In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures. One was George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its horrific vision of a brutal, mind-controlling totalitarian state – a book that gave us Big Brother, and thoughtcrime and Newspeak and the memory hole and the torture palace called the Ministry of Love, and the discouraging spectacle of a boot grinding into the human face forever.
The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dimwitted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.
Which template would win, we wondered? During the Cold War, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have the edge. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits proclaimed the end of history, shopping reigned triumphant, and there was already lots of quasi-soma percolating through society. True, promiscuity had taken a hit from AIDS, but on balance we seemed to be in for a trivial, giggly, drug-enhanced Spend-ORama: Brave New World was winning the race.
That picture changed, too, with the attack on New York City’s Twin Towers in 2001. Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all. The Ministry of Love is back with us, it appears, though it’s no longer limited to the lands behind the former Iron Curtain: the West has its own versions now.
On the other hand, Brave New World hasn’t gone away. Shopping malls stretch as far as the bulldozer can see. On the wilder fringes of the genetic engineering community, there are true believers prattling of the Gen-rich and the Gen-poor – Huxley’s Alphas and Epsilons – and busily engaging in schemes for genetic enhancement and – to go Brave New World one better – for immortality.
Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like? Surely it’s time to look again at Brave New World and to examine its arguments for and against the totally planned society it describes, in which ‘everybody is happy now’. What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?
Margaret Atwood is Canada’s most eminent novelist, poet and critic, author of award-winning books such as The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. She won the Booker Prize (for the former) in 2000.