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Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Casual Critic — George Orwell's 1984

So many references are made to "Big Brother" that finally reading George Orwell's 1984 felt like getting in on some inside joke. I expected to find a haunting text that still had relevance as a cautionary tale about a future that we may well still be approaching. Camera phones seemed like the first step to a society that allowed itself to be constantly monitored.

Before you rebels take a hammer to Verizon's latest model, relax. While I can certainly understand the fears it may have wrought in the early days of modern communication technology, and a time when Communism was alive and seemingly well, the story has lost at least some of its bite.

Winston Smith is a dying breed of man that questions a state that has literally invaded every aspect of life. Constant surveillance is a reality, and every waking moment is spent in service of the Party (the government headed by the one and only Big Bro). The last frontier of control is thought, which is slowly being conquered by the government, leading to a population that believes everything it's told even in the face of absurdly obvious contradictions.

The story gets a bit bogged down in the doctrine of what the Party is all about and what their goals appear to be. The biggest question as to why they want to basically strip people of their human instincts is eventually answered, yet how they ''got over the hump'' of having the majority of folks go along with the program is never satisfactorily explained. Talk of a revolution only tells the reader that something brought about dramatic change, presumably a war, but even the fact that this revolution occurred at all is left in doubt.

This doubt is actually ok in some ways within the context of the story because of the Party's manipulation of the past. The Party literally rewrites history — from books to old newspapers — to create the illusion that current conditions are always an improvement on the past and in-line with what the Party promised. In fact, the government is constantly re-writing the official version of Newspeak (the new word for English) with the intent to narrow thought.

Though a bit dry, the suggestion that reality is shaped by words is an intriguing one, and is explored rather thoroughly. As with their enemies, the Party looks to eliminate — not refute, not diminish, but eliminate — words, and, therefore, ideas, that might contradict Party thought. The thinking being that if the terminology for disputing the Party doesn't exist, loyalty is ensured.

The biggest problems I had with 1984 may not be problems at all. First, it is certainly a depressing look at the fate of mankind. Secondly, a decent story-line is essentially interrupted right in the middle of the novel for a lengthy dissertation on how the Party is managing to dehumanize people. In the form of a text meant to debunk what the Party is doing, the explanations answered many questions I had as I read. But, it killed the flow of a story that was allowing details to unfold just fine.

Orwell does a great job of presenting the familiar in a new, somewhat scary light. The detail with which he conceptualized how this type of future could be maintained is almost startling, and I can't say that a path to such a future is inconceivable even today. His vision of the ability of a government to monitor its citizenry and manipulate information would only be enhanced by modern technology. But today's reader may need more to buy the initial fall of the human spirit, possibly due to the ultimate failure of Communism.

While 1984 is not a page turner, it's definitely worth the read.

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