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If you took any English classes in high school, chances are you read George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book, which introduced the world to Big Brother, Newspeak, and other Orwellian bits of fascistic lingo, is a classic for a reason, but it’s not the only hugely influential novel about a dystopian future. Almost two decades earlier, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, another chilling tale that envisioned a future where society was repressed not by force or fascism, but by pleasure. Brave New World has been adapted into a TV series for the upcoming streaming service Peacock, and the showrunner and cast all agree — even though Brave New World’s futuristic society seems utopian on the surface, it’s actually much scarier and more relevant than Nineteen Eighty-Four's.
Perhaps because most high school curricula only have room for one English novel about a dystopian future, Brave New World isn’t as widely read as Nineteen Eighty-Four. All of the actors that SYFY WIRE spoke to during the press junket for the Peacock series admitted they hadn’t read the book growing up. Yet its influence is immense.
Brave New World largely takes place in New London, a society wherein everybody is happy all of the time. Children are created in artificial wombs and then sorted into castes, where they will go about their assigned labor without a second thought. Troublesome concepts like monogamy, religion, and money are all outlawed, and the population is constantly getting high on Soma, a drug that keeps them level, soothed, and happy. Orgies are commonplace. Nobody has any desire to dissent or challenge the system in any way because everyone is content — but not necessarily free.
As critic Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 non-fiction book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
“I think that Huxley’s precautionary tale is a little scarier because it’s so much more insidious and subtle,” the Peacock series showrunner David Wiener tells SYFY WIRE, moments after explicitly referencing Postman’s analysis. “It’s not an oppression being inflicted upon people by the government, rather it’s a kind of oppression that’s being inflicted upon people by themselves.”
“There is a really established hierarchy, and the twist that Huxley puts on it is that nobody within it wants to be anything other than what they are,” Wiener continues. “And I think that kind of submission to comfort is scary and very real.”
“That was one of the first conversations I had with David Wiener,” Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) says of the contrast between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Ehrenreich, who plays John the Savage, an outsider to the New London Society and someone who doesn’t have his emotions and ways of thinking controlled by oppressive pleasure, finds Brave New World’s future more plausible. “They’ve both pretty scary, but I recognize the hidden nature of the way in which people can be controlled in Brave New World,” he continues. “I recognize that more from my experience.”
“At the moment, Brave New World’s vision of dystopia is more scary because it feels closer,” echoes Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones), who plays a high-ranking member of New London society named Bernard Marx. “It’s nearer to our range. You wouldn’t burn books, but you could distract people enough to where they wouldn’t want to read them anymore.”
“It’s a hard call because Brave New World, on the surface, may seem like the lesser of the two evils because there is this pleasure,” adds Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries), who plays an especially low-ranking member of New London society named CJack60. “But those people in Brave New World are prisoners in a cage, just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. So, there’s this slow realization for them that they are completely controlled by this system, and I think that’s quite terrifying — to be controlled, to be a prisoner and not realize it.”
Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays Lenina Crowne, a mid-ranking member of New London society and one of the few people to feel somewhat unfulfilled despite all the Soma and niceties. As with everybody else SYFY WIRE spoke to, Brown Findlay agrees that the Brave New World version of the future is the more relevant one to our moment in history.
“I think it’s perhaps closer to what’s going on in our pleasure-seeking, filter-out-the-bad world,” she says. “‘Oh, it’s so shiny’ — No, it’s terrifying.”
All episodes of Brave New World will be available July 15 on Peacock.
SYFY WIRE and Peacock are both owned and operated by NBCUniversal.