Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Anthony G Williams

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Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the very few SFF novels to have made the leap not just to mainstream acceptability but to being regarded as literature. This was probably because George Orwell was not really a genre writer, he was primarily interested in using fiction, sometimes including fantastic situations, to reflect and satirise what he saw as trends in society. This is most obvious in his novel Animal Farm, which used animals to show humans in a comically unflattering light. 1984 does the same thing, but without the comedy; it is a much more polemical and bitter novel.

It is a very long time since I last read this book and I had forgotten almost everything about it except for its general theme, so I was pleased when it was selected for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (ClassicScienceFiction : Classic Science Fiction).

1984 is a dreadful warning of what the world might become if the tendency towards all-powerful controlling dictatorships, as exemplified in primitive form by Nazi Germany and much more so by Stalin's USSR, were developed to its logical conclusion. The story is set thirty-five years after the novel was first published in 1949; since then we could add Mao's China, Hoxha's Albania, Pol Pot's Cambodia and North Korea to the list of comparators. In Orwell's novel, the world has become divided into three huge power blocks; Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. They are, allegedly, in a state of constant warfare with alliances changing every few years. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a humble member of the ruling (and only) political party of Oceania, whose inspirational figurehead is "Big Brother". Not only does Big Brother's face look down from posters everywhere under the famous slogan "Big Brother is watching you" but he, or rather his minions in The Party's Thought Police, are indeed watching every Party member via two-way telescreens in every home and workplace.

The Party brooks not the slightest dissent from its members; any expressions of disloyalty, even insufficiently reverential expressions when Big Brother was mentioned, could be enough for the Thought Police to come calling in the middle of the night. Those so removed were hardly ever seen or heard from again, except when confessing to a long list of crimes before their inevitable execution. Not only that, but their existence was expunged from the records; Winston Smith's endless job involves rewriting old newspaper reports to remove any mention of such people. He also rewrites official proclamations when these have been proved to be wrong, most obviously when Oceania switches allies from Eastasia to Eurasia; The Party line is that whichever of these is the enemy has always been the enemy, and all books and other records must reflect that.

Complete control of the news and of history, constant monitoring of Party members and ruthless crushing of dissent combine to provide The Party with absolute power and control. This is reinforced by the constant effort to rewrite the language into "Newspeak"; a greatly simplified and abbreviated version of English designed to make it impossible to think subversive thoughts, since the language of subversion will no longer be available. All words describing any thoughts and concepts forbidden by The Party are replaced by one: "thoughtcrime".

At the time of the novel, the restructuring of the language has not been completed and traditional English is still in common use, Newspeak being mainly for official purposes. Winston Smith becomes increasingly disillusioned with his work and his life and harbours rebellious thoughts. He forms a forbidden liaison with a young woman, Julia, and together they go in search of the Brotherhood, which is supposedly a secret organisation devoted to the overthrow of The Party. This is no Hollywood film plot, however, and there is no happy ending.

1984 can be considered in two ways: as an SF novel, and as a warning of what the future might hold. As a novel, it is a mixed bag. Winston Smith's journey towards outright rebellion and its consequences is grimly compelling. However, the author is too concerned to get his message across, to extent that he beats the reader over the head with a very long extract from a forbidden book supposedly written by a critic of The Party. The polemic casts a heavy shadow over the story.

Clearly, the world did not develop as Orwell outlined, and North Korea is the only country which currently resembles Oceania. However, there are occasional reflections of his concerns in our societies today. Politicians are notorious for being economical with the truth, trying to present failure as success, claimed the credit for accidental good fortune and rewriting history if they get the chance. Government surveillance of its citizens has never been greater, with CCTV systems proliferating and the large-scale monitoring of electronic correspondence.

Taking everything into consideration, 1984 is justifiably famous and is one of the few books that everyone (not just SF fans) should read to complete their education. Its portrayal of what could happen stands as a warning to us, and to future generations.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
 

Fried Egg

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I loved this book, only reading it for the first time a few years ago. I thought it was brilliant from start to finish. I had no problem with the "polemic" in the middle of the book, it didn't spoil the story in anyway as far as I am concerned. Ok, it is a digression from the plot but it is important as far as filling in some of the back story and history is concerned. Part of Winston's quest for truth in peeling back the layers of deceit woven by the regime.
 

Vertigo

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I've just done a re-read of 1984:


I’m not sure there’s much I can say about this brilliant book that’s not already been said, so I’ll not say much!

It is a brilliant story but it’s also a very serious political treatise and is no easy read, being filled with multiple info-dumps of political theory which, even at the best of times, is neither my strongest nor my favourite subject and there is no redemption or happy ending on offer. However it is worth making the effort and even though 1984 has been and gone without anything quite this dystopian appearing it is still remarkable just how relevant much of the material is. In particular he talks about how, no matter what the political background, society always organises itself into High, Middle and Low:

“For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again. Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims.”

This strikes me as being a depressingly true summary of how society has always evolved and continues to. Although is it really evolving when it just keeps repeating?

The one thing I disagree with is Orwell’s belief that in this case the Party has found a way of locking the system so that they will never again be overthrown by the Middle. In this I agree with Aldous Huxley’s view of 1984 that a repressive totalitarian system like Ingsoc would not really be sustainable and Huxley’s rather more benign but equally horrific totalitarian vision in Brave New World would be a much more sustainable dystopia by hiding its true nature behind a veneer of happiness.

Both books are equally disturbing and brilliant, and everyone should read them if only to understand the threats that new technology can support and have been supporting before and since the writing of these two seminal dystopian books.
 

Toby Frost

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A few thoughts of my own:

While 1984 is written in the deliberately plain style that Orwell liked, it is quite clunky at points, and the inclusion of a huge lump of mock-historical writing in the middle doesn't help. However, despite his reputation as a bringer of bad news, Orwell is very good at evoking the things that he likes: the countryside, the remains of the old world, and the community of the proles. There is a great sense of sadness to 1984. He is also very good at details and phrases.

Politically, Orwell deserves huge credit, first, for seeing through Nazi/Soviet propaganda and realising that a dictatorship is a squalid place populated by stunted, frightened people. Oceania is corrupt, decrepit and poorly managed. I wonder if he is the first person in SF to realise this. In The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis are flying to Venus, presumably to build huge sculptures there. Winston Smith can barely leave London.

Also, and this to me is the important thing, his understanding of his enemies feels spot-on. O'Brien's final speech ("The purpose of power is power") is about the best summary of the extremist mentality I've ever seen. I think that this is at the root of all extremists and users of the "paranoid style": from Putin to Trump to Islamic State to the wide range of crackpots in Europe, they are infected with what Nicholas Monsarrat called the "disease of power". Ultimately, it comes down to sadism and power-worship, hidden better in some cases than others. Orwell seems to have understood this incredibly well.

1984 isn't Orwell's best writing - I'd say his essays are, or perhaps Animal Farm - but it is probably his most important and ambitious book. I think it's the best book of the 20th Century that I can think of, because it explains the 20th Century so well. Apart from Shakepeare, it's about the only thing I'd say confidently that everyone in the English-speaking world should read.
 

Wruter

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As an aside, 1984 is currently back in the bestsellers list. I wonder why?
 

Vertigo

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Maybe something to do with the disaffection with current politics.

I agree that Animal Farm is probably a 'better' book certainly an easier one to read but it really only addresses/makes a mockery of one political system, the creation of the Soviet Union. Whereas 1984 tries to address the fundamental flaws of any political system. Not just dictatorships but he seems to be saying the any system will eventually become a dictatorship, at least for the 'Low' portion of society.

And I agree it is ultimately a very sad book; he seems to be speaking of both lost innocence and ignorant innocence in a very sad nostalgic way. I also agree the mock historical section in the middle took some wading through but at the same time the somewhat jaundiced view of politics in general was fascinatingly prescient.
 

Don

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Syme's my favorite character.
Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we're not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,'" he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. "Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?"
...
One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.
 
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