Sunday, 16 October 2011

1001 Books Review - 1984

Two rather nice announcements first.

1) I've been given an internship at Litro magazine, a literary magazine that's big into giving exposure to new writers. It's well worth a look if you're a writerly type - here are its facebook, twitter and real-world subscription pages for your convenience. So from now on I'll be splitting my blogging between there and here, which is quite exciting and only slightly daunting.

2) The lovely people at Writersdock have been kind enough to publish my Animal Farm review on their site. Look at that! My words on someone else's website! Isn't that nice?

But anyway, on to the review, which today (aptly enough) is George Orwell's 1984. Here goes.

Last night I finished reading 1984. I'm quite proud of myself. After all, I only began it 10 years ago.

You can blame my thirteen-year-old self for this. The me that bought my copy of 1984, way back in 2001, was still coming off a childhood filled with books in which Good Triumphed, Bad Failed and Love Conquered All, and I believed in this. And then came 1984.

I started to read 1984 under the vague impression that Things, although bad at the beginning, would be All Right In The End, and I must (judging from what seems familiar on my second attempt) have gotten almost to the end of Part I, before something made me decide to turn back and read the Introduction. (This experience, by the way, is why I am heavily against scholarly introductions at the front of books. What are they doing there? Why, since they describe what happens in the book, aren't they at the end where they belong?) Of course, it spoiled me horribly. I found out the entire plot of the novel - and, most importantly, what happens to Winston.

I remember feeling utterly tricked. I don't know why I was so upset - self-preservation, as a concept, always made a lot of sense to me. I used to get very annoyed with the Christian Martyrs because I couldn't work out why they didn't just worship Zeus a bit, with their fingers crossed, and then go back to Jesus on the sly. Being holy, in my view, was no consolation for being dead. Somehow, though, I couldn't extend this to 1984. Love was a thing that I very much (theoretically) believed in, and I think I had assumed I was reading a love story - but of course, much like poor Winston and Julia, I was being had.

I won't give you the details (I'm not as cruel as Ben Pimlott), but suffice it to say that 1984 - the dystopian story of Winston Smith's struggle against Ingsoc and its leader Big Brother - does not end well. In a way this is nicely realistic - because, really, how likely is it that one man could actually bring down the evil empire? It's a lovely idea, and one that's very familiar to us but, er, it's not particularly feasible. (If you look carefully, by the way, there is an interesting bit at the very end of 1984 that does hint at the eventual downfall of the Ingsoc regime, but you've got to really squint to feel optimistic.)

But if you're looking for uplift in your sci fi, why the hell are you reading George Orwell? He's got a brand of pessimism that strikes me as remarkably British - his image the future is not only depressing, but incredibly detailed in a way that's both brilliantly clever and extremely pedantic. It's also, of course, fondly rude about the British people. In 1984, we as a nation have become ugly, puny boozers who hate ourselves. So nothing's new, then.

I think that's part of the reason why we've taken 1984 to heart as much as we have. In my Animal Farm review I remarked on just how many slogans and ideas from it have seeped into our cultural mindset, and, if anything, it's even more astonishingly true in 1984. Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak, Thought Police, Doublethink, Thoughtcrime - for a crazy dystopian vision of the future it's bizarre how far it has shaped how we see our own present-day society. But while 1984 is sharply, embarrassingly right about a lot of things, I'm still not sure that I buy its bigger vision of the future. That's not because I have great belief in human nature - on the contrary, I think that humanity's saving grace is its immense and charming essential laziness.

Extreme evil, like extreme good, seems to take an awful lot of effort, so much so that I don't think most human beings are up to it in the long term. Sure, they'll try it for a while, but show them a boot stamping on a human face for ever and they're liable to wonder whether the person doing the stamping gets a lunch break and if they can do it sitting down. Why bother? Why not just have a cup of tea? This, I think, is why both Fascism and Communism were always bound to fail - they require people to be EXTREMELY WORKED UP, ALL OF THE TIME, and that, in practice, is exhausting. Human beings just want to muddle along, and that's the natural level that they'll always return to. At least, I hope so.

Ten years on, I actually ended up enjoying 1984. I must be more hardened to emotional betrayal in books these days, because 1984's version of it hardly bothered twenty-three-year-old me at all. I thought it was clever (isn't Orwell always?) and acute, if a bit idealistically overblown. It's definitely a better story than Animal Farm - Winston, thank goodness, is a person as well as a symbol, and so it's much easier to spend time with him than Manor Farm's animal-shaped politicians. Because I didn't have to read 1984 theoretically, I found myself more willing to do it - and, as I've said, I think what 1984 has to say is very interesting, even if I don't totally buy into it.

So, in conclusion: I liked it, I'm glad I don't live in Oceania, and Room 101 was extremely badly named.

3.5 stars. 18.48% of the list completed.


  1. I love dystopian novels and am reading 1984 for the first time--crazy, I know. I just wanted to say that I COMPLETELY agree about academic introductions giving away way too much information up front. I want to READ the book, not have someone tell me all about it.

    Also, yay NaNoWriMo!

  2. I don't know why academics seem to think that everyone must have already read every famous 'literary' book. There are always going to be new readers, no matter how old or well-known something is.