1984, by George Orwell

Among the influential texts of the 20thcentury, Nineteen Eighty-Fouris an exceptional work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. After political satirist George Orwell watched as the Soviets created an authoritarian state much like Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany,  in 1949 he published his nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world in the future, and together with Animal Farm, they have sold more than any two books by any other 20thcentury author.

1984 describes a Dystopia, the antithesis of a Utopia, where Big Brother makes Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini look like sissies. His world is divided into three states, originated from the ashes of World War II: Oceania (the Americas, British Isles, and Australia), Eurasia (the rest of Europe and Russia), and Eastasia (the rest of the world). Continuous war between those three is required to keep the society’s order and peace. WAR IS PEACE

I first read this book when I was in the eighth grade, but I’m not sure why we were required to read it at that age.  I wish I could recall the substance of the discussions by my group of hormonally-challenged teens, but now think that this is a book that is better understood and appreciated long after your first pimple. So, I decided to re-read the book as an adult, hoping I could gain a better appreciation of the classic. Well, it did more than that – it absolutely floored me.  “We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness” sent chills up my spine.

The book is in three parts. The first describes Winston Smith’s predictable life as an unimportant party member.  The second is his life with Julia involving courage, love/lust, and betrayal. And, the final part is about the consequences of those actions, and the methodology of converting political prisoners to embrace Big Brother before disposing of them.  

In the end, Smith is broken, not only physically, but mentally, and after torture of unimaginable dimensions, he completely surrenders, body and soul, to Big Brother. But, in the end, they fix him and he’s happy again – or something — an idea I don’t believe I was able to fully appreciate in middle school.

The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life – the ubiquity of television and cameras, the distortion of language, and his ability to construct the possible nightmare and danger of a society without civil liberties and a government with complete control. His idea that truth can be arranged through media (fake news, e.g.) is perhaps the most relevant idea for us today. The part of the  horror of 1984 is that his future is recognizable in 2019, where our President Trump attempts, through manipulation and propaganda, to maintain control simply for satiating his own power hunger. Truly, in this era of “alternative facts’ and an increasing racial intolerance take on society, today’s reality has caught up with 1984.

But, the book is far from perfect. Orwell is a much better theorist than he is a writer. While not a particularly good novel, 1984 is a very good essay, and its ideas are greater than any book. It is bleak, grim, dreary, frightening and upsetting. His characters lack depth, the rhetoric is sometimes didactic, and I believe most writers would have avoided including the lengthy Goldstein treatise, snappily titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivisim”, which alters the novel like a scar disfigures a face.

But all that doesn’t matter, because he got it right.  Simply put, 1984 is unquestionably the most memorable and disturbing novel ever. I have always thought that one of the most important qualities of science fiction is that it frees the author to take controversial, politically charged issues, and create a possible future, and in doing so is able to present a compelling and critical argument for change.  With apologies to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, no one has ever done a better job than Orwell.It was a hard read, but a MUST read. But, remember – Big Brother is watching!!!

— Kenn Johnson

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