Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Books with Friends – Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell – reviewed by Chris King


So today it’s time for another step back into classic science fiction – with a guest review, written by Chris King.

People lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nowadays I no longer ask people if they have read the book when it comes up in conversation but instead ask, when did you last read it? The speed of the answer – and how dismissive they are – usually tells me if they really have read it or not. Some people seem to think that you don’t have to bother reading a book that has entered the public consciousness. After all, anyone can tell you that this is the book where Winston Smith fights back against the evil government of Big Brother, who watch everyone all the time.

Unfortunately this summary is wrong. In writing this review I may only be helping those who pretend to have read Nineteen Eighty-Four by giving them information about what actually happens. Ah well – at least that is consistent with the book: the best lies are based on the truth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is often misunderstood and certainly misquoted. If there were a real-life dystopia like it, most people wouldn’t notice. The creepy man who once tried to recruit me to the anti-feminist league said, “Bloody 1984, amiright?” when his comments were removed from a feminist forum. However, in Nineteen Eighty-Four the Party alone exists. It has no need to delete the comments or writings of others. They even broadcast the hated enemy figure of Goldstein and let intellectuals denounce him without any help from the Party. The Party only edits itself, changing original statements and removing traces of past statements to help future lies. So, they announce one day that the chocolate ration is being increased to twenty grams, removing all evidence that they’ve actually lowered, not increased, the ration.

The Party is also elitist and thrifty with power. To that end they do not care in the slightest about the common man. As Winston states at the start of Chapter 7, about 85% of the people are just disregarded and left to their own devices. These people are not monitored; they don’t have Big Brother looking over their shoulder. The Party does not care about them, because they are no threat to the Party. These ordinary people are completely free to live as anarchically as they like, to be as intelligent as they want, to think how they want without repercussion. Human nature being what it is though, a basic order is formed; with no compulsion or requirement to learn, the Proles are happy not to and drift through life without knowledge. They have no motivation to overthrow the Party, and so it lets them do whatever they want. The only ones watched are those close to power, the ones with knowledge of how the system works, the ones like Winston.

Winston is an average middle-aged civil-servant who begins a diary, and that is about all there is to him. He is certainly not a fighter or rabble-rouser. It bothered me while reading that Winston was not even sure what year it is, although his job is to edit ‘misprints’ in newspapers that end in .83 or .84, which surely indicate a year. Winston’s colleague Syme is also able to state that he will have eliminated Oldspeak by 2050, so dating evidently still remains.

What initially bothered me more is that although Winston has no love for the Party, he only seems to show animation when working to rewrite events to show the Party in a better light. Meanwhile, when he questions the Party, he is miserable and without direction. I say this initially bothered me because I then thought about it. When people camped outside of St Paul’s Cathedral to protest the capitalist system they were ridiculed for not growing their own food and buying from Starbucks instead. There is no other option of course: they protest the system they are a part of; they are fighting themselves as well as everyone else, and so cannot win.

Along with the generic main character, who is probably bland enough to be universally relatable, the setting is common. I know this is a case of saying that John Carter of Mars is too much like Avatar; but since Nineteen Eighty-Four, a London of tall ministry buildings contrasting with slums, while everything physically decays, has become rather common in science-fiction showing a bleak future. As for the rest of the world – well, no individual can know for sure, but Goldstein claims that there are three super states: Oceania, which is based roughly on the major countries of the British Empire; Eurasia comes from Russian expansion across Europe into France; and Eastasia has the rest, other than border areas where the states conduct their wars. Though I may begrudge it, the familiar London setting with no hope for the future does bring up one of the lesser registered points of the book.

Strictly speaking this is a utopia. Crime is reduced greatly, since any Party member who shows an inclination of committing a crime in the future is taken away and vaporised. They are not just killed but all record of them eliminated so that they never existed, except in the memories of those around them who socially forget them anyway. This is one reason why the elite are monitored. Since Party members like Winston know that they are constantly listened to, the Thought Police rely on Facecrime, a subconscious twitch indicating that they think differently to others around them. So we get to the second reason that the elite are monitored. The system is total but not an inherited one. Inherited systems can be divided between claimants, resulting in civil war, but an oligarchy is permanent so long as everyone who joins thinks the same as those already there. Therefore so long as those who think differently are eliminated, there is total stability. The status quo is maintained. Aside from the buildings becoming dilapidated there is no cultural decay, and despite the constant war society is stable. Oceania cannot be conquered. The people are too ignorantly patriotic to be turned to another side, and genocide too impractical for so many people. For the same reason Oceania can never conquer either other state. There is no hope for the future because there does not need to be – the future is the same as today. To keep people working and motivated, they are put to pointless tasks, recycling old Floating Fortresses into new ones. It is a horrifying system where the individual is worse off that their ancestors fifty years ago – but it works and it’s stable.

The pacing of the story is slow, as elements of Party philosophy are explored and relayed – until the ending, where the Thought Police do more than simply think badly of you. Worryingly, the book is well written, so the Party ideas can be quite convincing at times and you forget the individual people who suffer.

Aside from Winston, the small range of characters that Winston interacts with, whilst keeping all his thoughts to himself, all serve some purpose. Syme is brilliant, and so Winston gets the impression that he will be dead soon. The common people he meets are free but powerless. Parson’s children are scary because they are used as informants to keep the adults in line, displaying the power of the system. To explain the other characters and their link to Winston would spoil the plot.

Despite my minor grievances with the dating system and the bland character and setting, at the end I contracted that beautiful feeling that comes when you finish a brilliant TV series or movie or book. The world seems not to quite fit anymore. You don’t feel like the same person as you were before and it takes some time, a beautifully long time, before the high gradually fades and you are able to interact with reality again.

So, those of you who pretend to have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, you are doing yourself a disservice by not reading the book. Or you can keep up the doublethink that it is a great book, but also not a book you would want to read.

Remain vigilant. Once it occurs there is no escape.

Let’s finish on a quote: Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

With many thanks to Chris King for writing this review. I (Katie) would just like my second my general love of Nineteen Eighty-Four and George Orwell.

Chris King is currently working as a civil servant in a tall ministry building and has recently become suspicious of several government posters around the office. They depict cogs with the caption Whether we play a large or small role... We achieve our objectives. But then again, he likes his job too much to wonder if the first ‘we’ should read ‘you’, suggesting that he can’t stop the government achieving their objectives.


I’m currently on holiday so there won’t be a post up next week, but it’ll be back to me (Katie) with another review in two weeks’ time. Happy reading everybody.

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