1984: SF Masterpiece?


 It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were      

striking thirteen.

This is the opening line of a book I consider to be one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. It is the story of a future world controlled by an all-powerful dictatorship which punishes rebellious thoughts as savagely as rebellious actions. It tells the story of an ordinary man – Winston Smith – who comes to doubt the very foundations of his society.  It dawns on him that history is falsified on a daily basis – for he is one of the people charged with falsifying it! – and that the people are controlled, not by fear, but by a form of mind control known as ‘doublethink’.

I read this science fiction masterpiece first as a teenager, at about the same time as I read the classic works of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, and Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.  These were all works of fiction which expanded my horizons, and made me think about the world, and challenged my received ideas, and which transported me to amazing and often ghastly imaginary worlds.

And the opening sentence above exemplifies all that I love most about the science fiction genre.  It’s a humdrum, ordinary, prosaic descriptive sentence – it’s April, it’s cold, we’re in boring old England (where you can expect to be cold in April), and the clocks are striking thirteen.  And it takes us a few moments to realise – clocks don’t strike thirteen.  Logically, they could; but in our world, they just don’t. 

And so, all of a sudden, we find ourselves inhabiting a world that did not exist until we embarked upon that deceptive first sentence.

And it’s a world that, as the story continues, proves to be richly conceived, and beautifully described, in Orwell’s wonderfully cadenced and eloquent prose.  Every citizen of this world has a television set in his or her living room; these televisions, known as ‘telescreens’, are ubiquitous in public places too.  But unlike the televisions we are familiar with, these telescreens are two-way artefacts; the telescreen watches us while we watch it.

And so privacy is impossible.  Dissent is impossible. Every waking moment, the citizens of this world are watched and scrutinised on behalf of a supposedly beneficent dictator known as Big Brother.

The book I’m referring to of course (obviously! the cover of it is at the top of this blog!) is 1984, by George Orwell. And it’s a work of fiction that has become a byword for political and sociological prescience.  So much of what Orwell imagined in 1984 has come true in our own world. And the fact that ‘Big Brother’ himself has become the inspiration for a television reality show can be regarded as either witty post-modernism on the part of the programme-makers, or a chilling validation of Orwell’s dystopian vision, depending on personal taste.

I’ve always regarded Orwell’s novel as a template and benchmark for what can be achieved in the science fiction genre.  It’s magnificently written, it’s emotionally profound, it’s sensual and sexual, it’s intellectual, it’s terrifying.  I used to love reading the old pulp SF stories about green aliens and Lensmen and Barsoom and Null-A and the like; but 1984 shows that a science fiction novel can also be great literature.

The status of 1984  as an SF icon has been an article of faith for me for many years; so it came as a major shock when I discovered a while back that some people don’t think this book is science fiction at all.  And these are of course the same people who don’t think The Hand Maid’s Tale is science fiction, or don’t accept that His Dark Materials is one of the great masterpieces of the Fantasy Genre.

There are, in fairness, some plausible reasons for supposing that 1984 is not in fact science fiction. The reasons are twofold; Orwell himself almost certainly didn’t think it was science fiction, and many of his literary admirers also don’t think it belongs to that genre.  So shouldn’t these opinions be heeded? Isn’t it for the author of the book, and the fans of the book, to decide the genre of the book?

I am going to argue otherwise; sorry, George, like it or not, what you wrote is sci-fi. 


Richard Burton as Winston Smith

Richard Burton as O'Brien, in the Michael Radford movie also starring John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton


So to tackle the first of the above reasons – does it matter what the author thinks, when it comes to defining the genre of a piece?  I would argue not. After all – writers can be the maddest of people, and they should be judged on what they write, not what they think they’ve written.

Genre is a fluid and oft-evolving beast, in any case.  For example, in nineteenth century England, one of the most successful literary genres was the ‘shocker’, as written by the great Wilkie Collins.  But the shocker genre no longer exists; Wilkie Collins’ books are now generally found under Fiction, sometimes in the same editions as Tolstoy and Jane Austen.  Shockers have mutated into ‘literature’.  But Collins’ great thrillers always were ‘great novels’; and they still work as shockers.  A book can be several things, all at the same time.

Interestingly, one of Collins’ finest ‘shockers’ was The Moonstone, which is now considered to be (probably) the first ever detective novel.   And yet Wilkie Collins did not write in the ‘detective novel genre’, for no such genre existed at that time – since he above all others was instrumental in creating it.

My point here is that the author’s notion of the work’s genre doesn’t necessarily have the casting vote.  The Moonstone is a detective novel because it is is a detective novel; it observes all the rules and traditions (before they became traditions) we associate with that type of writing.  It’s structured as a mystery and who-dun-it, it has narrative shocks and twists, it has suspects and red herrings, and it plays fair with the reader – i.e. the writer doesn’t withhold vital information. Later writers like Agatha Christie turned these rules into the principles behind a parlour game type of detective fiction. 

So how can genre be defined? Is the genre what the writer says it is, or what the publisher says it is, or what the reader thinks it is?  The truth, I would argue, and as the brilliant film genre theorist Rick Altman argues, is that all these perspectives play a role in creating the magical, nebulous, active entity we call ‘genre’.  Genre is like language; it lives and changes according to how it is used.

So let me ask again: is 1984 a science fiction novel? The author wouldn’t necessarily say so; the publisher didn’t publish it as such; some critics regard it as an insult to the book to tar it with that brush. But for the loyal reader of SF, this novel fits the bill in every vital respect. For 1984 has all the vital distinguishing hallmarks of a science fiction novel, as its readers and critics know and love it.

So let me try and tick the list of those hallmark SF qualities which Orwell’s novels exemplifies – and if I’ve missed any, do let me know in the Comments box.

First, this is a book based around concepts – speculations and extrapolations about a future world which are challenging and fasinating and would make the book worth reading even if it weren’t so well written.  Newspeak, IngSoc, the notion of a perpetual and non-existent war, the control of memory, the Two Minute Hate, the factories where fictitious news is created, Room 101 – these are all fantastic, audacious ideas that linger in the mind and the imagination long after the book has been finished.  This to me is the very definition  of a science fiction novel – it makes the reader think about ideas. (As Ray Bradbury wrote, ‘Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilisation birthing itself. ‘ The first phrase rather over-states the case, but the underlying point is, I feel, totally valid.)

Another key fictional strategy which we SF readers look for in our books is world building. This of course is  a vital element of both the science fiction and the fantasy genres.  A great science fiction novel will create a planetary civilisation, or even a galactic civilisation that is visualised and conceived in the finest detail – from Asimov’s Foundation Empire to Niven’s Known Space to Hamilton’s Confederation to Banks’ Culture.  (And in similar fashion the great fantasy writers will also conjure up entire civilisations, usually in places and times where magic was/is possible, and often with accompanying maps.)  This ‘world building’ technique isn’t all that different to what Dickens and Tolstoy and Jane Austen do; the difference is that the SFF writers have to make it all up. 

And there’s no doubt that 1984 is a magnificent example of ‘imaginary world’ world building.  The buildings, the people, the places, all are evoked with spectacular vividness. We follow Winston Smith into the world of the proles and their pubs, we see the long windowless hall of the Records Department, we even understand the geography that connects the Ministry of Love with the Ministry of Truth.  We watch with amazement the choreographed idiocy of the Two Minute Hate.  Almost every aspect of this imaginary world is conjured up with a superb degree of realism, and a loving attention to detail.

Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell in the BBC version of 1984, adapted by Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale

Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell in the 1950s BBC version of 1984, adapted by Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale


And a third defining characteristic of SF is its fondness for Future History. And this above all is the clincher in the debate, for Orwell throws himself into the task of creating a Future History with a zest that utterly betrays his inner nerd. One of the longest (and, admittedly, the least engaging) sections of the book contains the revolutionary text  of Goldstein, which outlines in remorseless detail every facet of the Future History of Orwell’s imagined world.  This is not the work of a literary novelist ‘slumming it’ with fantastical ideas; this is the creation of a writer so in love with his Future History that he can’t stop telling it all to the reader.  Orwell even creates his own language, Newspeak, and has an appendix explaining it.  Is there any difference between that and Tolkien’s creation of Elvish?  Or my copy editor Bella Pagan’s admirable obsessiveness in creating an alphabet and syntax for the Flame Beast language?

(It should, by the way, while perusing the above paragraph, be taken as read that as a card-carrying science fiction novelist I regard the word ‘nerdish’ as a compliment, not a criticism.)

It could be argued that despite all these defining SF characteristics, Orwell’s novel fails as science fiction (or rather, fails to BE science fiction) because it’s a satire, not a realistic novel.  As many critics have correctly noted, 1984 is actually a polemical commentary on 1948. Hence, its ‘predictions’ should not be taken at face value; Orwell is mocking the present, not attempting to foresee the future.

And, I would concede, in the case of Orwell’s Animal Farm, I think this argument is totally convincing; for this book is not a ‘fantasy’ about talking animals.  Rather, it’s a satire about Communism; you’re meant to enjoy the wit, but you aren’t meant to believe in the characters.

And in 1984  there is an undoubtedly a comparable satiric element in the accounts of the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love; and the way Winston Smith is brainwashed and forced to recant clearly echoes the Stalinist show trials of the 1940s.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the best science fiction novels have an element of satire and political commentary woven in with the extrapolation.  Two of the canonical works of SF literature – Gladiators-at-Law and The Space Merchants by the glittering writing team of Pohl and Kornbluth – are both blistering satires of their age; and yet they also work as extrapolative SF.  And Charles Stross’s tremendously powerful novel Glasshouse posits a far future world in which human bodies can be moulded, and minds downloaded; and then forces his far future humans to take part in experiment in which they live the lives of 20th century humans.  It’s a superb SF concept; but it’s also a delightfully witty exploration of how human society of the kind that we actually live in manipulates and brainwashes citizens through the cunning use of peer pressure and social convention.  It’s SF and it is satire.

The key issue here, I would say, is about the degree of realism.  Animal Farm is written in such a way that we always know the aniamls aren’t really animals; we read it ironically, with a degree of detachment.  But 1984 is first and last a ‘realist’ novel. At every stage, Orwell uses his considerable powers as a writer to make us believe that everything that is happening is true.

And Orwell also, in the book’s last section, explicitly compares his dystopian future world with the Russia of Stalin; and then explains how the world of Winston Smith is far far worse.  This is not satire per se; it’s satire mixed with extrapolation, unified and exalted by the author’s own belief in the truth of his imaginative creations.

For all these reasons, it seems to me that 1984 is a great novel which is also a great science fiction novel.  And even its flaws are typical of the flaws to be found in many otherwise fine SF novels; namely, a tendency to favour exposition about the minute details of the imagined world over dramatic development and character interaction. (Winston only has one real relationship in the whole book; and the way he is captured is infuriatingly cursory!)  And that’s because, in my view, Orwell-the-SF- nerd is,  in these sections, winning out over Orwell-the-great-writer.

And this is why the long chunk of Goldstein’s text is there – it kills the drama stone dead, but boy, if you’re a nerd, it’s fascinating! 

My view is that if you cut that section altogether, or at least down to the bone, and made Winston’s arrest less inevitable, less the consequence of his own utter dumbness – then the book would be richer, and more thrilling, and more satisfying. Still, it’s a masterpiece anway, so who am I to nitpick?

And there’s a reason I want to claim 1984 as ‘one of ours’.  For in my view, it’s an SF novel that shows what SF can really do.  It can be satirical; it can be polemical; it can also be beautiful. 

For me, it’s the bar raised as high, pretty much, as it can go.

Movie poster for the Michael Radford movie, released in 1984

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