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To many modern readers, the science-fiction genre is a genre built upon utopic visions of peace and intellectual advancement, of idealistic worlds where logic always triumphs over primal instinct. Although the hopeful scientific novel is not written in vain, the science fiction genre has been used throughout history as a way for concerned writers to warn – if not prophecy – against forthcoming events. This dark sub-genre of science fiction is usually known as “dystopian literature,” and has become a popular literary mode in the twentieth century (Holmes 37). The antithesis of the Utopia, the term “dystopia” comes from the Greek word for “bad place,” and is traditionally set in a harsh society in which self-expression and individuality are forcibly repressed (Holmes 39). Although dystopian fiction is traditionally associated with science fiction and fantasy, it should not be dismissed as mere story, as it is often based upon social and political trends that the author has observed in the primary world. Both Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, were able to accurately depict the intellectually dangerous trends of their times, while making startling observations about the future.
Although Bradbury and Huxley wrote during different time periods, both were exposed to the political, social, and economic turmoil that spanned the time period from World War I to the end of World War II, eventually leading into the rise of Communism as a major world power in the Soviet Union. Shortly after World War I, two basic themes became prominent in literature – “isolation and relationship within a decaying moral order” (Keanu 237) Both authors deal with these themes in their dystopic masterpieces, with Huxley focusing more on the isolation factor and Bradbury exemplifying the need for relationship within even the most rigid social structure. Huxley chillingly portrays a disenchanted world dehumanized by scientific achievement, while Bradbury focuses his attention more on the power of individuals despite the restraints of society. Perhaps the best examples of these two contemporary themes are the characters within the novels themselves. In Huxley’s “John the Savage”we see a man literally and figurative isolated from the World State, while Bradbury gives us Montag, a lonely fireman who must face the question posed to him by a young girl – “are you happy?”
Aldous Huxley’s ideas were formed before Bradbury’s, and this is reflected in his writing. Brave New World focuses on many early twentieth-century ideas, as is clear from the many references to Ford that are sprinkled throughout the book. Huxley, having come from a strong intellectual background, was heavily influenced by the literary scene of his time. In fact, Brave New World is modeled largely on an earlier book by H.G. Wells called Men like Gods, which deals with similar dystopic themes (Brave New World: Historical/Literary Background). Additionally, a prototype for the methods used by Huxley’s World State can be discovered in the pages of Wells “Experiment in Autobiography”, as well as in the scientific works of the period. These include Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”, Pavlov’s “Conditioned Reflexes”, and Bertrand Russell’s “The Scientific Outlook” (Holmes 139). From these works, Huxley acquired a keen understanding of the scientific way of life, but also realized that an overemphasis on science could lead to the destruction of the individual self, as was evident from the impending secularization of American thought.
Huxley’s lifestyle and upbringing are also of key importance to understanding the context of his writing. Born into a staggeringly intellectual family, Aldous Huxley spent most of his childhood in various preparatory schools for high class children, indulging in his family’s various intellectual pursuits in his spare time (Brave New World: Historical/Literary Background). During his school years, Huxley noted the rigid caste system that seemed to exist even in a democratic society, with the upper class separated from the lower classes not just by their wealth, but also by their intellectual abilities. In Brave New World, that perceived social system is brought to life through the genetically engineered classes – Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Epsilon.
On the other hand, Ray Bradbury was aware of many of the same principals that had influenced Huxley, but was writing from a later, post World War II time period. Fahrenheit 451 is much less focused on science than Brave New World, its topic being censorship and intellectual repression. At the time of Bradbury’s writing, the threat of censorship was a reality, both in the United States and overseas. In Nazi Germany, for example, Hitler controlled the thoughts of the masses by destroying thousands of books that he saw as a threat to his government (Keanu 384). After World War II, Stalin did much the same thing in the Soviet Union, censoring materials that threatened Communism while supporting writers who depicted the government in a positive light. Despite the extremes of foreign censorship, Bradbury realized that the American response to the Soviet Union was no better than the initial problem. Under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, an intellectual witch-hunt began to seek out and eliminate materials considered “subversive to American Interests (Background Information on Fahrenheit 451).” Libraries came under fire for owning copies of the Communist Manifesto, and in some instances books were removed from overseas libraries and even burned.
Another historical factor that lurks beneath the surface of Bradbury’s narrative is the theme of nuclear war. More than any other theme, the advent of the atomic bomb is useful as a guide for dating Fahrenheit 451; it is conspicuously lacking from Brave New World, due to the fact that Huxley wrote his book prior to the Hiroshima incident. Further tying Fahrenheit 451 in with the Soviet Union time period, Bradbury was most likely influenced in his writing by the apocalyptic fiction that reflected the fears of 1950s America – namely Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, and On the Beach, by Nevil Shute (Holmes 231). The threat of nuclear war is by no means central to the plot of Bradbury’s book, but permeates the background of the story, and subtle references are made to prior wars involving atomic weapons. Many readers associate the destruction of Guy Montag’s city with a nuclear blast (Keanu 98), but that is left ambiguous. From what is told in the story, however, it seems likely that the bomb that destroyed the city was a conventional warhead, as a nuclear attack at such a close distance would probably have killed Montag and his companions, if not from the explosion than at least from the radiation.
Despite the fact that Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 are powerful reflections of earlier historical climates, both books reach beyond the moments in which they were written and demonstrate a keen sense of foresight. By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World, the cultivation of the embryos of small mammals and the cloning of parasitic insects had already been accomplished (Brave New World: Historical/Literary Background). The novel prophetically predicts that those technologies would eventually be applied to human beings, as they are today in the twenty-first century. Scientific pioneers like Darwin and Freud had already begun supplanting ethics, religion, art, and philosophy with science at the writing of both dystopic novels, yet many of the predictions made by these books had not yet come to be at the time of their writing, but are now a reality. One need only make a cursory reading of Fire Chief Beatty’s monologues in Fahrenheit 451 to understand just how close to a dystopia the modern world really is.
In conclusion, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World need to be understood within the historical context of their time in order to better apply the books’ messages to the contemporary world. The post World War I and II period was a time of monumental change and instability, and a heavy cloud of anxiety was upon all people. Because of this chaos, many sought a simple formula that could be a panacea to all of the world’s social and economic problems. The totalitarian regimes of Bradbury and Huxley are such a panacea, but the authors illustrate how a government-controlled welfare state can never truly be the answer to global concerns. However, these novels need not be read only as testaments of a bygone era, because the warnings contained between their covers are needed more today than ever before. Both books depict societies that most readers would consider pessimistic or even nihilistic, but it is the way in which the charmingly human characters function in these brave new worlds that strikes a chord of hope. In that formula of pessimistic society versus optimistic humanity, the writers make their mutual point with the strongest resonance – the fact that a government can never simulate true peace and prosperity, which must be sought within the individual.
Background Information on Fahrenheit 471. Library Reading Room. Novemeber 11, 2002. Northbrook Public Library. November 25, 2002.
Brave New World: Historical/Literary Background. Monkey Notes. September 16, 2002. PinkMonkey.Com. November 25, 2002.
Holmes, H.R. Dystopian Themes in Popular Literature. Boston: McDougal Littel, 1987.
Keanu, Jennifer. In the Shadow of War. New York: North Atlantic Press, 1994.
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