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Dystopian societies and literature: Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley give us fair warning

Updated on May 23, 2013

They are novels that frequently make the required reading list in high school and college English classes around America: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And with good reason.

These novels all present us with dystopian future societies. They force us to consider the realities of our current society and the potential that we could, without realizing it, succumb to those forces that could strip us of our individuality and freedoms. A totalitarian state seeks out ways to inhibit thought in its citizenry, subtly, if possible, or through force, if necessary. It is through such actions that ill-intentioned governments secure their control over the masses.

In Fahrenheit 451, the key to state control over the minds of the people takes center stage. In a seemingly backwards set of circumstances, firemen are not charged with putting out fires, but with setting them. The burning of books represents not only the wiping out of traditions and voices past, but more importantly, it symbolizes the destruction of knowledge and of the quest for wisdom. It is an obliteration of original ideas made tangible through the medium in which they were expressed. And, with the destruction of these ideas, the development of new ideas and individual thought becomes repressed.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, main character Winston Smith lives in a dictatorial society in which loyalty to the Party and the image of Big Brother is of utmost importance. Citizens in the community live with the constant awareness that the Party monitors their every move, even when they are asleep. Through fear and brainwashing, their thoughts become repressed and their ability to question is stunted. The state even manages to turn its citizens on one another, as demonstrated by Parson’s downfall at the hands of his own daughter, who overheard him speaking against the Party in his sleep.

The Party also controls all media, rewriting newspapers and histories in order to accommodate its needs and justify its goals. It is more subtle and conniving than all out book burning, but the end goal is the same: control of the thoughts of the proletariat. Contradictions? No, in a world of doublethink, even contradictions eventually make sense.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents us with a possibility at the other end of the spectrum: a world in which happiness is encouraged and people are asked to put the welfare of their fellow citizens ahead of themselves. From the outside looking in, it seems like a grand idea--a utopia, rather than a dystopia. However, manufactured happiness and blind loyalty to a pre-established ideal serves only to create a race of zombies. Also fueling the passivity of the people, the World State has placed restrictions on the intellectual materials to which the people have access. Once again, while it is not book burning, it is a form of manipulation and information control that discourages individual thought and questioning.

Dystopian technology

Also frightening is the idea that technology can be used by the state in order to ensure that the people remain in its clutches. Ray Bradbury shunned media such as television and radio (and would, no doubt, despise computers and iPhones today) as distractions that hurt a person’s ability to concentrate and, therefore, to think. Huxley, meanwhile, provides a glimpse at the use of drugs in order to ensure the passive acceptance of the masses. Literary reflections of real-world antidepressants, soma is widely distributed in the World State and consumed like candy by its citizens. Feeling sad? Take a gram of soma. Upset about a comment that your co-worker made? Take two grams.

The government of Oceania was more direct in its use of technology. Bugs, video monitors, and machinery designed to inflict torture populate George Orwell’s conjured-up society and help to ensure that its people are true and consistent in their nationalism. Once again, all are means through which the thoughts of the people are controlled.

Our responsibility

All three of these books encourage us, as readers and as citizens of the world today, to take a step back and consider those seemingly innocuous events occurring around us. Most of us have heard the phrase, “We live in a world of smart phones and dumb people.” We hear it, we nod our heads in acknowledgement that there is a modicum of truth to the statement, and we might even chuckle a little. Too often, however, we fail to recognize the warning inherent to the phrase.

We find ourselves in a world where the advances in technology make it less and less necessary for us to think and analyze. Information is at our fingertips -- we can find the answers to anything! Fortunately for us, the internet is a medium that continues to be available to anyone with a computer or a phone. Anyone can post anything, and anyone can refute or assert the validity of those posts. The internet has become a platform for globalized round-table discussion.

In a society like North Korea, however, all media, including the web, exists under the watchful eye of Kim Jong Un’s administration. Most citizens don’t have any internet access to speak of, and for those that do, the only service provider is the government itself. The press is tightly controlled by the government, and broadcast media promotes the ideologies of the rulers while denouncing countries such as South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In such a society, this technology becomes dangerous, especially when people become wholly dependent upon it for news and information. It transforms from a liberating gateway to infinite information into the very leash to which our collective collars are attached.

Contentment with the status quo prevents the people from recognizing the inequalities and inconsistencies that inevitably take place in government. Government is, after all, run by people, and people are flawed. That’s not to say that we are, by nature, a terrible species. There is plenty of good in this world, as demonstrated in the aftermath of tragedies like 9/11, the Boston bombings, and all manner of natural disasters, as well as on a daily basis in the form of soup kitchens, blood drives, and other such nonprofit efforts. However, we can also be petty, greedy, and vindictive. It is those who are ruled by such characteristics that need to be checked in government, and it is the duty of a nation’s citizenry to help provide that check.

The goal of a totalitarian government is to cultivate contentment and loyalty. Whether it is through the media or through drugs or through book burning, by creating an atmosphere that convinces people that all is well and the State is always right, the power-hungry and bad-intentioned tighten their control over the minds and hearts of the people. It is under such circumstances that famines and genocides take root and eventually grow to wipe out hordes of people.

Now, I’m not advocating that we all reject the internet and throw out our Prozac. By all means, embrace this technology! We live in a stressful society, but I would caution us all not to allow this stress to reduce us to seeking the easy route. Speak up on message boards, follow the news and politics, do research on the latest health trends before diving into them. Stay angry and aware. What we, as citizens, need to be mindful of is the possibility that restrictions may one day be place on our access to this wealth of information. Acknowledge the good in the world, but maintain an awareness of the bad. Keep talking, keep learning, keep questioning, keep voting. This is how we protect ourselves and our freedoms.

What is your favorite work of dystopian literature?

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