Nineteen Eighty-Four: A powerful and prescient warning

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell speculative fiction book reviewsNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Along with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949, is the one of the most powerful and important dystopian novels ever written, and unquestionably a work of science fiction thanks to its depiction of a future totalitarian regime that controls every aspect of its citizens’ mental and physical existence. It’s hard to imagine any educated person in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard the terms Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak, even if they’re not sure exactly what the terms mean. It’s also likely that many readers were exposed to Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school English or Humanities classes, which is a good time to read any important book. I’d say this book has probably had a greater social and political impact than any other work of speculative fiction. Who, after reading it, could possibly see any merit whatsoever in a totalitarian government, even if it governs ostensibly for the good of its citizens?

In terms of relevance to today’s world, although the Communist regime of the Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991, a victim of its own incompetent centrally-planned economic policies and a draining nuclear arms race with the United States of America, there are still totalitarian regimes that control, brainwash, and starve their citizens, devoting all their resources to their military, and thumbing their nose at the rest of the world. That’s right, I’m talking about that country that may or may not have launched a cyber attack on a major US film studio, and that routinely denies reality and keeps its citizens locked in its ideological clutches without mercy or humor. So the dystopian warning of Nineteen Eighty-Four remains alive and well!

The story of Nineteen Eighty-Four revolves around a minor party bureaucrat named Winston Smith, who spends his dreary days at the Ministry of Truth (in charge of propaganda) continuously revising and redacting historical documents to conform to the constantly-changing realities that the Party presents to the public. Whenever an undesirable person has been “vaporized” by the party, their very existence is expunged from all historical records. It takes a certain amount of skill to rewrite events to fit “reality,” but Winston has some talent for it. One of the key events that he must reintroduce to the past is that Oceania (one of the three superstates that have carved up the world after a global conflict) has changed its enemy from Eurasia to Eastasia, and all related documents must now reflect this. Moreover, thanks to the principle of “doublethink,” loyal citizens are able to believe two contradictory things simultaneously without being disturbed. So any time the Party announces a new enemy (and that the former enemy is now an ally), this new reality immediately trumps all previous information seamlessly. Then bureaucrats like Winston revise the historical documents to reflect this.

The other Ministries are the Ministry of Peace (which carries on Oceania’s unending wars with Eastasia and Eurasia), the Ministry of Plenty (which handles the rationing and shortages of food and supplies), and the Ministry of Love (a spy organization that identifies and converts any potential dissidents). The three principles that are written on the ministries’ exteriors are WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Again, thanks to “doublethink,” these tenets make perfect sense to the Inner Party (the small elite who dictate policy), the Outer Party (a slightly larger group of bureaucrats that execute policy), and the Proles, the remaining 85% who are kept in abject poverty and ignorance to prevent any disobedience or questioning. Is this not a perfect description of what we see in North Korea today?

The story progresses as Winston meets Julia, another party member working at the Ministry of Truth, and they begin a clandestine love affair, with each discovering a secret hatred of the oppressive Party. Later they are approached by a member of the Inner Party, O’Brien, who indicates that he’s a member of the underground group called the Brotherhood, dedicated to the downfall of the Party. He reveals the inner workings of the Party’s propaganda machine and asks Winston and Julia to cooperate. Then the Thought Police get involved …

I won’t reveal what happens next, but Nineteen Eighty-Four being a dystopian warning to readers, I think you can guess that it doesn’t end Happily Ever After. And if you ever thought that the idea of Big Brother was a bit far-fetched, and that a populace could never be completely brainwashed by propaganda, then you haven’t paid proper attention to our Dear Leader in Pyongyang.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. It’s time for a re-read. I haven’t read this since high school, though I did hear about an hour of it recently when my husband was listening to the audio version by Simon Prebble (it was excellent, BTW).

  2. Great overview (even though you probably let Putin’s government off the hook a little by moving the focus on to Pyongyang!).

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