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Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

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Language Corruption, and Rocking the Boat

(p.229) 12 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four could well be seen as an example of the science-fictional sub-genre of the enclosed universe story. In these the reader is simultaneously aware of the wrongness of the narrator’s or hero’s views, and the fact that these views arise naturally out of the narrator or hero’s limited knowledge. Can they be disproved without input from outside the enclosed world, such as the captain’s log of a generation Starship, or in Orwell’s case, the hidden history revealed by Goldstein? It is argued that doublethink and Newspeak are Orwell’s vital concepts as agents of mind control. Two works by Ursula Le Guin are seen as further instances of mind control by language, with interestingly different results.

Keywords:   Sub-genre, Enclosed universe, Doublethink, Newspeak, Mind control

This essay started off as a paper read at a conference on Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1984, at what was then North-East London Polytechnic. I was not especially keen to take part, but in 1984 it was pretty well mandatory for everyone to read papers on Nineteen Eighty-Four. One reason I was not especially keen was that Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with Brave New World, is one of those works mentioned in item 2, above, only sort-of science fiction, but invariably put on academic sf courses by people who do not know much about it. Both works, along with some other dubious cases, like C.S. Lewis’s so-called ‘space fiction’ trilogy, on which I have also written elsewhere, are the kind of sf acceptable to what I call (in item 2, above) the ‘gatekeeper’ paradigm.

However, I did have two things I wanted to say about Nineteen Eighty-Four and about Orwell. As regards Orwell, one reason he was acceptable to the ‘gatekeepers’ was that he was a left-winger, and since humanities professors are overwhelmingly ‘liberal’, that meant he was definitely OK. But he was a very disillusioned and disgruntled left-winger, for several reasons. He fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (from the left-wing point of view, that was good), and was gallantly shot through the throat (very good), but when he came back to tell people about it, it turned out he had been fighting with the wrong set of left-wingers (bad) – in fact, for the anarchists (very bad) – and since the communists hated the anarchists more even than they did the monarchists, Orwell found that no one wanted to listen. Israel Gollancz wouldn’t publish his book, Homage to Catalonia, and his experience was treated as a non-event. Then the communists found it expedient to make common cause with the Nazis, and even after they had switched sides as a result of Hitler’s attack on Stalin, Orwell continued to regard his former allies as potential traitors. One result is that Animal Farm is quite obviously a satire on the Russian revolution. Another is that the dreary despotism of Nineteen Eighty-Four is called ‘Ingsoc’, English (p.230) Socialism. None of this was at all popular with left-wing critics, who performed strange evolutions trying to prove that Orwell was really on their side. The most prominent example was Bernard Crick, who was keynote speaker at the conference, and I thought I could at least say that he was flying in the face of the evidence (see below).

The other thing I wanted to say was that Nineteen Eighty-Four did look strangely like sf works in the familiar ‘enclosed universe’ tradition, like Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (in book form (1951), but originally two novelettes from ASF (1941)), Aldiss’s Non-stop (1958), Blish’s ‘The Thing in the Attic’ in the Seedling Stars sequence (book (1957), story in If (July 1954)), Galouye’s Dark Universe (1961), Jim White’s The Watch Below (1966), and Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969): another very good example of sf authors doing deliberate variations on the same scenario). Orwell could not have read any of them except maybe another of Wells’s ‘paradigm stories’, ‘The Country of the Blind’. But the similarities are very strong. In an enclosed universe the person trapped inside it usually has a vision of the outside, one way or another: check, that is there in Orwell. Usually there has to be some document explaining to the person in the enclosed universe – who cannot possibly know any other way – how all this arose: check, that is there. And usually there is some hangover from the pre-enclosed universe, which the modern reader can recognise, but the characters in the story cannot: check, that is there too (see for details pp. 239–41). Is all this a case of literary borrowing? In Orwell’s case, I do not think so. So maybe all this is integral to the logic of the story, which suggests again that structure can determine story, give it a kind of inner frame. At the conference I put all this to Crick in question time, I thought with unusual fluency and skill. I am not sure what I expected: a thunderous round of applause, perhaps, a tearful apology from Crick, a guarantee from all present never to come out with the old party line again? In fact, of course, Crick said ‘Very interesting, I wish I’d thought of that’, and passed on to other matters.

There is another irony in the whole situation, which is that Crick is no longer the great authority on Orwell; he is now Peter Davison, editor of the enormous and now-standard 20-volume Orwell. Peter and I started our teaching careers on the same day in the same English department at the University of Birmingham. Neither of us would have stood a sniff of a chance of a job in modern conditions. He had never attended university, had got all his degrees externally, had been a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, and was way over-age for a starting lecturer. I had no graduate degree, had been selling bath-scourer for Colgate–Palmolive, and was way under-age, ditto. In those days, though, heads of department could back their judgement, and Professor T.J.B. Spencer was a good picker. (p.231) Peter published many editions as a Shakespearean and drama scholar, was promoted to Professor at St David’s Lampeter, was headhunted from there to the University of Kent at Canterbury – and then, aged one week past 55, was asked to take early retirement! His wife Sheila – another formidable personality – approached the Vice-Chancellor and asked him, fiercely, ‘Why are you asking my Peter to retire, he’s the only one who ever does any work?’ To which he replied, I am told, ‘We had to, Mrs Davison, he’s the only one who could ever get another job.’

That is British university logic for you. Peter, offended, did in fact retire, but did not get another job in academia, he became the manager of Albany, the immensely upper-class apartment block in central London, where the porters wear toppers and tailcoats, and was characteristically very good at it – how many professors could you plausibly say that about? But while he was managing Albany he took up editing Orwell. And not being a proper academic, content to sit in the library or (nowadays) surf the Internet, he went out on his own two feet to look for people who had known Orwell, many of whom were then still alive. And he found all sorts: letters, the scripts of Orwell’s BBC talks, the cancelled chapter of A Clergyman’s Daughter (the book does not make sense without it, but it had a rape in it, so it never got printed), the list of fellow-travellers Orwell gave to MI5 – did that cause a row! – as a result of which the corpus of known material by Orwell expanded by at least 300 per cent, most of which would have gone for ever if it had not been for Peter’s efforts. Well, you can see why he wouldn’t do as a professor. What a boat-rocker! The good thing about all this, for me, is that Orwell managed to escape the dead hand of officially accredited views, and if not through my efforts then through the efforts of a friend.

The other half of the article is about Le Guin and language, and all that I would like to add here is that it is another case of an sf author having a good hard think about an issue in an earlier sort of sf work, and replying to it fictionally with a great deal more intelligence than has been shown by most critical comment. She updated it, too, with the very timely ironies about Watergate-speak and Vietnam-language. Orwell on the corruptions of language is still good value, but what he did not realise was that a major corrupter of language in future would be graduate schools, especially in the USA: they teach a kind of jargon, you are not a member of the profession unless you use it, but using it, as has often been noted (frequently in the pages of the TLS), does not make for clarity anywhere outside the profession. Furthermore, it can happen that anyone who makes a point of writing ‘accessibly’ is written off as a hopeless lowbrow, or in my case the phrase was ‘a textual rapist’. (p.232) I am still not sure what provoked that accusation, but I am proud of it. As the old proverb says, ‘The insult of an enemy is tribute to the brave.’ Anyway, it is much more satisfying than having someone say ‘Very interesting, and now we must move on …’.