In honor of the election I’ve been running a political speculative fiction mini-series, starting with Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele and Malka Older’s Infomocracy and ending with George Orwell’s 1984. I have a lot to say about 1984, and I’m feeling extra dystopic after Tuesday, so I’m going to split my review of 1984 into two posts. Today I will focus on 1984’s surveillance state and the critique of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Next week I will focus on 1984’s intellectuals’ dystopia, including the assault on language, and its distinctly English nature.
1984 is, by far, best known for its vision of a surveillance state. It was a huge part of public discourse pushing back against the Patriot Act. It was inevitable that after being more muted over the past eight years, I saw references to 1984 in my Twitter feed yesterday. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get a little setup first.
Critics of the Puppies during the Hugo Awards controversy were fond of asking whether the Puppies could give an example of bad message fiction that they agreed with. The usual answer, to the point it was almost a joke, was Atlas Shrugged (which I need to eventually post on as well). 1984 is emphatically message fiction. It even has a narrative busting Author Filibuster. It’s frankly much better than Atlas Shrugged, though. I say that because I’m about to drop some exposition, and there isn’t a whole lot to the plot of 1984. It is a vehicle for Orwell’s dystopia world, itself a vehicle for censuring communism.
Winston is a middle-aged, slightly overweight man (I couldn’t help but picture Ken Bone). He lives in what once was London in what once was England, now, along with the old United States, known as Oceania. He is a Party member (Outer Party, not Inner Party). He likes his Victory Gin. He is a low-level functionary, churning out some small part of the massive amount of historical revision necessary to keep history up to date and always in complete accord with the Party’s position at the moment (more on that next week). He harbors rebellious thoughts, leading first to the sin of writing in a journal and then to other sins with a female coworker mainly a rebel below the waist. Above all watches the omnipresent posters of Big Brother (who I also imagine to look like Ken Bone).
Anyway, back to the surveillance state. Not content to encourage informing on neighbors, spouses, children, the Party ensures its members stay under constant surveillance. Every flat is outfitted with a two-way telescreen, as are workspaces. Even the parks and woods are thick with hidden microphones. Part of the reason 1984’s world is dystopian on a scale unseen in the real world is because “in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.”
The surveillance state of 1984 isn’t just terrible because the telescreens are watched over by jackbooted thugs itching to beat freethinking out of a wayward Outer Party member, but because of the utter lack of privacy. Not just privacy in the sense of a private space to change, to bath, etc. But privacy to carry about outside of the public eye. But with “the technical advance that made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.” The suppression of free expression, one that goes down to the mandated coveralls, then extends to the home. Is it any surprise then that sex must be suppressed as well? It’s too private, too intimate, too subversive by nature.
The remarkable thing about it isn’t the technology. The sort of surveillance in 1984 was doable when Orwell published it in 1949, or at least was foreseeable. It was the early days of the television. We still receive and submit separately, but with tiny cameras that’s no impediment, and we do so simultaneously. What’s remarkable is the manpower necessary to make 1984’s crude system work. We’re never shown behind the curtain, but the sheer number of thought police necessary to do an even reasonable job at watching all Party members (and we find out that they do more than a reasonable job) is mind-boggling. It’s enormously wasteful and inefficient. How is it sustainable? Simple. The only other world powers (Eastasia and Eurasia) both have their own versions of the system. The Soviet Union wasn’t sustainable, was doomed to an ignominious death, because it couldn’t possibly match the economic growth of the United States. Communism can’t compete with capitalism in anything except killing people, at which it excels. But mostly its own people, unfortunately. It’s inability to keep up with the growth rate of the United States ensured both that the discontent of the people would grow no matter how many it killed and that attempting to keep up with the United States in an arms race would bankrupt it.
1984’s surveillance state is terrifying, but it’s terrifying because it’s a window into the black soul of communism. The modern, western surveillance state isn’t terrifying because of the people watching, but because the technology has advanced so far. When I was an undergraduate business student way back when, the discussion around big data was why waste money collecting what you couldn’t possibly process? We figured out how to process it. I attended a presentation on license plate recognition technology during a youth misspent in consulting and the presenter noted that the tech could be used for far more than tolls, but needed to be limited initially because people were worried about “Big Brother” (and, yes, he used Orwell’s term—1984 is inextricably part of popular culture and public discourse). People lost that unease. And the tech continued to march on. The government can’t see everything quite yet, but it has a scary ability to process what it does see. And nothing but a thin piece of paper and the benevolence of our leaders stands between us and harm from that. A lot of people just started a whole lot harder about that benevolent leader thing. It turns out it makes more sense to calibrate the power of the government with fiends in mind than with friends.
The other thing that’s terrifying is how clearly Orwell saw communism. He was quite openly writing in response to Stalinism, and it’s not dressed up in allegory like Animal Farm. It’s terrifying because Stalinism was an evil rarely—perhaps never—matched in history, and reminds us that the modern world has committed greater evils than less civilized times. But what’s really terrifying about it is how clearly Orwell was able to see it. Orwell, a democratic socialist. In 1949. Communists apologists continued to downplay its evils for decades and continue to work studiously to ignore them even today.
1984 is thick with the tropes of Stalinism (many of which also show up in Joe Steele). 1am visits from the secret police. A culture of informing. Rewriting history to fit the party line. Purges. Torture. Official propaganda making unbelievable claims about production quotas. Labor camps. Abolition of religion. A bullet to the back of the head.
I will pick back up next week with more (probably much more). Next week I will address 1984’s distinctly English nature and its depiction of a dystopia of intellectuals’ nightmares. The latter, in particular, is especially relevant today in a world under assault by the CTRL-Left.
4 of 5 Stars.