Wednesday, December 14, 2005

1984, George Orwell

George Orwell

After my review of Animal Farm, I had an interesting exchange with Bea about that book. (You can see it here if you're curious.) That exchange was in the back of my head as I wrote this review. (Thanks for the inadvertent prodding, Bea.)

I knew I was going to reread 1984 when I read Animal Farm, but I remembered even less about it. Having read it now, I want to break my review up into parts:

The text of the book

This was, perhaps, the largest surprise of rereading 1984. I found some of the actual text rather annoying. Criticizing one of the masterpieces of modern literature is risky - particularly for one such as me, who can't tell an adverb from a lemon, but I have to be honest here.

Mechanically, Orwell's paragraphs are huge and often contain three or more points. That's not how I was taught to write, and I found it distracting. But beyond that, I found some of the writing to be rather dull. Some of Winston's internal monologs go on forever, and the portions of Goldstein's book - quoted at huge length in the middle of part two - are repetitive, obvious, and pedantic. I kept looking ahead to see how long they went on, and they went on a long, long time.

Again, I must state that I am probably the least qualified person on the planet to quibble with Orwell's text, but it got up my nose, so I am mentioning it here.

The ideas in the book

Here again, I was disappointed, but for different reasons. Orwell's view of the future looks really limited to me. Some things, he clearly got right. As I write this, congress is debating whether or not the McCain anti-torture amendment will be part of the current defense authorization bill, and our own version of Big Brother - George Bush - has threatened a veto if it appears there. Taken in that context, what Winston endures in Miniluv is all too possible today. However, we also have the arguments - by John McCain, no less - that torture doesn't work, and produces no useful information. (Yes, I know, the Party wasn't after information in the book; they were out to convert their opponents before destroying them. Never-the-less, I doubt the usefulness of torture as an effective vehicle to actually change people's thinking.)

Looking at the broader picture, we're headed into a 1984 style scenario now, and we're going there willingly. That's the scary thing that I think Orwell missed. He envisioned a society where the revolution came and the new leaders put the party and all of its policies and mechanics into place deliberately. We're going to get there, but it's happening at our own request. Consider:
  • Does your cell phone tell the phone company where you are? Probably. Can they pass that information to the police, the FBI, or others, thanks to the PATRIOT act? Yes. Do they have to tell you if they do so? Nope.
  • Is the NSA capable of listening in on your phone calls? Definitely. Are they? Who knows? Do you care?
  • How many "security" cameras are posted on light standards in your town? How many are run by public vs. private entities? Just exactly who is watching you right now?
All of those things were done by our government to protect us from something at one point or another. The intent was almost certainly good at the time. The intent might still be good, but we all know what happens to those in power.

I could go on here, but I hope my my point is clear. An Orwellian future may well await us, but at the moment it looks like we're walking into it with open eyes and arms. Orwell envisioned getting there at the point of a gun.

How well it's held up over time

Here again, Orwell's crystal ball was cloudy. As a description of a repressive totalitarian regime - if you disregard the radical technological advances that Orwell had no way of predicting and extrapolate forward - it's OK.

The problem is that it discusses a society in a particular state. He discusses some of the rise of the Party, but the bulk of the story is set in the "now" of 1984. In contrast, Animal Farm showed the evolution from something familiar into something different - and yet still familiar, if you get my drift. In that way, Animal Farm seems more relevant to me now as a cautionary tale than 1984. As mentioned above, I didn't really buy Orwell's vision for how the Party came into existence, and so lost the willing suspension of disbelief.

What I worry about that might be similar, though, is a religiously inspired cataclysm. I recently discussed this with a family member, and we're both worried that some of those people who believe fervently in Armageddon (with a capital 'A') and "The End Times" might go out of their way to bring it about. That could result in many nasty things, of course, but exactly what depends on many variables. I suppose in some cases a religious government - as brutal and repressive as Orwell's - is a possible outcome. So is utter chaos, and nuclear winter with few or no human survivors, and everything in between. One thing I am not guilty of is underestimating the possible depravity and stupidity of groups of people under the influence of some set of inflexible rules. What makes things worse, of late, is that the number of people needed to unleash a really awful outcome is dropping - a lot. That partly explains why we may be willingly entering an Orwellian state, of course, but I don't like either the cause or the effect.

In any event, even with all those issues stated, I still think 1984 is pretty good, and I'm glad I reread it. Perhaps, in 1949 when it was published, it was dark and scary enough that it opened some eyes (and minds). Today, I think our (or at least my) vision of ugly futures is more "advanced" than it might have been back then.

Perhaps I need to write some of my own thoughts down. That way someone can accuse me of not having an adequate vision of the future and poor prose in 55 years. If only.