landmark science fiction #2: 1984


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

So begins one of the landmark twentieth century works of dystopian fiction. As an avid reader, I have to admit that there are better examples of the genre, but 1984 still resonates decades after its creation.

For those who haven’t read the book: our hero, Winston Smith, lives in “Airstrip One”, the part of “Oceania” most closely equivalent to what we now know as England. Oceania is one of three superstates created after the collapse of the political world as we know it following the events of WWII; the other two “nations” are Eurasia and Eastasia, which, not surprisingly given the nature of the book, correspond most closely to the U.S.S.R. and China; the borders of these three nations fluctuate publicly as one military prevails over another, although all three nations include several modern countries; the boundaries of all three are never clear, in no small part as a result of Oceania’s own media manipulations.

1984 is pretty much exactly as it appears: a screed written from the capitalist point of view, delineating the ills of living in a socialist state. (In fairness, I’ve read books from the socialist point of view, and frankly, the ills of capitalism there seem no less plausible…) Not surprisingly for anyone who’s read Animal Farm, Oceania’s government is additionally a police state and a dictatorship, and a particularly manipulative example of both. The “facts” reported by the media change daily, the country’s infrastructure is disintegrating, and privacy is impossible–one’s neighbors might rat someone out for the slightest breach of protocol, and telescreens are everywhere, serving not only as the equivalent of modern televisions but a constant camera watching every action.

Winston harbors doubts about the validity of Oceania’s government and structure as a result of the eradication of his family decades ago by military and his own work rewriting news stories as the Inner Party dictates to better reflect changes in its own political ideology. He falls in with a young woman, Julia, who is ostensibly herself also a loyal member of the Outer Party; they have an affair and plot to find The Brotherhood, a rebel group led by Emmanuel Goldstein. In the end, they are betrayed; the Thought Police capture both Winston and Julia and bring them to be interrogated by O’Brien, who ultimately breaks them both under torture. The book ends with the former lovers meeting to confess what has happened, and Winston’s realizing he loves the state, even as he awaits his execution.

As a work of dystopian literature, it’s not precisely subtle, but then Thomas More’s Utopia isn’t any better in this regard, nor were pretty much all the seminal works in this subgenre of science fiction. As fiction, I’d say 1984 was on a par with Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Both are very obviously a dystopia–we’re still reacting with revulsion to the obvious manipulations in the former 60 years after its publication as I expect we will be to A Handmaid’s Tale. Both books are as obviously agenda driven as anything I’ve read: the one a political diatribe and the other a gender based diatribe. For comparison’s sake, books such as Brave New World and The Dispossessed do leave some question in readers’ mind about what exactly constitutes a “utopia” or “dystopia”, depending on whether you prefer comfort to free will, and the freedom to control one’s political destiny.

The year for which this book is named has come and gone long enough ago that a whole new generation of science fiction fans has arisen, and yet 1984 is still around. The politics are outmoded–China’s threat is more economic than political these days, and the U.S.S.R. no longer exists–and the language is dated. In all honesty, some of its “popularity” might be due to having become assigned reading, along with Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. However, like Lord of the Rings, 1984 is the source of a number of modern science fiction cliches: newspeak, 2+2=5 and others. It still resonates…

Big Brother is watching you.

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