Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell, George, 1949
If you ask me (and for the record, nobody ever does, even if I prompt them with a question like that) there is a little bit of overlap among the lists of best SF books ever written, and the best novels ever written, probably by five or six books. I'm sure that a few out there will find that a shocking idea, hopefully not everyone, but I really believe that a few novels - nothing written recently, mind you, except maybe for The Road - managed to achieve something stellar, something worthy of serious praise outside of SF circles. I will be the first one to admit that I occasionally sing the praises of some SF that other people find abhorrent. Consider my fetish for zombie literature as a case in point. But I have been reading and writing about SF for long enough now that I think I am capable of differentiating the stinkers and the nuggets of gold either by using good old fashioned community standards, or with a critical method. Unfortunately there is one factor that makes my job of spreading the Word about these novels as tough as neutronium nails: Many of them, as you soon shall see, were not marketed as SF to begin with, and since "SF" is not only a sub-genre of literature, but also a marketing category, I have sometimes had a hard time getting others to accept obvious SF novels as SF for the mere fact that they were distributed through the mainstream system. This week's selection happens to be a book that is in fact generally acknowledged as a masterpiece of twentieth century literature. It is so obvious to me that it is SF also that I personally cannot fathom the reaction I get from some quarters when I mention that fact, but nevertheless, get that reaction I do. The book is George Orwell's magnificent tale of repression, love, sex and torture, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. I'm sure that most of you read this book in high school, including even that one user from Myanmar who turns up at the book review site from time to time so I will not waste too much time getting into the nitty-gritty. Instead Ill just give the basics of the plot, discuss the efficacy of Orwell's world-building and characterization, then wrap up with some comments on the work as a whole.
Set in a provincial post-nuclear UK, rechristened Airstrip One, Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most frightening dystopic novels in the history of the genre. Its main character, a mid-level Party functionary named Winston Smith, was a sickly and diminutive shadow of a man who lived out a miserable life filled with want, hatred, fear and regret. Winston was a pawn, as was everyone else in the entire world, in games played by one of three regimes that were dedicated to humiliating repression and total mind control. What made this book different than almost everything that came before and after it was Orwell's ability to realize the tools that nations needed to achieve these goals. Those other nations, Eastasia and Eurasia, were in a constant three way war with Oceania, of which Airstrip One was a province, with two sides ganging up interchangeably on the third at various times. Alliances changed so frequently that right-thinking persons would have a hard time keeping up. As it was, very few people were in their right minds because the government of Oceania had in place mind control programs that were so effective that the identity of the enemy could be changed at will without notice by anyone.
Living inside tumbledown apartment blocks in the city of London, watched constantly by Thought Police, two-way surveillance/information devices called telescreens, strategically placed microphones and roving helicopters that spied into windows, regulated morally by constant images of war and barbarism including a daily program on the virtues of savagery against the Party's enemies called The Two Minute Hate, and by public executions by the thousands, regulated sexually by morality and chastity commissions called Sexual Purity Leagues, and regulated intellectually by the concept of doublethink and a language called Newspeak, a version of English that had been pared down to a virtually conceptless manner of communication, Winston's job was to work for the Ministry of Truth with "speakwrite" device. The government of Big Brother changed facts frequently and without warning. Winston's job was to take direction from an unseen supervisor, make the necessary changes to (or to "rectify") back issues of the London newspaper to reflect the new reality as approved by Big Brother, then to print new copies of the paper and destroy the old ones so that nobody would ever be able to disprove anything that the government said. The only problem for Winston was that the Party's psychological conditioning and indoctrination had not taken hold: He could remember the past, although only vaguely.
Pushed to rage by his ill health and loneliness Winston began to step outside of himself and engage in Thoughtcrime, the only real crime left in the land. Winston kept a diary in which he recorded his feelings of hate for everything, especially Big Brother and the Party. He also wondered if there was anyone else like him out there. Winston channeled all of his hatred into his diary, hiding in the corner of his shabby room from the face of the telescreen so that the Thought Police never saw what he was up to.
Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself - that was the ultimate subtlety: conspicuously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious to the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink.
And as if by magic Julia stepped into his life - a young, beautiful and undersexed apparchik who secretly bedded Smith as an act of subversion against the state, and to satisfy her uncontrollable desire. The book is about their relationship and the trouble that it got them into.
Sexual Puritanism was demanded by the party. Slightly reminiscent of the old Soviet purity programs, the Party not only wanted to completely control relationships that could get away from them and create Thoughtcrime, but they wanted all that sexual energy to be redirected into Party activities. But the level of control they dreamt of was unimaginably more devious. They sought through genetics to eliminate the orgasm from the human experience, and to remove desire and gratification from mating. Since they were a long way medically from that level of control they repressed the male instincts by wrecking the body and conflicting the mind, and conditioned the women to lie there in revulsion until the men were done with them. These controls worked for most, but not all. Winston's and Julia's sexual relationship eventually developed into love, but before it did it served as a stand in for Julia's and Winston's lust for rebellion. Their act of animal rutting was an act of disobedience. By doing what they were still hard-wired to do, and in direct contravention of one of Big Brother's primary commandments, Julia and Winston took their first steps in their fantasy world to escaping their bonds, even if they knew they would never be able to escape in the real world. So it was escapist, but it was also cleansing. To the citizens of Oceania no emotion was pure. They were all heavily burdened with fear and hatred, and by giving in to animal instincts they were getting closer to who they really were beneath the crust of confusion that shrouded everyone. Once Julia and Winston realized that they were in love with each other it was not such a leap to realize that they would soon be caught for certain unless they stopped. It was at that point that their acts of love elevated from disobedience and became outright acts of rebellion, punishable by death.
Orwell also commented on the individual's inability to face up to an enemy as large as the Party. One gets the feeling that no matter how stacked the odds were in favor of the little guy, they would never be able to win against a government that had refined their strategy and implements of control as far as this one had. This was not because the State was all-controlling, all-knowing and all-powerful. In fact the Party was almost all of those things. It was because men who were beaten down and humiliated and near-destroyed in the face of that much power could never be expected to even go through the motions necessary to win, much less summon the intestinal fortitude to overcome. "It struck him that in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one's own body," which could never be trusted. Winston learned this lesson the hard way towards the end of the book when he and Julia were captured by the Thought Police. He realized that despite how far he and Julia had come in their love for one another, and how far they had advanced in their rebellious thoughts and desires, Julia was "only a rebel from the waist down." She was in it for the sex, then the love and never really for the ideology. Winston was still alone in all of that.
The end of the book has always bothered me slightly because in it the "bad guy," O'Brien, tells Smith every thing that he knows about the Party's plan for world domination. If this was one of a million other books Smith would have taken that knowledge and saved the day, and I have always found the set up of the third and final book a bit hackish for that reason. But the fact is that there really was nothing Smith could do. The Party probably was no longer controlled by people; It was likely that all of them, even the Inner Party members who were ostensibly in charge, had succumbed to the Party's control. Nobody could ever stop what was going on because nobody could ever really comprehend it all. This book is really one of the reasons that I love when "mainstream" authors dabble in SF: Amazement abounds afterwards, to be sure. I don't honestly know of any worlds better crafted than this one, and as tight as it all was in books one and two, book three brings it right on home to roost. It has been said many times already that one of the messages of this book is that we must be eternally vigilant, because once this kind of control starts to happen, there is no stopping it.
Why, you ask, is this novel science fiction? For a whole host of reasons. First, the level of mind control that the Party desired (achieved, actually) was not possible without the development of certain technology such as the speakwrite device, which allowed written media to be changed at the speed of speech. There was also the versificator, a device which penned the lyrics to patriotic songs for the Proles (or proletariat) every day, without human intervention. The setting was post-nuclear war, and the war that lingered depended on immense and advanced weapons that are not even capable with today's technology. The Party's ultimate form of control turned on their ability to turn off the mind's need for contact and the body's need for orgasmic release. That would require some advanced surgical, genetic and psychological manipulation. Add to that the idea that most of the Utopia and Dystopic literature has been subsumed by SF over the years, and one is led with the inescapable conclusion that this book is clearly SF: There can be no other conclusion.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell