The Search for Scientific Optimism in Speculative Fiction: The Dystopic Worlds of H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell

This essay shall explore the fictional worlds of four influential writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. We begin with a melioristic hope that the world can improve and that humanity can help it along; a symbiotic relationship. Each of these four writers of speculative fiction peered into the darker recesses of their specific societies’ collective mind while creating fantastical worlds in which to explore the nature of human development and the benefits of scientific advancement within each author’s own culture. In The Time Machine, We, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, we glimpse into a future heavily influenced by science. Each author explored humanity’s place in the world while looking at technology’s influence viewed through a rather trepidant and scientifically optimistic lens.

Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell examined human nature and wo/man’s potential for beneficence and ended with maleficence taken to its ultimate speculative conclusion. In these prophetically satirical novels, we enter dystopic worlds filled with skepticism about the fate of the human race in spite of technological advances purposed by these authors. We are left with some difficult questions. Does scientific optimism wane in the face of speculative fiction’s prophetic nature? Must an author play Devil’s advocate for speculative fiction to work its magic? And what role did the advent of totalitarianism and Fascism play on speculative fiction in the early twentieth century? And lastly, would there be a genre of speculative fiction without these severe political and societal movements?

Edward Earle Purinton, a writer of science and health during the early twentieth century, describes his concept of scientific optimism in his essay, “The Efficient Optimist” published in 1915:

Scientific optimism is faith in self, God and man with knowledge of material conditions required for the attainment of a specified goal as well as willing to work long and hard, and use every means and event, good or ill, for the transmutation of experience into achievement. The lever with which to move the world is an irrepressible faith, grounded on the irrefutable knowledge, backed by an irremovable will (Purinton 53).

Purinton’s definition includes the phrase, “transmutation of experience into achievement.” What does this mean? Taking this phrase apart we understand transmute as changing from one form, species, condition, nature, or substance into another; transform; convert as defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary. Following Purinton’s definition, we can postulate that our knowledge, goal, faith and hard work can result in absolute change in the very nature of the world we know. It is important to note that in 1915, the scientific community was bristling with possibilities with continued and ongoing success in scientific development and theory. The Victorian age was a time of change. Horse power was replaced by efficient steam power and anything seemed possible. “The Victorian era saw the arrival of the telegraph, the bicycle, gas lighting and then electric lighting, steel, the subway, the telephone, the motorcar, hydro-electric power, x-rays, and even the earliest form of radio” (Steampunkery.com). And in many ways, the Victorians seemed to invent the modern concept of invention (Ansay).

What does scientific optimism do for the human machine? What benefit is this transmutation of experience? How do we benefit from a change in the nature of our world? Purinton’s own view of science aligns scientific optimism with a more spiritual grounding:

… it [scientific optimism] opens communication with higher, spiritual avenues or original conception and power, by means of which the ordinary man becomes great, and every man a conscious master of himself, his work, and his destiny (Purinton 49).

So, according to Purinton, human beings have the ability to transcend from ordinary mundane beings to a level of greatness; beings with the ability to see the future without limitations and with endless possibilities. And from this transcendent platform, we leap into meliorism.

Meliorism is an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to transform the world. Meliorists are needed in our society in order to keep hope alive. Meliorism is defined as the belief that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment (merriam-webster.com). So if we take this desire to help improve the world, add an irrepressible faith in God, ground it in irrefutable knowledge and back it with an immovable will, we begin to appreciate the spirit of the Victorian world and we have a better understanding of their desire to make their world a better place.

Rev. George Morelli, Ph.D., a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, describes psychological optimism as “the way that individuals view the causes of the problems that confront them” (Fr. Morelli). If we assign guilt and judgment to the causes of problems that we face, the resolution we employ may not be wholly effective. For example, if we believe we deserve negative outcomes from our actions, we may not earnestly try and remedy the problem to the best of our ability. Our perception becomes our reality regardless of the truth of the matter. And conversely, if we believe that negative outcomes have been unjustly put upon us, we will most likely try harder to overcome the unfairness of the situation, pulling strength beyond our normal capability.

The scientific meliorist claims “future scientific and technological progress cannot be supported by induction [alone] and requires an element of psychological optimism that is beyond science” (de Wolf). This claim suggests more than a mere grounding in science is necessary for future technological advancement. Psychological optimism is the necessary leap of faith that is needed to bridge the gap between what we want and dream and where we are today. We must employ a speculative-fictive mind grounded in firm, sound science with positive psychological optimism that will see us resolutely into the future. However, our journey begins with a look back into the nineteenth century and H.G. Wells by a contemporary writer.

Ursula K. Le Guin characterized the era in which H.G. Wells and his contemporaries lived:

…at the end of one age and the beginning of another. Wells’ fiction exhibits an intense temporal anguish, that of a man who feels he exists “between two times,” pulled both back and forward, at home in neither. The idea of living in two times, of moving back and forth between them, is an almost obsessive theme in his work throughout his long career (Le Guin xiii).

Wells lived in a time of transition. The world was changing around him much like the Time Traveler in The Time Machine. But it was not only the mechanical devices that were changing the lives of the Victorians, it was the psychological mindset that began to change. There was an optimistic belief that anything was possible. Sending someone through time was a beautiful metaphor for the Victorians, for they were on that journey and heading into a new world of possibilities.

In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells weaves a tale about the potential consequences of eliminating tension in our lives by seeking blissful comfort. Wells, a true meliorist filled with scientific optimism, “wanted to believe that science [and] reason would lead mankind to a bright utopia; he worked hard at believing it” (Le Guin XIII). In his novel, the Time Traveler visits the Earth in the year 798,000. Humans have evolved into two different species, one thoughtless and feeble (the prey) and another group hidden, dark, carnivorous and calculating (the predators); the “haves” and the “have nots”. When the Time Traveler visits a museum with artifacts of antiquity, old books he notes, “The thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labor to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified” (Wells 64). In the many examples that Wells provides, the world had evolved forward and then dreadfully backwards by eliminating the tension and purpose in the peoples’ lives. By removing labor, passion and drive from society, humanity became little more than living flesh driven by simple primal desires. Humanity lost its passion for discovery when they no longer had to “toil in the fields.” In Well’s world, society slowly withered away like an unused limb, a simple atrophy.

The hierarchical class structure of Victorian England played a major role in Wells’ life. His father was a shopkeeper and his mother a housekeeper to the wealthy. Well’s parents tried without success to elevate their family above their blue-collar life by sending their children to prestigious schools and by his father playing Cricket for income as well as providing a connection to the upper-class. However, when Wells’ father broke his leg while pruning a tree (a compound fracture of the thigh bone) in 1877, any dream of financial success for the Wells family dissipated (Wells 108).

Before the year was out it was plain that my father was going to be heavily lame for the rest of his life. This was the end to any serious cricket, any bowling to gentlemen, any school jobs as “pro,” or the like for him. All the supplementary income was cut off by this accident which also involved much expense in doctoring. The chronic insolvency of Atlas House became acute (Wells 108).

Once Atlas House (the crockery shop that Joseph Wells ran and owned) was closed, Wells was sent to apprentice with a draper; he followed in his brother’s footsteps without much interest or enjoyment (Wells 109). Wells had to rely on his own ingenuity and scholarly aspirations to rise above his station.

Wells’ profound awareness of social structure had a significant impact on his political consciousness. He was an avowed socialist though his beliefs ran close to communist lines (Wells 94). Wells did not believe in the superiority of those of inferior social status or the revolution of the proletarians to seize political power (Wells 94). Wells was a strange mix of desire for a higher station while wanting equality for all, but not a true communist state. Wells envisioned an “expanded middle-class which has incorporated both the aristocrat and plutocrat above and the peasant, proletarian and pauper below” (Wells 94). He was disenchanted with his mother’s obsequious reverence to English royalty and his family’s “social superiors.” His honesty was forthright and steadfast if not a bit arrogant:

…my resentful heart claimed at least an initial equality with every human being; but it was equality of position and opportunity I was after, and not equality of respect or reward; I certainly had no disposition to sacrifice my conceit of being made of better stuff, intrinsically and inherently, than most other human beings…I thought the top of the form better than the bottom of the form, and the boy who qualified better than the boy who failed to qualify (Wells 94).

Wells conflicted views seemed to work their way into The Time Machine. His political hodgepodge of socialist and communist beliefs play out in his first novel: two species needing each other for survival with one feeding on the other without respect or desire for equality between the two. One stronger and smarter than the other while feeding on the meek and simple minded.

We follow the Time Traveler into the future of The Time Machine as he encounters the Eloi and the Morlocks-a stratification of two classes of beings. One, the Morlocks, can be viewed as representing the proletariat. They work and live below ground and live by primal desires. They are the invisible cannibals, the working class that remains out of sight, and eat the species above ground, a slow carnivorous consumption/destruction of the literal upper-class.

The other group of this world is the Eloi. They represent the bourgeois in our deconstruction: a pretty, clueless and simple-minded people. Everything is done for them. Their fine clothes are made for them and food is left on the tables for them every night. They play on the grass under the sunlight and retreat in the darkness. But they are the well-dressed livestock, the meat, and the food source of the Morlocks.

The Eloi and the Morlocks play out Wells’ views on Marxism. While the Eloi have everything done for them and bask in the sun, they are not the ones in charge of this world; the Morlocks rule from their underground world. The world of The Time Machine seems to portray a Marxist ideal with the proletariat running the show. Wells’ portrait of communism provides the critical reader with a poignant commentary about what could happen if we follow the path laid out by Karl Marx: complete destruction of all social classes. To that end, the Time Traveler speeds further into the future to see a world without human beings and ultimately returns to his Victorian England.

Wells’ beliefs evolved as he matured away from his younger and more judgmental views. Throughout his youth, he was plagued with a narrow view of class structure:

Just as my mother was obliged to believe in Hell, but hoped that no one would go there, so did I believe there was and had to be a lower stratum, though I was disgusted to find that anyone belonged to it. I did not think this lower stratum merited any respect. It might arouse sympathy for its bad luck or indignation for an unfair handicap (Wells 94).

Wells embraced socialism and worked towards a peaceful world as he matured. He lived through the first World War and predicted the second World War in his speculative fictive novel, The Shape of Things to Come. His own journey took him from a narrow-minded boy to a man who believed the world could be a better place, and that he could help in its betterment.

To give futuristic worlds a sense of credibility, authors frequently make use of advanced technology such as Ray Bradbury’s robotic spider-dogs in Fahrenheit 451 or the description of the fourth dimension in The Time Machine. Wells introduces the 4th Dimension ten years before Einstein put forth his theory on special relativity (www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk). About the science in his book, Wells stated:

[It is] the idea that Time is a fourth dimension and that the present is a three-dimensional section of a four-dimensional universe. The only difference between the time dimension and the others, from this point of view, lay in the movement of consciousness along it, whereby the progress of the present was constituted…But my story does not go on to explore either of these possibilities; I did not in the least know how to go on to such an exploration. I was not sufficiently educated in that field, and certainly a story was not the way to investigate further (Wells xx).

Though Wells’ honest assessment of his knowledge and skill in theoretical science is gracious, the science utilized within the novella is a wonderfully crafted description of theoretical science. Wells credits several of his teachers for instilling in him a firm appreciation of science. However, there is one mentor who had the greatest impact on the young Wells. In University, Wells studied zoology under T.H. Huxley, grandfather of Aldous Huxley, at the Normal School of Science, (now known as the Royal College of Science). Wells referred to Professor Huxley as the “acutest observer, the ablest generalizer, the great teacher, the most lucid and valiant of controversialist” (Wells 199). Meeting Huxley was a glorious opportunity for the young Wells. Huxley’s year-long mentorship ignited an enthusiastic approach to science within Wells:

Here I was under the shadow of Huxley, That year I spent in Huxley’s class was, beyond all question, the most educational year of my life. It left me under that urgency for coherence and consistency, that repugnance from haphazard assumptions and arbitrary statements, which is the essential distinction of the educated from the uneducated mind (Wells 201).

T.H. Huxley was a disciple of Darwin and had invited the notable evolutionary scientist to his classroom but to Wells’ dismay, Darwin passed away in 1882, a year before he attended the university. The Time Machine, viewed through a Darwinian lens, addresses the evolution of the human race and the evolution of the world as the Time Traveler zooms forward thirty million years into the future to see giant crabs on the edge of the red sea. Wells gives us a world filled with messages, warnings about what would happen if we allowed class structure to ultimately define the species we are and can become. In the Eloi, Wells shows us a species without hope, morality or a sense of virtue; a species without the ability to see past our own immediate needs and without an appreciation of the accomplishments of the entire human race.

Wells held a great melioristic hope for humanity. He was socialist and a visionary who dreamed of a utopian society, in spite of the repetitious and cautionary themes in many of his novels (which really was his warning, his sign-post stating, Turn back now!). He once stated, “If the world does not please you, you can change it” (Wells vi). Through his stories, he hoped to be a catalyst for change and to help steer conscious thought into a healthier-minded approach into the future.

In 1933, Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in which he foretold the events of World War II with startling accuracy. Wells socialist beliefs carried him through the first quarter of the twentieth century. And though he was a vocal utopian, he saw significant scientific change in the world. Having lived through World War I, his optimistic belief that man could achieve a “blissful existence on earth” (www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk) faded in the waxing scientific evolution. In 1934, Wells visited Russia and the United States lobbying to avoid war and to promote global peace (Random House vii). It would seem his Victorian hope and Socialist dreams started to wane in the face of the reality as the world headed towards World War II.

Novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote cultural satires in early twentieth century Russia. He believed, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics” (Salon.com). And out of Zamyatin’s interminable rebellious spirit came the novel We, a more contemporary search for scientific optimism that takes us away from the Victorian world.

Zamyatin’s dystopic story is pure speculative fiction bordering on science fiction as many novels of the genre tend to do. Set in the future, individuals are not given names but numbers and live in under totalitarian rule. They live in a glass city which allows for no privacy save a curtain that can be pulled while having sexual encounters. Operations to remove one’s imagination are performed on more dangerous citizens.

We is a “novel of revolution. It is the sum of the utopian enthusiasms, which gestated in the nineteenth century and were delivered in the early twentieth” (Randall xi). Writer Natasha Randall explains in the Introduction titled “Them” in the 2006 Modern Library edition of We, that life in Russia during 1920, when the novel was written, was becoming nightmarish. “…these Russian enthusiasms were entering a sort of singular Bolshevik utopian rigor mortis” (Randall xi). The Russian people wanted positive change and the Bolshevik government was unable to deliver a prosperous, economically sound quality of life. Instead, they ruled with a totalitarian hand. The “One State” in We is particularly reflective of the Bolshevik rule of Russia. In We, free will is determined to be the cause of unhappiness.

Zamyatin completed his novel We around 1920. With great enthusiasm, it was circulated throughout underground Russia as a manuscript. However, it was banned by Glavlit, the new Soviet censorship bureau, in 1921. In England, Zamyatin’s novel was printed in 1924 and spread to the rest of the western world. The Soviet Union would not permit the publishing of We for another sixty-four years (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ zamyatin.htm).

In his youth, Zamyatin joined the Bolshevik party as a revolutionary and twice spent time jailed for his beliefs (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/zamyatin.htm). And after spending time in England in 1916, Zamyatin translated several of Wells novels into Russian. Zamyatin believed in the Russian revolution but was critical about the authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks and the suppression of freedom (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/zamyatin.htm). However, as an engineer, Zamyatin was also exceedingly in touch with the continuing evolution of technology in the world.

Professor William Hutchings from the University of Alabama at Birmingham wrote of Zamyatin’s awareness of the advent of a new age of science and technology. According to Hutchings, Zamyatin (like numerous other writers of the early twentieth century in Russia and elsewhere) “sought new modes of expression appropriate for the time, even as they eagerly anticipated a new and ‘more perfect’ society to be built from among the ruins of the toppled feudal structure and the ravages of both civil and international war” (Hutchings 82).

Zamyatin did not attempt to hide his dislike of the environment of Russia or the Bolsheviks. Founded by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks practiced a rigid adherence to leadership of the working class. In fact, the Bolsheviks believed themselves to be the vanguard of the working class of Russia; the Revolution started with striking workers from a plant in Saint Petersburg in December 1904. Zamyatin reveals the authenticity of Stalinist Russia in We:

…the realities of Stalinist Russia now revealed by Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sinyavsky, and other Soviet dissidents in their accounts of “thoughtcrime” (in Orwell’s phrase) and vaporization into non-persons, of regimentation and conformity within a society that seems remarkably similar to Zamyatin’s totalitarian One State that is governed by its despotic and malevolent Benefactor (Hutchings 81).

Although it may not be necessary to make the distinction, a true Bolshevik did not practice true Marxism because they were unfamiliar with Marx’s actual ideas but rather an incomplete interpretation of Marxism by Friedrich Engels. Marx met Engels in Paris in 1844 and had worked together on Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx was unable to complete the task of revising his doctrine called Capital for Russia before his death in 1883. Engels was charged with the task of completing the translation but was more concerned with completing a publishable version rather than completing Marx’s own correct system of  dialectical and historical materialism (Sayers 4), how one sees and interprets the phenomena of the world. However, it is this interpretation that was embraced and put forward as the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party (Stalin).

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography about Stalin addressed the concept of absolute faith and the faith of a Bolshevik in his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. A Bolshevik was not someone who believed merely in Marxism but

…someone who had absolute faith in the Party, no matter what…A person with the ability to adapt his morality and conscience in such a way that he can unreservedly accept the dogma that the Party is never wrong-even though it’s wrong all the time (Montefiore 86).

In the Foreword to the 2006 Modern Library edition of We titled “Madmen, Hermits, Heretics, Dreamers, Rebels and Skeptics,” American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling describws the text “syncretic” and “wildly imaginative” adding that it “combs the world’s library of innovation, science and dissent, in order to address the one topic it can never directly confront: the cruel descent of the Bolshevik rebellion into frozen dogma and totalitarian stasis” (Sterling viii).

An initial examination of the science within We demonstrates Zamyatin’s prowess with science and technology. To his benefit, Zamyatin was an engineer as is D-503, the protagonist in the novel. Zamyatin utilized his skill in mathematics and storytelling to weave an impressive novel. As Randall points out, “…[Zamyatin] rendered emotions in equations, relationships in geometry, and philosophy in calculus while delivering a page-turning story” (Randall xvii). And in his way, as with all of authors in this paper do in presenting dystopic worlds, the technology utilized in We is an ominous and destructive force, e.g. brainwashing to remove imagination, the use of a rocket ship to spread the word of the One State, and glass houses and buildings to prevent privacy.

Albert Einstein, as we know, made a smashing impact on the world of science when he presented his theories of relativity in the early twentieth century (Leatherbarrow 142). And for Russia and in the Bolshevik world, this was not lost nor was it ignored. Einstein’s theories would have a substantial impact on Russians as it had on the rest of the world when in 1905, he published his special theory of relativity, followed by his general theory of relativity in 1915 (Arora):

Zamyatin conceived his novel My [We] and the critical essays at a time when the cultural and philosophical implications of the ‘new physics’ were beginning to reverberate at the highest levels of Soviet intellectual and political life. In the early years of Bolshevik rule the theory of relativity provided a battlefield for a fierce struggle between those members of the intelligentsia who espoused an orthodox materialist outlook and those who argued from an idealist position (Leatherbarrow 144).

In We, D-503 designs and builds the Integral, a rocket ship that will journey to alien planets “who may still be living in the savage state of freedom, and subjugating them to the beneficial yoke of reason. If they won’t understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to force them to be happy” (Zamyatin 2). The Integral is described as “electrified and fire breathing” (Zamyatin 2). One could see this as the face of the Bolsheviks. But further in the book we see X-rays lobotomize people’s minds and a city built entirely out of glass to allow the Guardians, a sort of police, to spy on the citizens at all times, except during sex at which time they may draw curtains for minimal privacy. This serves the same function as Orwell’s Telescreens that monitor the population within their homes but in 1920 televisions had not yet been invented. Zamyatin relied on his imagination-a concept that he describes within his novel as a disease: “What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera…I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination-everyone’s imagination must be…excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone…” (Zamyatin 80).

Zamyatin was influenced by a group called the Russian Futurists, an avant-garde group based in the arts. The Russian Futurists embraced the idea of tectology, an original philosophy that Alexander Bogdanov, Lenin’s deputy philosopher, developed and is now regarded as a precursor of systems theory and related aspects of synergetics (worldsocialism.org). This group, along with the Proletarian Culture movement, Proletkult, established in 1917, planned to “engender a new proletarian cultural universal…Their ideas included god-building, tectology, and human mechanization” (Randall xiii). In fact the title of Zamyatin’s book comes directly from the Proletkult. “Zamyatin’s title is borrowed from the Proletkult, whose writers had composed poems and plays with the title We before Zamyatin’s own work emerged” (Randall xiii).

In We, Zamyatin takes the concept of ‘human mechanization’ to absurd limits. His satire was fully unleashed:

“people” is not quite right: there were no feet to them but some kind of heavy forged wheel being turned by an invisible axle. They weren’t people but sort of person-looking tractors. Above their heads, flapping in the wind was a white flag, with a golden sun sewn onto it, and in its rays was the inscription: “We are the first. We have been Operated! Everyone follow us!” (Zamyatin 166)

The word “robot” originates from the Russian/Czech word rabotat which translates “to work” (Randall xii). Zamyatin’s description of the population of the One State mandates that each person shall not have a name and shall only be referred to by number and letter in a unisex uniform without any unique characteristics. A nameless workforce working to get the job done.

D-503, the protagonist in We, had designed the Integral to spread the word of the One State to other planets. The workforce in Zamyatin’s novel that was building the Integral mirrored the new production of Ford automobiles that was spreading all over the world. The era of Russia in the 1920s was heavily flavored with the introduction of Ford’s automobile itself generating an atmosphere of scientific optimism. The name Henry Ford was well-known in many Russian villages. After the revolution, Lenin introduced Ford tractors to the country and the population took to these machines with great pride and gratitude:

Peasants affectionately called these tractors “Fordzonishkas” (they also were said to have named their children after Ford in the early years of the Soviet era!) and the terms fordizatsiya and teilorizatsiya (Fordization, Taylorization) were used in Soviet universities in the 1920s (Randall xvi).

In his essay “Structure and Design in a Soviet Dystopia: H.G. Wells, Constructivism, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We,” University of Alabama English professor William Hutchings discussed the mechanization of the era in which Zamyatin wrote We:

Self-consciously aware of the advent of a new age of science and technology, Zamyatin (like numerous other writers and artists of the early twentieth century in Russia and elsewhere) sought new modes of expression appropriate for the times, even as they eagerly anticipated a new and “more perfect” society to be build from among the ruins of the toppled feudal structure and the ravages of both civil and international war. Zamyatin himself was acutely aware of the contemporary movements in both aesthetics and politics as well as the social impetus behind them (Hutchings 82).

Hutchings continues by addressing the awareness of the “rush and dynamism” of the time. The robotic mechanization of the automotive industry threw life into fast-forward. He explained that everyday life would be forever affected by this new “speed and convenience” and thereby “transformed the nature perception itself” (Hutchings 83).

Zamyatin embraced the concepts of Synthetism (symbolic treatments of abstract ideas) and neo-realism (the simple direct depiction of lower-class life). We is populated with symbolism and abstract ideas taken to the extreme while showing the lives of the working class. William J. Leatherbarrow, noted writer and editor, postulated that for Zamyatin, the abstract ideas were anything but chaotic and random:

Zamyatin regarded Synthetism as “artistically realized philosophy” in that, although it used the random and paradoxical techniques of non-realist art, it set itself the task of making sense of the new world and disclosing its ultimately nonrandom nature (Leatherbarrow 150).

Leatherbarrow further believed that Zamyatin used the term “Synthesism” to describe the a new style of art he loved, but seemed that he was focused on a type of neo-realism, “rooted like conventional realism in the world of reality but using the forms of fantasy to express the grotesque nature of that reality” (Leatherbarrow 148). From his examples here, Zamyatin was expressing the ideas in his book through a type of neo-realism to make his point such as the glass houses and buildings to demonstrate the One State can know all about you at any given moment.

H.G. Wells had a substantial influence on the young Zamyatin. Not only did Zamyatin translate Wells’ novels into Russian in the 1920s but Zamyatin admired Wells’ fiction (Hutchings 83). In fact, Zamyatin owes a great “debt to the novels of H. G. Wells – a debt implicitly acknowledged by Zamyatin himself in two articles on Wells-has been widely noted” (Leatherbarrow 142) . There has been little official study to determine the precise extent that Wells influenced Zamyatin, however in his essay, writer Patrick Parrinder purposes that there is enough evidence to make the claim:

We reproduces the broad topography of the Wellsian future romance: the dehumanized city-state with its huge apartment blocks, its dictatorship, its walls excluding the natural world, and its weird House of Antiquity, is built of elements from When the Sleeper Wakes, “A Story of the Days to Come”, and The Time Machine (Parrinder).

We had a significant influence on the writers of speculative fiction in the early twentieth century, one of whom denied its influence. In 1946, George Orwell wrote an annotation of We for The Tribune after years of attempting to get his hands on a copy (OrwellToday.com). Orwell continues through his entire article comparing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to We:

I believe–that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories (OrwellToday.com).

Nathsha Randall, translator of the 2006 edition of We for The Modern Library, embraces Orwell’s belief that Huxley lied about not having read We. In fact, Orwell acknowledged Zamyatin’s influence on his work, having started writing his Nineteen Eighty-Four several months after reading a French translation. Orwell went so far to say that Huxley plagiarized We (Hitchens ix). However, in a 1962 letter to writer Christopher Collins, Huxley attempted to clarify that he wrote Brave New World long before he had heard of Zamyatin and We. However, the denials by Huxley are inconsistent (Hutchings 81) as addressed in Alex M. Shane’s book, The Life and Works of Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Fascism was on the rise in Italy in the 1920s with the help of Mussolini (Paxton 87), and from 1929 to 1945 this strong-right political movement spread across Europe and took hold in Germany and Hungary as a result of the long-lasting effects of the Great Depression (Payne 270). One of Fascism’s primary tenets is its opposition to socialism, rejection of individualism and its embrace of totalitarianism. “Fascism rejects the concepts of egalitarianism, materialism, and rationalism in favor of action, discipline, hierarchy, spirit, and will” (Bealey 129). The reality of Fascism served as a catalyst for speculative fiction. The dread of a totalitarian world, as well as the works of H.G. Wells and Zamyatin, fueled the imaginations of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell resulting in their seminal dystopic novels Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Writer Thomas Vargish discussed the goals of writing dystopias in his article “The Authority of Crises”: “The literary form of the dystopia aims at bringing into high relief the nature of contemporary political policy and practice; it thus offers us a particularly self-conscious embodiment of the nexus of history and literature” (Vargish 121). Huxley’s dystopic novel, Brave New World, is set 600 years in the future where society breeds humans into the “haves and the have nots”-genetic engineering including cloning. Parenting becomes a long lost, archaic art. In his novel, the self- indulgent ruling class engages a life of pleasure and avoids any unpleasant emotions. Brave New World is the embodiment of prophetic satire. However, Huxley’s pessimism about the use of science and technology to further humanity’s progress serves as the author’s warning about stepping too far too fast, a standard message within dystopian novels.

Ever since Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century, it has seemed possible that the limits of the human might be reached and surpassed as our species develops further. Just as in the very distant past we became human, so one day we may be destined to leave our humanity behind (Parrinder 56).

Huxley’s warning of complete abandonment of our humanity is not subtle, but like Wells, it comes from a complex individual. Aldous Huxley enjoyed a hierarchal and stratified approach to life. He came from a privileged background and had an interest in breeding in “both the aristocratic and the scientific sense of the term” and Huxley felt that it was important to encourage “the normal and supernormal members of the population to have large families” (Hitchens xii). However, Huxley’s dislike for the lower classes was clear:

…Huxley’s worldview is based on a distinction between high and low culture–and not on one drawn between nature and culture – is key to understanding his book.In particular, it helps to explain its unrelieved pessimism (Paden 223).

Aldous Huxley not only detested mass culture and popular entertainment (Hitchens vii), he loathed the concept of equality and socialism (Hitchens xi). It is rather ironic that he would write one of the most revered social satires of the early twentieth century. Writer and columnist Christopher Hitchens, author of the Foreword to the 2004 edition of Brave New World Revisited, critiques Huxley’s writing by pointing out the curious tone of the novel: “It is didactic and pedagogic and faintly superior: indeed you might say it was the tone of voice of an Etonian schoolmaster” (Hitchens xi). Huxley was a paradox of a man with a privileged background who did not feel that rules of society necessarily applied to him (Hitchens xiii). His creation of a world gone mad was filled with satire on some of the issues that he himself embraced. “His own views were to fluctuate between the affirmative importance of high culture and the necessity of skepticism (Hitchens xi). For example, Huxley satirized the concept of free love within his novel when he in fact practiced the concept within his own marriage by sharing the same lover, Mary Hutchinson, with his wife. “But still, when he came to describe the mindless and amoral sex lives of the men and women in Brave New World, he wrote with a curled lip” (Hitchens xiii). However, Hitchens provides a brilliant summary to Huxley’s dual nature: “We should, I think, be grateful that Aldous Huxley was such a mass of internal contradictions. These enabled him to register the splendors and miseries, not just of modernity, but of the human condition” (Hitchens xx).

George Orwell wrote, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it” (OrwellToday.com). And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell created a dystopic, tyrannical world where incorrect thinking is a crime. Admittedly inspired by Zamyatin (OrwellToday.com), Orwell was also responding to post World war II activities and in particular, the Teheran Conference where discussions took place deciding how to divide up the “Zones of Influence” in Europe among the allies (Pynchon xiv). Orwell was clearly not comfortable with the “peace” following the defeat of Germany. As Thomas Pynchon stated, Orwell “seems to have made a leap in the scale from the Teheran talks projecting the occupation of a defeated country into that of a defeated world” as he created the constantly battling countries of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.

Orwell’s depiction of strategic crisis tells us that in 1984 the political opportunities and dangers to authority do not depend on the actuality of the crisis. They depend on the perception of crisis. It is no surprise that the perception of crisis has been useful to those who wish to attack and replace the existing power structure (Vargish 122).

Perception is reality. If we believe something is real, our physical body responds to that stimulus. And if our government tells us that there is an Axis of Evil, we have a focus on which to direct our anger and hatred. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government continually changes the country that Oceania is at war with, be it Eurasia or Eastasia. The reality ceases to be important as the government controls the perception of the people. And beyond perception is the actual personal freedom that is minimized through the telescreens that Orwell introduces in his novel:

Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the over fulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard (Orwell 3).

A two-way screen that monitored every motion, every action of an individual was a long way from development, and mostly not available until the advent of the internet. However the introduction of the television to the general public in the 1930s (de Vries) provided a technological cliff from which Orwell could leap to the ominous concept of the telescreen.

As warnings go, Nineteen Eighty-Four serves, as most if not all speculative fiction does, as a warning about the importance of freedom and choice. To surrender these vital and necessary functions is to lose the fundamental elements of our humanity—or at least of our rights as Americans. In our lives we have the ability to make choices. It may be between a rock and a hard place, but there is always a choice. And we can choose to do the right thing, whatever that may be in our own individual cultural interpretation. We can choose to do right or wrong, good or bad, but it is our choice. And we can choose to make the world bigger; we can work towards improving it. Scott R. Stroud, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote “A vital part to meliorism is that the ideal elements that guide us (viz., the ‘‘good’’) are always found in lived experience, and that any specific situation has a mixture of good and bad elements” (Stroud 45).

Writer and professor on pragmatism, Colin Koopman explores the concept of meliorism in his essay, “Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope: Emerson, James, Dewey, Rort.” Koopman begins by making the statement, “Hopefulness, which in its more philosophically robust moments can be called meliorism, combines pluralism and humanism, two central themes in the pragmatist vision” (Koopman 107). Let us first define pragmatism:

1)    a practical approach to problems and affairs;

2)    an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief (merriam-webster.com).

William James, American psychologist and philosopher, believed at the heart of pragmatism is a resolute hopefulness in the abilities of human effort to create better future realities (Koopman 109). Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell each had a vested interest in helping humanity take stock of the world around them as they created their speculative fictive worlds. As writers, these men asked the question what if society took a very wrong turn. The most practical approach may not be the answer. Throwing technology into the mix can be a true recipe for disaster as their novels have shown us. The underlying question may be what is our definition of truth and what do we believe in? Dr. Koopman raises this question:

Pragmatism holds that true beliefs are sustained by the nourishing energy we give them—this reverses the pretence that the truth nourishes us. The truth will not set us free—our efforts, not inhuman energies, are what free us. Pragmatism thus refuses to offer up prayers of obedience to a most hollow philosophical idol. Pragmatism instead refocuses philosophy on the differences we humans can make. Hope is the mood in which we expect that we can make the requisite differences (Koopman 111).

After an initial exploration of speculative fiction and the twentieth century’s motivating forces behind it, the role of scientific optimism seems essential in speculative fiction. Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell provided a glimpse into the potential misuse of technology and the technological imperative. Every glorious machine created to provide ultimate goodness for the world can also be misused for ultimate evil, blackmail, destruction and world domination with the hope that good will always win over evil. Leon Kass, Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago, wrote:

The technological imperative has probably served us well, though we should admit that there is no accurate method for weighing benefits and harms. And even when we recognize the unwelcome outcomes of technological advance, we remain confident in our ability to fix all the “bad” consequences-by regulation or by means of still newer and better technologies (Kass 14).

The light of scientific optimism indeed must wane in the face of speculative fiction’s prophetic nature. Each of these authors utilized futuristic science in addition to totalitarian and fascistic governmental machinations for speculative fiction to work its magic. It is how the point is made.

The rise of totalitarianism and Fascism played an essential role in speculative fiction in the early twentieth century and allowed these authors a platform from which to tell their stories. And each has enjoyed widespread readership save for Zamyatin whose own book was not released in Russia until 1988 (www.goodreads.com ). The reality of the world stage provided the dramatic backdrop necessary for their work to be taken seriously. Much like fairy tales do for children in teaching life lessons, these influential works of speculative fiction attempt to teach humanity a cautionary lesson through fictive tales about the future in faraway lands.

Would there be a genre of speculative fiction without totalitarianism and Fascism? The political history of the twentieth century had a dramatic impact on speculative fiction, and it certainly was a catalyst for Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell. The resulting effects of totalitarianism and Fascism have impacted the arts and literature in a significant way.

“We stand in need, today, of hope, most especially the strong and flexible form of hope we find in pragmatism. It is hope that credits the confidence necessary for melioration” (Koopmen 112). The novels The Time Machine, We, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four serve as guideposts to humanity; warnings to bridle our human enthusiasm and technological dreams and our desire for ultimate control of the world we live in. And through it all, we cannot lose hope for the betterment of the world and our role in making that happen.

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4 thoughts on “The Search for Scientific Optimism in Speculative Fiction: The Dystopic Worlds of H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell

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