i hope you get cancer™

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The shock of the old

I've recently been re-reading two of my favourite books: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. I read Microserfs several times between its publication in 1995 and 2001, and loved it every time. As the blurb on the cover said, "As zeitgeisty as it gets". But I picked it up the other day, and it had suddenly become a period piece. All the knowing little references - 680X0 chips, housepets called Look and Feel - seem so, well, early 90s. And by comparison to Coupland's other books, Microserfs seems content to deal with the small picture, rather than some of the bigger themes of work like Girlfriend In A Coma. I'm not sure whether it's just the book that has become frozen in time, or whether it is now simply trapped in that sunny, booming, Clintonite, pre-9/11 world that we have left behind. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by contrast, speaks as clearly to us now as it ever did. I am aware that it is a truism to say so, but picking it up for the first time in 30 years as I did shortly before Christmas, was a shocking experience. The concepts of Newspeak, Doublethink etc resonate today perhaps more than before, and the following passage could have been written last week: "The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact." Or this: "It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane. One clear illustration of this is the fact that war hysteria increases in intensity as one rises in the social scale. Those whose attitude towards the war is most nearly rational are the subject peoples of the disputed territories. To these people the war is simply a continuous calamity which sweeps to and fro over their bodies like a tidal wave. Which side is winning is a matter of complete indifference to them. They are aware that a change of overlordship means simply that they will be doing the same work as before for new masters who treat them in the same manner as the old ones. The slightly more favoured workers whom we call 'the proles' are only intermittently conscious of the war. When it is necessary they can be prodded into frenzies of fear and hatred, but when left to themselves they are capable of forgetting for long periods that the war is happening. It is in the ranks of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, that the true war enthusiasm is to be found. World-conquest is believed in most firmly by those who know it to be impossible."