(In part two of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at an obscure book by some ex-soldier guy. It’s set in 1984, so I guess it’s some kind of alternate-history story, like in Command & Conquer: Red Alert? I don’t know, I didn’t really get it. Anyway, here’s my review.)
The How Have I Not Already Read This Book? Award
George Orwell – 1984
1984 is a book by George Orwell.
It’s really hard to write an introduction for 1984. Let me try again:
Okay – 1984 is a good book by George Orwell. Set in an alternate future (the eponymous 1984) where the world is locked in an eternal war between three faceless superstates, it explores Oceania – a sprawling state controlled by an omni-present ‘Party’ that enacts near total control over the lives of its inhabitants.
One man, Winston Smith, secretly hates the Party, and wishes to rebel against it, despite the knowledge of what will happen to him if (when) he’s found out. How will our plucky protagonist fare – will he manage to stick two fingers up to the totalitarian power that seeks to control him? Where will this small rebellion end? (spoiler: not well.)
1984 is a book filled with beautiful moments of humanity surrounded by endless, grinding fear. I could spend pages listing them – the moment Winston receives that note at his desk. The joy of an afternoon alone, entirely unwatched. The way the half-remembered children’s rhyme about the bells of St. Clement’s stands in for an entire world of light and hope and art and love that was stolen from us.
1984 is also a novel so dedicated to its worldbuilding that, reading it, I was half-surprised the Science Fiction-allergic literary establishment didn’t call it artless trash the moment it was published. This worldbuilding is some of the most thoughtful, interesting work I’ve seen in speculative fiction, and I even liked the chapter-long ‘here is loads and loads of information about the wider sociopolitical situation’ text dump halfway through the book that everyone else seems to hate. The world of 1984 is fascinating, and seems to say so much about our own.
But does it, though? I’ve heard the criticism more than once that Orwell’s future dystopia ended up being flat-out wrong – that the terrible future of humanity he predicted never came true. Is this the case? And if so, is there anything to be gained from 1984 other than a nice, feelgood story?
My response would be – sure, okay, we don’t currently live in a faceless superstate that crushes dissent with an iron fist. Well done, yes, that is not a true fact. But speculative fiction doesn’t have to be a factually correct prediction of the future in order to say something true.
(also, fun note: while most societies are arguably not trending towards 1984, China arguably is. Yes, its not exactly the same, but the ruling party’s suppression of free speech, its crackdown on democratic and religious autonomy, and its ‘social credit’ system are all genuinely awful and terrifying. So maybe it does successfully describe some aspects of a society – just not necessarily our own.)
And 1984 feels true in important ways, regardless of if it ever could become factually true. To pick just two points, then: it describes a betrayal of the brighter future that technology promised us, and its replacement with a life of endless work and drudgery. (sound at all familiar?) And it describes an increasingly powerful state not by the people and for the people, but over the people, and for itself. (it’s just shooting fish in a barrel at this point.)
So, to conclude: 1984 is a book by George Orwell. It describes a future version of Britain that is wrong and didn’t happen in some ways, but right and maybe kind of did (or will) in others. I like it, and it’s very good. I hope you like it too.
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(I should also address the fact that the book is pretty sexist. I could argue that it’s a product of its time, and sure, it is, but so what? That doesn’t prevent it from being (I’m sorry for using the word and revealing myself as a triggered lefty snowflake) *problematic*.
I will say, however, that I think it kind of works in the setting (regardless of Orwell’s intent) – in this bland, crushing society it just kind of makes sense that people wouldn’t have divested themselves of reductive views of women. And it feels very fitting for Winston’s character in particular. That’s not a spirited defence against charges of sexism – just a suggestion that it’s not *juts* a bug, but also sort of a feature, in this specific book at least.)