The two classic dystopian novels 1984 (1949) by George Orwell (1903–1950) and Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) have often prompted comparison, both to each other and to the real-life conditions of today.
At different times readers have regarded one novel or the other as the more prescient.
Given the accelerating pace of social change, it might be good to revisit the question yet again and seek to determine how well each dystopia predicted the future in various ways.
Mothers & babies
In 1984, as Baker notes, government coercion is so brutal that "a person can be made to deny his own mother." In Brave New World, a planet-wide state, that's hardly a risk—but only because there are almost no mothers. Words like "mother" are obscenities. In 1984, "mother" is not actually an obscenity, but mothers experience no love, respect, or even security. Everyone's primary relationship is with the state.
1984 takes for granted that late 20th-century proles will produce babies to keep society running. In Brave New World (henceforth BNW), set in the year 2540, babies are created in baby factories designed by the government, and children are manipulated during development so as to become intelligence-based castes. Caste thinking did not survive social justice activism, so Huxley got that wrong. But in 1932, eugenics was considered a sound science. It only fell into disrepute after World War II, a decade and a half later.
Today, of course, designer babies and abortion are widely accepted but are left to the discretion of the consumer. So neither author got that picture right.
In 1984, children are taught to spy on their parents, as they were in Nazi Germany. In parent-free BNW, they are conditioned by Pavlovian techniques to hate books and nature. This BNW forecast strikes a false note today: children raised in urban high-rises and educated in failing school systems do not need to be taught to avoid these things. They hardly know them. That said, political correctness today functions like Pavlovian conditioning. But it happens most intensively on college campuses, as Greg Lukianoff's Unlearning Liberty (2012) recounts. Both novels get the details wrong but the direction right.
In both dystopias, the futurist regimes demand a monopoly of historical knowledge. Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, a lower-level bureaucrat of Oceania (formerly the Western world), works at the Ministry of Truth. He alters historical records to match the Party's need for a politically correct history. This sounds right. Many recent coinages such as "workplace violence" (domestic terrorism), man-caused disasters (terrorism generally), and "militants" (terrorists) point to a trend to rewrite current events to accommodate propaganda needs. However, more often, history is just not taught any more.
Both Orwell and Huxley overestimated the desire for accurate information. A government monopoly on knowledge is likely unnecessary where the desire for it barely exists. Neither foresaw the tsunami of "just-now" news that the internet offers, killing the desire for in-depth knowledge in throngs of users.
Orwell portrays his dystopia as anti-sex. He apparently saw sex as, in itself, a form of liberation. That is problematic. One senses the strain the proposition creates: Winston's lack of concern about his sweetheart's promiscuity strikes a false note. If he is traditional enough to think for himself, as is the premise, why is he not traditional enough to want an exclusive relationship?
In this matter, BNW is far closer to today's scene than 1984. Sexual jealousy is incomprehensible in BNW because everyone belongs to everyone else, which means in practice that no one belongs to anyone. Tinder and some other dating sites seem to be leading the migration to the world of BNW.
So with respect to sex, Huxley was definitely a better forecaster than Orwell. His characters, with the tragic exception of protagonist John, drown humanity in promiscuity and cannot even rise to unreasoning possessiveness.
Means of control
In BNW, the perfect drug, soma, serves the same purpose as terror does in 1984. Although it is less violent than 1984, BNW is not especially tolerant. No one is allowed "leisure from pleasure." Public shamestorms result, for example, if a couple has been together too long. Incurable dissidents are exiled to an isolated island, rather than tortured or killed. There they can rail uselessly against the new order, with only each other for company. That sounds uncomfortably like many Christian environments today. And, for public shamestorms, Twitter is well ahead of schedule.
The fall of communism (1989) was not envisioned in Orwell's day, so his 1984 assumes a straightforward, indefinite reign of terror. In Chapter I, he correctly predicts mass government surveillance via a telescreen; today, many more sophisticated methods are available. Huxley's World State, like Orwell's Oceania, engages in surveillance as well.
Government surveillance is growing rapidly today. It is usually justified by security concerns rather than by a need to inculcate terror. So while both novelists are right, Huxley captured the mood better: it is for your own good.
Economy & religion
BNW's World State makes consumption a duty, whereas 1984's Oceania controls citizens by managing shortages. We see instances of both today; underlying both strategies is the assumption that government should manage/micromanage the economy.
Similarly, both dystopias banish religion, and certainly we see today the slow but sure retreat of religion from public and even private spheres, assisted by government policy and court rulings. This development should not be a surprise. Traditional religion is mediated through human relationships. Jews call themselves the children of Abraham; Christians call God our Father. When the only critical relationship is between the state and the individual, either the state is God or there is no God.
Both dystopian novels destroy their protagonists, Winston (1984) and John (BNW), but for different reasons and by different means. Winston starts keeping a diary recording his true opinions, ultimately his undoing. "Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. . . . Sooner or later they were bound to get you."
The ever-shifting, boundaryless increase in political correctness today, especially on university campuses, feels like a preview of Winston's environment. For example, he meets a man who is revising the dictionary so as to eliminate all politically incorrect terms, as part of a process of purging them from the language. But one senses that the dictionary will be under constant revision as the Party's needs change.
In both dystopias, the unfree citizens depend utterly on the state for survival. The current growth in dependence today has serious implications for civil liberties. Conventional liberties thrive in societies that assume a limited role for government, not the role of total caretaker.
Huxley's protagonist John grew up on a Reservation preserved by the World State. He is not an Aboriginal; rather, his mother failed to abort him, and she and her son were given shelter by the inhabitants. Isolated, John turns to Shakespeare, as Winston turns to a diary, somehow keeping human thoughts and dreams alive. However, John falls in love with a visiting BNW woman, Lenina.
Because he has no experience of World State life, John does not understand that Lenina, who lives for sex and drugs, can never resemble a Shakespearean heroine. In sharp contrast, Orwell's Winston is indifferent to his sex partner, Julia, because for him sex is simply a rebellion against the Party. In any event, without direct coercion, Shakespeare is rapidly disappearing from English curricula today. A parade of authors with identity-group status is replacing him.
Torture to convert
John's attempt to start a rebellion fails because the citizens of the World State do not really want truth or adulthood; they prefer sex, drugs, and entertainment. His mother Linda, returning to"civilization," is more or less euthanized, and dies during a dispassionate school visit ("death conditioning"). We can count on seeing a good deal of that sort of thing in years to come in our own society. John, shattered by Lenina's utter lack of depth, later hangs himself.
Of course, Winston and his sweetheart betray each other when arrested by the Thought Police, as they had acknowledged they would. In a fully naturalistic world, all relationships are fungible, so perhaps "betrayal" is the wrong word.
The purpose of Winston's subsequent torture is to convert him, just as sensitivity sessions are intended to convert people who have made politically incorrect statements today, and apology tours are intended to properly abase them afterward. Here, 1984 captures the mood rather better than BNW.
From Spark Notes: "After weeks of interrogation and torture, O'Brien tells Winston about the Party's motives. Winston speculates that the Party rules the proles for their own good. O'Brien tortures him for [giving] this answer, saying that the Party's only goal is absolute, endless, and limitless power."
Yes, because in a naturalistic environment, power is the only possible goal. "Good" has no fixed meaning, but power over others does.
Winston is finally compelled to say—and believe—that 2 + 2 = 5, and that he loves Big Brother. Naturalism provides him no inner basis for rebellion against tyranny even if he, improbably, recognizes it.
Both novelists foresee their dystopias as inevitable outcomes of post-Enlightenment thinking. But significantly, while the World State of BNW is a technotopia, its interest in science apart from technology is quite limited. As Spark Notes puts it:
Science has also had to be suppressed to create the happy and stable society. This is particularly ironic because World State citizens are taught to revere science as one of their most fundamental values. However, none of them—not even Alphas such as Helmholtz and Bernard—actually possess any scientific training, so they really don't even know what science is.
Today, there are many areas in which "science" has come to mean the beliefs of a science elite, not information derived from evidence. Claims about a multiverse, for example, are not in any way derived from evidence (evidence may not even be possible), but those who espouse the belief consider themselves scientific.
So who wins?
Huxley retains a slight advantage in my view because a perpetual 1984 reign of terror may be less viable over time than a BNW technotopia where few would be sober enough to rebel.
But the growth in size and scope of government in recent decades has narrowed Huxley's lead, and that is sobering.
(This essay originally appeared in Salvo, which is “dedicated to debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence.")