Monday, June 15, 2009


Sixty years ago this week, a science fiction novel was published in London as the author lay dying in a TB clinic in Stroud in Gloucestershire. The man was only 46 and it was the book that killed him but what a book. He typed the final draft with a typewriter balanced on his knees in bed. He had a fever and he was in pain. The climate of the Isle of Jura, where the book was typed, is damp and cold, conditions that could not be worse for someone infected with TB.

The novel was ‘1984’ and the man was George Orwell. It is difficult to think of another SF&F novel that has had a greater impact on our culture. Indeed, few literary works of any type have had more impact.

Orwellian has taken its place alongside Shakespearian and Dickensian. The words of the novel has been incorporated into our very language: Room 101, Big Brother, Newspeak, Doublethink, Duckspeak, Prole, Thoughtcrime, Thought Police, Unperson................

Or how about the three great slogans of The Party of Oceania: “WAR IS PEACE

Like all good books, 1984 has been repeatedly banned. The USSR banned it as anticommunist. In 1981, Jackson County in Florida tried to ban it as pro-communist and sexual. The American Library Association in 1984 banned 1984 because of its “bleak warning of totalitarian government and censorship.” Great stuff guys! That’s the way to treat a book about censorship – censor it! That’s how you treat a book that describes how totalitarian organisations control through sexual repression – censor all mention of sex. This is in the “You couldn’t make it up” category.

George Orwell perpetually had to explain that the book was not an anti-socialist pamphlet. For example, in this letter he wrote to Henson of the United Automobile Workers in the USA.

"My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."

The novel is about power, how it corrupts and how it becomes an end in itself. It is about how an organisation can cling on to power indefinitely if it controls all reality, including history, the news and even the meaning of words, and people’s emotions, love and sexuality being the most powerful emotional drive of all. It is about how control depends on control of the middle classes; hold them and the proles can be kept quiet with bread and circuses, contrary to Marxist philosophy. It is not about ideology at all. Ingsoc and Oceania have no ideology except control.

Let’s leave the last word to The Party:

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."

John Lambshead


Ori Pomerantz said...

It is good that 1984 was written, but it was only half of what it should have been, IMAO (and I said it to the high school teacher who assigned it). The other half should have been how to fight against such a system.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Ori.

And poignant post, John!

Anonymous said...

Why create a ho-hum story of rebellion and victory when you can create a masterpiece of despair?

Chris McMahon said...

1984 really was a masterpiece, John. I read it when I was about 15, it was like water to the dying of thirst. Great stuff.

John Lambshead said...

Well, Oceania could not really occur in practice. It is a one-dimensional state. It is an example of 'warning literature' where you project a trend in order to make a point. The mid 20th C. when 1984 was written was a period of absolutism.

You don't read 1984 to feel good but to remind yourself to keep a sharp eye on our noble leaders and their protestations.

The message in the book is be wary and make sure you hold your masters to account.

Given the politics of fear that have dominated in both the UK and USA and, at least in the UK, have been used to erode the peoples' rights and increase oppression.

1984 has a message that stands for all time. That is why it is a masterpiece.

John Lambshead said...

In 1984, it is the Thought Police (Thinkpol in Newspeak) that arrest Winston and Julia for Thought Crime (crimethink). The population of Airstrip One (Britain) is constantly monitored by cameras to detect not only seditious acts or words but also seditious thoughts.

Britain is now the most heavily monitored country on earth. Fixed and mobile cameras monitor comnstantly. It is almost impossible to drive through London without committing a traffic offense (trafcrim?). On my last trip a camera/computer got me for overhanging my back wheels on a prohibited stopping zone for too many seconds when the traffic snarled unexpectedly.

The problem used to be that there were never enough people to man the cameras. Now, the Ministry (Minicam?) have a new weapon in computer software that constantly monitors for trafcrim, alerting an operator when it finds offenders.

As far as I know, New Labour's Thinkpol cannot yet detect crimethink but give them time.


John Lambshead said...

One last little thought from Ingsoc: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face ... for ever."

Sleep well, children.


Ori Pomerantz said...

IIRC, the prospects for New Labour's survival are rather dim. Would a new government dismantle a lot of the monitoring infrastructure, or at least make it less annoying? If not, how much further can they go before triggering another Runnymede?

Do your schools still teach Kipling?.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Ori

I doubt the system will be dismantled but our masters are under notice that the public have had enough. New labours attempt to imprison people for 42 days without a charge was blocked by the House of Lords and the Tories have promised to scrap New Labours indentity card scheme.

The British people are getting bolshy.


Ori Pomerantz said...

The British people are getting bolshy.

Is that short for Bolshevik? I thought the Bolsheviks were all for a police state, as long as they were the state.

John Lambshead said...

Bolshy is short for Bolshevik, but it means something rather different. It means mutinous or mulish, fed up and inclined to be uncooperative with authority.