Storm Warnings: Science Fiction Confronts the Future

By George E. Slusser; Colin Greenland et al. | Go to book overview

Orwell and the Uses of the Future

John Huntington

It is a commonplace that the union of technology and science and the modern modes of organizing production--in short, the Industrial Revolution--have changed the conditions of life in such a way as to change the ways human can think about and shape the future. Nineteen Eighty-Four is famous for the success with which it closes off that future. In part, this is a conscious aim of Orwell's. But it is also a quality which may go beyond his control and which derives from the implications of certain ways of looking at the future.

In a letter to F. J. Warburg, Orwell described how he conceived his generic options in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he was then just beginning. It was not simply to be a prophecy: "I don't like talking about books before they are written, but I will tell you now that this is a novel about the future--that is, it is in a sense a fantasy, but in the form of a naturalistic novel. That is what makes it a difficult job--of course as a book of anticipations it would be comparatively simple to write."1"Anticipations" is, of course, H. G. Wells's word, and, in distinguishing Nineteen Eighty-Four in this way. Orwell separates himself from one part of the Wells tradition. In The Road to Wigan Pier and in numerous essays Orwell had expressed his dissatisfaction with Wells's future and his modes of imagining it. "I want a civilization in which 'progress' is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men" ( RWP, p. 210).

The totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four is certainly a rejection of such "progress." The novel itself marks an attempt to imagine the end of history, the reduction of process to the simple, repeated, dominating images of the rat and of the boot stamping on a human face. At the middle of the novel, however, this process is challenged by a second book, a book within the book, Goldstein Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism, which constitutes an attempt

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