George Orwell was born today (as Eric Blair) in 1903. A writer of immense importance and varied output he is best known for his novel 1984. And as we’re on an SF and Fantasy blog it’s the one I shall limit myself to here. Even if that does mean ignoring the perfect satire of Animal Farm, the truth and fairness of Down and Out in Paris and London, the sheer brilliance of the essays. I could go on…
So 1984. The SF book that most non-SF fans have read? Or a towering piece of literature? Yes to both those. Of course the technology doesn’t stand up (but then it isn’t about technology). Of course it’s hopelessly out of date as a piece of prediction (but then it never was a prediction). But…
The reason 1984 is still relevant, the reason it still stands up, the reason its sales leapt when Snowden revealed just what the NSA and GCHQ had been up to, (umm…the reason it inspired a dire reality TV show), is that Orwell knew how political systems work, how governments take language and use it to their own ends. It’s the light he shines on how our bureaucratic systems perpetuate their way of being and kill clear thinking and clear writing in the process, that make the book so important. Orwell understood that information can blind us as well as set us free and with 90% of the world’s data having been produced in the last two years that truth has never been more important.
You want a shining example of how the world has been shaped by a piece of rhetoric that could have come straight from Orwell? A classic piece of doublethink? An egregiously doubleplusungood bit of political phraseology that would have had him spinning helplessly in his grave?
War on Terror.
An endless war waged by the civilised world against an abstract noun. A war that is endless because, in its own terms, it cannot end. A war against an idea that allows it to be fought against any individual, any nation, any ideology, any thought crime. A war that would have been fought against Nelson Mandela every bit as vociferously as it was fought against Osama Bin Laden. A war that we can be fighting when we’re at peace.
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
Yes 1984 is outdated, yes it’s pretty didactic, yes it’s very gloomy but it does what great literature and great SF are meant to do – it tells a lie which alerts us to the truth. As we fight a war without end in peacetime, as we exercise our freedom to be celebrities, as we celebrate our ability to get by by not knowing things; George Orwell is needed more than ever. Happy birthday George!