Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell (1949)
A friend of mine recently observed, "I re-read 1984 a few weeks ago. The first time I read it in high school, I thought it was good science fiction. Now it reads like a documentary."
So I decided re-read it myself. In high school I read both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and about all I remember is how much I disliked them both. I am a purist for science fiction. By that I mean not fantasy, and not merely stories set in the future, but stories in which plausible future science plays a more important role than social commentary—think Isaac Asimov and early Robert Heinlein. Thus I wouldn't have called either of the above books science fiction. I personally wouldn't call them good, either. But I thought it was worth another try.
I stand by my original assessment of Nineteen Eighty-Four, though I will acknowledge that Orwell was remarkably prescient in many areas. I know what my friend meant when he said it sounds like a documentary. Just as interesting were the places he got wrong. For example, he completely missed the sexual revolution of the 1960's. He also missed computers, the Internet, social media, and the Information Age—but television served his purposes well enough for "Big Brother is Watching You."
Curiously, I found that most of the analyses I read online consider the climax of the book to be where Winston Smith and Julia betray each other. It seems clear to me, however, that the true climax occurs much earlier in the book, when they believe they are joining the Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to opposing the ruling Party.
"In general terms, what are you prepared to do?"
"Anything that we are capable of," said Winston.
O'Brien had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.
"You are prepared to give your lives?"
"You are prepared to commit murder?"
"To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?"
"To betray your country to foreign powers?"
"You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
"If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face—are you prepared to do that?"
At that point any hope for the future is lost, those opposing evil having shown themselves to be no better than their opponents. Everything after that is dénouement.
Here are a few more quotes I found interesting.
Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the dsicipline of the Party. ... It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which "The Times" did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak—"child hero" was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?
As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of "The Times" had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. ... Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. ... All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means.
"The proles are not human beings," he said carelessly. "By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be."
It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.
What kind of people would control this world had been ... obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people ... had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.
Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. ... The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.
What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect. In a Party member, on the other hand, not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated.
[The vocabulary of Newspeak] was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member would properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.
When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one's knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.