Thursday, April 27, 2017

Thirty-Three Years Ago, in the Future

The word "Orwellian" is thrown about quite a bit these days. In fact, the frequency made me reckon with the fact that I'd never actually read 1984, the George Orwell novel usually being name-checked. I knew many of the catch phrases and the rough shape of the plot, but I decided it was time to actually experience it for myself.

Divided into three sections of roughly equal length, 1984 does not strike me as a primarily narrative-driven affair. It's a rather dry, almost tacked-on romance story sandwiched between two long-form exercises in world building. But there's a reason the book has endured; that world building is incredibly vivid and insightful, and seems to remain frustratingly timeless.

Orwell's book does what lots of great science fiction does -- it dials a real-world scenario up to an extreme as a vehicle for social commentary. Readers with the freedom to decry fascism and totalitarianism are nowhere near the society depicted in 1984. But the genius of Orwell's work is how his amplified extreme still feels somehow plausible. This isn't an impossible world where people are expected to die at age 30, or where apes rose to sentience and displaced humans; you can imagine the many steps that would lead to the world of Big Brother and Ingsoc, and point to things in the real world as the first ones.

The final section of the book is also quite astute, a still-topical examination of torture and how it can break down a victim and make them accept any "truth" the torturer supplies. I knew 1984 had been a touchstone for the great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that examined torture, "Chain of Command, Part II," but I didn't realize just how direct an inspiration Orwell had been there until I read the book. The ending of 1984 is also quite clever, arriving at a natural conclusion while leaving room for the reader to deduce exactly what would happen next if the book when just one page farther.

That meandering romance in the middle section, combined with the fact that the characters aren't drawn nearly as sharply as the world itself, slowed me down a lot in the middle section of the book. That in turn keeps me from heaping full praise on it. Still, among books considered "classics," I felt this one held up far better than most. I'd give 1984 a B+. If you've never read it yourself, now is a great time to add it to your list.

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