It’s become too easy to call something ‘Orwellian’. We all know what it means. ‘Big Brother’, ‘Room 101’ and ‘doublespeak’ have all passed into the cultural and political lexicon. Constant observation, scrutiny and intrusion are the essences of the totalitarian system.
While 1984 remains seminal, it lacks the technological imagination of other works in the same dystopian genre. With numerous adaptations underway on television, notably The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle – it’s worth considering the justifications and the lesser-known technological systems, other than the watching eye, for autocratic oppression in the future.
In this Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess and Aldous Huxley stand as giants that differ to their obvious ‘Big Brother’. Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, and Brave New World are three of the most famous – but narratively diverse – examples of dystopian literature. They feature systems of government which abuse technology to maintain their power under the facade of moral, social or economic preservation. Fiction is the natural home for projecting our worries about technological advancements into the context of tomorrow, and the writers of these novels use setting and symbolism to convey their fears about potential abuse masquerading under the banner of social progress.
A Clockwork Orange by Burgess warns of the dangers of giving the state complete control over the individual in the name of a moral cause – reducing crime. The novel focuses on Alex, a teenager with love for stealing, rape, and general violence. After Alex is arrested and sentenced to prison for killing a woman, he volunteers for a new government programme called ‘Ludovico’s Technique’. The medical procedure, which would reduce his remaining 12-year sentence to two weeks, stops criminals reoffending by making them feel extremely nauseous when trying to commit acts of violence.
The government’s obsession with cutting crime drives the fundamental question of the text: is it better for a man to be naturally evil than forced to be good? Wicked deeds, of course, are heinous, but regarding freedom of choice, regarding the ability to be human, Burgess raises the point that it might be salutary to be monstrous and free than someone who is controlled, dehumanised and unable to be genuinely human anymore.
Burgess contends that medical reform defeats its purpose as only rehabilitation from choice can be sincere. This fictional government is concerned with reducing crime but at the expense of free choice, crossing the line of state duty of protecting citizens into by removing the rights of the individual altogether if they break the law.
The costly and futile exercise of trying to coerce someone with technology becomes apparent in the 21st section of the novel (symbolic as 21 in Britain is the age that someone is generally regarded to be fully mature). Although Alex’s treatment rendered him safe to society, the procedure faced a public backlash and was reversed. By the end of the novel, Alex has changed under his own volition as he reaches adulthood and considers a family of his own.
What is interesting in A Clockwork Orange is how much it recreates the hypocrisy of what society still wants to see – punishment but not cruelty – and goes more in-depth to ask if its possible to genuinely change without intervention. The state should punish criminals, and a method must be applied, but one that does not cause suffering to the criminal. What is a human being without free choice? Is it worth the sacrifice if it’s for the greater good? Do governments have the right to make such decisions? It’s a subtitle, but a unique, line of inquiry from Burgess that his contemporaries lack.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, alternatively, is meant to be a utopia set 500 years in the future organised on the principles of Henry Ford – strict, established and engineered in all aspects. Genetic engineering creates people to propagate an economic caste system that allows for promiscuity and casual drug use. People are not created but rather ‘made’ with an intolerance engrained into the children to loathe anything that does not meet the normality of the majority.
The novel has several protagonists. The first, Bernard Marx, is a psychologist is short in stature and feels alienated from and loathes the society that demands perfection. While an interesting perspective, this is better understood through the natural born character of John the Savage who most resembles contemporary humanity and interprets and rejects the culture that has abandoned intellectual endeavour in favour of drugs, sex and entertaining distraction.
The ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’, the method that allows for the creation of castes for a specific duty has disturbing parallels to globalisation. The novel’s investigation of genetic manipulation as the underpinning of a caste-based economy ultimately parodies humanity as functionaries, not individuals. Children in this world are specially programmed to be economically efficient, with free will as a secondary concern including the appreciation of arts and beauty.
This is best exemplified by Helmholtz Watson who creates slogans and advertisements used in the hypnopaedia programme for babies so that they become early consumers. This idea is satirical of the nature of ads in America when Huxley visited California in the 1920’s and intensely disliked the constant bombardment of advertisements and slogans.
The World Controller, Mustapha Mond, tries to defend the system by saying that is has attempted to preserve people from having emotions at all. The price of genetic engineering and hypnopaedia for social stability are, ultimately, an eerily prescient reminder that economics and genetics can hold people in place and dehumanise without firing a shot. The only escape in this world is the government supplied escapist drug ‘soma’.
Although this ‘Fordian’ society is a utopia economically, it’s a social husk for the human spirit. The abuse of technology seen in Brave New World is similar to A Clockwork Orange as both systems stem from the claim they better humanity. However, the surge in what technology can do repeatedly overwhelms human free will because what should be done can never keep up with what can be done.
Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury more explicitly warns of the dangers of technological control. Focussing on the character of Guy Montag, the reader witnesses his progressive dismay and disheartening with his profession as a book burning fireman. In this society, firefighters burn books because those in power believe they are saving humans from conflict, justified as books lead to opinions and opinions create disagreements.
Like A Clockwork Orange and A Brave New World, the underlying rationale for a severe curtailment of liberty stems from the state’s ‘good’ intentions. The philosophy behind the censorship in the book is different from the other two novels as it seems oddly meta. The character of Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief, is a well-educated man familiar with the very texts that his firemen are burning.
In the first of the three sections of the novel, ‘Hearth and the Salamander’, Beatty explains that censorship exists because of the intellectual unrest books cause. He explains to Montag that every person is angered and distressed by at least one book; therefore the obvious solution is to rid the world of all books which allows people to stay happy all the time with their entertainment (a similar logic to Huxley’s A Brave New World).
Beatty argues that people live for pleasure and now only a small proportion of human life is given over to discomforting work and thought. Sports, television and book burning are now the ultimate solutions to the natural intellectual disparity that, so the reasoning goes, creates the unhappiness the government has resolved through a totalitarian state.
This lifestyle of constant entertainment; television, fast cars, advertisements, and endless, irrelevant, information has produced a society of dullards who only love what they can feel rather than what requires concentration and thought. In the second part of the novel, ‘The Sieve and the Sand’, Montag’s house is burnt down for harbouring books as Captain Beatty’s quotes from famous literature, including Shakespeare and Samual Johnson, to stress the double standard of this forced egalitarianism – there will always be an oligarchy at the centre that knows how it works.
In the latter half of part two and the final chapter of the book, ‘Burning Bright’, the character of Faber, a former English professor, advances this point by saying that the blanket ignorance of an unmoving majority is the intransigent enemy of truth and progress. Bradbury hints throughout the novella that the shift that occurred to reduce people to no more than ignorant entertainment lovers was the result of giving those in power reason enough to remove books in the first place, perhaps an illusion to democracy run amok (the mantra of all tyrants).
Freedom of expression will always offend some people, and it is a fact that in a democracy not everyone will agree with what someone has to say. In this society, however, Bradbury’s message is clear: information, and its interpretation is part of the natural human condition. No amount of technology or censorship will change that. The ending of the novel reflects this in its discussion of the fable of the Phoenix and its endless cycle of birth and death. The human condition, free spirit and free speech, will not die in a fire not can it be controlled.
A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 all share the consensus that technology, whatever the horrid side-effects, can solve human condition through greater control. From brainwashing to genetic engineering to book burning the idea for a utopic society always ends with the sacrifice of human nature. Whatever the motive, there’s always a select autocracy who know the truth behind the subversive design.
Upon reflection, one can only ponder what conditions must exist before societies decide that technology really can control and better human nature. The unique ways in which these three texts tackle the matter is perhaps why they deserve greater consideration as TV revivals tend to focus more on the result and less on the motive and means for control of their fictional worlds.
Ideas are, of course, ubiquitous – they seldom die, but as we live in an age where the right to privacy is a constant fight and information is so diffuse, those who offer to control happiness should be met with persistent suspicion. In this, these three writers are perhaps overlooked as seminal sages of dangers that are far closer than we think.