Us book-nerds at Bookstr love a little dystopian literature. When thinking of this genre, Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 often floats into people’s minds. But there’s been hundreds, if not thousands of books with dystopian elements- why does this specific one seem to be at the forefront?
The first dystopian novel is often attributed to We by Yevgeni Zamyatin. While the exact timeline for the origin of this genre is a bit blurry, dystopian literature emerged as a response to the genre of Utopian literature which conveys an ideal version of society (through the eyes of the author, of course).
Rumor has it that Orwell was influenced by We when writing 1984. But it seems 1984 has become the more memorable novel in modern times. What is it about this story that has people referencing it almost 4 decades after its title year has passed?
Sometimes I stray from fantasy novels and their confusing names and messy worlds. Something that 1984 does best is placing the reader in a world that is different from their own, but still creepily familiar. Corporate-office-like workspaces, simple names, and technology are all a part of the novel’s core story. Zoom out and there are mentions of familiar countries and religions. All of this familiarity can really make a reader wonder- is this where we’re headed?
We’re Already There
As a reader, especially a modern reader, of the novel, it’s clear that some of the things Orwell prophesied about are already here. Censorship, propaganda, and technology that is always watching- sound familiar? No matter what your political affiliations are, there’s no doubt that censorship remains rampant throughout the world. Hundreds of books have been pulled off of school shelves, warnings on social media, etc. In 1984 there is a department where workers quite literally spend all day altering documents and making propaganda material. I’m not going to equate these two realities directly- but it’s enough to get you thinking for decades upon decades.
As for the technology, Orwell was not so far off either. In the novel, citizens of Oceania have telescreens in their homes in which they can receive news and watch propaganda material. Orwell also infers that the telescreens are spying on citizens as well. I cannot speak to the prevalence of this in today’s society but I think the whole there’s an FBI agent assigned to watch my computer webcam meme trend of the late 2010s speaks for itself. Something creepy is fun to read, but something creepy and relatable is memorable as well.
All of these elements are a part of Orwell’s world-building efforts throughout this novel. Which leads to my next topic, what world are we in? Something I think helps 1984 work is that it is set in our world. Not a parallel universe, other dimension, or undisclosed location. While names are changed, Oceania is still an Earth we can recognize, we can fear. Heck, using a real year alone grounds the novel in reality more than other dystopians. This tactic has been replicated in other dystopian novels, such as Divergent, which is set in a futuristic, dystopian version of Chicago.
Big Brother Is Always Watching
1984 has also remained a part of popular culture because it just keeps popping up. The novel has been referenced numerous times throughout film, tv, music, and even video games. The term ‘Orwellian’, which means characteristic of the writings of George Orwell, especially with reference to 1984, is used today. Even the popular CBS show Big Brother has taken inspiration from the novel.
Sure, you can turn off your TVs or delete social media, but there’s no doubt that if someone mentions the year 1984, you’ll think of George Orwell.
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