Brave New World
Many consider the best two modern examples of ‘dystopian’ literature to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (written in 1931). For a time, Orwell’s explicitly brutal vision dominated as its warnings were echoed in several political regimes. However, Huxley’s may ultimately prove to be the more accurate (and frightening). One of the best analyses of these two differing visions of the future is in the foreword to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. The title is a sardonic usage of an expression from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This new world, six centuries into the future from its writing, is anything but beautiful (as ‘brave’ meant in Shakespeare’s time). Stability and predictability are the main goals in this world. It’s a future of zero population growth, unquestioned homogeneity, engineered lives from birth to death, a mindless, enthusiastic embrace of technology, and a drug-dependant, brain-washed, consumer society. There is no longing for freedom because people truly believe they are happy. It is enslavement by pleasure rather than by fear. The family is absolutely and entirely abolished in favor of the state. Romance and emotional bonds are seen as obscenities. Even death is not feared as lives are seen only as drops in an endless societal soup. This work was not received well by contemporaries for various reasons, not the least of which was its disturbing message — that in the end, it isn’t any external government we need to fear most — it’s our own weakness.
Near the end of the movie CONTACT, the alien says of humanity: “An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” Much sci-fi explores this duality in stark terms. For example there’s the Star Trek TOS episode “The Enemy Within” where Kirk gets split into Jekyll/Hyde, neither of which alone is the true Kirk. Others make the duality yin/yang, civilized/barbaric, rational/emotional, refined/rustic, etc. THE DISPOSSESSED explores this duality as cultured/anarchist, but in a soft, subtle, poignant, and inside-out way. It’s a classic noble savage tale, steeped in enlightened anthropology. Le Guin also manages to avoid going full-on dragony*, which is probably what enabled this book to win the Hugo and Nebula.
* “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Quite simply, the greatest science fiction story of all time.