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1984

by George Orwell, 1949

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.07.17



Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: 1984
Author: George Orwell
Year: 1949 (mine was a reprint of 1961 paperback)
Genre: Science Fiction, dystopia
Publisher: Signet Classics
ISBN 978-0-451-52493-5 (paperback)
View It On Amazon
Wikipedia Page
Author’s Wikipedia Page


Summary


As you likely already know, 1984 is the source for many phrases and concepts still in use today, including Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, “2+2=5”, and even the term “Orwellian”. I had a memory of reading it in high school, but upon reading it in 2017, I can safely say that my memory was faulty — this is my first time reading this excellent dystopian novel. (I must have been remembering a discussion, or a passage in a textbook that referred to 1984.)

The novel is set in an indeterminate time, which the main character thinks might be 1984 — which would have been a barely conceivable future in Orwell’s time (he died a year after this novel was published). England has been absorbed by the fictional nation “Oceania”, which is ruled by “the party”, a bastardized, authoritarian version of the original socialist party that rose to power. “Thought police” are the feared spectres of government, and anyone who can’t speak or behave correctly is eventually captured and tortured in the “Ministry of Love”. The primary character, Winston Smith, is employed in the “Ministry of Truth” — which is tasked with making sure all newspaper articles, books, and other text references agree with the the party’s “truth”, even when the truth changes rapidly — but he secretly hates the party.


What I Liked Least About It


There is nothing to dislike about this book.

Two things came to mind, however, as I read it, that didn’t make me happy. One is that despite its warnings, many of Orwell’s imagined downsides of future society have managed to worm their way into reality — perhaps not to the extend that the novel describes, but we are certainly justified in using comparisons to 1984 when we speak of governments today. The second is that because “the party” in this book used “socialism” as part of its original title — despite nothing in the party’s eventual actions or style of government or economy resembling actual socialism — that many people today are still wrongly convinced that socialism is an evil thing to be dreaded.

(Orwell himself was an outspoken supporter of democratic socialism, in direct opposition to communism — some of which he experienced first hand while fighting in the Spanish Revolution. He was a secular humanist as well.)


What I Liked Most About It


1984 is superbly written and well deserves its place in renowned modern literature (It is listed very high among the “100 Best Novels” of all time, and is ranked number eight in the BBC’s 2003 reader survey ”The Big Read”, alongside such classics as Pride And Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Lord Of The Rings.)

As already mentioned, it is the source of common phrases, and deservedly so. Even Supreme Court justices have referenced the work in their deliberations. Orwell uses masterful but sparing repetitions of key phrases, almost in poetic fashion, so that the jargon and descriptions stick in the memory. “Big Brother” is mentioned sparingly in the novel, relative to other characters or themes, yet his presence is somehow overbearing throughout. The key phrases of the party — “War Is Peace”, “Freedom Is Slavery”, and “Ignorance Is Strength” — are also repeated relatively few times, yet the ideas lie underneath everything else.

There are also plenty of worthwhile quotations, some of which apply to topics besides politics.
[After the telescreen “news” had just announced a blatantly false fact.]

“Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it. Parsons swallowed it easily, with the stupidity of an animal. The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically, passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week the ration had been thirty grams. Syme, too — in some more complex way, involving doublethink — Syme swallowed it. Was he, then, alone in possession of a memory?”

— pages 58-59

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

— page 190

“The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare. The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed... It is deliberate policy to keep even the favored groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.”

— pages 190-191



The Relative Accuracy Of Predictions


Long a reader of “hard” science fiction, I have always been fascinated by the future worlds envisioned by authors. In almost all cases, the best authors describe their future scenarios based on the technology of today — simply extrapolated — but sometimes what they miss is more telling than what they got right.

For example, Orwell imagined a “telescreen” in every workplace and every home and every shop; not only does the screen constantly blather about the party’s point of view and propagate fake news, but it watches and listens. You know the government doesn’t have enough staff to watch every screen all the time, but you never know whether you’re one of the ones being watched. Orwell never imagined a time in which every citizen would carry the telescreen in her pocket or purse, and in which half the citizens, at any given time, were actually looking at their screens and constantly inputting personal information. While I’m not paranoid enough to suggest a giant government plot to create and disseminate smartphones — because it was obviously done for pure profit — it is a fact that our phones are regularly transmitting our personal information to and fro to places that very few of us understand or even know about. Not only is our location constantly submitted, but our political views, our photos, our shopping habits, and bits and pieces of our biographies. And our current government allows itself the power to snoop — without a warrant — on quite a bit of this information.

A product of his time, Orwell saw the world coming together into three large nations, with just a bit of contested “no man’s land” between each. These grew out of the late 1940s ideas of the Warsaw Pact nations (“Eurasia” in the book), NATO (“Oceania”), and the eastern Asian nations (“Eastasia”). Most of Africa is described as “disputed area”. Orwell could not have predicted the delicate state of affairs of today — with the Soviet Union mostly dismantled — in which every nation is loosely tied to many others via overlapping and sometimes odd treaties. And he appears to have missed the power of giant corporations to easily straddle national borders — most of 2017’s largest companies operate at will in dozens or hundreds of nations, even nations that are not allied with one another politically. In his own time, he saw the growing threat of socialism and communism, which turned nations into authoritarian regimes, but missed what had been under his nose throughout his life — the capitalists with enough wealth and influence to topple — or control — nations, and to destroy national economies at will and without consequences.



Conclusion


I wish strongly that I had read this book earlier in life. Having heard references to it for nearly 40 years, it is finally clear to me exactly what those references mean. I would recommend that every person read 1984.

Perhaps the oddest thing about 1984, at least in my experiences of hearing people talk about it, is the ability of any person to compare his opponents to the antagonists in this novel. In the U.S. today, for example, Democrats will think of Republicans as being very similar to “the party” (IngSoc) in this book, while the opposite is also true. And Libertarians think of both Democrats and Republicans as being most like IngSoc. And others will think that any member of the government, regardless of party, resembles IngSoc or Big Brother. In other words, no one sees himself as the bad guy portrayed in this book; everyone sees the other guy as the metaphor.








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