Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the very few SFF novels to have made the leap not just to mainstream acceptability but to being regarded as literature. This was probably because George Orwell was not really a genre writer, he was primarily interested in using fiction, sometimes including fantastic situations, to reflect and satirise what he saw as trends in society. This is most obvious in his novel Animal Farm, which used animals to show humans in a comically unflattering light. 1984 does the same thing, but without the comedy; it is a much more polemical and bitter novel.
It is a very long time since I last read this book and I had forgotten almost everything about it except for its general theme, so I was pleased when it was selected for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.
1984 is a dreadful warning of what the world might become if the tendency towards all-powerful controlling dictatorships, as exemplified in primitive form by Nazi Germany and much more so by Stalin's USSR, were developed to its logical conclusion. The story is set thirty-five years after the novel was first published in 1949; since then we could add Mao's China, Hoxha's Albania, Pol Pot's Cambodia and North Korea to the list of comparators. In Orwell's novel, the world has become divided into three huge power blocks; Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. They are, allegedly, in a state of constant warfare with alliances changing every few years. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a humble member of the ruling (and only) political party of Oceania, whose inspirational figurehead is "Big Brother". Not only does Big Brother's face look down from posters everywhere under the famous slogan "Big Brother is watching you" but he, or rather his minions in The Party's Thought Police, are indeed watching every Party member via two-way telescreens in every home and workplace.
The Party brooks not the slightest dissent from its members; any expressions of disloyalty, even insufficiently reverential expressions when Big Brother was mentioned, could be enough for the Thought Police to come calling in the middle of the night. Those so removed were hardly ever seen or heard from again, except when confessing to a long list of crimes before their inevitable execution. Not only that, but their existence was expunged from the records; Winston Smith's endless job involves rewriting old newspaper reports to remove any mention of such people. He also rewrites official proclamations when these have been proved to be wrong, most obviously when Oceania switches allies from Eastasia to Eurasia; The Party line is that whichever of these is the enemy has always been the enemy, and all books and other records must reflect that.
Complete control of the news and of history, constant monitoring of Party members and ruthless crushing of dissent combine to provide The Party with absolute power and control. This is reinforced by the constant effort to rewrite the language into "Newspeak"; a greatly simplified and abbreviated version of English designed to make it impossible to think subversive thoughts, since the language of subversion will no longer be available. All words describing any thoughts and concepts forbidden by The Party are replaced by one: "thoughtcrime".
At the time of the novel, the restructuring of the language has not been completed and traditional English is still in common use, Newspeak being mainly for official purposes. Winston Smith becomes increasingly disillusioned with his work and his life and harbours rebellious thoughts. He forms a forbidden liaison with a young woman, Julia, and together they go in search of the Brotherhood, which is supposedly a secret organisation devoted to the overthrow of The Party. This is no Hollywood film plot, however, and there is no happy ending.
1984 can be considered in two ways: as an SF novel, and as a warning of what the future might hold. As a novel, it is a mixed bag. Winston Smith's journey towards outright rebellion and its consequences is grimly compelling. However, the author is too concerned to get his message across, to extent that he beats the reader over the head with a very long extract from a forbidden book supposedly written by a critic of The Party. The polemic casts a heavy shadow over the story.
Clearly, the world did not develop as Orwell outlined, and North Korea is the only country which currently resembles Oceania. However, there are occasional reflections of his concerns in our societies today. Politicians are notorious for being economical with the truth, trying to present failure as success, claimed the credit for accidental good fortune and rewriting history if they get the chance. Government surveillance of its citizens has never been greater, with CCTV systems proliferating and the large-scale monitoring of electronic correspondence.
Taking everything into consideration, 1984 is justifiably famous and is one of the few books that everyone (not just SF fans) should read to complete their education. Its portrayal of what could happen stands as a warning to us, and to future generations.