Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell - Sci-Fi Classic Review
The original cover
Rare is the novel that adds a new concept or idea to everyday vernacular. However, any work of fiction that can add multiple and sometimes even competing concepts to popular thought for decades (if not centuries) exceeds rarity and becomes downright precious, an outlying curiosity that, by definition, deserves the highest classification a novel can achieve: pure literature. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is just such an anomaly, a definitive work of dystopian fiction that is still discussed and debated nearly forty years after its predicted future failed to develop exactly as foreseen.
In popular political discussion, the book is trotted out as an example of where our current moment has gone wrong, how we seem in many ways to be inching ever closer to Orwell's nightmare vision of the future. While people on either side of any political divide will cherry-pick certain things about the novel to show how the other side is dangerous, everyone at least agrees that the term "Orwellian" refers to any political situation in which an authoritarian state seeks to tamp out independent thought in a quixotic quest for absolute power.
As I am an American, I am bound by my own deeply ingrained Western perspective on the lessons Nineteen Eighty-Four has for the modern world. I see our own left and right using Orwell in their own ways: from the right, Orwell is invoked to complain about an increasing sense that left-wing culture and media are rejecting free expression as inherently problematic, whereas from the left, Orwell is brought up in reference to "forever wars" and the way political leaders tend to manipulate the masses using fear and hate. From where I sit, I happen to believe that both perspectives are correct to highlight these disturbing aspects of the moment, but they are still missing the point.
Somehow, the pulp sci-fi approach to cover art doesn't work for me this time
Let me back up. As a novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four is poetically written, but far from perfect. Though a creeping sense of dread and horror will carry almost any reader to the final page, multiple passes of the text reveal its flaws. Despite being relatively short, for example, it is surprisingly repetitive, not content to just make its point and move on. This is particularly noticeable in the middle of its three sections, where Orwell dispenses with the pretense of fiction and just begins describing in detail his political vision, with several long pages of exposition (taken from an in-universe text called only the book) not so much hammering his point as using a wrecking ball on a deceased equestrian mammal.
Maybe I'm a victim of doublethink (or worse yet, my own arrogance), but the great irony is that, despite how thoroughly Orwell makes his point, most people citing Orwell still somehow don't get it right, leading me to suspect that more people know the term "Orwellian" than have actually read Nineteen Eighty-Four. While it is true that the first third of the novel can be read primarily as a biting satire of media manipulation (indeed, it's scary how similar the fictional "memory hole" is to the all-too-real "stealth edit") and that the second third can be seen as a condemnation of the politics of war, the final third makes it abundantly clear that these are symptoms of the disease, not causes.
The true horror of power is that it has no purpose outside its own sustenance, that its many tendrils and layers of control never serve any noble ends or righteous causes. History, as Orwell explains, is filled with examples of authoritarian governments and religious leaders using and improving the tools of power, and Orwell serves up a terrifyingly plausible explanation for how those tools could be perfected. In a world still reeling from the atomic bomb (Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949), Orwell foresaw how technology was making the difference, how science could be perverted to give even more control to Big Brother, the omnipotent personification of power itself that, in the universe of the novel, may or may not be a real person.
This cover is bold enough to not even put the title of the book or the author on the front
In the final third, when the protagonist, Winston Smith, is broken down so completely as to change his entire reality to suit the whims of the Party, Orwell shows how it's not just the technological horrors of 20th Century warfare that worry him, but also the increasingly powerful tools of psychology. Sure, his future is ostensibly a "socialist" government, but Big Brother isn't really concerned with the means of production or even the ends of distribution; it is primarily concerned with exerting power over the one place Smith thought untouchable: the mind. If the mind can be controlled, then the game is over and the individual is forever lost.
And that is what the book is primarily about. It wants to awaken the reader to the knowledge that all forms of power, no matter how seemingly benevolent, are ultimately interested not in what you do, but in what you think. It isn't a matter of left or right, capitalism or communism, my side versus your side. It's a matter of control, of how the most powerful manipulate the less powerful and how, if allowed to fester, it can become too much for an individual to survive.
So yes, culture and media are being used against you. Yes, your fears and hatreds are being deliberately stoked. But no, that's not where it ends. The most important thing is that you protect your internal self, your identity and your mind, from all of it, that you never allow yourself to even think that you could love Big Brother. This is what Orwell is still trying to tell us today, and it's why Nineteen Eighty-Four is not just a critical piece of pure literature, but also a sci-fi classic.
-e. magill 7/7/2022
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