Animal Farm by Orwell, George, 1946

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Though it really is not a SF piece, I have always felt that George Orwell's Animal Farm deserves a place on my book shelf as it is a very noteworthy member of the "Literature of the Fantastic" category. What it actually is, is a thoroughly modernized fable, the message of which is beware to whom you give power. It is also a stark and shocking look at a miniature dystopic society that is surrounded by one that is more recognizable, and pretty much identical in its nature. Orwell, being quite the socialist in the traditional sense, not the political one, focuses his attention on the downtrodden workers in this book, and while there is an upper class who could not care less for those worker's fates, the evil is society and not the cult of personality that drives it. Reviewing this book is a monumental task, and not one that I enter into lightly. If you grew up in an English speaking nation, or near one, you probably had this one drilled into you by your favorite literature teacher sometime around the 9th or 10th grade. I certainly did, and the love for this book as a child probably pushed me towards the literary diversions that I seek today. That is to say; the literature of the fantastic. Since most of you probably remember the plot, characters, or setting of this novel, and have already spoken of the applicability of the message to real life, and probably discussed the context and times during which it was written, I think I shall discuss Orwell himself a bit, hit on the high points of this book, give a quote or two and then just stop. Five out of five stars.

Born to middle class parents in India and educated in England, Orwell left college in the early 1920's to become a British police officer in Burma. During his time in Burma, and perhaps as a result of studying under Aldous Huxley at college, Orwell turned against the British public policies enacted under their mandate of imperialism. His career as an officer was relatively brief, five years or so, after which he turned to a career in writing. Hired by Victor Gollancz (Gollancz, along with H.G. Wells and Brian Aldiss is one of God's greatest gifts to British SF) to pen an article on the social conditions of coal miners and other poor in Northern England. Orwell cut his chops with this piece which turned eventually into book, but more importantly Orwell immersed himself so deeply into the life of poverty that his subjects lived, that he came out of the experience a changed man who believed in the honor of the poor, and who believed that no matter what their condition, the deserved respect and assistance. After publishing the first part of the book under Gollancz's first imprint Orwell went to Spain to investigate the condition of the Republicans in Northern Spain during Franco's revolution. He arrived in 1936, which was the year that the Republicans fate became pretty clear, joined the Republicans against Franco's facsict forces, and was near-mortally wounded in a skirmish there. After a protracted recovery Orwell returned to England where he joined a newly formed propaganda corps whose mission was to boost morale in India and Iran, where some production of material for WWII was taking place. But it was after his recovery from his wounds that I believe Orwell really found his voice as an author, and it was after that period in his life that his masterpieces, Nineteen Eighty-Four and this book, Animal Farm, were written. Orwell had a very romantic life, as short as it unfortunately was, and his penchant for self deprivation and to insert himself into the conditions of his subjects altered his politics considerably. By the time that Orwell wrote Animal Farm he was still a staunch socialist and anti-imperialist, but somewhere along the line Orwell decided that it would be better to attack Stalinism instead of Franco's brand of fascism, though it could easily be said that all of Orwell's pet peeves are written into this book. Its obvious that what he was most angered by was the relatively quick collapse of the Soviet's socialist system into one where a greedy elite disconnected their behavior from the rule of law. This was probably most obvious to the Europeans after VE day when the Soviets began the mad scramble to build up the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact by military-backed land grabs, but Orwell's outlook was also heavily influenced by the violence done to the virtues of socialism by Franco as well. This book is not about totalitarianism. That is what Nineteen Eighty-Four is about. Its about the collapse of a system due to greed, and not so much what happens to that system's citizens after collapse. The result is truly magnificent. This book, in my opinion, was a labor of love that may not have compare anywhere else in literature.

Literally speaking, Orwell was simplistic. From other of his writings, mainly book reviews, we have learned his code for putting words to the page. Never use jargon. Eliminate words whenever you can. Use smaller, simpler words instead of complex ones. Give your understanding objectively, and stay away from artistic subjectivity. Orwell heeded his own advice well, and delivered a clear, concise and powerfully simple work. His main point was that even if you follow the rules and handle your own responsibilities carefully you still may be overcome by those in power, and those that made the rules with you in the first place. In fact, much of this book is a smack in the face to anyone who cares a whit for rule of law or even basic fairness. For those few of you who have not read this book, it is about an animal uprising on a farm against a drunken and worthless master who abuses his animals. After the revolution a group of pigs takes charge of the management of the farm and directs all the other animals where to work and what to produce. In fairly short order Napoleon, a strong silent pig, drives off all the voices of reason and with a cadre of other pigs and a pack of dogs trained as stormtroopers, begins slowly removing the benefits of self rule and concentrating power in himself. After the revolution the animals are happy and productive, and there is plenty for all. By the end of the book things have changed drastically. The other animals are still enthralled to the revolutionary ideals that got them moving in the first place (even if they do tend to be disgusted with those in power and fear the enforcement arm of their society, the dogs), and because of that idealism have turned a blind eye towards their own destitute condition. Meanwhile the pigs have filled the role left vacant by the deposed farmer, and rule with an iron grip over the entire farm, selling hen's eggs and other fruits of the animal's labors to humans for a few baubles and luxuries made available only to the pigs. In the end the pigs invite their former enemies, other farmers, to come join them for a meal. During the meal one of the farmers stands up to give a speech to their new friends, the pigs:

He would end his remarks, he said, by emphasizing once again the friendly feelings that subsisted, and ought to subsist, between Animal Farm and its neighbors. Between pigs and human beings there was not, and there need not be, any clash of interests whatever. Their struggles and their difficulties were one. Was not the labor problem the same everywhere? Here it became apparent that Mr. Pilkington was about to spring some carefully prepared witticism on the company, but for a moment he was too overcome by amusement to be able to utter it. After much choking, during which his various chins turned purple, he managed to get it out: "If you have your lower animals to contend with," he said, "we have our lower classes!" This BON MOT set the table in a roar; and Mr. Pilkington once again congratulated the pigs on the low rations, the long working hours, and the general absence of pampering which he had observed on Animal Farm.

I seem to remember telling you that I would just shut up at this point, and I intend to. But I want to part with a final word about this book. This is clearly, in almost everyone's opinion, one of the best English language books ever written. Please forgive me if you think my inclusion of it here offensive. I personally think it belongs, despite any opinion to the contrary. But in the words of Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote an introduction to one edition of this book, I do agree that history has caught up to this book. More to the point, we are living in a time when propaganda has become so slick and powerful that basic law and fairness is at a risk of becoming not the equalizer, but the tool by which unfairness is perpetrated, even the laws that are specifically enacted to balance the scales. This book is basically an allegory, and I think that the symbolic representations deal specifically with a menace that was more present in the 1940's than today. But the concepts that Orwell was dealing with have a wide applicability, and I personally find them frightening still. My point is that I think schools should continue to teach this book to the young, and I myself intend to to just that, once my kids are old enough to handle it.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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