Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
Features Writer
1:06 PM 4th October 2019

When Will We Ever Learn ? The Foresight of the Writer

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1931, was set in ‘a futuristic world of genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy’; which is to say, it opens in a factory for test-tube babies, where, through programming, different strata of society are established: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, each designed never to mix.

George Orwell’s 1984 (so titled because he wrote it in 1948 and, unable to decide in which year to set his futuristic vision, simply reversed the last two digits) also presents a dystopian society which includes Thought-Police and Big Brother watching every move. The TV programme Room 101 takes its name from this book too but there is nothing humorous in Orwell’s version.

The two books were radically different in approach and for those who wish to investigate further, much literary criticism has been expended on the similarities and contrasts between these great novels. But what of the seeming ability of writers to foresee events?

E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops is a lesser known novella, first published in 1909. It begins with a description of ‘a swaddled lump of flesh’ which turns out to be the main character, Vashti. It is set in an age when Man has destroyed the surface of the earth and humankind now dwells in individual subterranean cells. Physical contact has become abhorrent and travel is just as distasteful. ‘The Machine’ provides for all Man’s needs: food, hygiene, communication, education, entertainment – the gamut of existential comfort. The manual for The Machine is revered by its people. As the title suggests, however, machines cannot sustain forever, and the consequences of a breakdown may be catastrophic. As ever, no spoiler alert because I will not give away the plot or the ending, but I weep every time I read it, just as they ‘wept for humanity’.

What truly strikes me, and struck me for the first time many years ago during the power cuts of the early 70s, and more recently in the era of social media and video games, is how prophetic this book, like Brave New World and 1984, really was.

As a child, with only one phone in the house (and a party-line at that), I would run round to see my friends if we wanted to talk. Research required a trip to the library, television ended at 10.30, cooking required raw ingredients and time, and we lived in relative luxury with an indoor toilet and a back boiler providing hot water on tap. Now, it is possible to sit in your bedroom in the UK and compete with someone in Russia; texts are preferable even to phone calls, the art of letter-writing is lost, the anonymity of social media is regarded as a bonus and too often abused. Orwell’s Thought-Police are little different from the constant data collection which computerisation has afforded us, and the use of CCTV cameras and I-phone trackers means we can be followed, unwittingly, in any direction that Big Brother chooses to look. Test-tube babies and cloning are a reality. Catastrophe strikes if there is a power cut or surge and heaven help us if there is no Wifi!

These books predicted technologies which we now take for granted, designed to make life better and easier - yet should we heed their implicit warnings? Be careful what we wish for? Are we, in fact, hurtling towards self-imposed oblivion and the destruction of the world as we know it? And what of the authors? Were they really seers or time-travellers trapped on a journey? What a thought!

Rather than being totally pessimistic about the future of the world, I prefer to wonder what excitement lies ahead of us still. Can we always simply dismiss as fantasy, the words we read in the realms of (science) fiction?

Ponder if you will.