Huxley vs. Orwell: Whose Dystopian Prophecy was Closer to the Truth?

In 1949, George Orwell’s publishers sent his old French teacher, Aldous Huxley, a copy of Orwell’s new book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then Huxley sent Orwell a letter, both congratulating him for his fine work and gently criticizing his vision of the future:

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.

That the two greatest dystopian novelists of all times should have known each other personally is a happy coincidence. That some of their correspondence has survived is a positive boon.

If you are familiar with the work of Huxley and Orwell, you will know that their visions of the future were almost opposite in their governmental mechanisms. Whereas Orwell envisioned a basically fascist state built on violence, fear, and surveillance, Huxley envisioned a seemingly benign paternal state built on casual sex, free drugs, immersive entertainment, and subliminal conditioning.

So whose vision of the future was best? Well, when you look at it closely, it seems that both were right in a sense. What we have today is sort of an amalgam of Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopias. They might not be as acute yet, but the fact is that we see the strains of both. We have a police and surveillance state behind us, directing us with force, and we have the panem et circenses of the media, with its sex obsessions and endless vanity parades. Interestingly, the two strains of modern conspiracy theory roughly fall into the same two categories: the over-reaching boot-to-the-face leviathan government on the one hand and the shadow puppeteers subverting your will without your knowledge on the other.

So, it seems that Huxley and Orwell were in some ways both right. What do you think?