reading 1984, Huxley insisted 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.”
Certainly, Bradbury’s novel features elements of both; citizens in his future are subject to state violence and also pacified by pleasure and drugs. However, the key distinction here, and Bradbury’s great contribution to dystopian literature, is that we would choose our own intellectual enslavement as well.
In rather a clichéd dystopian trope, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a man awakening to the reality that society is profoundly oppressive and resolving to resist.
The protagonist is a fireman named Montag, who comes to question the nature of his profession. But in this vision of the future, firemen no longer extinguish fires, they start them.
They are tasked with burning books, which are now forbidden, and with the help of an eight-legged Mechanical Hound, they doggedly hunt for literature and destroy it. Technology fosters alienation, but systems of control are rarely foisted upon the population by a government.
In 1984, information is carefully controlled by the state. In Brave New World, citizens are bombarded with so much information they are unable to make intelligent judgments. In Fahrenheit 451, however, people choose ignorance as they come to reject the complexity and uncertainty provided by literature—with the proliferation of more exciting, short-form sources of media, books have gradually lost their appeal.
This is explained to Montag by his boss, Beatty:
Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comicbooks survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.
Initially thought of as boring, books are later considered dangerous. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Beatty tells Montag, for it promotes psychological confusion and social disharmony, allowing those who read to gain more knowledge than others, a kind of inequality now deemed unconstitutional.
“Not everyone [is] born free and equal,” Beatty explains.
But by outlawing literature and allowing people to grow addicted to vapid forms of entertainment, chained to their devices, “everyone [is] made equal.”
Reading, it is implied, leads to personal unhappiness and social instability:
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of “facts” they feel stuffed, but absolutely “brilliant” with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.
Bradbury predicted that people, disturbed by confusing or challenging ideas, might one day demand censorship for themselves and protection from any information that pierced the veil of their own simplified reality.
This is, of course, welcomed by the government, but is seldom forcibly imposed.
“Remember,” an old man called Faber says, “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”