I’ve been watching the Handmaid’s Tale on SBS On Demand, mainly because I’m lazy and I tend to find Margaret Atwood‘s novel writing style dry. But the show itself, despite being slow and frustrating, has kept me tuning in each week. Dystopian or classic Speculative Fiction novels, like the Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Farenheit 451 have seen a resurgence in bookstores around Australia of late. I won’t comment on why I believe this is happening, but being the science fiction lover that I am, I grabbed a copy of the latter two books recently and have since read them. Here are my thoughts:
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, and the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal by spying through television sets and obtaining information from informants.
When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy.
Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent – even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101 . . .
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
I read this while keeping the time frame in which it was written in mind, but found it to be well written and engaging. It has stood the test of time quite well. Winston is a character you are immediately drawn to because he has a secret. He wants to rebel, but he’s not exactly sure how to do it. By taking a risk, a whole new, secret world outside of the one Big Brother rules opens up to him. The other characters are sparse in number but each plays a particular, important role in the story which helps show how oppressive the society Winston lives in is. You want Winston and his friends to succeed. Big Brother as an antagonist has a face, but not really a personality. he is everywhere and isn’t personified by any one person, as he could be anyone. Which is why the twist at the end is so satisfying, despite being unsettling. I’d like to say it was an enjoyable read, but confronting is probably a better word.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.”
But when he meets an eccentric young neighbour, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
He opens a book, and becomes the very person he is tasked to destroy.
It was a pleasure to burn.
I don’t know if the language used in this novel was as strong at drawing me into the story as that of 1984, but the plotline itself was enough to keep me turning the pages. The supporting cast of characters here is also small. I was a little disappointed we didn’t see more of Clarisse, but I understand why the decision to remove her was made (and reading the foreward beforehand prepared me for it). Guy’s wife is clearly suffering a mental illness, yet it doesn’t come out straight away why that is. I loved her as a side character who is both sucked into the world of the “family”, yet suffers from a state of denial which occasionally breaks her. The antagonist here is very clever, and the twist in relation to him at the end was brilliant. The ending is both devastating, but at the same time hopeful. A reasonably quick read.
Both of these books have excellent opening lines (see quotes above). Though quite bleak in nature, I will most likely keep them on my shelves for re-reading, but not for a while. What I found amazing was how eerily accurate some of their predictions for the future were. In 1984, home devices spy on their occupants and deliver news that the government wants its people to believe, even if it was different only the day before. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy’s wife has more attachment to her reality TV “family” than her own husband. While the current state of the world isn’t as bad as those George Orwell or Ray Bradbury imagined, it’s getting closer, and I think that’s why these novels hold so much appeal.
These are all cautionary tales, one I think everyone should read/watch. Just have something lighter on hand to move onto once you’re done.