European Dystopia: Orwell, Zamyatin, Huxley, and von Harbou
Orwell, Zamyatin, Huxley, and von Harbou
by Lennart Svensson
(This chapter is an extract from Science Fiction Seen From the Right, by Lennart Svensson
In this chapter we’ll take a closer look on European dystopias, stemming from the former half of the 20th century. They are Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1903-1950), We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and Metropolis by Thea von Harbou (1888-1954). First, they’re examined one by one, and then an attempt is made to see them all together, trying to reach a conceptual conclusion.
The number one controversial, politically oriented SF-novel of all times is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). It’s got this towering, iconic quality to it. They say: if your author name becomes a label, like Lovecraftian, Dickensian or Dantesque, then you’ve succeed. And we all know what “Orwellian” is. Not least our times, the 2010s, are truly Orwellian. We live in an Empire with seemingly perpetual, peripheral wars and we have our equivalents to Newspeak and Two Minutes Hate. “Freedom is Slavery” (since eating, watching TV and fornicating is the “true” freedom) and “Ignorance is Strength” (since castigating opposing voices in the media is the highest form of good).
Orwell’s book has been read as an assault against both Communist Russia and Capitalist America. But in the changing times the novel has metamorphosed once again, now becoming useful in decoding the governing techniques of the current nihilistic, “liberal”, multicultural establishment. It isn’t hard to find preachers sounding like the O’Brien character in 1984. Just substitute “white man” for “man” in what Orwell’s O’Brien says, and you find the jargon that until recently was viable in “polite society” in the West:
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history; you are non-existent.”
Nihilism is threatening us, then and now. But how to fight it? With idealism of course, by stressing Will, Thought and Compassion and the ideals derived from them; see the Introduction.
Orwell is an all-time classic in the dystopian genre but he had a predecessor: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921). In the previous chapter, I noted that the Englishman had read Zamyatin’s novel. And in Nineteen Eighty-Four as in We, it’s all there: a man in a future dictatorship caught between the official demands of power and the longing for love. The protagonist starts to doubt the propaganda and gets caught up in the state’s repressive apparatus, in the end emerging as a brainwashed robot. These are the superficial similarities between We and Nineteen Eighty-Four and they’re interesting to note. What more do I have to say about Nineteen Eighty-Four? Nothing, actually. While I acknowledge its status as a classic, shaping our view on the kinship between Bolshevik Russia and the Politically Correct regimes of the current Westworld, I have a hard time enduring the passive nihilism of its outlook. I mean, the novel is tight and well told, it makes perfect sense all the way, but as a viable take on nihilism vs. idealism, I’d rather read Lewis’ That Hideous Strength or Boye’s Kallocain. Orwell isn’t idealistic enough for my tastes, he shows no viable alternative rooted in eternal values. It isn’t enough to put your hope in the proles. Orwell was a man striving for decency but mere decency isn’t enough to fight nihilism.
The Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote the novel We, about a Bolshevik style dictatorship dominating a future world. What immediately falls into mind is the constructivist style and playful language of the story. I here think of the author’s inventiveness in creating his future city landscape with its Accumulator Tower, the Music Factory and the
spaceship Integral made out of copper and glass, “about to integrate the endless equation of the universe”. Artistically this is on another level than Orwell, maybe even beyond Boye’s Kallocain and Huxley’s Brave New World. As for narrative style, von Harbou’s Metropolis seemingly rivals it; the problem is that her story stylistically comes through as pretentious and vague, Zamyatin, on the other hand is perfectly understandable all the way with his narrative brinkmanship. His story also rewards the reader with clever observations and off the cuff-reflections about this and that. In comparison, Orwell (God bless him) is less of an artist and more of a reporter, a common man driven by indignation and fear. As intimated he is, if you will, a nihilist – like O’Brien, his chief villain…! Zamyatin on the other hand, has a different, more diversified outlook on life. This hints at what is needed for a dystopia to work, namely, a counterpoint, a counter-image of what the dictatorship is not. More on this below. The narrator of We, the Head Engineer, in the text expressly says that “We” shall be the name of his story (compare Anthem by Ayn Rand, q.v. chapter twenty-seven, which also has this “we”- narrator). To say “we” instead of “I” is an example of a basic element of the collectivist dictatorship, of the vocabulary shaping your thoughts.
It could remind you of Samuel Delany’s novel Babel-17 where you automatically become a traitor by using a certain language. That’s an important point to make, now and forever. Conversely, if you want to fight a regime bent on mind control like this you have to create your own vocabulary and make the opponent use it.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopian story focusing on biology, physiology and psychology. The programmatic side of the dictatorship in question, this World State 600 years in the future, is a sort of glorified, internalized utilism. This is a subtle form of slavery; people are brought to love the dictatorial lifestyle, not by being
coerced but by being conditioned from birth. That’s the difference between this story and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s book, along with showing brainwashing techniques in the form of a rigged language, also told us about physical torture in no uncertain way. Brave New World treads more subtle lands and in doing so is even more reminiscent of the current dictatorship of mass media, consumerism and social control as means of maintaining the
regime of nihilism. In a preface written fifteen years after the first publishing, Huxley mentions that in states where the economic and political freedom goes down the sexual freedom tends to go up, as a compensation. This is true for Soviet Russia at least, with its “sexual Bolshevism”, and maybe even for our over-sexed times ruled by the PC dictatorship.
Brave New World tells about a world without freedom, spirituality or a concept of God. Eventually a man grown up outside of this regime is presented, called The Wildman. He hasn’t been submitted to conditioning and psychic tinkering; he has read books and roamed the wilderness. And he wants freedom and spirituality. But he’s deemed insane because the old world, which had this, also had diseases and insecurity. This a teacher of the World State tells him. Now I wonder: do Politically Correct operators of today still maintain such things, warning against the supposed medical deficiencies of the World of Tradition, or have they formally given up the fight against the reflected life…?
Brave New World is a profiling and dramatization of a life devoid of love and spirituality. It’s about a society where everyone constantly is drugged by taking something called soma, with people never doing things like reading or thinking but instead being occupied with sensory entertainment, being hypnotically educated. To this, promiscuity is an ideal. No ordinary families exist; children instead being reared in state nurseries. So I say: I get the picture. This is a warning and rather efficient. But I have to add, perhaps frivolously: the world of today, of the 2010s, isn’t totally like Brave New World. It has some similarities but along with the attempted conditioning of people, the propaganda and some cloning techniques around we still have people willingly reading old, supposedly outdated books on esotericism and spirituality; they meditate, they have real feelings and heartfelt relationships. Huxley’s vision of “machine technology applied to human society” from eighty years ago is still valid but overall I’m an optimist since this technocracy hasn’t won yet and never will. Since 11/11 2011 we live in the Sat Yuga of harmony and order. This has to be taken into account when we today read dystopian stories like Huxley’s, written during the Kâli Yuga of dualism and nihilism.
Brave New World was published in 1932. After this Huxley even wrote a book on esotericist philosophy, The Perennial Philosophy (1946), a comparative study of quotes from documents of Eastern and Western mysticism. So instead of reading Brave New World and being indignant on how bad everything is, my advice would be to read up on books like the just mentioned and cherish the Philosophia Perennis. Essentially, it’s about following the Law of Attraction and seeing how “like attracts like”: as you sow, so you shall reap. Willpower is of essence, the Will to Light; contrariwise, the lack of Will drags you down in darkness and despair.
Brave New World can, at times, reward the reader. For instance, chapter three mixes lines from different voices in different circumstances, those of a private person, a scientist and a politician of this future world. The narrative thread thus becomes loosened up, if only for a chapter, and that’s a peculiar trait. Everything is symbolized by the mere lines of the three separate speakers, the gist of the novel thus being conveyed conceptually. So if you want this novel condensed into a few pages, read chapter three. The current, real-world PC regime is bent on eradicating indigenous peoples via mass-immigration and multiculturism. This is hinted at even in Brave New World, in names like Jean-Jaques Habibullah, Bokanovsky Jones and Mustapha Mond, although the main characters like Lenina Crowne etc. are “common” Brits living in London.
Brave New World depicts a caste society: alpha and beta persons rule the society while gamma, delta and epsilon people do routine work. Huxley has cleverly constructed his future world, both detailwise and as for the big picture.
Brave New World is a rather curious dystopia, a book giving you a warm-cold feeling. We’re met with a wholly sterile future with propaganda, conditioning, cloning and rigid castes, but told in a sort of sunny narrative with puns and witticisms. The novel deserves its status as a classic and it’s nice with a dystopia without the harshness and drama of Kallocain and Nineteen Eighty-Four. That is, Brave New World is dramatic enough but overall it’s kind of more civil. It’s a dystopia of the “air-conditioned nightmare” type. Huxley was a skilled, self-conscious author by the time he wrote this; strangely he never wrote anything similar again, he never got so speculative and futuristic. And maybe the narrative gets a little too self-conscious at times, maybe Huxley could have cut down a little on the irony. It’s all over the place, even in the title.
Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis, as a novel, is too much and too little. There’s too much melodrama, excessive metaphors, pathetique and sentimentality. And too little of ideas, ideology and conceptualization. Metropolis isn’t essential reading for the right-winger. It’s primarily of interest for the history of SF and for the history of film. The movie from 1927 was a masterpiece through and through, von Harbou writing the script based on her own novel (more on the film in chapter thirteen). The film script streamlines the narrative. A lot may be “lost in translation” this way – the better, I say…! Because the novel Metropolis is an effort to read for the style-conscious reader. Everything is excessive; the city roars not like a beast but “like a thousand beasts”, the machines are evil gods and a certain foreman swears “like a hundred demons” and so on and so forth. Having said this, the cityscape and its underground may have its alluring aspects even in the novel, the form-loving aesthete may have some fun exploring this – if, indeed, the reader can stand the hyperboles, the “exciting” storytelling and the metaphors, these mainly being of the disappointing kind. Seen from the right this is a tale of a rebellion in a future techno-city. At the end the factions of workers and employers unite, maybe foreshadowing Nazism’s deemphasizing of the class struggle concept. Metropolis is the least refined of the novels treated in this chapter.
Metropolis is the least refined of the novels treated in this chapter. But you shouldn’t be too harsh; overall it stands rather well along the others. The ideological, conceptual element is rather absent. But a symbolic trait of the dystopia is exquisitely represented in the form of the “counter-image to the dictatorship” that the other novels treated also have. In this respect, We has an Ancient House still standing outside the right-angled future city, Nineteen Eighty-Four has a special apartment the hero and heroine occupy in order to cultivate their resistance to the regime, and Kallocain has an elaboration of a dream one of the drug-induced patients has, a dream of a desert city. And Brave New World has The Wildman, born outside of the modern world and steeped in the plays of Shakespeare. And Metropolis, finally, in the realm of “counter-image to nihilism”, in the cityscape has a cathedral still standing in spite of the atheistic governance. This building and its interior of statues of saints occurs several times in the novel, making it an effectual counter-image to the modernistic squareness of the city at large.
I said that Metropolis had its elements of sentimentality. But of course, some sentiment must be allowed in a novel. And as yet another counter-image to the techno-world may be seen the love incorporated in Maria – the human Maria, in contrast to the robot made in her image. Maria is a saintly figure caring for children, oppressed workers and for Freder, the son of the city’s ruler and her love interest. Although melodramatic and vague at times Metropolis conveys the traditional values of spirituality, motherly love and caring as a counter-image to a technocity of perfect machines and regimentation. Man isn’t a machine and if we learn that from a dystopia, that man has a heart serving as mediator between head and hand, then it’s still conceptually viable.
In depicting the battle of nihilism vs. idealism, which one of the above novels does it best? I’d say, none of the above. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is overall more efficient in this respect. The reception of the dystopias is a bit smothering. In my school days and in the media of those years we were fed with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kallocain with the hint that “you know that this awaits you around the corner, don’t you, with all the data programming, police state tendencies and wars we see around us…?” It’s true that at the time of writing we do live in a sort of dictatorship
with traits of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Kallocain and Brave New World but still, The Powers That Be haven’t triumphed overall. There’s still meditation courses, edifying books and culture to be found; there’s still friendships to cultivate and a time to be alone. An active idealism can still be performed as a counterforce to the forces of nihilism. Therefore I’d say that these novels are classics in the realm of prophesy and warning, and they can sometimes be read even for enjoyment. But Lewis’ book is a more triumphant document as a counterforce to nihilism. SF mustn’t always be about indignantly looking at worsecase scenarios. There’s also the individual and his self-reliance to look at, as in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and Lost Legacy by Heinlein. Conceptually, such stories are the future, not Nineteen Eighty-Four. Acknowledge your inner powers and don’t be occupied with visions of despair and darkness. Don’t go backwards into the future.
• Evegeny Zamyatin: We (1921)
• Thea von Harbou: Metropolis (1926)
• Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
• George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)