Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: 1984

When reading or watching a work of speculative fiction, it's easy to see why the genre easily becomes dated and appears old fashioned or very simple in its basic premises of scientific innovation.  Science fiction films of the 1950's, 60's and 70's provide numerous examples.

Even some of the works of the last couple of decades appear outdated with the advances in technology we've seen.  Technological discoveries have increased exponentially over the last century, and even more so over the last few years.

This means a work of science fiction has a far greater chance of becoming dated even sooner than before.  So how is it that some are able to stand the test of time to become classics, still viable after years?  Let's take a look at a great example of one that has.

George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a classic for many years, and still stands as cutting social commentary in today's world.  Not only this, many of the unique words or phrases he used in the novel are a part of today's vernacular.  We use the terms "thought police", "doublespeak", "groupthink", and "Big Brother" nowadays without hardly a thought as to their origins.  In fact, even the author's name in the adjectival "Orwellian", has come to mean that of a totalitarian agenda, referring to revisionist history and manipulation of perception.  The book itself conveys thoughts of nationalism, surveillance, privacy, and censorship, topics which are very much at the forefront of today's headlines.  If anything, it becomes more and more valid as time goes by.  Not bad for a novel first published in 1949.

So how did he do it?  How did Orwell create such a masterpiece, that rings true and current even today and well into the future?  How did he create a work of science fiction that does not seem to age much at all, even with the relatively recent explosion of new technology?

He used themes which are at the core of every civilization, and which strike chords close to everyone on an individual level.  He made humanity the core element of his plot, with themes anyone can relate with.  He did not rely solely on technology to drive the plot.  And while technology does move the plot, with cameras and two-way television screens, the main force is of a very real human nature.  The real focus of the book was the nature of the relationship between a government and its civilians, and even more compelling, the way the government turned each and every one of its citizens into spies against the rest.

The bad guy as it turns out in the book is much more than the ubiquitous Big Brother.  While government entities under sanction of Big Brother are hard at work monitoring, censoring, and revising history, its very citizens are spying on each other.  Everyone is a willing participant in the persecution they themselves are subject to, because although they never really know who's watching, someone is always watching.  Whether it's an undercover agent of the Thought Police or a next door neighbor, when one is turned in for unacceptable behavior, it really doesn't matter who it was that turned them in.  This perpetuates the cycle, and ingrains it into the children of the society who are taught warped ideals and beliefs from an early age.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fascinating tale that strikes to the core of our sense of values, morals and humanity.  It gives us a horribly chilling view of a terrifying society at one extreme end of the spectrum, while offering a glimpse at the core of real humanity on a very personal level.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and George Orwell's masterpiece is a prime example of this.  The book has been adapted a number of times in film, television, stage, radio, and many other media forms.  It's seen countless derivatives spring up over the years, and has been the inspiration behind huge numbers of creative works.  It's been a tremendous inspiration to me in my own writing, and I'm certain many other authors can say the same.

All in all, it's one of the best pieces of literature to come from the last century, and is something everyone should have on their bookshelf or in their e-reader.


  1. You reminded me why I love this book. Great review!

  2. Thank you! It's one of my very favorite books - easily one of my top five. So chillingly valid after all these years, and a hugely influential piece of social and psychological speculative fiction.