Huxley to 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

Related Content:

George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

Hear Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and 84 Classic Radio Dramas from CBS Radio Workshop (1956-57)

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow

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.

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Comments (75)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Huxley’s vision of the future may have been better, but Orwell’s description was more accurate, and we’re living it today. Between the two, Orwell was the prophet.

  • Andrew A says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision…” Really? Perhaps (as others have argued), we have ended up in a strange hybrid of the two.

  • Mia says:

    I agree that contemporary society is the combined of the two stories.

  • Emily says:

    This is a fascinating insight into the relationship between these two leviathan writers.But your headline is disingenuous.I perceive Huxley’s letter to be a discussion of the ideas the two of them were expounding and exploring within these two works of fiction, certainly not a competitive goading of the Orwell.
    I can only feel glad for you that you think “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state.”
    I’d suggest that we are much closer than we would care to admit and perhaps we’d stand more of a chance of survival of freedoms and liberties if both of these books were required reading or viewing(if a successfully truthfull version of either were dramatised)

  • Juan Carlos says:

    Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision…
    This statement can’t be farther from the truth, Do you ignore what’s happening in our society? If you think you are not adicted to soma, reach for your iPhone, that little expensive thing controls you, it is used to control you and your life swirls arround it, look arround, we are adicted to consume things that enslave us, just like soma, Actualy, I think the portrait of the society described by Huxley on brave new world is very close to what we are now in almost every way.

  • MIke says:

    As usual the author overlooks the other great novel of a dystopian future, “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut. In Vonnegut’s vision of the future the masses are suppressed by economic factors. It is unfortunate “Player Piano” is so often ignored. I consider it a necessary book of the 20th century dystopia genre.

  • John says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision”

    Oh please. We have a perfect mix of the two. Consumers sated by a non-stop delivery of mindless pleasuring products, and simultaneously kept in a continuous state of fear via a non-analytical, emotion-tugging 24 hour news cycle.

    We may not be completely “there”, but we are certainly MUCH closer than “nowhere near”.

  • CS says:

    They each envisioned their own version of a nightmarish dystopian future, hoping to alert us to not let things get so far. Well, we not only ignored their prophetic warnings, but somehow we managed to design a society in which we live a very strange and sometimes really scary hybrid of both worlds. There are clear elements of both books in our present lives and we still seem to be in a severe state of denial. Sad…

  • bert says:

    I think in this analysis, one MUST take into consideration the soviet version by ZAMYATIN entitled WE.

  • Johnny says:

    Of course the doomsayers and alarmists chirp in… If you think we are near either dystopia then you need to adjust your perspective. Sure, one can see a trajectory towards either, but compare what east, west & europe have now to the past and you can see an impressive trajectory of progress. Freedoms and standards are quite comfy. If you compare an iphone to soma you are the definition of alarmist. Technology is extremely empowering and I’m sure Huxley or Orwell would be adjusting their perspectives of the future a fair amount if they could witness the progress made since their passing. I find The Island was much more prophetic than Brave new World.

  • Frantz says:

    Orwell had the example of the Soviet Union in the 30’s to draw from. And while he could be considered a prophet for the latter part of the 20th century, Huxley will be the prophet for the 21st. Not in widespread use of genetic conditioning perhaps, but certainly in the use of pleasure and the promotion of apathy as means to control the masses.

  • Mike says:

    Not necessarily. The pharmaceutical business is a 2 billion dollar company annually in the United States alone. There are literally millions of people, school children and recent birth mothers on psychotropic drugs. Drugs are the scourge of Mankind and these mind altering substances are destroying peoples families and their personal lives. Soldiers in the military are on 10 or more of these drugs being driven to insanity and mental roboticism. This has become a huge problem.

  • Kevin Patrick McCarthy says:

    Sheesh! No one has subtlety of mind anymore. It’s all, “Hey, Huxley dissed Orwell!” Baloney. Read the letter again. Hux saw the validity of both sad scenarios — he just said 1984 would likely morph (can’t say “evolve”) into BRAVE NEW WORLD. He was right. Further, you should read AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH — the best nonfiction book written in the last 40 years, IMHO. Neil Postman does a masterful job of comparing the two books. Long-term, BNW is much more likely. And frightening. And what’s more, we’re well on our way. Largely because no one knows how to think anymore. It’s all, “Hey, Huxley …”

  • Philip Kemp says:

    This is a great item. I am surprised there was no mention of Huxley’s post apocalyptic novel “Ape and Essence”, in which he explores the aftermath of, ” a large scale biological and atomic war…”. From what i understand “Ape and Essence” was Huxley’s attempt to adjust the horrid vision of the future he offered in “Brave New World”, considering the globe altering events of the second World War and the onset of the nuclear arms race which was characteristic of the Cold War.

  • Dan King says:

    I do believe the statement “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision” is a bit wide of the mark. Can you seriously say you can look at 21st century western society and even began to claim that it does not exhibit many of the hallmarks of a totalitarian society as laid out in both books. One example of this is the fact that Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who laid the groundwork of US neo-con ideology, claimed that one of the better ways to control and unify a population is to have a perpetual enemy. This is akin to Orwells idea of perpetual war, and it is also akin to what has happened in reality, the war on drugs and the war on terror being two very good examples. I could go on but I but I cannot be arsed.

    PS: Dystopic is not a word, it’s Dystopian.

  • Alex says:

    Well, it is not without Reason,
    that Huxley wrote a sequel,

    Brave New World revisited,
    (ISBN 0-06-095551-1)
    where he compares the two books in hindsight, yup,

    so your article doesn’t surprise at all!

    Nothing new there.

    1984…. well I guess North Korea, but, then all the Western World is Happily living in the Brave new world.
    all-in and full time, just don’t see it yet.
    Simple fact.

    Don’t worry, there are still a few Savage Reservation left for the non participating.

  • monologician says:

    Spot on.

  • Fionio says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision”
    What?? Open your eyes! Both are in full flow

  • Bob Walton says:

    That is a really good article, however I find the noticeable act of using the neologism for Dystopia.
    Hey, I use neologisms all the time, though only in dialogue.

  • bus griffith says:

    Orwell saw a future where the truth would be spun into Newspeak. Huxley saw a future where the truth would be drowned in a sea of insignificance. Today, both authors were correct because the News is told the way the Corporate Advertisers want it told, and News stories are mixed in with multitudes of Non-News Stories to water down their impact on those not too busy to watch. My favorite though is Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” It lays bare the truth about politics and how power corrupts, about revisionist history, about broken political promises, and about how those that would rule are often unfit to do so, in one way or another.

  • Angela says:

    I agree

  • Richard says:

    We have a chance to save ourselves by doing exactly what those in power have always done, which is to create a network. Otherwise we are just grist for the mill. This is the essence of The Godfather. The novel is clearer than the films about this.

  • Aditya says:

    Hey, thanks for mentioning player piano, i’mn a big fan of BNW and 1984, will read the Vonnegut book ASAP

  • Robert says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state.”

    Obviously both were excruciatingly accurate and eerily remniscent to our own reality. Big brother (NSA, DoD, CIA, TSA), caste systems, body/genetic modification, big pharmaceutical companies selling us substances that portray the possibility of leading a better life while slowly killing us in actuality… They both accurately portrayed our impending doom by over 100 years.

    You’d have to be naive to miss the warnings residing within both of these masterful pieces. They were born of genius, and with them did it die.

  • sublithium says:

    I like this tidbit. I think what this represents to me is 2 men who agree on where these kinds of things lead but take 2 different routes to get to the same point. Interesting because that is the way our (in the U.S.) political parties used to work. Now we not only have 2 different paths, but we also have 2 different end goals with each party attempting to make the others path and end game appear as hell. The funny part of it all is which ever route we choose will still end in the same unwanted goal of a totalitarian…..hell.

    I would say that these guys were sort of genius prophets but actually, by the time these guys published their thoughts, human history had already gone through a lot of this stuff over and over again so the “prophecy” of their works and the praised heaped upon them is interesting. My guess is that the praise they recieved gave them some joy at the inside joke of exactly why these things repeat themselves in history. People are fickle creatures that do not learn from mistakes and “prophecy,” is just a retelling of the past more than a prediction of the future.

    My guess is that they laugh at us ( or recoil in horror) when they see what is going on in the world today. They would probably say that there is a very good reason that a lot of things are going on at this very specific time in History. It is no coincidence that on the sunset of what we call,”The Greatest Generation,” who lived through and fought an apocalyptic war which left at least 10’s of millions of people dead,that we see what we see. Russia is looking aggressive once again, Iran nears nuclear weapons, North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, many in the west want to punish those that are successful, and a group of terrorists are on the march in the middle east. There are so many parallels going on and we raised a generation of idiots that refuse to read the writings on the wall and the mantra of “never forget,” that was past on. We find ourselves forgetting once again!

  • Claude says:

    ‘Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision’ – bullshit, we’re exactly right there!

  • Hugo Alberto Damelles says:

    Sorry but I have to argue. We are living in Brave New World, and instead of making Ford a God we are making Steve Jobs. In Huxley´s book really not any information was censored, just people don’t think that it was important. Tecnology was all for them, like now (i don’t know anyone that don’t want an Iphone). Clothes aren’t fixed cuase they just buy new ones, like in our world. Each thing is descartable. They were learnt to live in a consumism world and don’t question it, like now. They are taught to be happy doing things that are predetemited for them, separating them in castas (alpha, beta, etc), like now we want a poor happy of being poor. Sorry Bill but I think that you live on a buble.

  • Misthiocracy says:

    One can easily interpret Brave New World as depicting a world with no crime, no poverty, no hunger, no war, no want, no sadness, no violence, etc, where even those who rebel are not punished but rather are rewarded by being moved to a enclave set aside for free-thinkers like themselves.

    How, exactly, does that count as a “dystopia”?

  • Oracle says:

    I just read the entire letter. It’s a very polite and respectful piece of correspondence. One great thinker talking freely to another. And he doesn’t claim to be better, or more correct – he surmises that a society like the one in 1984 would likely undergo a gradual change that would turn into one like in Brave New World.

    Perhaps he was right, in a sense. Instead of actually thinking about the content of the letter, our first instinct is to gossip about a few lines from a personal letter, which maybe sort of could be read as mild claims of superiority because they’re taken out of their context.

    These were great thinkers, do you think that in their years of study and observation they had not mastered the skill of assuming different perspectives? They’re fiction writers.
    This is just a letter from one great thinker to another, about a topic in which both they’re clearly interested.

    At worst it could be called constructive criticism.
    At very worst it’s just a reason to in comment sections.

  • Oracle says:

    Also, the people in power have read both those books, probably.

  • Mark Waterhouse says:

    Orwell wasn’t predicting a future in 1984, he reversed 1948 for the title and was referring to what was already happening.

  • ctodd says:

    Came here to say this, yes.

  • ctodd says:

    oooops, my reply does not appear beneath the remark I am referring to! Came here to lambaste the writer for saying, “Obviously…” This—or some combination thereof—is exactly where we are headed! If we’re not there already.

  • paul says:

    Huxley argued in the letter that Orwell’s vision would morph into his Brave New World, by a perceived
    desire by the elites for a more efficient method of control; they are not mutually exclusive. Didn’t you read the letter/article?

  • Denny says:

    The two visions work together to predict the carrot and stick version of control that is currently being implemented.

  • José San Vicente says:

    En correspondencia con los comentarios vivimos una perfecta mezcla entre los mundos descritos por Orwell y Huxley. En el cual las drogas, medios y la propia computadora cumplen el cometido de hacer realidad las predicciones de los escritores.
    Creo que en la lista de los narradores de nuestro mundo actual faltan varias novelas de anticipación entre ellas la potente de Ray Bradbury Farenheit 451.

  • Shabb says:

    The brothers Strugatzky’s almost all the books might be added to the list as well (just recollecting their hypnotizing towers radiating “truth” twice a day makes me tremble).

  • dex weis says:

    Cautionary tales both. Orwell’s satiric. Huxley’s fantastic.

  • Alison says:

    It seems to me, between the proven narcotic effects of sugar and HFCS added to everything, tv turning our brains off, jobs and life that are built to take all personal responsibility away while having laws that see anyone with more than 3 days water to be flagged as possible terrorist (survivalist sort) when any ‘terrorist’ can be detained without trial for an unlimited amount of time all puts together to say we are, right now, living in a mix of these realities. Turn off or else you have reason to be afraid. Turn on the news and you’ll see why these wars that we must stop, must protect ourselves at any means necessary. Get all the ‘bad guys’.

    But that’s ok. You can just eat some cake and turn on The Biggest Loser and you’ll feel good again. Everything will be ok… just don’t think about how your phone, which is now absolutely necessary to take everywhere (including the bathroom), is being tracked and even starting to map out houses and buildings.

  • Jacob E says:

    You are utterly wrong to say that we are no where near the dystopian future in which Orwell described.

  • M says:

    Of course Hunger Games has both.

  • Jim53 says:

    It seems to me that the writer of this article is using irony when he says: “Obviously…”. You only have to look at what he says in the previous sentences and the context in general.

  • @joanpla says:

    As Kevin Patrick McCarthy pointed out here in the comments, for a condensed and incredibly lucid comparison between Orwell and Huxley books just read the foreword of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985):

  • DK says:

    both are right just look around you 1984 is happening and leading to huxley’s vision all according to both of them.

  • zjas says:

    Yep. Agree. 1000% The question is, so… what do we do about it? I’ve tow hopes. Unity – Grass root, momentunm to rid our system of the snakes that slithered into it, and #BernieSanders2016.

  • Will says:

    I’d love to know why the author thinks we’re “nowhere near” the dystopic states described in these books.

  • Kyle says:

    Does anyone know if Orwell responded to Huxley’s letter? I would love to read that.

  • Donna Felker says:

    I would be very interested in Orwell’s response as well!

  • Jack says:

    I and I think many others would argue the modern entertainment complex has grown to assume a role very similar to Soma’s in Brave New World, and is a far more prevalent & powerful subjugator than any aggressive police tactics we see these days (at east in the First World.)

  • david gamble says:

    We live in the interface. It’s symbiotic. They need each other.

  • E says:

    Yes, plus Orwell ‘borrowed’ a lot from Zamyatin’s ‘We’.

  • E says:

    Sorry, my comment was in reply to:

    bert says:

    March 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    I think in this analysis, one MUST take into consideration the soviet version by ZAMYATIN entitled WE.

  • Fernando Jr. says:

    I’m not so sure, both created exaggerated modes of opression, we can perceive lower degrees of those in modern society, whether it is through pleasure or fear, we are being controlled

  • Liall Linz says:

    I, too, am of the opinion that we currently have a hybrid (of sorts) of the two.

  • Simon says:

    Huxley’s “Brave new world” was probably a plagiat of polish writer M.Smolarski and his 2 novels from 1024 and 1928.

  • Sterling says:

    What a garbage headline. Did the writer of this even read what Huxley wrote? He didn’t say his vision was better.

    Learn to read before writing synopses of others words.

  • Aylithe Z. says:

    Read “The Sheep Look Up” easily the single most underrated novel of the genre

  • Randy Crawford says:

    I wonder what Huxley would have made of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and consumerism — ideally sustainable realizations of Huxley’s “ultimate revolution” because they seem voluntary.

  • jeff goldblum says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision”


  • Scott B. says:

    This letter may give insight to why Orwell wrote Animal Farm a year later, describing two different government styles but getting the same bad results.

    As for today, there does seem to be a “Newspeak” developing among the media and the administration. Thus, Orwell was spot on.

  • dawg says:

    you haven’t read Huxley and it shows.

  • Ersan Seer says:

    Thanks Johnny, for saving me from having to type what you said. :)

  • Quique says:

    Other readers have pointed out that our contemporary society is a mix of the two dystopias.

    I would argue that it is a mix of (at least) three, Player Piano being the most accurate for the years to come.

  • Pancho Stanza says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopia vision”

    Not really obvious at all.

  • Ess Thoms says:

    Huxley was right.

  • Ian says:

    “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state.” <- LMAO, are you serious?

  • Ian says:

    also, Idiocracy

  • Davide Pintus says:

    I definitely believe the opposite – we are drugged by entertainmen, unhealty diets and lifestyles. Personal relationships and family matter less and less. Definitely closer to BNW.
    Not that there aren’t plenty of elements of 1984 going around, especially the manipulation of language.

  • dave kuzee says:

    Personally i have always felt that ‘brave new world’ would be the logical outcome of ‘1984’. You can keep people down for a long time but ultimately they will resist and rebel against oppression. The only way to keep ‘them’ happy is to give them indulgences so they can have a semblence of freedom even if they are not. I hope this will not come to pass but we are already living in the dystopia sketched by Orwell and if humanity does not stand up to it’s rulers then i fear ‘a brave new world’ will be the dystopian future of the human race.

  • Ric says:

    This is the line – and the thought that stopped me in my tracks and from a literary perspective, grabbed me by the throat as I started reading this article. “Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision…” may be the single most naive statement of denial I’ve ever read. The statement itself is more frightening than either of the stories it refers to because it is the actual physical world denial of reality we are living today, a denial that opens the door to more extreme forms of oppression.

  • It’s January 2017 and Donald Trump is President of the United States. Whether the current scenario more resembles Animal Farm, We, Brave New World, or 1984 I don’t want to get into. But the nightmare has arrived in reality. From “alternative facts” to the President’s chief adviser telling the free press to “shut up,” our experience is daily outrage and a strange powerlessness, except for very vocal resistance ftom the citizenry and a few if our politicians. We are resisting, and our journalists are resisting. But we are also being worn down. A minority voted in what a majority do not want, a President and a Congress that want to govern like an abuser, closing off dissent and difference and, perhaps eventually, avenues of escape. We see where this is going but not how to stop totalitarianism in its tracks. I hope we survive this American hell.

  • Gina Hanson says:

    That was a very interesting discussion. I am excited to add all those books mentioned onto my TBR. Thanks!

  • Viva Hoffmann says:

    Obviously both versions of the Future are with us today.

  • Stephen says:

    I would have to agree with you that we are experiencing some sort of hybrid where the globalists are using Huxley’s vision whereby we are inundated with information, so much so, that we can’t pay attention to one subject matter for more than a day and we’re on to the next one. Which in a sense cheapens each individual circumstance and situation. With this ability to control the media the globalists are using it as a “boot on the face” of us all. I’m not certain if it’s better to have a soft boot on your face where we willingly except the ever encroaching police state, Or having a combat boot stomping on your head. I suppose the latter would be intolerable after a certain amount of time we’re people will invariably stack up at the bottom and decide to flip the entire game over and take their chances on having a better life once the structures of power have been dismantled. Unfortunately at this time there isn’t a coherent structure to replace existing one to fill the vacuum that will be created by flipping the game. Quite a conundrum indeed.

  • Milton Arinofsky says:

    Funny, how Aldous Huxley was both right and wrong. Right in his book but wrong about why his book is more accurate than Orwell’s…And in the end, as we approach this dystopia ever-faster, it seems they were both right in their original novels. What we have here, in our modern world, is a mixture of both.

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