For the April 6 meeting of the First Monday Classics book club I cohost with Nathan Koteki at the Orange County Library, we’ll be discussing George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984. This novel doesn’t just turn up near the top of most lists of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, it’s usually included on lists of the greatest novels of all time, period.
Having just finished rereading it, it’s easy to understand why the book has such staying power. While predicting the future isn’t a necessary component of great science fiction, this book is filled with eerily prophetic visions of today’s world. It’s true that the government doesn’t install two-way televisions in our house to watch our every move; instead, we pay for the privilege of carrying mobile devices that track our location at every moment and filter all our private data through corporations. The government can monitor our data via opaque criteria, all for a justifiable higher cause. Of course, the citizens in 1984 are, save for a few deviants like Winston, fully accepting that everything Big Brother is doing is ultimately for their own good. By the end of the book, Winston isn’t merely beaten by the system. He’s won over, loving Big Brother with all his heart.
Orwell’s command of the English language has few peers. He writes crisp, precise prose that manages to present the odd, the unfamiliar, and the outrageous in simple, clear terms that immerses the reader in his world. He invented terms like thought police and memory hole that have entered into our daily language. Of course, much of the book is about controlling language, shaping the world by shaping the words we use to understand it. This especially resonates today in our era of spin doctors. Orwell so accurately predicted the language crimes of governments that his name has become synonymous for the gloss of words that politicians use to hide atrocious positions and programs. We label such things Orwellian.
Yet, as masterful as Orwell was as a novelist, 1984 contains one of the most common sins of science fiction, the dreaded infodump. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means a section of prose divorced from the normal flow of the plot where the author nakedly tells us facts about history, geography, politics, technology, or any of a hundred other topics needed to make sense of the science fictional world. Occasionally, this will be done in dialogue; two characters will be talking, say, about life on Mars, and suddenly one will give the entire history of how people originally arrived on Mars, and what it took to build the colonies, and how the economy now works there. It’s as odd and artificial as if your friend called you up to tell you he was flying to California on business, then proceeded to tell you the history of manned flight, then moved on to talk about the origins of the internet he used to purchase the ticket, and capped it off with a long lecture on the political climate in California.
Movies often have infodumps in the forms of fake documentaries or news broadcasts. Orwell pushes the device to one of the worst possible abuses by introducing a fake book. The book tells the history of how the world of Big Brother came to be. We get to read two whole chapters of this fake book plopped right into the middle of the novel, at what should be the moment of greatest tension, when Winston and Julia have taken actions to join the resistance, and just before the thought police descend on them and sweep them away to the Ministry of Love. The sad thing is, this infodump is completely unnecessary. Orwell has built his world carefully, revealed it little by little, occasionally employing small infodumps, but for the most part keeping his story moving forward. Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth gives us an in-context look at how history gets rewritten on the fly, and Julia’s job as a mechanic on a “novel-writing machine” gives us insight about how art has been perverted to soulless, empty drivel for the mindless masses. (You can insert your own Hollywood joke here.) Later, inside the Ministry of Love, the logic behind Big Brother is explained at great length, but it doesn’t feel out of place because the logic itself is a form of torture, meant to break Winston so he can be put back together more to Big Brother’s liking. The book within a book reminds me very much of John Galt’s nearly endless speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It’s the author feeling so in possession of truth, so full of the need to explain what seems plain to the artist, that art is tossed aside for droning lecture.
Of course, 1984’s infodump is redeemed somewhat by the fact that the information is relevant not just to Orwell’s dystopian future, but to the real world as well. A writer describing a fictional landscape with little relationship to our own world might not get the same level of tolerance for a long essay in the middle of his story. 1984 is a great book in spite of the infodump, not because of it.
Perhaps you disagree! If so, come on out to the Orange County Library in Hillsborough April 6 at 6:30pm, and feel free to jump into the discussion.