This afternoon I finished listening to the audio version of 1984, the classic dystopian novel by George Orwell. I'm still in absolute awe of the book. How could a book be so dark and yet so readable at the same time?
[If you haven't read 1984, then I'd suggest skipping this post. Go borrow it from your library, and come back and see what I have to say. Then let's discuss.]
Where to start?
As I started listening to 1984 I wondered how it was going to compare to the vicious world of the Hunger Games. In short order I got my answer: Orwell makes Katniss and Peeta's world look like Disney Land compared to the warped universe of Winston and Julia, the main characters of 1984. There's just so much depth and detail to 1984. It's less the story of two lovers fighting against the machine, and more a How-To-Guide for creating the ultimate dystopia.
It's absolutely stunning that 1984 was written 66 years ago, in 1948. The terminology, technology and tactics hold up nearly perfectly today. The book could have just as easily been written as a commentary about the War On Terror, the NSA or any number of other popular topics. Everything from the uniforms described to the torture techniques seem completely modern. Heck, many of the concepts seem plausibly futuristic, an even more impressive feat to pull off.
Orwell truly was a genius when it came to architecting the methods used by The Party to maintain its power. From the 24 hour surveillance, to the Thought Police, to continuously rewriting the past, to the development of language that doesn't even allow for out-of-bounds thoughts, to the Big Brother figure head, and so on. Orwell doesn't just take the time to throw these concepts together, but meticulously develops them until you get the sense that they'd actually work. There's no hand waiving here.
Of all the Orwellian concepts I learned from the book, the notion of Continous Warfare seems to hit the closest to home. Sure, we've got the NSA snooping around, but they're playing neighborhood stick-ball compared to the Thought Police of 1984. But, consider this: when I describe a far off war that will never end, and that most of us will never participate in beyond cheering on the troops, I could be describing the war against Eurasia (or was it Eastasia) or the War on Terror. Sure, a complete 'Continuous War' as described in 1984 is far more reaching than this description, but still, the fact that these match up at all is cause for concern.
Finally, what the heck should I make of the book? I mean, what was the point? The most basic reading is that at every step 'The Party' has the upper hand. Even when Winston or Julia thinks they've outsmarted the system, they have in fact, failed. In the end, there's essentially no twist to the book. The characters know that by disobeying the party they'll be punished, and in the end, they are. Without really knowing what the heck I'm talking about, my take away from this is as follows: Orwell has constructed an absolute nightmare. In the end, the Party isn't defeated, and for all intents and purposes can't be defeated. But we, as readers, get to wake up. We're the ones who get to step back and say Wow, when the conditions are right, human kind can not only become entrapped; but entrapped for eternity.
All's lost not only for Winston and Julia, but for the entire human race. But we still have a chance.
And that's where Orwell's How-to-Guide comes into play for me: by giving us such a complete recipe for controlling the population, he's also given us the antidote. Study it. Learn it. Fight it.