Celebrating 70 Years of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
In 1947, when George Orwell settled down to write Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Scottish island of Jura, the world was in a constant, terrifying state of flux. Still reeling from the enormity of a conflict that had leveled cities and decimated populations, the confused, dispossessed masses found themselves pawns in a desperate struggle for a new global order. Soviet Communism was beginning to flex its muscles against American Capitalism, whilst Britain, once the Empire-building envy of the world, was mired in austerity and exhaustion. Indian independence had opened the floodgates for rapid decolonization and brutal civil war in China would facilitate the rise of Mao Zedong in Asia.
Against this global backdrop Orwell, a pioneering political journalist well used to recording the plight of the impoverished and disenfranchised in Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, began to craft a richly atmospheric novel that encompassed totalitarianism in both its Fascist and Communist forms. In the alternate 1984 Britain has been subsumed into a super-state called Oceania, governed by an authoritarian political party led by the omnipotent Big Brother. In Oceania facts and history are endlessly malleable and our chief protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth, twisting reality to fit the party’s requirements. The apparatus of government is extensive and includes such concepts as Doublethink, Thoughtcrime and Newspeak; phrases which have since become part of the British political lexicon. It is Winston’s self-awakening and attempted rejection of Big Brother’s tyrannical regime that forms the core of the narrative.
Published seventy years ago to near-universal acclaim, Orwell’s masterpiece proved astonishingly prescient in its deconstruction of the autocratic Soviet system. Whilst there had been excellent literary dystopias before Nineteen Eighty-Four, none had felt quite so all-encompassing and chillingly credible. Its cultural legacy was immense; very quickly it became routine to refer to real-life dictators as Big Brothers and any shadowy surveillance state as Orwellian. Even today, after the collapse of Communism in the west, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s nightmarish vision of political oppression rings ominously true for many people around the world.To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and to recognize the power and prophecy of the finest alternate political worlds, we have compiled a list of five other great literary dystopias that entertain and inform in equal measure, as well as an enlightening new ‘biography’ of the sacred text itself.