The two most famous science fiction novels of last century were Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Now I didn’t write that to generate a flame war among science fiction fans, or as a slight to genre writers, but because I believe it’s true, especially if you ask people who don’t normally read science fiction. I’m actually wondering why the two biggest successes using science fiction as a writing technique weren’t penned by writers who specialized in writing science fiction? Huxley and Orwell were straight ahead literary guys – total amateurs at speculative fiction. They probably never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell.
And, the two most famous science fiction novels of the 19th century, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, were not written by a genre writer either. H. G. Wells existed before the science fiction genre was established. Nor were his books written for the genre reader of his day, which did have a lot of science fiction, even though it lacked the label. In the 21st century, when science fiction is a well established, and a well loved genre, it bizarrely seems that the people who aren’t science fiction writers have the biggest successes with the technique. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two good recent examples.
What are these non-SF writers doing that SF genre writers aren’t? I just got through rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and I thought about this the whole time I was thoroughly enjoying the book. Nineteen Eighty-Four is so different from the genre science fiction books I normally read that I’m tempted to say it’s not science fiction. Many literary writers and English profs claim just that, but they would be wrong. Insanely wrong. George Orwell might not have written for Campbell’s Astounding, and probably never even read the famous pulp, but Nineteen Eighty-Four would have fit comfortably in that magazine as a serial. No Astounding reader would have made one objection as to it not being science fiction. And I’m quite sure readers would have voted it the best story of the issue, even if Heinlein had had a story in that issue too.
Not long ago I reread Beyond This Horizon by Heinlein and I felt pretty sure that Heinlein wrote it hoping it would be another Brave New World. Heinlein was savvy enough to know that Huxley’s book sold far more than pulp fiction, and at the time, very little science fiction was even being published in hardback, or that new format, the paperback. Here’s an early paperback cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four – looks just like a science fiction novel, doesn’t it?
While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four this time I was blown-away by Orwell’s world building genius. World building is an essential feature of SF/F, which books like Dune and The Lord of the Ring illustrate. J. K. Rowling is a billionaire for her world building, and deservedly so. Does that mean Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is just better painted than all the other genre stories working with the same idea? Does The Handmaid’s Tale just out dystopian run of the mill SF writers? Maybe so, but why?
It’s pretty obvious that more people on Earth can understand what the implications of Big Brother are over philosophical implications of Arrakis. Too many hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century encountered a totalitarian state first hand, or fought against them in wars, or spent years hearing about them in the news, not to understand the brilliant portrayal of Big Brother and the savage criticism of them with the creation of Newspeak.
The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are so well known in the 20th century is they describe so clearly the quintessential fears of the 20th century. All stories set in the future are about the present, and I guess the better they are about exploring the present, the more copies they will sell, and the better chance they will be part of the curricula in high schools and colleges.
The entire time I spent reading Nineteen Eighty-Four off my Kindle I was amazed by how relevant this book written in 1948 was to 2013. To write that Orwell was brilliant is an undeserving understatement. We live in a society that worships freedom, yet we live with constant NSA surveillance, continuous war, Homeland Security, and the sun never sets on our drone airspace. Our paranoia knows knows no bounds. In terms of political psychology and insight into the human heart, Orwell runs away with the prize for applying science fiction techniques for writing about the future to say so much about now. Nor has any science fiction writer ever attempted to explore the linguistic territory of Newspeak, which is the real science that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great science fiction.
I haven’t reread Brave New World recently, but I plan to. Brave New World was written in 1931 and I just finished a book, One Summer: American 1927 by Bill Bryson that is the perfect companion to the Huxley book, because it explained the world Huxley was living in when he wrote his classic. It’s a time when many U.S. governors and mayors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, where many prominent Americans publically espoused beliefs in eugenics and extreme racism, where many states had passed eugenic laws, and racism was the law of the land. The twenties was the decade that mass production and mass communication really got massive. It was a decade where America began the Americanization of the world. That scared Huxley. Huxley was afraid of America in 1930, and Orwell was afraid of Russia in 1948.
Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are true dystopian novels – they are anti utopian, written in response to intellectuals promoting utopian solutions to world problems. Huxley and Orwell understood the world in which they lived, and wrote books that showed off that knowledge in deeply insightful ways. They both used science fiction as a literary device to philosophize about ideas if written as nonfiction would have been entertaining to few, and boring to many, but because of those techniques, wowed millions. Readers still study and reference their work. And those novels would not have had the impact they did without the science fiction.
Huxley and Orwell, and other literary writers, use science fiction to bring political, ethical and scientific ideas to the masses. Why don’t more genre writers attempt this? Heinlein tried, especially with Stranger in a Strange Land, his most ambitious novel. So, why did he fail? I think for two reasons. First, it included ESP, or PSI powers, that aren’t scientific or believable, and second, it promoted his personal ideas about freedom, especially sexual freedom, nudity, and group sex, which few people beside the hippies of the 1960s shared.
Ray Bradbury hit one out of the park with Fahrenheit 451, but it’s never achieved the popular acclaim that Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four has. Maybe because it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as those two. And dare I say it, maybe the target, those people who would give up reading for mindless television, were insulted rather than inspired to canonize literacy?
John Brunner also tried several novels of this type, using science fiction to make political statements, especially Stand on Zanzibar. Zanzibar was an experimental tour de force that was hard to comprehend or read by the general reader, but dazzled the exceptional reader. It should have been a contender. It should be better remembered. Both Fahrenheit 451 and Stand on Zanzibar are shining examples of what pulp writers can do when they aim high.
I think the genre writer that comes closest in writing ambitious science fiction for the non science fiction reading masses was Orson Scott Card and his book Ender’s Game. It was obvious targeted at genre readers, but it was widely read outside of the genre. It was never as sophisticated as Huxley and Orwell’s books, and didn’t deal with broad contemporary issues, but it dealt with xenocide in a way that made it relevant to the average reader who could translate it into commentary on genocide, or commentary on science fiction. Unfortunately, the recent movie version of the story targets Ender’s Game at the lowest common denominator video game player, whose kill anything that moves instinct means they have deaf ears for the ethical insights.
The 2014 Earth is just as fucked up as the 1948 Earth, even more so, so why aren’t we reading novels that targets our political, social and ethical failures like modern science fictional smart bombs that are literary descendants of Huxley and Orwell? Is it because serious thinkers no longer believe that science fiction is the proper tool? Has decades of fun science fiction dulled the edge of sharp science fiction? Or maybe we don’t have political and social thinkers like Orwell or Huxley anymore, because those writers work for the New York Times or Fox News. Let’s hope it’s not that times aren’t bad enough yet to be muses for such writers.
JWH – 12/31/13