Utopia is a theme which has captured the imagination of artists and philosophers since the beginning of Western Civilization. The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions made this lofty goal seem possible. Still, progress brought unique challenges. Technological progress increased humanity’s ability to do both good and harm. The Industrial Revolution brought modern medicine and agricultural techniques which improved the lives of millions but also brought the Maxim gun, nerve gas, and mechanization of warfare. The novels of Huxley and Wells depict idealized societies where harmony and happiness seemingly reign. However, further examination reveals that these societies are more dystopian than utopian because of the dangers of totalitarianism and dehumanizing effects of luxury and modernity, Wells and Huxley describe how a combination of control of culture, apathy based on luxury, and drug use to numb the anxieties of life can destroy a society.
During the late 19th century, many artists and intellectuals thought that the Enlightenment and technological progress would create a world without strife or want. The opening sentence of Huxley’s novel challenges this, the Hatchery, the building in which human beings are produced through genetic engineering is described as “a squat grey building of only thirty-four stories” (Huxley 1). Science has not created the Utopia promised by More; instead, human beings have become industrially produced commodities made from “one egg, one embryo” which becomes “one adult.” (Huxley 4). The future envisioned by the Utopians is re-imagined by Huxley as a world in which humanity is reduced to the level of any other mass-produced consumer product. The main thrust of Huxley’s argument is that the result of scientific progress is that mankind will lose its humanity. Individuality and creativity have been eliminated in the society Huxley envisions, in which “the principle of mass production has at last been applied to humanity” (Huxley 3). Human beings have been reduced to cattle, stripped of all agency and autonomy.
Far from liberating humanity to achieve its highest potential, technology has destroyed humankind in Huxley’s novel, stripping it of all dignity and agency. H.G. Well’s vision of the future is just as bleak. Like Huxley, he fears technology and science will extinguish the ambition to for a higher existence. The Time Traveller creates a time machine, hoping to discover a new future in which human beings have realized their full potential. He is hoping to find Utopia. Instead, the Traveller learns that humanity has been reduced to sheeplike children, the Eloi, and barbaric exploiters, the Morlocks, who prey upon them like cattle. When the Traveller first encounters the Eloi, he discovers “a fragile thing out of futurity” (Wells 13). The Eloi have become so accustomed to soft life and comfort that they have lost any sense of agency. The result of science, the Enlightenment, and industrialism is not a dynamic entity who explores and colonizes the stars, but the helpless, fattened animal whose primal drives have numbed by luxury and plenty. Utopia, as imagined by More and Marx, is reconceived of as a dehumanizing nightmare by Huxley and Wells.
All the things which differentiate humans from animals, except technology, are eliminated in Huxley’s Brave New World. Religion, literature, and art have been excluded from the world which Huxley creates in Brave New World. The world controller, Mustapha Mond explains the reason for this prohibition with this line “Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness” (Huxley 261). Religion and high culture are classified and suppressed in the same way that pornography and subversive material were in the past. The process described by Huxley is an inversion of values, obscenity has been normalized and morals which were considered life-affirming pathologized. The great sin in the technological dystopia of Huxley’s novel is to be exceptional, to challenge oneself. To justify the dehumanization of humanity, Mond cites the history of the twentieth century where ideology and warfare almost destroy the entire human race. The choice, according to Mond, is either a complete rationalization, homogenization, and bureaucratization of culture or the self-destruction of the human race.
While Wells and Huxley differ on the nature of man’s future, they both agree that Progress strips human beings of their drive and agency. Well’s describes Eloi society as a primitive form of “communism” (Wells 16). All needs have been satisfied, but this satisfaction has stripped the Eloi of any desire to better their condition. They are content to be raised and slaughtered like livestock. Huxley envisions an advanced technological society where all the higher aspirations are suppressed through a combination of genetic engineering, social conditioning, and drug use. All doubts and longings are suppressed by Soma, which has “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects” (Huxley 55).
The reality of twenty-first-century life justifies Wells and Huxley’s skepticism and disgust with the future. A large portion of the American population takes anti-depressant medication to cope with the realities of modernity. More Americans die from opioid abuse than from war or car accidents. While twenty-first-century society has not made human beings into genetically identical cogs like in Brave New World, or mindless cattle like in The Time Machine, these novels hit a nerve because they get at something real. While the prosperity of modernity has dramatically improved the quality of human life and increased material abundance, it has created a sense of emptiness and despair. The reality of postmodern life increasingly resembles the state of soft totalitarianism which Huxley predicted in which technology and hedonism are used to pacify the masses. The message of Huxley and Well’s novels is that humankind needs adversity and struggle to be fully human. The reason that the human race has progressed is due to the boldness and willingness to take risks of a handful of individuals who are willing to challenge the status quo. If society suppresses this drive to achievement, it will become stagnant, the technological nightmare of Huxley’s Brave New World, or the mindless society of cattle envisioned by Wells. Cultural elites must promote a way of life that prizes excellence, not merely comfort. To fail to encourage achievement is to take away what makes human beings unique.
- G. Wells and Aldous Huxley believe that progress and science can dehumanize the human race. The Time Machine and Brave New World are dystopias in which the comfort produced by technology do not lead to Utopia. Instead, luxury and care strip away the qualities which differentiate human beings from animals. Their message is that if society does not make a conscious effort to promote excellence and achievement, luxury and prosperity will make human beings into mindless cattle.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Coradella Collegiate Bookshelf Editions, 1932. scotswolf.com, http://www.scotswolf.com/aldoushuxley_bravenewworld.pdf.
Wells, H G. The Time Machine. Project Gutenberg, 2004. Project Gutenberg, file:///C:/Users/HP%202000/Downloads/HGWells_TimeMachine%20(1).pdf.