We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first sci-fi dystopian novel I read and I read it when I was a teenager. In my mind, it remains tremendous. Everyone sings its praises for baring the face of totalitarianism, for supplying us with its picture so we would recognise it, and the vocabulary with which we still use to describe it—you have all heard the accolades—but the reason why it cast such a long, dark shadow in my mind is a more personal and primal one. It exposed me. It shook my convictions. It made me question my own feelings in such a way that scared me. In the face of this terrible open book, my mind felt exposed, naked and ashamed.
To say it made me doubt love, doubt my humanity, is an understatement. It showed me how frail and measly these sentiments really are in the face of overwhelming power. All other contemporary works of dystopian fiction I have ever read measures poorly against Nineteen Eighty-Four, because none of them could really reach inside me, where it matters.
My re-read this time is an aural experience. Simon Prebble, who narrated this edition of the audiobook added a whole new dimension to the fear and invasiveness I felt revisiting Orwell’s words. The voices he gave each character are distinct and memorable; and he was genuinely terrifying when he laid out the Party’s purpose and ethos near the end of the book, in a gleeful rasp that chills the bones.
Still, revisiting a beloved book comes with risks, and one risks beloving it less on revisitation. It is true that Nineteen Eighty-Four can sometimes feel more like a political treatise than a novel when Orwell goes on one his expositional spiels, particularly those bits where Winston literally reads huge blocks of texts from a book. And readers who are used to a more egalitarian approach to writing female characters in contemporary fiction might find some of Mr Orwell’s characterisations to be a tad regressive, but that is practically de rigueur in classical fiction. Beyond these minor faults, the power of Mr Orwell’s words persist to gleam with clarity and truth, even though it was written in 1948. Nineteen Eighty-Four, I believe, is a book that will never lose its relevance. We will always see fragments of reality reflected in its mirror.