It is said that the first words he uttered as a child was ‘beastly’. With his gift for words, he didn’t have to wait for literary success too long, with his poem being published in a local newspaper. He wasn’t popular with his peers though, and it was in his books that he found both solace, and inspiration. In a quirky circle of fate that he would himself have chuckled at, today, millions take to his books seeking the same.
George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) – English novelist, essayist and critique - wasn’t just amongst the more significant writers of the 20th century. He wasn’t just a man who addressed some of the biggest political movements of his times like imperialism, fascism and socialism with a scathing pen. Neither was he just a literary giant who coined phrases (Big brother, cold war, thought police and doublethink) that have since become a part of popular culture and everyday vocabulary. He was, above all, a sensitive humanist – who felt what the man on the street was feeling, and never shied from giving it a voice.
George Orwell was born on the 25th of June, 1903. As we celebrate the birthday of this celebrated chronicler whom The Times ranked No. 2 in its list of ‘The fifty greatest British writers since 1945’, it’s a good time to look back - at the circumstances that made the man, and to at least two of his classics, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ (combined, they brought the author both spectacular financial success and critical acclaim - something he didn’t live long enough to enjoy, succumbing to tuberculosis prematurely).
Born in Bengal (India), Eric Arthur Blair (He adopted George Orwell as a name much later, apparently to spare his family the humiliation he reckoned his writings would bring) was the son of a British civil servant. After his education in England (where, as a bright student, he won a partial scholarship), he enlisted with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. His mind set on becoming a writer, though, he quit the army, and travelled to Paris. The socialist in him was, before long, in Spain, fighting on behalf of the Republicans in their war against Franco’s nationalists. Forced to run for his life from communists who were stifling revolutionary socialist rebels anywhere they could find one, the experience made him a staunch anti-Stalinist. And, in a manner, paved the way for ‘Animal Farm’, Orwell’s timeless creation - a political fantasy that took a dig at Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian revolution, and the way the Russian ruler had ‘usurped’ socialism, turning it into a device of petty personal gain.
At one level, of course, Animal Farm is a delightfully engaging story about a farm of animals that overthrow their human owner in a ‘revolution’, and take over the farm. Tasting liberty for the first time in their lives, the animals are ecstatic. A charter that establishes that ‘All animals are equal’ is created as a foundation of a society where they can all live happily ever after. This is also the point from where paradise is gradually lost. Convincing the others about the need for a more ‘structured system of living’ (one that promises greater comforts), the pigs soon assume the position of ‘rulers’. Turning into despots, the pigs claim rights to the ‘milk and honey of the land’, leaving the rest to eke out a meager living, and work harder than they ever did. In a bid to hold on to power and quell voices that dared to rebel against them, the pigs eventually unleash a reign of terror. Ruling the land with an ‘iron hoof’, they essay the perfect betrayal, beginning to resemble their human master more and more (the very reason they had revolted in the first place), and the cycle of irony is complete.
Interpreted in the context of Stalinist Russia where power was concentrated in the hands of a few (the ‘pigs’, as it were), ‘Animal Farm’ becomes a biting satire against communism. It also gives us a peek into Orwell’s dystopian bent of mind – a genre the writer explores in breathtaking, if chilling, detail in his other classic, ‘1984’. Here, Orwell’s dystopian world (technically, dystopia is ‘negative utopia’, or, in other words, a world that is terminally degenerating towards self-destruction, and where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong) is in full flow, as he creates a terrifying planet in a state of perpetual war, where government surveillance extends all the way to what we think (with the ‘thought police’ representing the ultimate invasion of privacy), where control of the state rests in the hands of a privileged inner circle, where deception and trickery is the currency of everyday survival , and where ‘Big Brother’ (a ‘mythical’ party that, for all anyone knows, may be a figment of the imagination, and a terrible creation of gubernatorial propaganda) is always watching over your shoulder, recording ‘every breath you take’. An abiding dystopian science-fiction and a disturbingly believable portrayal of the world.
Eric Arthur Blair, the man, may be no more, but George Orwell, the author, continues to hold new generations of readers in the grip of ideas that refuse to die. There’s proof. To celebrate Orwell’s birthday last year, public surveillance cameras in the city of Utrecht in Netherlands were decorated with party hats!
Though he might have done more than most to make the dark magic of dystopian fiction popular, Orwell was, by no means, the only one. Ray Bradbury – American novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, playwright, essayist and poet - was another master chef of this particular dish. A man whose uncanny prescience somehow foresaw the flip side of world far too connected by technology and gadgets for comfort, Ray’s epic ‘Fahrenheit 451’ talks about a society where people shut themselves up in rooms ‘socializing with imaginary friends’ (if you’re instantly thinking Facebook and Twitter, you aren’t the only one!), even as the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet (that, too, is happening even as you read this, is it not?). Incursion of privacy takes centrestage in Ray’s world as well, as people watch reality shows (other people’s lives?) on giant TV screens and police solicit the participation of the public to solve crimes (interactive programming). In his other book, the ‘Martian Chronicles’, Ray deals with Earth’s attempt to colonize Mars, and the unplanned consequences.
In award winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s writings, dystopia takes on a whole different form, like a future ruled by religious fundamentalists , or a mad scientist with a mission to replace humanity with a genetically engineered race. While she has authored several works of note (including the Booker Prize winning Blind Assassin), Atwood’s definitive dystopian oeuvre remains Oryx and Crake.
English writer Aldous Huxley – humanist, pacifist and satirist rolled into one – had his own version of dystopia : The possibility that human-kind becomes slave to the effect of crazy, mood-altering drugs, or turn tragic victims to the mis-use of ever-evolving technology. Amongst Huxley’s best known novels is Brave New World set in dystopian London, and The Doors of Perception.
American writer Philip K. Dick’s page-turner, ‘Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep’, explores a different kind of dystopia : A post-apocalyptic near-future where humans and animals alike are facing extension due to radiation poisoning. In this world, animals have become precious commodities and sought-after status symbols. As Rick Deckard, the protagonist, pursues his assignment of ‘retiring’ six escaped androids, he eventually has to face what it is like to be a ‘human’ – manifest in a distinct sense of empathy towards animals, which androids don’t possess. A redeeming feature, in a dark world.
The idea of dystopia is reinvented in the shape of savage pride in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, where, in the land of ‘Panem’ in post-apocalypic North America, all power is controlled by the Capitol, with 12 poor districts at its mercy. The revolt by a 13th district is not only crushed, but gives rise to an annually televised event called the Hunger Games, a reminder of the Capitol’s unforgiving, savage supremacy. Each district must volunteer ‘tributes’ who will fight until death at the ‘Games’, with the victor reaping the spoils. 16 year old Katniss’s younger sister has been nominated in the lottery. Katniss volunteers to take her place. The outcome in a conflict with adversaries much stronger and bigger than her spells certain death. Only, it isn’t the first time that Katniss is staring death in the eye. Yes, a page tuner.
Whether you agree with the picture of gloom and misery that dystopia is, or not, you can’t argue that reading up on them can be quite the opposite : Yes, utopia.
Which one’s next on your list?