I blogged a few months ago about a long essay reflecting on Brave New World on its 75th anniversary. Now the novelist Margaret Atwood, not a stranger to future-oriented fiction*, has her reflections on the novel in today’s Guardian Review. Comparing it with 1984, she asks:

Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?

Her essay is good on the way in which Huxley inverted 19th century Victorian assumptions to create that sense of difference which credible future worlds require, and observes that in the brave new world “meaning has in fact been eliminated, as far as possible”.

There’s a fine paragraph on the way in which Huxley conjures an entire culture of sex and sexuality through his neologism “zippicamknicks”, which the teenaged Atwood understood immediately even though she knew neither the words ‘camisole’ or’ knickers’. And she quotes the comment of the “savage” John, “nothing costs enough here” – which I thought might an epitaph for the whole species after the sixth extinction.

From a futures perspective, the most compelling part of the essay is her rapid history of the past 40 years or so seen through the twin lenses of BNW and 1984, which is worth quoting at length:

During the cold war, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have the edge. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits proclaimed the end of history, shopping reigned triumphant, and there was already lots of quasi-soma percolating through society. True, promiscuity had taken a hit from Aids, but on balance we seemed to be in for a trivial, giggly, drug-enhanced spend-o-rama: Brave New World was winning the race.

That picture changed, too, with the attack on New York’s twin towers in 2001. Thoughtcrime and the boot grinding into the human face could not be got rid of so easily, after all. The Ministry of Love is back with us, it appears, though it’s no longer limited to the lands behind the former iron curtain: the west has its own versions now.

On the other hand, Brave New World hasn’t gone away. Shopping malls stretch as far as the bulldozer can see. On the wilder fringes of the genetic engineering community, there are true believers prattling of the gene-rich and the gene-poor – Huxley’s alphas and epsilons – and busily engaging in schemes for genetic enhancement and – to go one better than Brave New World – for immortality.