written by David Steffen
1984 is easily the most well-known dystopian novels, and one of the most famous science fiction novels in history (whether or not Orwell would call it science fiction). The book was written by George Orwell, and published in 1949. Almost seventy years later, the political ideas in the story are as relevant as ever, and many of the concepts have since entered everyday vernacular even when those speaking are not familiar with the book itself. .
In the future of the story, there are only three super-nations across the entire globe–Oceania (which contains the former United States and United Kingdom among others), Eurasia, and Eastasia. The three super-nations are constantly at war with another in ever-shifting alliances. The super-nations are all authoritarian states, which maintain control by a combination of ever-present surveillance, constant revision of history, and the limitation destruction of language.
The protagonist of the story is Winston Smith, a writer working for the Ministry of Truth in Airstrip One (the modern name of the region that had once been England. Every day he makes “corrections” to historical records, part of a systematic and ongoing rewriting of history to suit the goals of the Party. The Party is the political group in power under the leadership of the tyrant Big Brother. Winston is a member of the Party (though not of the super-elite Inner Party), and in exchange for some small comforts over the lower-class proles he must live with constant surveillance and expectations of his every behavior as they even try to police his very thoughts. On the surface he is like any other person, seeming to fit in. But in his heart of hearts he feels a growing rebellion against the oppressive social environment.
As part of his job, Winston is well-versed in Newspeak, the official language of government communications which is phasing into becoming an official language of everyone. Newspeak is the only language in history whose vocabulary decreases from year to year, an intentional destruction of nuance and opposing viewpoints to stifle criticism and debate of political views–when the transition to newspeak is complete, the language will only be usable to express ideas approved by the Party, anything else will not be able to be expressed in speech and therefore will not even be able to be expressed in thought. There are rumors of an underground rebellion, but Winston isn’t sure if they are anything but rumors.
1984 is a cautionary tale warning about the ways of power-mongering political groups who exist only to increase their own power and will do so by any means at their disposal. I had been familiar with the surveillance basis of Oceania, but the detailed discussion of the destruction of language to suit political purposes was chilling and new to me because it felt all too familiar–limited vocabulary, using established terms incorrectly so that no one can be sure what is meant by them, statements in polar opposition to the actions at the same time like a magician distracting you with a wave of their hand.
The book does have a bit of a reputation for being a bit pedantic, and that’s not inaccurate–there are entire chapters in the book which are chapters from a political book within the book explaining the basis of the society. But, honestly, those chapters were some of the best in the book–a lot of detail laid out quite concisely and I was discovering it as Winston was discovering it so my reaction was his. You can look at it as just a long political discussion, but I thought Winston was a believable if not entirely likable character.
It is also a romance, at least for part of the book, something I didn’t expect, the element of which is in stark contrast with the constant control of the society of Big Brother.
I wish it felt more fictional. It is disheartening that after nearly seventy years, we have apparently not learned anything to end up with these leaders over and over again. Although I guess to look on the optimistic side perhaps we haven’t reached the point of no return that has been reached in 1984 with no apparent way out. I read the book now because I kept hearing references to it with the current administration, and it is very relevant now (maybe it is always this relevant, but the resemblance seems almost derivative at the moment).