Dark Futures Book 3: 1984

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we visit probably the most famous future of all…


There is a strangeness to reading George Orwell’s enduring classic, 1984, which has little to do with the book itself. It’s more that so much of the imagery and language has seeped into common usage, largely out-of-context, and seeing where it comes from, and what it is intended to mean, is a bit of an eye opener. And it’s been a while since I last read 1984, outside of a skim refresher for when we did on Dissecting Worlds, and as with any book you re-read after a time, it’s surprising what has endured, and what you have forgotten.

The structure of 1984 lends itself well to separate analysis, as it goes through four distinct phases, culminating in its bleak and oft-copied finale deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Love. The first is pretty much an exploration of Winston Smith’s life, his daily routine, his place of work, and his loneliness and isolation in the broken down, decaying world of Airstrip One. I can’t help but feel it must in part be inspired by post-WWII London, with its unrepaired bombsites, rationing generally dour feeling, with any sense of community stripped away from it and the steady pressure of the State put in its place. In many ways it is more melancholy than anything else, with Winston fumbling, cautious search for something real amid the haze of propaganda and fading memory.

Of course then he meets Julia, and commences on their doomed affair. I find it interesting that although their worlds are radically different, both Orwell and Huxley use the break-down of relationships, the death of Love, as important parts of their world – Huxley’s non-stop orgies, with monogamy seen as dysfunction, and Orwell’s anti-sex leagues both serve the same narrative function, which is to create visions of a future where the social bonds that define how we live are on the way to eradication. Julia and Winston, of course, are doomed the moment they get together, something they accept, prepared to take that moment wherever it would lead them. Julia is the more aggressive, in many ways, younger than Winston, largely unquestioning about the wider world yet rebelling just as strongly as his quest for Truth.

That’s not going to end well, either. Winston meets up, finally, with a “resistance” cell, and is given “The Book”, reprinted in the text in large parts. The Book feels very much like a critique of what Orwell saw was wrong with leftist thinking of the day; how appeasement of totalitarianism leads to dark places, how revolutions are betrayed and destroyed. It also gives you a glimpse of the wider world, the vast, unending wars and the underlying truth – yep, truth – of the Parties great doublethink slogans “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”. Its a little dry but by god its engrossing.

And in the end, the Thought Police have them. In fact, they always had them, and it’s off to the Ministry of Love and the debate between O’Brien, the corner for State Oppression and Winston, in the corner for Individual Freedom. In the end, there can only be one winner. I expected to find 1984 a thoroughly depressing read, and it is pretty grim, but at the same time I found it really intellectually engaging. It’s about stuff, so much stuff, on so many levels that with the wheels of your brain spinning it’s so hard to put down. And the end, the final, terrible defeat that put cages around your own mind.

But the question at the end of 1984 is really this – is there hope? I think to an extent the answer is personal, and you can draw many different conclusions. For me, I think there is. I think the system cannot stand on its own contradictions, that even it’s great strength, that self-awareness that O’Brien professes to have, his chilling and famous vision of a jackboot on a human head, is undercut by the belief that nothing is beyond their control, that making people believe something is true makes it true. The proles may believe that shoe production is rising, but if none of them have them, in the end, that belief will crack, and its the sort of genie that is hard to put back into a bottle.

Of course, we will never know. George Orwell died in 1949, not long after 1984 was published. He wasn’t around to ask, or give interviews, or forwards or revisions, and in some ways I can see that as a good thing. The text speaks for itself, endures far beyond simply being a book, reaches deep into the collective consciousness of society. It has been appropriated by so many causes, in so many different ways, with great fidelity and with none at all. But the book itself endures, and still speaks with its own power, and is well worth going back to.

Next time: Fire! Fire! Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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