Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

orwell huxley

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”




Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley's seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like "enhanced interrogation" and "surgical drone strikes."

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

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. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

An Asbestos-Bound, Fireproof Edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Even by the extreme standards of dystopian fiction, the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 can seem a little absurd. Firemen whose job is to set fires? A society that bans all books? Written less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, which announced its evil intentions with book burnings, the novel explicitly evokes the kind of totalitarianism that seeks to destroy culture—and whole peoples—with fire. But not even the Nazis banned all books. Not a few academics and writers survived or thrived in Nazi Germany by hewing to the ideological orthodoxy (or at least not challenging it), which, for all its terrifying irrationalism, kept up some semblance of an intellectual veneer.

The novel also recalls the Soviet variety of state repression. But the Party apparatus also allowed a publishing industry to operate, under its strict constraints. Nonetheless, Soviet censorship is legendary, as is the survival of banned literature through self-publishing and memorization, vividly represented by the famous line in Mikhail Bulgokov’s The Master and Margarita, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”




Bulgakov, writes Nathaniel Rich at Guernica, is saying that “great literature… is fireproof. It survives its critics, its censors, and even the passage of time.” Bulgakov wrote from painful experience. When his diary was discovered by the NKVD in 1929, then returned to him, he “promptly burned it.” Sometime afterward, during the long composition of his posthumously published novel, he burned the manuscript, then later reconstructed it from memory.

These examples bring to mind the exiled intellectuals in Bradbury’s novel, who have memorized whole books in order to one day reconstruct literary culture. Europe’s totalitarian regimes provide essential background for the novel’s plot and imagery, but its key context, Bradbury himself noted in a 1956 radio interview, was the anti-Communist paranoia of the U.S. in the early 1950s. “Too many people were afraid of their shadows,” he said, “there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time.” Reading the novel as a chilling vision of a future when all books are banned and burned makes the artifact pictured above particularly poignant—an edition of Fahrenheit 451 bound in fireproof asbestos.

Released in 1953 by Ballantine in a limited run of two-hundred signed copies, the books were “bound in Johns-Manville Qinterra,” notes Lauren Davis at io9, “a chrysolite asbestos material.” Now the fireproof covers, with their “exceptional resistance to pyrolysis,” are “much sought after by collectors” and go for upwards of $20,000. A fireproof Fahrenheit 451, on the one hand, can seem a little gimmicky (its pages still burn, after all). But it’s also the perfect manifestation of a literal interpretation of the novel as a story about banning and book burning. All of us who have read the novel have likely read it this way, as a vision of a repressive totalitarian nightmare. As such, it feels like a product of mid-twentieth century fears.

Rather than fearing mass book burnings, we seem, in the 21st century, on the verge of being washed away in a sea of information (and dis- and mis-information). We are inundated with writing—in print and online—such that some of us despair of ever finding time to read the accumulating piles of books and articles that daily surround us, physically and virtually. But although books are still published in the millions, with sales rising, falling, then rising again, the number of people who actually read seems in danger of rapidly diminishing. And this, Bradbury also said, was his real fear. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he claimed, “just get people to stop reading them.”

We’ve misread Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury told us in his later years. It is an allegory, a symbolic representation of a grossly dumbed-down society, hugely oppressive and destructive in its own way. The firemen are not literal government agents but symbolic of the forces of mass distraction, which disseminate "factoids," lies, and half-truths as substitutes for knowledge. The novel, he said, is actually about people “being turned into morons by TV.” Add to this the proliferating amusements of the online world, video games, etc. and we can see Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 not as a dated representation of 40s fascism or 50s repression, but as a too-relevant warning to a distractible society that devalues and destroys education and factual knowledge even as we have more access than ever to literature of every kind.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stanley Kubrick Explains the Mysterious Ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a Newly Unearthed Interview

During the making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, "the film’s narrative trajectory pointed inexorably toward a big ending, even a revelation, but Kubrick kept changing his mind about what that ending would be — and nobody who saw the film knew quite what to make of the one he finally chose." Those words come from a piece by The New Yorker's Dan Chiasson, published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the film's release. Since then, generations of viewers have interpreted 2001, and especially its ending, in their own way. But these debates over meaning may all change now that Kubrick's own interpretation seems to have surfaced.

Not only that, it turns out to differ markedly from most of the ones in circulation. "I’ve tried to avoid doing this ever since the picture came out," Kubrick tells journalist Junichi Yaoi when the latter asks what 2001's ending means.




"When you just say the ideas they sound foolish, whereas if they’re dramatized one feels it, but I’ll try." He then reveals his view of the concept behind it:

The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen as it does in the film. 

They choose this room, which is a very inaccurate replica of French architecture (deliberately so, inaccurate) because one was suggesting that they had some idea of something that he might think was pretty, but wasn’t quite sure. Just as we’re not quite sure what do in zoos with animals to try to give them what they think is their natural environment.

Anyway, when they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made some kind of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, and that is what we were trying to suggest.

This makes sense, or at least as much sense as any of the better interpretations of 2001's ending out there. Drawing explicitly on ancient mythology has become standard practice for big-budget spectacles, especially after Star Wars did it to much greater commercial success almost a decade later, but in development the idea must have seemed radical. Some will take Kubrick's explanation as definitive, and others, subscribing to a different philosophy of artistic creation, will show no more interest in it than they do in Ridley Scott's personal views on whether Deckard is a replicant.

The mysterious nature of the interview clip itself, a piece of the footage gathered in 1980 for a never-released Japanese documentary, suits the nature of the revelation. We see only Yaoi as he interviews Kubrick over the phone, but not, according to Pixar director and Kubrick superfan Lee Unkrich, because the director wasn't there. Unkrich posted to Reddit that, as the Warner Brothers publicist who toured the Japanese crew around told him, "Stanley was actually at the studio that day, but didn’t want to meet with the crew and be interviewed on camera." So even though we hear his voice on the phone, "he’s actually just in another office!"

But then, nobody ever accused Kubrick of possessing conventional habits, personal or professional. Not that a conventional mind could ever have directed the film that 2001: A Space Odyssey turned out to be, one that, in Chiasson's words, "took for granted a broad cultural tolerance, if not an appetite, for enigma, as well as the time and inclination for parsing interpretive mysteries." Kubrick might have completed the film with his own ideas about the meaning of everything in it, but he surely knew, and respected, that everyone who saw it would also come out of the theater with their own.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Winners of the 48 Hour Science Fiction Film Challenge: The 2018 Edition

Writes Metafilter: "Every year, as part of their science fiction film festival, Sci-Fi London organise a challenge in which entrants are given a title, line of dialogue and description of a prop, and then have 48 hours to turn in a completed 5 minute film or piece of flash fiction. The winning films and flash fiction stories from the SciFi London 48 Hour Challenge are now available to watch and read." The first place film winner you can view above. Find other winning entries via the links below:

THE FILM CHALLENGE:

THE FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE:

Enjoy.

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Watch the New Trailer for Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin, the First Feature Film on the Pioneering Sci-Fi Author

On June 10th, at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in England, director Arwen Curry will premiere Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin, the first feature film about the groundbreaking science fiction writer. The film's website notes that "Curry filmed with Le Guin for 10 years to produce the film, which unfolds an intimate journey of self-discovery as Le Guin comes into her own as a major feminist author, opening new doors for the imagination and inspiring generations of women and other marginalized writers along the way." Starring Le Guin herself, who sadly passed away earlier this year, Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin features appearances by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delany, and Michael Chabon. You can watch the brand new trailer for the film above.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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The Art of Sci-Fi Book Covers: From the Fantastical 1920s to the Psychedelic 1960s & Beyond

If you've never seen Gentlemen Broncos, the little-seen third feature by the Napoleon Dynamite-making husband-and-wife team Jared and Jerusha Hess, I highly recommend it. You must, though, enjoy the peculiar Hess sense of humor, a blend of the almost objectively detached and the heartily sophomoric fixed upon the preoccupations of deeply unfashionable sections of working-class America. In Gentlemen Broncos it makes itself felt immediately, even before the film's story of a young aspiring science fiction writer in small-town Utah begins, with a tour de force opening credits sequence made up of homages to the pulpiest sci-fi book covers of, if not recent decades, then at least semi-recent decades.

The style of these cover images, though risible, no doubt look rich with associations to anyone who's spent even small part of their lives reading mass-market sci-fi novels. To see more than a few higher examples, watch "The Art of Sci-Fi Book Covers," the Nerdwriter video essay above that digs into the history of that enormously inventive yet seldom seriously considered artistic subfield.




Its begins with the world's first science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories (an online archive of which we've previously featured here on Open Culture) and its pieces of fantastical, eye-catching cover art by Austria-Hungary-born illustrator Frank R. Paul. In the mid-1920s, says the Nerdwriter, "these covers were probably among the strangest art that the average American ever got to see."

It would get stranger. The Nerdwriter follows the development of sci-fi cover art from the heyday of the Paul-illustrated Amazing Stories to the introduction of mass-market paperback books in the late 1930s to Penguin's experimentation with existing works of modern art in the 1960s to the commissioning of new, even more bizarre and evocative works by all manner of publishers (some of them sci-fi specialists) thereafter. "You can walk into any used book store anywhere and get five of these old pulp books for a dollar each," the Nerdwriter reminds us. "And then the art is with you; it's in your home. As you read the stories, it's on your bedside table. It's art you hold with your hands. It's not precious: it's bent, folded, and creased. And above all, it's weird."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Stream 47 Hours of Classic Sci-Fi Novels & Stories: Asimov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Lovecraft & More

The pronouncements of French theorist Jean Baudrillard could sound a bit silly in the early 1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy, a slow, clunky technology whose promises far exceeded what it could deliver. We hoped for the cyberpunk spaces of William Gibson, and got the beep-boop tedium of dial-up. Even so, in his 1991 essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” Baudrillard contended that the real and the imaginary were no longer distinguishable, and that the collapse of the distance between them meant that “there is no more fiction.” Or, conversely, he suggested, that there is no more reality.

What seemed a far-fetched claim about the totality of “cybernetics and hyperreality” in the age of AOL and Netscape now sounds far more plausible. After all, it will soon be possible, if it is not so already, to convincingly simulate events that never occurred, and to make millions of people believe they had, not only through fake tweets, "fake news," and age-old propaganda, but through sophisticated manipulation of video and audio, through augmented reality and the onset of “reality apathy,” a psychological fatigue that overwhelms our abilities to distinguish true and false when everything appears as a cartoonish parody of itself.




Technologist Aviv Ovadya has tried since 2016 to warn anyone who would listen that such a collapse of reality was fast upon us—an “Infocalypse,” he calls it. If this is so, according to Baudrillard, “both traditional SF and theory are destined to the same fate: flux and imprecision are putting an end to them as specific genres.” In an apocalyptic prediction, he declaimed, “fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past.” The “collective marketplace” of globalization and the Borgesian condition in which “the map covers all the territory” have left “no room any more for the imaginary.” Companies set up shop expressly to simulate and falsify reality. Pained irony, pastiche, and cheap nostalgia are all that remain.

It’s a bleak scenario, but perhaps he was right after all, though it may not yet be time to despair—to give up on reality or the role of imagination. After all, sci-fi writers like Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and J.G. Ballard grasped long before most of us the condition Baudrillard described. The subject proved for them and many other late-20th century sci-fi authors a rich vein for fiction. And perhaps, rather than a great disruption—to use the language of a start-up culture intent on breaking things—there remains some continuity with the naïve confidence of past paradigms, just as Newtonian physics still holds true, only in a far more limited way than once believed.

Isaac Asimov’s short essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is instructive on this last point. Maybe the theory of “hyperreality” is right, in some fashion, but also incomplete: a future remains for the most visionary creative minds to discover, as it did for Asimov’s “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon in The Foundation Trilogy. You can hear a BBC dramatization of that groundbreaking fifties masterwork in the 47-hour science fiction playlist above, along with readings of classic stories—like Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (and an audiobook of the same read by English actor Maxwell Caulfield). From Jules Verne to H.P. Lovecraft to George Orwell; from the mid-fifties time travel fiction of Andre Norton to the 21st-century time-travel fiction of Ruth Boswell….

We’ve even got a late entry from theatrical prog rock mastermind Rick Wakeman, who followed up his musical adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with a sequel he penned himself, recorded in 1974, and released in 1999, called Return to the Centre of the Earth, with narration by Patrick Stewart and guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, and the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward. Does revisiting sci-fi, “weird fiction,” and operatic concept albums of the past constitute a “desperate rehallucinating” of a bygone “lost object,” as Baudrillard believed? Or does it provide the raw material for today’s psychohistorians? I suppose it remains to be seen; the future—and the future of science fiction—may be wide open.

The 47-hour science fiction playlist above will be added to our collection of 900 Free Audio Books.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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