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1984 & Julia resonate toda

The best dystopian novels capture something of the present day, says Kennedy Wilson


Think of the IVF babies and Oxycontin-style ‘soma’ of Brave New World. But the novel that best reflects where we are in 2024 was set 40 years ago: George Orwell’s 1984.

The book has had a chequered history yet remains on the top ‘100 novels of all time’ lists. It has one of the most chilling opening sentences in literary history: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’.

Expressions and phrases from the book (many trademarked by the Orwell estate) have long entered the language: Big Brother, Room 101, the Ministry of Truth, doublethink, Newspeak, 2+2=5, Thought Police. 1984 has been a musical, a ballet, a radio and TV play. It came out of copyright in 2021. Orwellian is in the dictionary as an adjective describing a situation that’s destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.

In the year 1984 it was made into a big budget movie starring Richard Burton and John Hurt (Eurhythmics did the theme song). Orwell’s masterwork inspired musicians from Bowie to Marilyn Manson. And 1984 was the year Margaret Atwood wrote her own dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The same year Apple Computers’ TV commercial (directed by Ridley Scott) promised that ‘1984 won’t be like 1984’ with the Apple Mac promising to smash the Big Brother dominance of Microsoft.

For decades the book has been a high school text, troubled adolescents seeing themselves in the depressed main character Winston Smith so desperate to break free from the suffocating ideology and conventions of his time. Smith’s tedious office job involves re-writing historical records and he longs to buck the system.

Now, author Sandra Newman’s novel Julia (Granta) tells the story as seen from a woman’s perspective, namely that of Winston Smith’s love interest Julia Worthing.

The book admirably captures the mood and feel of the original but develops the story in intriguing and enjoyable ways. The Financial Times called it ‘a richly envisaged frightening dystopia, wholly alive to Orwell’s text (Julia) stands alone as an original and deeply fascinating feminist work’.

Readers who first encountered the book at school might think it dusty and dated. Orwell wrote it on the Scottish island of Jura in 1948 and it captures a lot of the austerity of bombed-out London. It also leant greatly on the totalitarian turmoil of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

1984 and Julia have huge resonances today. We live in a world of constant surveillance, the nanny state, social-media pile-ons, human rights abuses, data harvesting, ChatGPT, AI, deleted WhatsApp messages, facial recognition technology, racial profiling, podcasting rabble rousers, smart sensors, shadow bans, Twitterstorms, draconian data protection laws, spy drones, cancel culture, webcams and algorithms.

We have the removal of politically incorrect words and phrases from reprints of classic books like those of Roald Dahl with ugly, lazy and fat changed to words less judgemental.

The cult of personality in politics in 1984 is reflected in Boris and Trump and Putin. Today’s party faithful often seem to support their political representatives, no matter what wrong they do. Countries from Xi Jinping’s China to Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to Orbán’s Hungary revel in demagoguery lifted direct from the 1984 playbook.

For a time in the noughties China was relaxing its autocratic hold on its people. There was a new-found entrepreneurialism and the system allowed a certain amount of dissent and artistic freedom. Now things have changed and the country is more authoritarian than ever. Dissidents in China have nicknamed their leader Xitler.

1984’s dystopian world revolves around armies of workers in a rigid hierarchy where no-one dares speak (or think) out of turn. The system is not to be questioned. Telescreens in people’s homes drone on endlessly.

The government’s Ministry of Truth churns out fake news. Workers have a regular, cathartic Two Minutes Hate break where they are encouraged to rant and rave, troll-like, in front of a screen.

Newspeak is a category of neologisms where words are stripped of meaning or, worse, given contradictory meanings ideal for spreading confusion. It’s not dissimilar to our current culture and gender wars where there’s a new nomenclature with words like bio-cis, demigirl, brosters and where even in official circles words are changed; ‘mother’ replaced with ‘birthing parent’.

Back in 2017 prizewinning conceptual artist David Shrigley saw that an Oxfam shop in Swansea had stopped accepting donations of the bestselling conspiracy thriller The Da Vinci Code. He began collecting old copies of the pulp-worthy novel with a view to repurposing them.

They were duly recycled and the paper used for a limited-edition reprint of 1984. In October 2023 1,250 copies of Shrigley’s collectable special edition went on sale for £495 each in the same Swansea Oxfam shop.

“I am fascinated by the power of books to rewrite our culture, something that Dan Brown and George Orwell have each addressed in their wildly successful works,” Shrigley said. ■

X: @KenWilson84

Info: Sandra Newman’s novel Julia is published by Granta (£18.99)

Wholly alive to Orwell’s text (Julia) stands alone as an original and deeply fascinating feminist work



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