I’ve said in the past that I don’t want to review classics, because anything I could say would have been said a million times before, and more eloquently than I possibly could. But I decided to make an exception for this.
1984 is one of those novels that is so omnipresent in our world—especially now that we are well aware that we live in a surveillance society—that references have permeated our culture probably more than any other one book. Of course, we didn’t need a Big Brother to place us under surveillance: most of us surrender our privacy of our own volition for convenience and entertainment.
I had never read this book until a few months ago. I’d never felt the need to read it, so omnipresent were the references. When I at last decided to read it, it struck me that this was an unparalleled masterpiece.
One cardinal rule of novel writing is to not dump too much exposition on the reader. 1984 shatters that rule from the very start.
The test of a good science fiction or fantasy book is often in the world building. However, in my experience, the world itself is less important than how it is presented. A well-developed, interesting world can be rendered boring if the author simply dumps the information on the reader. So usually, reading a fantasy or science fiction book, I keep an eye on how the exposition of world building is balanced with character development and plot.
There’s no need to keep such an eye out with this book. It is approximately 85% exposition and 15% plot. Yet, amazingly, it never grows tedious.
Much of the world is explained through the protagonist’s daily life. The first section of the book can be summarized as follows: a man has found an area in his house where he is hidden from cameras, which he uses to write about his thoughts. He goes to work, where his job is to make edits to past publications to be politically correct.
My admiration for this book is in the writing: the exposition takes over, and I wanted to learn ever more about this world. The characters and “plot” as it were only serve to show the reader a little more of the world. The plot only exists to carry the character into a few different situations within the context of this world.
Yet, even when we are simply reading a book within this book along with the main character, I was far from bored: I even wished that there were more of that book in these pages so that I could learn more about the world. The world itself is what is interesting. The mundane details of the character’s life are interesting because the world has so fundamentally changed the way that society, individuals, and even thoughts work.
I didn’t know that it was possible to make a book of mostly exposition so interesting before I read this. It truly does go to show that the “rules” of writing are entirely subjective, and entirely dependent on the type of story.
Even though the plot seemed like such a small part of the book, when it did kick in, I was completely engaged. I felt as trapped as the main character, as horrified at the turn of events. The end, when the protagonist brainwashes himself into complacence in the society that he spent so long hating, the events themselves are unsurprising, yet the reader is left with a heart-wringing sense of horror.
Reading this book at last, I was able to think through books I’ve read in the past with similarly horrific endings (mostly books I’ve despised). I now realize that they were trying to emulate 1984 and the impact it can have on a reader at the end. While I respect those books a little more understanding what they were trying to do, I also understand why they didn’t work. 1984 introduces a way of existence that may superficially seem entirely different from our society, yet underneath, everything about it rings utterly true. The surveillance society part, of course; but also the editing of facts in retrospect, the glorification of war to serve a political agenda that has no benefit to the average citizen, the way individuals learn to think in ways that suit their society rather than think critically… All of this depicts the rabbit hole that we seem to fall further and further down in the West. Because this is a foreign-yet-familiar world, we can look at the familiar and see it anew with fresh eyes. Because many of us do opt for complacency and a selective viewing of facts over objective truth—because much of the media helps us to normalize events as it does in this world—the ending rings truer than all the rest of the book.
It is truly a magnificent work, and I’m thankful that I read it at long last.