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
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."
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."