NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.
Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.
A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.
Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.
Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.
Brave New World – not a new concept
Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.
But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.
Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.
The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.
Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.
The dystopia of Aldous Huxley
In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.
Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.
The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.
Ape rule as a dystopia
Planet of the Apes ends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alley sees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America.
Logan’s Run has people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.
The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.