Monday, April 16, 2012

A to Z: 1984

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most important novel of the twentieth century.

Who says? I do.  No one else writes this blog. I'm sure many others would pick other books for other reasons, but I'm going to defend my claim here.  To do that, this is going to contain spoilers. It's unavoidable.
So, if you haven't read the book, and don't want spoilers, you can take a a chance on my recommendation, I suggest you stop reading this now, and instead go pick up George Orwell's 1984 and read that first.

1984 is one of those books that sometimes gets read in schools, so some people are adverse to it on that alone. Sure, some books picked by schools can be a bit dull, or just a lot of school-age people are too resistant to anything they're suggested to do, and so it is probably not read by as many as it should be.

Don't let any of that keep you from reading this book.  Not only is it the most important novel of the twentieth century, and quite possibly of any time for people who are alive now and must continue to live into the future, but it is also the scariest damn book you will ever read.  The Shining, The Exorcists, and others have nothing on 1984. Ghosts, Demons, Serial Killers... none of that is as scary as a world that will live on in brutality without any hope forever.

This has become my greatest fear.

The premise: 
It is set in 'the future' of 1984. It was written in 1949, but don't let the back-dated future dissuade you: the way this 'future' is portrayed, time is meaningless.  It could in fact be 1984 for hundreds of years.
More on that to come.

The world is divided into three large coalitions: Oceania, Eurasia & Eastasia.
Set in England, in Oceania, where the government system is Ingsoc: a totalitarian system where all economic and political power is in the hands of the party.
File:1984 fictitious world map v2 quad.svg

The main divisions within the party are:

Ministry of Peace: which runs the war.
Ministry of Plenty: economic control & rationing
Ministry of Truth: all public information and records
Ministry of Love: handles the process of reconverting those who would resist the party.

Told from the perspective of Winston, an average man of the party, we explore the world that humanity has foolishly created.

The world is at war, and from the best of anyone's memory (an irrelevant concept), has always been at war.
Oceania fights Eurasia.  Or Eastasia. It depends on what people are told day by day.

The ministry of truth not only controls information it controls language.
The official language now is 'Newspeak' which prides itself on the destruction of words: the more it condenses and eliminates words the better.

Big Brother
The most obvious insidious nature of the society is 'Big Brother': the face of the party.
The slogan "Big Brother is Watching" means just that: everywhere there is a screen, where the government is watching everyone.  It is even in your own home.  To not support and love the party is the highest crime.  It is unthinkable.  And for those who manage to think it, they will be taken by the Ministry of Love and brought to Room 101, where the most terrifying thing in the world is, and this will break the person until they once again Love Big Brother.
Fusion Centers and Homeland Security: Watching Our Freedom Die

The very thoughts of everyone are controlled by information.  The populace is bombarded everyday with 'facts'.  These facts change everyday.  Even to the extreme that one day the war is not against Eurasia, but against Eastasia: not that the war ended and a new began.  No.  The war was never against Eurasia, it was always against Eastasia.  The population hears this and by force of will, makes themselves believe it.  Reality is a fluid perception that is directed by the party.

The slogans of the party:

War is Peace  -  Freedom is Slavery  -  Ignorance is Strength 

The Challenge
Winston falls in love. Something which is forbidden: one must only love the party.
This causes him to resist and rebel.  He imagines a happy life with the woman he loves.

He is given a book, written by the near-mythical traitor and rebel Goldstein. It explains how the party obtains and uses it's power: they control the thoughts of the people, this controls their actions, this gives the party the power to control the thoughts, and so on.  To do this, it needs something to focus the thoughts of people on, which is the war.  There must always be war, and so there always will be war.  The war they struggle to win will never be won, it is not desired by the party to win the war.  It is hinted that life in the other two super powers is the same, though none have any direct knowledge of such places and people.

With this book, Winston has hope for the first time.  Hope for a future free to have real thoughts, real emotions, free from the party. The majority of the population, the 'proles' are the Achilles heel of the party: they live unthinking lives of poverty: if they rise against the party then there is hope.  Winston has hope.

The Reveal
The book is fake.  It is written by the party itself.
It is a trap, to draw out those who might think against the party.

Winston and his love, Julia, are captured.

In the classic contest of will with the Ministry Of Love, Winston is told that 2+2=5.
Winston says no, it is 4.
It can never be anything but 4 because it is a truth removed from perception, an absolute truth.
He is told that, if he wishes, it can be 5.
If the party says it is 5, then he should wish it to be 5, and so it will be.

He is told:
If you're a man, Winston, you're the last man. Your kind is extinct. We are the inheritors. Do you realize that you are alone? You are outside history. You unexist. 

Winston tries to remain strong, but in the end, facing his fear in room 101 he breaks, and betrays Julia, showing to himself that love and hope are not as strong as the party. 

In the end, Winston meets Julia and there is no more love, only a love for the party, for Big Brother.
In the end, Winston says that 2+2=5.

The Take-away
Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Many who are critical of the book say that the problem is that it isn't realistic.  How wrong they are.
I know we often see dictatorships overthrown now.  I have lived, though only briefly, in a dictatorship and know people are free to think and communicate.  Yet the world as described in 1984 is possible.
Not only is it possible, under the right conditions it is probable.

Orwell wrote it as a warning against Soviet Totalitarianism, but it is far more significant than that.
It cuts to the very nature of humanity and is very perceptive.

The accumulation of power in this way is possible in any form of government: control the language, discussion of the people and you do control their thoughts.
Control their thoughts and you control their actions, which secures their power.

In the US we do live in a society that still functions on the military-industrial complex model.  Though WWII is long past, we continue to spend money, resources and energy as if we are still battling the largest war ever.
But we are not.

From Goldstein's Book:
"In accordance to the principles of Doublethink, it does not matter if the war is not real, or when it is, that victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous. The essential act of modern warfare is the destruction of the produce of human labor. A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects. And its object is not victory over Eurasia or Eastasia, but to keep the very structure of society intact." 

To maintain our society the way it is, the US spends an enormous amount of money on military: more than the next 20 countries combined, and only Saudia Arabia spends more money per capita.  Military expenditure is a great disposable supply that must be constantly updated and used.

War gives a population a focus for its attention, and for people to feel powerful vicariously through its military.

To have a strong military and use it can cause resentment in the world, which is then acted out upon by those who resent it, which then causes fear in the powerful country & a feeling of justification to have and use that power, which in turn creates more resentment.
Orwell would recognize such a cycle for the generation of power and control.
When I see the bumper stickers that say 'Freedom isn't free" I think of this and it reminds me of the 1984 slogan "Freedom is Slavery", and I think true, freedom isn't free: the cost of our 'freedom' is our slavery.
How more 1984 could you get?

Some people get sidetracked by the idea that 1984 is presented as a 'Socialist' state.
It isn't socialism at the root of the problem, it is control of people's thoughts.  This is just as possible in any government or economic system, regardless of whether it has a strong social safety net & public education & health care or none.

The scariest aspect to me about 1984 is thought control.  The worst part about 1984 isn't just that the government controls thoughts, but that it gets people to control their thoughts for them.  By mental training people accept whatever they are told, silence their inner questions and erase their own memories to align their mind with what is wanted of them.  I think the human mind is more than capable of doing this.

Once in this trap, there is no way out.  The language and information is controlled and removed.  How can people talk about love if it is redefined?  How can they talk about freedom if the word is removed from the language?  Anthropological linguists have shown that the words we speak shape our thoughts.  If you have no words to communicate and share an idea, the idea will not be able to be shared, and the idea will die.

This scares the hell out of me.

I can see this happening even today.

For the best example, look at North Korea today: a tightly controlled society, where nearly no information that isn't desired by the government can get in.  People starve but believe they are well off because they are told they are.

In my country we have freedom of speech and the press, but I see people voluntarily limit their intake of information and their interpretation of it to a prescribed narrative, and this happens on both "sides" of the political spectrum.  This political spectrum itself is worth taking a closer look at: it resembles the eternal war in 1984: it is as much a war of the mind, used to distract and harness people's thoughts and actions, to protect the system which benefits from this conflict.

"Who controls the past controls the future.
    Who controls the present controls the past."

We are a lot closer to the world of 1984 than we might think is reasonable.

The fact that the world of 1984 is without hope, for there can be no hope of going back when the ability to even think of doing so is impossible, makes 1984 the most important book of the twentieth or any other century.

Because if we ever do allow it to fully bloom, that world will be the only world we will ever know, for all time.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”

Read the book. Don't let it happen.

For the Gamers:
Ingsoc would make a great background for a near-future minis campaign, fun theme for an army.
For real immersion, it'd make an interesting campaign setting for a Role Playing game, though the players might find themselves developing deep cases of clinical depression.

A note on the movie:
There was a movie made, staring John Hurt & Richard Burton who are both amazing in it.
It does a stellar job of capturing the bleak atmosphere of the novel.
Unfortunately, in the final scene it is a let down.  Perhaps Hollywood was too afraid of the message of utter hopelessness, and that an American audience would find it unacceptable. For whatever reason they leave Winston writing "2+2=" in the dust on a cafe table, and leaves it unfinished, allowing the viewer to have hope.
Shame on them.
The whole point is that if we take it to this step we remove any hope.
The only true hope is for us to take the threat seriously now, while we do have hope.

Do see the movie, but read the book for the full effect.

Can't resist including this though, enjoy:

This has been an A-Z Challenge post. 
For the month of April there will be an update for each letter within the theme of: Things that influence and inspire me, or the converse: things which I find distressing or make me want to rail at the world.
Some of these will pertain to the miniatures hobby, but many will venture off to atypical territory for the duration of the challenge, then it will be back to normal with mostly minis and an occasional blithering.
You can find out more about the A-Z challenge my clicking the logo at the top left of the page. 


The Angry Lurker said...

A great book and I'm surprised we're not already in 1984!

Spacejacker said...

I read this when I was about 11-12 and it seemed to me like wild sci-fi. As I grew up I understood it better. Then in the 90's I read cyberpunk fiction (introduced through the Cyberpunk ROG) and apart from robot arms, have seen a lot of that world actually transpire. Megacorps are now very real, and we happily accept them and ignore their machinations. However they didn't do it with threats, they did it with bribes and lies, otherwise known as Marketing. Our rulers are becoming more and more influenced by and indistinguishable from these corporations. What scares me is that it doesn't seem to scare anyone else.

Laughing Ferret said...

Lurker: Well, it's not from lack of them trying, I'm sure of that. They make steady progress to that end though, every day.

Spacejacker: It certainly doesn't scare enough others that is for sure.
When so many doubt there is 'war for oil' I wonder at their grasp of reality. We have had a war for bananas! : see Guatemala, 1954, so a war for commodities and corporation security is very real. And if war isn't out of the question to secure their economic interests, why would anyone assume they'd stop at domestic control?
-On our current path, the most likely future I see is one of Corporate Feudalism, with Megacorps being the direct source of political power, eliminating the middleman of government and citizenship being one more like a feudal bondage to one of these entities.

Paul of the Man Cave said...

Doubleplusgood post Ferret! I have read this book at least 5 times, and always find something new and thought provoking (crimethink?) in it.

There is much that is horrifying in there, but the deliberate destruction of language to reduce the ability the think may be one of the worst in my opinion.

PS Oceania is at war with Eastasia : Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia...

Retro-Zombie said...

dammit, i never finished the book i am on only page two... and the movie i fell asleep... it was big brother... some kind of mind crime.

Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
A to Z Co-Host
My New Book:
Retro-Zombie: Art and Words

Mr. Lee said...

Never heard or read the book.. but even with the spoilers I think I might need to pick it up and give it a go!

As far as gaming concerns go, ideas are running rampant through me and I haven't even read the book yet! That is always great to have such a reaction to a blog post! Thanks

Michael Awdry said...

Fantastic! One of those books that should be read periodically; we are, as you rightly point out, a lot closer to the world of 1984, than we realise. Terrifying stuff, but an utterly brilliant piece of literature.

Henry's Tat said...

IMO the greatest book ever written and after reading it I felt as though it changed me some what. So much so I wrote my name it the back of the book and passed it on to a friend (more of a colleague
really) who then did the same, its supposedly floating around south America at the moment.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever."

S. L. Hennessy said...

This is one of the best books I've ever read. Top five favorites along with Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Rousell said...

Not read the book, but saw the film a few years ago, perhaps I need to get the book!

Pete said...

Excellent book, aye. On the destruction of language, I'm reminded how the current Republican party in the USA decries as "socialist" a healthcare plan which is the same as one it itself endorsed fairly recently. It's alarming when that happens.

Lead Legion said...

It's a fantastic book. Deeply terrifying in it's possibilities.

thelmaz said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking post. Stopping by from the Challenge.

Laughing Ferret said...

Paul: yes, that's one of the things that scares me most. It is one of the things that upsets me and got me to write I:Ignorance too... willful limitation of thought and understanding. Its like taking a million years of evolution and throwing it out the window.

Retro-Z: It's worth another try ;)

Mr.Lee: It has my higest recommendation: my favorite single book and I really do think it's the most important novel ever written. Would be very interested to see what gaming ideas you come up with!

Michael: yes, scary & should be read.. but kind of like Machiavelli, I worry about those who read it and think "oh, this is a good idea"

Henry: What a great idea! I hope it travels far & affects a lot of people.

SL: Sometimes I stop and think about how much is packed into that small book. Staggering what he did.

Ray: Yeah, the book is a must, even on top of the movie. Movie was great for atmosphere, but the book has so much more.

Pete: Don't get me started ;) Modern politics is nothing short of Orwellian. It really does simply redefine words to suit their own purpose. They did it with Liberal, Socialist, Patriotic, even 'American' : all redefined to have the connotation empower a political end. I don't see how a health care plan that forces people to buy private company products can be considered 'socialist', it is practically the polar opposite of socialist. The only thing that matters to politicians anymore is the perpetuation of power: the exact same goal of the party in 1984.

LL: Nice to see so many who recognize this.

Thelmaz: Thank you!

Alfrik said...

The war for Water is on the horizon, be very afraid! We will nation build around large lakes, inland areas will be abandoned.

Then again they found that under ND there is a veritable ocean of oil to be fracked out.......

Blah, need another beer.

Mr. Lee said...

Just got back from a 3 day conference in Basingstoke, and was able to start/finish this book in that time!

Have to say it was pretty creepy book, and the parallels to real life can be seen easily..

As far as gaming ideas.. I think its PnP RPG fluff at the moment, but I could see a good skirmish setting for like infinity or necromunda perhaps to work for this.. dunno.. if I think too much on it, I might disappear so.. do I risk it? Will I be taken to Room 101? Will O'Brian come for me? And do I need to really drink the Victory Gin?

Thanks for the recommendation though.. really great book!

Laughing Ferret said...

Alfrik: yeah, the war for water will be a scary day. Amazing how short sighted our species is. We didn't start out with a polluted planet chocking to the brim with human beings, we did that all on our own.. just stupid.

Mr.Lee: glad you got a chance to read it! Oh, the description of the oily gin was stomach turning. To this day I've never even tried gin, due to this book.

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