Happy birthday, 1984


Sixty years ago, my boy George Orwell published his best known work, 1984. It's a classic by any measure, a definitive work of dystopian fiction and one of the most sophisticated exploration of totalitarianism ever created. It's also one of my favourite books.

People - of all ideological stripes - are pretty quick t invoke 1984 when they don't like something the government is doing. The book has a strange tendency to be all things to all people, and I'm always surprised at its repeated use and misuse all over the world. But for me, late critic Ben Pimlott sums up the book best:

" [1984] offers a political choice between the protections of truth and the slide into expedient falsehood for the benefit of rulers and the exploitation of the ruled. Thus the novel is above all subversive, a protest against the tricks played by government. It is a volley against the authoritarian in every personality, a polemic against every orthodoxy, an anarchistic blast against every unquestioning conformist."

To paraphrase, the book is about how only we can choose to be free or to be dominated, to walk the difficult path of intellectual independence or fall down the pit of unthinking acquiescence.

Six decades after publication, it's not entirely clear if we're heeding Orwell's warnings.  Sure, the Internet helps foster unprecedented expression and new forms of holding government to account. But these same technologies also allow for methods of surveillance Orwell could never dream of. And, with governments around the world happy to exploit fear and conflict for their own advantage, Orwell's Oceania doesn't seem all that far away.

So, here's to 1984. A book of unflagging, unceasing relevance for everyone concerned with the problems of human freedom.

Photo: The new edition of 1984, with cover art by Shepard Fairey. Why? Because it's damn cool looking.