November 27, 2004

1984

Author: George Orwell | First published 1948 | Amazon

I hadn't read this one since middle school, and figured it was worth a try. It's much more nuanced than I remembered, interweaving a number of themes that don't quite resolve.

Newspeak is most of what I remembered, the effort to create a language in which thoughtcrime (itself a Newspeak word) simply becomes impossible by restricting the number of choices dramatically. Orwell's appendix on Newspeak talks about it in the past tense and uses more ordinary English, so I'm happy to see he didn't think it would stick.

The 'memory hole', an incinerator for information about the past, is another device that comes up all the time, a perfect metaphor for the way too many of us are willing to ignore the past or deny its relevance. Modern 'memory holes' aren't usually as explicitly destructive, but they're certainly out there, and not just among the Holocaust deniers.

The romance between Winston and Julia is interesting, as it starts from simple rebellion against the Party and develops into something deeper, though it doesn't particularly last. I find Winston's other 'romance' (my term, not his), with O'Brien, both more believable and more troubling. Winston puts tremendous faith in O'Brien as a guess, and continues to maintain that faith even as O'Brien pays it back to him mercilessly with the pain dial and Room 101.

While I suspect Orwell is in many ways right about the depths to which people and societies will sink, I have to wonder how stable structures like that described in 1984 really are. We haven't seen any survive more than a human lifetime since the advent of modernity, and the Party's claim over everything feels much more extreme than even the ugliest of pre-modern political systems.

Revolt seems inevitable. Is it?

Posted by simonstl at 04:39 PM

October 23, 2004

The Wanting Seed

Author: Anthony Burgess | First published 1962 | Amazon

The Wanting Seed is a very strange book, chronicling one pass of society from Pelagian encouragement and liberalism to Augustinian punishment and order. The theory of cycles is interesting, and goes well with the choice of Tristram Foxe, a historian, as the main character. The cannibalism and the staged battles are bizarrely horrifying, though the Malthusian problems Burgess saw leading to them seem to be diminishing, if more slowly than is good.

Unfortunately, the writing is frequently painful. I wonder if Burgess kept the Oxford English Dictionary next to him while choosing words. If it was written first person from Tristram's perspective, maybe it would make sense, but here it just comes out strange. I also have a really hard time believing the timeframe of the book, a mere two years. Maybe England is more changeable than I thought?

I don't think Burgess' particular telling of the future is plausible, but the theory of cycles he provides and many of the details of the Pelgian-Augustinian battle are well worth a lot more thought.

Posted by simonstl at 11:43 PM