1984 - George Orwell

George Orwell's bleak book is one of the top selling books of all time, currently selling over 750,000 copies every year. This volume is probably because many schools have the book as required reading, but it still shows just how important and powerful this book is in modern times.

Written back in 1948, the book was primarily a warning against the communism of Soviet Russia and what that style of government could do to society. Many of the phrases and images in the book have become part of our culture. We expect people to understand what "Big Brother" means when we refer to it. We talk about the "thought police". If only to be able to understand modern conversation and references, this is a book to have familiarity with, just as having at least a passing knowledge of events in the Bible will help you understand references in culture to 40 days and 40 nights of floods, gathering animals up two by two, and so on.

But aside from its position as a "foundation of certain phrases in society", how does the book stand as an actual story? As with most fables, it is very heavy handed. There are few shades of grey in this book. The government is Evil. Evil, Evil, Evil. They delight in being evil. The people are completely helpless and know this. They march around in their dingy lives, watching as things get progressively worse, and knowing they cannot do anything to change it. Their life is going to suck, and then they are going to die. Even if they break the rules to grab momentary happiness, they know that this is doomed. They will be found out eventually.

It is impressive that a writer in the late 40s was able to come up with some of the technology that he did, the pervasive ability of the government to watch and scan everybody. The ability for a power (government, media, educational institutions) to mold the human mind subtly had already been shown over the centuries in a variety of situations, so that was less of a stretch. Go to any corporation, any university, and you'll find indoctrination being done at many levels, usually for "good cause". Building school spirit by uniting against a classic foe is all in fun - but that ability to build up hate so easily gives one pause.

On the other hand, Orwell missed out on the power of massive computer networks. With the advent of TV and the Internet, viewers have the luxury of multiple information sources. This is something unprecedented in our history. Back in medieval days, you only knew what your local priest told you as far as news went. Most people could not read, and few traveled. Even in South Africa before apartheid was abolished they refused to bring in TVs, for fear that the population would be able to learn about life outside their own lands. That isolation is almost impossible in modern times. With a computer, you can gain access to news sources from around the world - both commercial and personal. You can hear, from people in Sudan, what life is like there. Even in countries like China where they attempt to control access to certain sites, there is always a way out, to find out from different sources what is going on.

The book is still of course a cautionary tale, a warning of allowing any particular power to go too far. It is a look into the way human emotions can be manipulated, and how a society can be pressed down. However, it's important to remember this is a fable, a deliberate "Bleak! Despair! Death!" overly cynical view of things. In reality, we have seen *many* societies who were pressed down, and who successfully rebelled. Mankind is far more resiliant than portrayed here.

SPOILER ALERT

A key scene in the book involves the lead character's "betrayal" of his loved one. First he is tortured for months and months, something which makes little sense in any realistic viewing of these events. It is actually brought up by the character as being silly, and a throw-away answer is given. If the government actually spent this much time and effort feeding and torturing every single person who committed a crime, there would be no workers left. It is a plot device to ratchet up the tension in the story. The tension reaches its climax with a specific torture - the character is going to have a cage of rats attached to his head. This is, of course, his Worst Fear. To evade it, he asks that the box be put on his girlfriend instead. At this great betrayal, his heart is shattered.

That this was some incredible failing that should have shattered his spirit does not make sense. Every human body has limits of emotional and physical pain. As much as we might value pride, honor, loyalty, love, or whatever else we hold dear, there will always be a point at which we will break. Knights who trained from birth to live a life of honor could be forced to confess if tortured for long enough. That is why things like cyanide pills exist in spy novels.

Still, even though those parts of the story always nag at me when I read it, I do find the general lessons the book tries to convey to be quite important ones, and for that reason I definitely count this as a book that every adult should have read at least once.

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