George Orwell’s 1984 is a defining example of dystopian fiction in that it envisions a future where society is in decline, totalitarianism has created vast inequities, and innate weaknesses of human nature keep the characters in a state of conflict and unhappiness. Unlike utopian novels, which hold hope for the perfectibility of man and the possibility of a just society, dystopian novels like 1984 imply that the human race will only get worse if man’s lust for power and capacity for cruelty go uncorrected.
In 1984, characters live in fear of wars, government surveillance, and political oppression of free speech. The London of the novel is dirty and crumbling, with food shortages, exploding bombs, and miserable citizens. The government is an all-powerful force of oppression and control, and crushes the characters’ identities and dreams. This dystopian vision of the future, written thirty-five years before the year the novel is set, suggests that man’s inherent nature is corrupt and repressive. Orwell wrote the book in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of fascism in Germany and the Soviet Union, and paints a pessimistic picture of society’s ability to avoid further global disasters.
Dystopian fiction usually works backward from the present to find an explanation for the fictional society’s decline, and thus to provide a commentary on the reader’s society or a warning of how the future could turn out. In 1984, as Winston works to acquire objects from the past, find spaces without telescreens or microphones in them, and recover memories of the time before the Party, Orwell provides the reader with glimpses of how Winston’s society came to be. We learn about a nuclear war, a revolution, mass famines, and a period of consolidation of power by the Party.
Dystopian novels explore the effects of oppression and totalitarianism on the individual psyche as well as how the individual functions in a repressive society. Winston’s trouble retrieving and trusting his memories illustrates the way the Party has corrupted his emotional life as well as his daily existence, asking the reader to question the nature of memory and individual consciousness. By suggesting that Winston is initially complacent because he can’t remember whether or not life was better and he was happier before the Revolution, the book examines the importance of memory in creating a sense of self.
In depicting a future civilization that incorporates as-yet-undeveloped technologies and scientific advancements, 1984 is also an important example of science fiction, although it deviates from the genre in significant ways. Before 1984, popular science fiction tended to be set in exotic locations, on distant planets, or in highly advanced societies several hundred years in the future. Orwell brought his frightening future vision to a very familiar wartime London, with futuristic inventions not drastically different from familiar technologies. Typewriters have been replaced by dictation machines and televisions have become flat-screens permanently mounted to walls, but the functions and roles of these future technologies are basically the same as the version familiar to readers in the late 1940s.
Today, many of the developments Orwell predicts are commonplace to readers, such as the helicopters that spy on citizens, which anticipate surveillance drones. In other ways, however, his science fiction vision of the future is inaccurate, in that he failed to anticipate the way people would use technology to record themselves, and willingly share their private lives with the public.