To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian/dystopian sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 a weekly series of Appreciations of all past award-winners, beginning with the first category for Best Novel and now focusing on the Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.
Here is an Appreciation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a co-winner of the 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame award for Best Classic Fiction.
By Michael Grossberg
“Big Brother is Watching” is just one phrase that’s become widely known from Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s cautionary 1948 novel about a future totalitarian society in which almost everyone is caught up in the power-worshiping cult of the charismatic ruler.
Few works of fiction have connected so deeply to popular culture that they introduce even one catchphrase or line of dialogue that still resonates today, but Orwell’s cautionary tale generated several that even in the 21stcentury haven’t yet been flushed down the “memory hole” of popular culture.
Among the neologisms that continue to be quoted widely and resonate through American and world culture: Thought Police, Newspeak, “proles,” “thoughtcrime,” “doublethink,” Room 101, Two Minutes Hate, and “unperson.”
The dystopian classic chillingly depicts the mind-control tactics of a dictatorship inspired by and loosely extrapolated from the communist Soviet Union under the murderous Lenin and Stalin.
Part of its broader relevance, though, is that Orwell’s perceptive and imaginative futuristic scenario incorporates aspects and fundamental patterns that also apply to Hitler’s National Socialism (“Nazi” was an abbreviation of the German National Socialist Workers Party, which did embrace state socialism), and Marxist-Leninist Chairman Mao Zedong’s youth-mob-led Cultural Revolution that killed up to 20 million people in Communist China from 1966 to 1976.
The hapless hero-victim of Orwell’s cautionary story is Winston Smith, who dares to risk his life by secretly denouncing Big Brother.
When Smith falls in love with fellow worker Julia, he and his lover start to question the system, which places not just their limited freedom and comfortable daily lifestyle but also their very lives at risk. With Big Brother always watching through spies and the omnipresent TV screens and with the thought police constantly on the prowl for dissenters and alleged subversion, Smith’s progresses from loyal bureaucrat of the State to incipient rebel who rediscovers his humanity and individuality through love, reason and facing the reality beyond government propaganda.
Tragically, Smith is caught and tortured into such brainwashed compliance that he betrays the woman he loves and starts to think according to the State’s corrupt NewSpeak that “Freedom is Slavery,” “War is Peace” and “Ignorance is Strength.”
FACTS AND FREEDOM
Thus, Orwell dramatizes key links between facts and freedom – the deep psychological, social and philosophical connections between broad cultural respect for objective reality and respect for rights – while also showing how the corruption of science, truth, reason, academia and journalism makes tyranny more likely and workable by undermining the freedom, ability and “social space” for people to see and think for themselves.
One of the book’s most telling metaphors, evoking a surreal blend of Alice in Wonderland and Kafka’s The Trial, shows the government’s State department doctoring photos (standard practice under Stalin), destroying documents and rewriting history by flushing inconvenient and politically incorrect facts and events “down the memory hole.”
Woven into this psychologically revealing portrait of daily life under a totalitarian dictatorship are sobering examples of how tyrants from Lenin to Mao use propaganda and State-reinforced social pressures to sustain “Two Minutes Hate” – a daily public period when members of a communist-style political party are required to watch a film showing enemies of the state and loudly vilify them.
In Orwell’s gripping and tragic scenario, the oppressed and mostly sheep-like subjects of the Soviet-style dictatorship watch dull TV pablum and propaganda while government spies are really watching them through the TV sets.
Notably, the still-haunting masterpiece was originally titled “1948” until his publisher suggested switching the numbers to a future date to make his parable – directly inspired by Orwell’s knowledge of the fiendish dictatorship imposed under Stalin – into a more timeless cautionary tale.
ORWELL’S POLITICS & WHY IT DOES (AND DOESN’T) MATTER
An avowed “democratic socialist” in the 1940s-1950s, Orwell recognized the contradictions between the unlimited state power inherent in full socialism (or communism, fascism, national socialism or any of their 20th-century variants) and the civil liberties, individual rights, justice, Bills of Rights, voluntary action (both social and economic), toleration, the rule of law, civil society, human dignity, peace, non-aggression, free trade and pluralism inherent in classical liberalism (a major antecedent and close cousin to modern limited-state libertarianism).
Would Orwell, if he’d lived into his 80s or 90s rather than dying at 46 of tuberculosis, have become a libertarian? Or, at least, might he have moved further toward a new emphasis or rediscovery of classical liberalism and a more consistent defense of human rights and individual liberties?
It’s hard to say and impossible to really know – and in some sense irrelevant to the Prometheus Awards, which are based on the substance of the works of fiction themselves (without regard to the avowed views, philosophy or politics of the authors).
Regardless, modern libertarians appreciate Orwell and anyone else on the Left or Right who demonstrates a sincere and principled commitment to freedom of speech and press, respect for independent thought and honest differences of opinion, and other civil liberties.
All of the above are central to the foundations of both classical liberalism and the nascent or explicit libertarianism of Voltaire, Spinosa, John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Wilhelm von Humboldt, David Ricardo, Frederic Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Lloyd Garrison, John Stuart Mill, Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick and more.
ORWELL’S THEMES TODAY
Although most totalitarian and communist systems have thankfully collapsed or faded from the Earth, Orwell’s novel resonates today even in less extreme circumstances and societies.
Many of his telling details and imaginative concepts and phrases illuminate the tribalism, identity politics and political correctness amplified through television, the Internet and other forms of social media in a 21stcentury global village where facts and truth, or respect for honest differences of opinion and policy increasingly don’t seem to matter to social-media-enflamed mobs and witch hunts or the increasingly self-righteous but un-self-aware moral narcissists of the Left and Right.
When mob hysteria runs rampant and is left unchecked by due process and the rule of law, Orwell’s imaginative but historically rooted story reminds us that far worse things can happen. Massive violations of human rights tend to recur whenever power is centralized and civilized constraints dissolve, from the Reign of Terror that killed tens of thousands in the 1790s during the French Revolution to the thousands of rush-to-judgment lynchings of Blacks, Jews, Latin Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and some whites before and after the Civil War in the United States.
In his seminal 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell describes how State apologists debase our discourse by corrupting the very meaning of words. Political language, Orwell said, is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
(This theme was also explored fruitfully by Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm, another later Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee and worth reading as a complement to Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
Whether the rulers are fictional or sadly all too real, the goal of their rhetoric is clear:
To mystify, not clarify.
To enslave, not enlighten.
Great artists, though, illuminate and liberate – as Orwell did in his brilliant, insightful and sadly enduring novel.
Note: George Orwell (1903-1950), ranked in 2008 by The Times among “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945,” also received additional Libertarian Futurist Society recognition in 2011, when his cautionary fable Animal Farm was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.
• Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the other 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.
• Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.
• Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.
• Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .
Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.