“Nineteen-Eighty-Four”, or “Hunger Games: 1949”, by George Orwell
In my continuing effort to become more grounded in classic science fiction I went back to the internet. I looked for the first top ten list I’d used to get ‘Flowers for Algernon but couldn’t find it right off and ended up with the top ten science fiction novels to change the world.
I went to Audible.com and purchased two books; ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’.
Seeing how I had actually lived through the time period, I started with ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ to see how close Orwell had gotten right.
I want to break this review into three parts; as Science Fiction, as Social Science, and a story.
The basic story is that sometime after the first or second war, it’s hard to tell, the world broke into three separate, yet identical, totalitarian states. We spend our time in Oceania which includes Great Britain, America and bits and pieces of a few other places; They needed frontiers with the other two enemies so that war could continue indefinitely.
Our man, Winston, works for the Ministry of Truth. He’s an ‘outer’ party member who’s job is to take old news articles and change them to the current belief of the party. He realizes this is to create a lie and that the party, therefore, must be liars. He begins his search for an opposition to the party. To get more of the plot, you’ll either have to read the book or go to wikipedia. (However, there are plot spoilers. I feel like I am speaking to the people who have already read this.)
Here’s what I thought.
As science fiction, I was disappointed to see that Orwell missed the computer completely. The only true science fiction aspect of the story, as far as I am concerned, is the ‘View Screens’ in everybody’s homes and work places. These screens play music, show news broadcasts, and at the same time, allows somebody on the other end to watch everything you do.
There are three groups of people. The inner party makes up about 1.5% of the population. The outer party is maybe 6% to 10%. The remainder are the ‘Prolls’. They are the poor, the unknown, and essentially, the unwatched. For 1.5% of the population to watch the 6% to 10% both day and night would be absolutely impossible without the use of computers. Yet, our man is watched, even down to the point of his facial expressions, or dilation of his pupils.
As a commentary on society, I believe he missed the mark again.
That’s easy for me to say looking back. When you consider the political environment when the novel was written in 1949, and the radical political changes on the horizon, it isn’t hard to understand the book’s outlook. Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito had just been dealt with and we had the cold war looming ahead.
But what do we have now? We have the Hunger Games. A totalitarian society where the majority of the population are kept in abject servitude under the continuously watching eye of the Capitol. Where the Hunger Games got it right was, there was a resistance.
The book ends with ‘Big Brother’ winning when Winston finally understands he loves Big Brother. Having watched race riots and social reforms from the 60’s and 70’s, the Berlin wall coming down in the 90’s, the gay rights movements going on, even as we speak, I don’t believe that an entire society could ever be cowed into accepting the totalitarian rule from an imaginary ruler proliferated by an impassionate ruling minority.
My contention is, in a sociological nutshell, that to have a society which is ruled by a small inner circle of informed who keep the secondary elite subjected and suppressed by fear and micro management would be impossible to maintain for any length of time.
If you look at our most popular recent dictators, Castro, Hussein, Mugabe, Gorbachev, these were the single figure heads, the ‘Big Brother’. Their craving for power and control was passionate, and to keep so many people suppressed, you would have to be passionate. In Orwell’s book, there is no actual figure head, but a minority bureaucracy works impassionately to control the people and extract from them their passion.
This couldn’t last long in Orwell’s scenario. In no time one man’s passion for power would outweigh another’s and then would come factions and dissolution of the whole project. Even with the aforementioned dictators, there were active resistance efforts, political refugees and discontent by passionate people.
Winston argued with O’Brien that the inner party couldn’t succeed and O’Brian asked him if he believed in God. Winston said he didn’t so O’Brian countered with, “What will drive man to resist, to overcome the party?”
Winston said it was man’s spirit, though, he agreed there really wasn’t one.
My contention is that man’s passion wouldn’t allow himself to be subjected as Orwell has them. The party would have to individually torture every person into insanity to overcome man’s inborn needs and hormonal urges. We just had too much time making our own choices to be bluffed and baffled out of our desire to do so.
Orwell was obviously pleased with his sociological model, as he spend much of the third part of the novel waxing most eloquently long at its premises.
Winston gets the illegal book by the non existent revolutionary. He spends hours reading it, and as he did, I could see he was reading a justification of everything the party was working at and not at all what a discontent would have to say. The book finally ends with an epilogue of what the “NewSpeak” dictionary and language were all about. It was marginally interesting, at first, but then became more pontificating.
As a book I thought the story was good, until the reading of the political theories. If you suspend reality enough to ignore the impossible number of man hours required to maintain such a society it could generate some anti socialism fears, if you wanted it to. I guess I’m just too much a believer in man’s ability to adapt and overcome, and in his desire for self expression and other irrepressible passions. I would give the story three stars out of five. But, since it’s a classic, if you haven’t read it, you probably should. And if you get it from Audible.com, or on loan from your local library, you can listen to it in about nine hours.
Philip ‘Norvaljoe’ Carroll is a staff editor at Flying Island Press, the author of the Podiobooks.com novel, The Price of Friendship, has a Bachelor’s in Science in Business Administration from Hawaii Pacific University and has a Podcast Minor in Psychology and Sociology from iTunes University. He has many more opinions than truly coherent thoughts.