1984 has long been at the top of my “Books I’m Embarrassed to Never Have Read” list. It piqued my interest again a couple of years ago when I heard about a surge in its popularity after the election of Donald Trump. I found it interesting that a book written 70 years ago would be one that large numbers of people would turn to in response to a change in current world events.
I’d already read The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, and Brave New World, written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, both of which were also being revisited by readers. I was curious how Orwell’s dystopian vision would compare to Atwood’s and Huxley’s, so when I saw the Kindle version on sale later I bought a copy.
However, 1984 continued to languish on my Kindle (along with about 50 other books, LOL) until a couple of months ago when my son’s 7th grade English teacher assigned it to him to read. For whatever reason, I couldn’t bear for him to have read it while I had not. I was really busy with work at the time though, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it on my Kindle, so I sacrificed an Audible credit to get the audiobook version as well.
I’m glad I did because the narration by Simon Prebble was wonderful. Even though the parts I re-read on my Kindle later on my Kindle were still great, they didn’t have the same impact as when Mr. Prebble read them. The accents he did, both male or female, were impeccable, and his native British accent gave the dialog a depth that I would have totally missed had I read it on my own. So if you decide to read this book, whether again or for the first time, I highly recommend the audiobook version.
Of course, the writing, as one might expect for a book that has endured in popularity for so long, is excellent. The prose is simple but beautiful, with the assured voice of someone who knows they are a master of their craft.
For those of you like me who haven’t read it before, the story concerns a man named Winston Smith who works as a member of the Party, an unopposed governmental organization in what was once England but is now known as Airstrip One. Airstrip One is part of Oceania, one of three superstates that all of human society has been partitioned into. Everything in the story takes place in London, the largest city in Airstrip One.
The general population, known as Proles (proletariat), live in a never-ending subsistence level existence that keeps them from rising up to overthrow their oppressors. Winston is a member of the Outer Party, a middle-echelon group that spends all of its time working to maintain the propaganda-fueled revisionist history sent down by anonymous members of the topmost Inner Party.
Secretly, Winston loathes the Party and the work he does. Yet he slogs along, out of fear of being outed as disloyal, which he knows will automatically result in his being tortured and then “vaporized.” To be vaporized means not only your body but any and all other physical evidence of your existence is destroyed as well so that it is as if you never existed.
The Inner Party uses continuous warfare (or at least imagined warfare) as a means of eliminating the excess material goods produced by the Proles to keep the latter in a state of perpetual poverty. It also keeps them in a state of fear which prevents the populace from rising up against the Party. The use of never-ending war, propaganda, and economic hardship is the hamster wheel around which Orwellian society endlessly turns.
In order to keep track of everyone, particularly members of the Party itself, devices called telescreens are used to record everything people do or say, as well as track other things such as a person’s breathing and heart rate. Telescreens are everywhere so that everything people do can be observed by members of the Party at any time.
The author does a magnificent job of making you feel what such an oppressive, claustrophobic existence would be like. He describes an existence in which the party in power’s obsession with rooting out any opposition to it, even in people’s minds, leads to an existence totally detached from reality.
The plot is thin, particularly by the standards of today’s impatient readers, but that’s the point. In this future individual privacy no longer exists, at least not for members of the Party. Even the tiniest deviation is seen as a threat to the status quo of the inner party being in power. The result is a stifling, static existence against which Winston’s meager effort at rebellion simply by starting a diary packs a great dramatic punch. I won’t reveal any more of the plot in case you haven’t read it, because you really should. I’ll just say that it is as beautifully devastating as any book I’ve ever read, and leave it at that.
It is easy for me now to see why people who read this book years ago would now turn to it again given the current political climate. The best science fiction books are great thought experiments, and 1984 is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever. It brilliantly simplifies the world in a way that allows the author to explore what sort of world could result from our ever-accelerating advancements in technology combined with the immutable human lust for power. Orwell invented a number of terms to help build his world, including “doublethink,” “telescreens,” and “the Two Minutes Hate.” Some of the terms, such as “thought police” and “Big Brother” even made their way into our broader cultural lexicon.
When you look at the recent developments in areas such as the Kashgar region of China I wrote about recently, it is impossible not to think that the telescreens of 1984 have come true in the modern world. Indeed, it is perhaps on a path to being even worse than Orwell imagined. Even Mr. Orwell’s cynical view did not foresee that we would actually carry telescreens around in our pockets! The nascent capabilities of supercomputing, artificial intelligence, and brain-computer interfaces are right now making the constant monitoring of every person’s inner mind a plausible reality. Not perhaps in five years, but certainly in 50 or 100.
I read Yuval Harrari’s nonfiction masterpiece Sapiens last year, and 1984 felt very much like a novel Mr. Harrari might have written. The belief in the eventual ability to deconstruct and manipulate facts and history through constant observation, and the discovery and exploitation of brain-hacking techniques, are the central tenets of both works.
Social media has indeed thrown us into a world where facts are regarded by many not as facts but as malleable constructs to be reshaped as one sees fit. Orwell simplified things so this activity was entirely controlled by the Party, but in reality, it’s more of a free-for-all. Nonetheless, I am amazed — as I was with Brave New World — at the author’s perspicacity and how many elements of the world he imagined have come to pass.
But there's one area where I think Orwell's vision missed the boat, and that's how it views what happens to science and technology. In 1984, in order for the Party to maintain control over society it has to put a moratorium on scientific progress. But can anyone imagine anything really stopping the development of science and technology? I think the real endgame of humanity is to gain ultimate power over nature itself. It is a compulsion that goes beyond the need to control over other people, although new technologies will certainly be applied to that end along the way.
Ironically, I see the same sort of mental contortions the members of the Party use in 1984 to justify the nightmarish existence they impose on other humans being applied today to justify the unfettered pursuit of scientific knowledge. There is ample evidence over the course of human history that new technologies will be used for evil as well as good. But regardless of the awesome powers of the forces we are now playing with, we employ the 1984 concept of doublethink to simultaneously be aware of the evil that could be wrought with the technologies we are inventing, but simultaneously convincing ourselves that any doomsday scenarios will never come to pass.
I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Orwell would think if he could see us now. Then again, maybe someday soon we’ll discover how to reanimate the dead and he can tell us himself.
Science fiction writer