A woman first wrote the prescient ideas Huxley and Orwell made famous

Literary science fiction isn’t fantasy. It’s an extreme description of our lives.
Literary science fiction isn’t fantasy. It’s an extreme description of our lives.
Image: Reuters/Joseph Campbell
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In 1919, a British writer named Rose Macaulay published What Not, a novel about a dystopian future—a brave new world if you will—where people are ranked by intelligence, the government mandates mind training for all citizens, and procreation is regulated by the state.

You’ve probably never heard of Macaulay or What Not. However, Aldous Huxley, author of the science fiction classic Brave New World, hung out in the same London literary circles as her and his 1932 book contains many concepts that Macaulay first introduced in her work. In 2019, you’ll be able to read Macaulay’s book yourself and compare the texts as the British publisher Handheld Press is planning to re- release the forgotten novel in March. It’s been out of print since the year it was first released.

The resurfacing of What Not also makes this a prime time to consider another work that influenced Huxley’s Brave New World, the 1923 novel We by Yvgeny Zamyatin. What Not and We are lost classics about a future that foreshadows our present. Notably, they are also hidden influences on some of the most significant works of 20th century fiction, Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

Strangely similar worlds

As the introduction to the new edition of What Not explains, both Macaulay and Huxley were close to editor Naomi Royde-Smith and their paths probably crossed. Huxley was Royde-Smith’s colleague at the Westminster Gazette and lived in her apartment for several months in 1923 while Macaulay was co-hosting weekly literary soirées in the same place. There’s no definitive proof that Huxley actually read What Not, but he likely did talk shop with Macaulay, and he definitely referenced many of her ideas in his most enduring and influential novel, Brave New World.

In Macaulay’s book—which is a hoot and well worth reading—a democratically elected British government has been replaced with a “United Council, five minds with but a single thought—if that,” as she put it. Huxley’s Brave New World is run by a similarly small group of elites known as “World Controllers.”

The citizens of What Not are ranked based on their intelligence from A to C3 and can’t marry or procreate with someone of the same rank to ensure that intelligence is evenly distributed. The lowest ranks are taxed for having idiotic babies, and the idea is to save the nation from future wars by creating a smarter society. Huxley’s book contains a similar human ranking system of “Alpha double plusses” to “Epsilon minus” castes whose associations are also regulated.

In Macaulay’s regime, the United Council passes a Mind Training Act and creates a course required by the state to make people smarter. The law is promoted during a national “Brains Week.” Propaganda for the effort includes posters illustrating the perils of “free love.” Macaulay writes:

There were also pictures of human love, that most moving of subjects for art. ‘Yes, dear, I love you. But we are both C2’ (they looked it). ‘We cannot marry; we must part for ever. You must marry Miss Bryte-Braynes, who has too few teeth and squints, and I must accept Mr Brilliantine, who puts too much oil on his hair. For beauty is only skin-deep, but wisdom endures for ever. We must think of posterity.’ 

Meanwhile, Huxley’s novel described brainwashing techniques designed by the Brave New World’s ”emotional engineers” for a similar effect. As Sarah Lansdale writes in the introduction to What Not, “Indeed it could be argued that the world of [Huxley] is the world of What Not some few decades into the future.”

Brave New World is more futuristic and preoccupied with technology than What Not. In Huxley’s world, procreation and education have become completely mechanized and emotions are strictly regulated pharmaceutically. Macaulay’s Britain is just the beginning of this process, and its characters are not yet completely indoctrinated into the new ways of the state—they resist it intellectually and question its endeavors, like the newly-passed Mental Progress Act. She writes:

He did not like all this interfering, socialist what-not, which was both upsetting the domestic arrangements of his tenants and trying to put into their heads more learning than was suitable for them to have. For his part he thought every man had a right to be a fool if he chose, yes, and to marry another fool, and to bring up a family of fools too.

The two books differ in other important ways. The writers’ genders are a definite influence on the content, however similar the texts may be conceptually. Where Huxley pairs dumb but pretty and “pneumatic” ladies with intelligent gentlemen, Macaulay’s work is decidedly less sexist.

In What Not, the female protagonist, Kitty, is a swashbuckling bon vivant with a sharp tongue,  a stark contrast to any woman featured in Brave New World. Kitty is a bright and adventurous young woman who works for the Ministry of Brains as a clerk and is highly regarded by colleagues for her sharp wit, quirky life, and her style, as well as the quality of her production. Though the ministry values her, she’s intelligent enough to not be attached to the job or the propaganda she promotes, laughing at her duties while performing them exceptionally well.

Macaulay’s work is more subtle and funny than Huxley’s. Despite being a century old, What Not is remarkably relevant and readable, a satire that only highlights how little has changed in the years since its publication and how dangerous and absurd state policies can be. In this sense then, What Not reads more like George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 (pdf).

The seminal fake news novel

1984, is famous for bringing us Big Brother and Newspeak, alerting us to the dangers of propaganda and slipperiness of language. Orwell wrote the first fake news novel long before we assimilated the notion into our everyday lives. What’s often missed in contemporary discussions of this seminal text, however, is his sly sense of humor and love of language games.

While Orwell never indicated that he read Macaulay, he shares her subversive and subtle linguistic skills and satirical sense. His protagonist, Winston—like Kitty—works for the government in its Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in Newspeak, where he rewrites historical records to support whatever Big Brother currently says is good for the regime. Macaulay would no doubt have approved of Orwell’s wit. And his state ministries bear a striking similarity to those she wrote about in What Not.

There is a  clear connection between What Not and 1984, via Brave New World. Orwell was familiar with Huxley’s novel and gave it much thought before writing his own blockbuster. Indeed, in 1946, before the release of 1984, he wrote a review of Zamyatin’s We (pdf), comparing the Russian novel with Huxley’s book. Orwell declared Huxley’s text derivative, writing in his review of We in The Tribune:

The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact—never pointed out, 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, mechanized, 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.

Apart from the similarly futuristic settings, the two novels share a preoccupation with the possibilities of science and math. But We takes it all bit further. In We, the story is told by D-503, a male engineer, while in Brave New World we follow Bernard Marx, a protagonist with a proper name. Both characters live in artificial worlds, separated from nature, and they recoil when they first encounter people who exist outside of the state’s constructed and controlled cities.

Yet We is much more deliciously absurd and strikingly relevant now. The first-person narrative feels fresh today, as D-503 says:

I feel my cheeks burn as I write this. To integrate the colossal, universal equation! To unbend the wild curve, to straighten’ it out to a tangent—to a straight line! For the United State is a straight line, a great, divine, precise, wise line, the wisest of lines!

Although We is barely known compared to Orwell and Huxley’s later works, I’d argue that it’s among the best literary science fictions of all time, and it’s highly relevant, as it was when first written. Noam Chomsky calls it “more perceptive” than both 1984 and Brave New World. Zamyatin’s futuristic society was so on point, he was exiled from the Soviet Union because it was such an accurate description of life in a totalitarian regime, though he wrote it before Stalin took power.

When he died in Paris in 1937, it had never been published in Zamyatin’s mother tongue. We was published in French, Dutch, and German. An English version was printed and sold only in the US. When Orwell wrote about We in 1946, it was only because he’d managed to borrow a hard-to-find French translation.

Written for the new millennium

Orwell was critical of Zamyatin’s technique. “[We] has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarize,” he wrote. Still, he admired the work as a whole. “[Its] intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism—human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself, the worship of a Leader who is credited with divine attributes—[…] makes Zamyatin’s book superior to Huxley’s,” Orwell concluded.

I agree with Orwell that Zamyatin’s book is deeper than Huxley’s and seems to capture what humanity loses when the state takes over every aspect of life and even lobotomizes thinking citizens who rebel. However, I disagree with his critique of the Russian writer’s technique. We is a fantastic read for us postmoderns.

Zamyatin’s D-503 is an engineer in a society obsessed with metrics and numbers, living in a time when people literally live in glass houses and are utterly disconnected from nature. Today, it reads almost like an in-joke, a satire of our own algorithmically driven culture where engineers are heroes and numeric measurements, with no context, drive so many decisions in business and elsewhere. Like our own tech magnates and nations, the United State of We is obsessed with going to space. The book opens with this compelling, resonant beginning, describing the latest government rocket project:

This is merely a copy, word for word, of what was published this morning in the State newspaper:

“In another hundred and twenty days the building of the Integral will be completed. The great historic hour is near, when the first Integral will rise into the limitless space of the universe. One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subjected the whole earth to the power of the United State. A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the COSMOS by the use of the glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy.

Still, it’s notable that even before Zamyatin’s We, which has gained some appreciation over time, and before the enduring classics Brave New World and 1984, a female reporter in post-World War I London wrote a similarly satirical novel that wrestled with so many of the same questions as these seminal works yet never entered the literary canon. Perhaps in 2019 Macaulay’s What Not, a clever and subversive book, will finally get its overdue recognition.