1984, by George Orwell

1984-by-george-orwellGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: NAL
Published: 1949
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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‘The most powerful and terrifying novel I have read in years.’ — Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Undoubtedly for many of you this book will bring back bad memories. Of dreary English lessons, of reading out loud in front of the class and not understanding a word of what you’re saying. But I urge you to put all of that to one side for a minute and give this fantastically absorbing and uncannily prophetic novel another go.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Thus begins a nightmare trip through a strange and troubled future Britain – now named ‘Airstrip 1’, a part of the huge international state known as Oceania which is perpetually at war with either Eastasia (China and the countries south of it, Japan’s islands and a large part of Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet) or Eurasia (the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait). Winston Smith is our guide, a worker in the Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being rewritten, novels are produced by machines and songs are composed on devices called versificators. He is a pawn of The Party, whose figurehead is the omnipresent Big Brother and three contradictory slogans are: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

His actions are monitored twenty-four hours a day for signs of disloyalty or emotion, by telescreens with cameras inside and merciless spies (including children and friends brainwashed by the party’s doctrines). Love has been abolished, along with free thought, and sex is indulged in only to produce more hard-working citizens to serve the cause. Oceania is populated by these virtual human drones, doing the party’s bidding, and also by the ‘proles’ who can’t muster the motivation to revolt (‘Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.’). Having said that, you can hardly blame them: any hint of opposition is swiftly, and savagely, dealt with. The strong arm of the party, the so-called Thought Police, come for dissidents during the night, always during the night, taking them away to become ‘unpeople’. If they’re lucky. If not, they might find themselves in Room 101, facing their deepest, darkest fears.

So imagine Winston’s surprise when a fellow worker, a young woman called Julia, risks all by passing him a note one day declaring that she loves him. The pair embark on an illicit affair, meeting in secret (or so they believe), eager to discuss how they can overthrow Big Brother. Winston has a feeling that O’Brien, a member of the inner party, may in fact be involved with the Brotherhood against BB. But is O’Brien to be trusted, or will he turn them both in to be reconditioned?

A world-famous satire on totalitarianism and a critique of both the left and right, George Orwell’s relentlessly depressing and yet awe-inspiring piece has certainly earned its place in the history books after fifty years in print. An inspiration for such films as Brazil and Judge Dredd (which was a comic book first — ed.), as well as TV programs like ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Blake’s 7’, ‘Babylon 5’ and… the list goes on.

But what of the novel itself, and how has it stood up to the test of time? Remarkably well, as a matter of fact. Orwell’s warnings about a country manipulated by an insane minority who want power for power’s sake are just as relevant today as they ever were (especially in the light of Blair’s New Labor nanny state and the European Union). You only have to look up the next time you’re in town to realize that BB is watching you through CC TV cameras, as well as monitoring you on the Internet. All right, so these measures are an excellent means by which to combat crime both in the real world and in cyberspace, but it just goes to prove how accurate the author’s predictions have turned out to be. And how careful we must be not to let such technology fall into the wrong hands.

In addition, I was quite surprised by how horrific the book was, not just in terms of a sense of helpless inevitability that permeates the entire story, but also in its graphic descriptions.

But not even this can compare with the poignancy of Winston’s childhood remembrances, which outline the squalid conditions he was brought up in (obviously inspired by Orwell’s own time living in poverty), his mother and baby sister’s sudden disappearance and his entrance into a Reclamation Camp.

The year – and even the century – may have come and gone, but 1984 is about so much more than just a date. It’s about who we are, who we might be and who we definitely should not be. For my money there’s never been a better time to reacquaint yourself with this eternally significant masterwork, comrade.