Truly, what can be said about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that has not been said already? Especially in a 2017 of alternative facts, fake news, constant surveillance, and cyber attacks?
As Donald Trump’s presidency began in January, the book from 1949 shot to the top of the bestseller lists in the United States – partly due to Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway birthing the term “alternative fact”, which for many smacked dangerously of the book’s representation of the Ministry of Truth and its attempts to shape reality.
But perhaps even more than that, Orwell’s almost 70-year-old novel speaks directly to our current anxieties over many aspects of modern life, from our fear of constant surveillance to our uncertainty over facts. As life becomes ever more reliant on technology, Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future begins to seem not just possible or even probable, but prescient.
Pervasive screens to occupy our attention, which can also be used as a method of surveillance? The deliberate use of language to fit a specific agenda? Altering or reframing history to conform to the state’s vision of itself? A cult of personality around a leader who remains largely a construct of the media? All of these are elements of Orwell’s novel and could also be a reality in many parts of the world today.
The British author wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four based on his observations of the Soviet government of his day, as well as his experiences of propaganda by the British government during World War II.
In the novel, Winston Smith lives in the remnants of Britain, now under a political regime called English Socialism (or IngSoc). The state’s leader is the omnipresent entity known only as Big Brother, best exemplified by the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”.
Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, where he is responsible for rewriting records to maintain the version of history the state requires, as well as deleting people’s pasts.
He, however, secretly dreams of rebelling against Big Brother and begins keeping a journal criticising the ruling party. If caught by the Thought Police, this would mean certain death for Winston. Furthermore, he also begins an affair with a woman named Julia, who shares his dislike of the government, and they are forced to carry on the relationship in secret.
At the risk of spoiling the novel, things do not end well for Winston. Or rather, they end exactly as Big Brother would want them to. Which is a pretty bleak, if not outright terrifying, state of affairs.
Countless words and concepts have crossed over from Nineteen Eighty-Four into regular usage, from phrases like “thought police” and “doublethink” (simultaneously accepting two contradictory beliefs as correct), to the concept of Big Brother. The term “Orwellian” itself has now come to mean a policy of totalitarianism controlled by propaganda, misinformation, and surveillance.
As excellent a book as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, re-reading it today can be a dispiriting endeavour. But there’s a reason the novel experiences a continuous resurgence of interest, particularly during polarising times like these. It is both a warning and a talisman; a lesson on what could be, and an idea of how we can arm ourselves against such a future.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently an Asia Journalism Fellow at the National University of Singapore. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.