Review of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
George Orwell (writer).
Read in 2016.
Masochistic. No wonder I never bothered to read it in full until I was 33 and more able to empathize with the protagonist for his varicose ulcer problem, deep self-alienation and hopeless defence of science in a world that doesn’t seem interested.
It’s a fascinating piece of SF worldbuilding, much more sincere in that aspect than most other SF novels that make it to the status of high-culture or mainstream literary classics. It probably gets away with being SF because its view of human nature is plastic, hence aligned with the fantasies of the highbrow establishment. The Rumplestiltskin scene cannot happen because people would react to that as they did in historical totalitarian societies. There’s only so much shit people will take even in North Korea, which gets pretty close to the state of Oceania: 60+ years of stability in a nominal state of war, with little economic progress.
The credibility of Orwell’s vision hinges primarily on the telescreen technology. The limited NATO-Soviet nuclear exchange—it’s a post-apocalyptic Cold-War-turned-hot alt future!—and subsequent division of the world into precisely three powers seem important, but even if these three powers are real, they are effectively co-operating. Their leaders must all be like O’Brien, more interested in maintaining their power through poverty than in the expansion of that power, and fully aware that open conquest would hurt them.
O’Brien’s an interesting character at first, but unlike Mond in Brave New World (1932), he becomes implausible when he reveals his motive. If he were genuinely interested in social power over individuals, he’d be using the carrot as well as the stick, like the North Korean government. If he were genuinely interested in the thrill of the chase, he’d find absolute power counter-productive. If he were merely cruel, he wouldn’t bother keeping tabs on Winston for seven years. Even for a literal narcissistic Machiavellian psychopath, there’s little fun in a lifetime of stomping on a human face.
The Inner Party’s 1-2% of the population is too big to consist of severely deranged individuals who are all somehow capable of keeping their society stable. Real people with the requisite disorders do not avoid internal struggle, corruption, and the use of ABC weaponry against their external frenemies in constant open war. The geopolitical situation would be inherently unstable on account of the obvious insanity of the leadership. That insanity is just not realistically portrayed.
This is why the telescreen must be the bedrock of Winston’s society. It’s resonant with the passive phone tapping technology that existed by the real year 1984, and perhaps even in Orwell’s time, but it’s more resonant with the webcams of the time of this review, insecure in MS Windows laptops, tablets, phones, or exposed directly to the Internet. Orwell’s organization of child informants combined with a totalitarian government’s backdoor into all the electronics it produces would be terrifying.
Compare also the use of drones for imaging in the US War on Terror. The following quote is taken from the article “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior” by Eyal Press, The New York Times Magazine, 2017-06-13.
As it happened, [drone surveillance analyst Christopher] Aaron had taken with him to Afghanistan a copy of George Orwell’s “1984.” He had read the book in high school and, like most people, remembered it as a dystopian novel about a totalitarian police state. This time, what stuck in his mind was a book-within-the-book written by Emmanuel Goldstein, the rumored leader of the resistance, titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” In the book, Goldstein describes the onset of a “continuous” war, waged by “highly trained specialists” on the “vague frontiers” of Oceania — an opaque, low-intensity conflict whose primary purpose was to siphon off resources and perpetuate itself. (“The object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war,” Orwell writes.) Aaron had an eerie sense that a perpetual war was exactly what the “war on terror” was becoming.
The article is about the sort of stress that alienates Aaron and protagonist Winston Smith: The stress of doing what you are told—and what others expect—when you know better. Though it is not ultimately plausible, the book is an intelligent examination of the limits of this phenomenon.
References here: Brave New World (1932), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), “Tribunal” (1994), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), The Hunger Games (2012), Story of Science Fiction (2018).