Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. . . . Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would be come a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
I was reminded of this interesting contrast recently as I read one of P.D. James’s early novels, The Children of Men (1992). It tells the story of a world suffering from mass infertility-- our world has mysteriously lost the ability to reproduce. It’s 2021, and folks can point back to 1995, year “Omega,” as the year the last baby was born, and the governments of the world are working to solve the problem. It is a thriller, of sorts, though not much like the mysteries for which James is justly famous. Its protagonist gets involved in an anti-government movement, only to discover that his recruiter is pregnant with the first baby to be born in 26 years. As the novel progresses, James’s protagonist begins to move away from the fatalistic disillusionment of the masses toward hope, even as real life struggles to return to the world.
What struck me in the context of Postman’s comparison of Huxley and Orwell is the way that James highlights the connection between their major themes. In other words, James writes of trivial culture that has become a captive culture, a culture at once oppressed by Big Brother and at the same time needing, even desiring its oppression.
In the end, it’s a book about the miracle of life. Not just life as in being alive, but the contrast between the rich life of those embracing their duties as creatures made in the image of God and the trivial life, a life that leads ultimately to degradation. Along the way, James explores the relationship of these themes to freedom and oppression, power and sacrifice.
The culture that is the setting for this compelling story is one that has lost hope because it has literally lost its vision. Without a legacy, with no future for the race, vision is gone. Ironically (since pregnancy is no longer a risk), even sex has lost its appeal, and government-sponsored “porn centers” exist to keep interest alive, just in case. The love of life has been replaced by violence, children and family by the regulated breeding of cats and the manufacture of beautiful dolls.
Triviality and violence, oppression and complacency, all mingling in a world that has lost its vision. It’s a poignant picture. And a timely reminder.