The English professor who teaches the science fiction class at the University of Missouri defines the genre as a “thought experiment,” A way to see how something might play out, given time, or way to examine alternative solutions to a problem we face. It is a creative exercise and a problem-solving technique. Science fiction is an expression of culture but also cultural problems. American science fiction in the 1950s was about the importance of individualism (read: communism). American science fiction in the 1970s is about colonialism (read: Civil Rights and the Vietnam War). I’ve always been fascinated by how our deepest fears as a society come out in stories about aliens and starships. Even Frankenstein’s Monster, the first science fiction novel, is often thought to express the fear of science without religion.
Most science fiction stories, by that thinking, are psychological horror stories. It feels like an accurate description of today.
George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, is a staple for high school English classes. It’s got symbolism, it’s got overtones of communism, it’s got an identifiable protagonist and antagonist, and it values individualism and knowledge. It is a classic American sci-fi novel, with all the trappings and messages that high school classrooms want to push onto students. Until a few days ago, that’s all it was, before Kellyanne Conway offered Sean Spicer’s “Alternative Facts.” Now it’s topped Amazon’s best-seller list for the first time in years.
1984 introduced the pop-culture ideas of “doublethink,” the ability to have contradictory truths, and “Newspeak,” the narrowing and defining of a conversation. Hell, it was 1984 that originated the term “Big Brother.”
During CNN’s show “Reliable Sources” Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty said, “It just immediately reminded me of doublethink, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. There’s really no alternative to the facts.”
“Unless you can have pretty much everybody agree to precisely what the truth is and what the reality is, it really – it’s hard to imagine a situation where people then can sit down and negotiate and figure their way towards solutions.”
It’s also a problem if the government can feel it can define the narrative, rather than public media sources. Sure, it’s always tried, but I feel as if other administrations have been more subtle about it.
Conversations on the internet have been bringing up other books that discuss problematic constraints on knowledge, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
An important thing to note in 1984 is that Big Brother wins. Love and hope is vanquished by the protagonist’s own fear and dependency upon his government. In the end, it wasn’t so much that “Newspeak” or “doublethink” persuaded the protagonist, it was that he knew other truths and greater knowledge and was conflicted on what to believe. He had been conditioned to doubt himself and his experience, and that is how he lost.
But most importantly, Orwell wanted to express with his book the importance of language and how language can define not only attitudes but control thoughts themselves. Orwell wrote this novel specifically to warn against totalitarianism in the West. In a way, he’s succeeded in putting the specter of “Big Brother” and “doublethink” into national consciousness, but he failed to account for the news media gradually becoming more untrusted, public apathy, and how quickly things can change.
The protagonist lost because he couldn’t even trust himself anymore. So if we look at Kellyanne Conway’s gaff from the perspective of 1984, who will be the real danger to democracy?