Wright on Asimov on Orwell

Until today, I was unaware that Isaac Asimov wrote an extensive review of George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, and that the review was negative.

This came as rather a surprise to me, since I could not imagine one of the top science fiction authors in America daring to undermine one of the top science fiction authors in Britain, and one who, unlike himself, had broken into the mainstream, won worldwide fame, and was read and discussed by everyone everywhere.

Of course, political correctness was not yet known by that name, but it is everywhere evident in Asimov’s fussy little work of tongue-clucking. It is more a complaint about Orwell’s politics than a critique of Orwell’s work.

Here is Asimov’s review:

Asimov opens by saying:  I felt I would have to write the critique if only to set people straight. (I’m sorry; I love setting people straight.)

The priggish self-satisfaction here sets the tone for what follows.

One is reminded of the Know-It-All kid from the movie POLAR EXPRESS

Like Michael Moorcock’s similar assault on JRR Tolkien, Ayn Rand’s vehemence against Tolstoy, it is the assault of the dwarf against the giant on whose shoulders he stands. The ingratitude is remarkable.

This review approaches the subject matter from the rather shallow question of whether the science fiction elements are imaginative and futuristic — Asimov chides Orwell for not imagining ballpoint pens or marijuana use, and has no robots as thought police.

Asimov, in an appalling act of unselfconscious irony, mocks Orwell for his portrayal of women, saying Orwell sticks closely to stereotype. Perhaps Mr. Asimov should read his own work first.

In a foolish disregard for the novel’s theme and point, Asimov wonders at the absence of heroic opposition to Big Brother. This is akin to wondering at the absence of sober wisdom in a comedy or of comedic lightness in a tragedy.

The whole point of the book is that Winston Smith is an average jack, a mid-level bureaucrat, a man unsuited to revolution, ordinary in every way. The point of the book is that resistance is futile, once the tyrant slams and locks the door of the panopticon.

Even more shallowly, Asimov refuses to see any application of Orwell’s warning applying to any political question other than Stalinism.

This is a gobsmackingly narrow reading of the text. As stated, one must assume Asimov is simply arguing in bad faith, since he spends over a paragraph repeating where other readers of various political persuasions  have seen applications to Orwell’s grim warning. Asimov pretends to see nothing.

More shallow yet, Asimov dismisses Orwell’s described techniques of oppression as unrealistic — even though Orwell described nothing imaginary, except for the two-way television, and nothing that was not already being done. Even the chilling name “Thought Police” is a translation of a real department of the military government of Imperial Japan at the time.

Asimov’s comments here are so foolish I cannot credit them.

He first says that controlling the population by means of electronic surveillance is impossible because no one can be watched at all times, and someone must also watch the watchers. As if the techniques of electronic surveillance of civilians had not been perfected long before.

Was Asimov unaware of Soviet eavesdropping and wiretapping? Does he think Orwell’s future did not have the technology to record television images, or to have one policeman manning several monitors? Does he not realize that even unplugged security cameras spook men into thinking themselves watched?

He next says that in Orwell’s book, the Thought Police largely leaves the proletariat (“proles”) to themselves. Asimov interprets this to mean that Orwell both acknowledges that a total surveillance state would have limits, and, at the same time, with a blithe disregard for self-contradiction, interprets this to mean that Orwell, himself, not Big Brother, has an undisguised British contempt for the lower class.

This seems to be a gratuitous sneer at Englishmen for having a class system. Americans are allowed to indulge in such sneers, because we reject aristocracy as readily as we reject socialism, for both produce class systems. (The aristocrats are honest about it. The socialists establish that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, and are hypocritical about it. See the Nomenklatura of Soviet Russia for an example.)

But what the existence of the class system in Airstrip One is not is a sign that Orwell somehow misunderstood what would happen if Socialism conquered the West. It is not a sign that Orwell was too old fashioned or too set in his ways to envision a science fictional classless society.

Indeed, had Orwell imagined Big Brother had the power and willingness to abolish class distinctions, his imagination would be open to criticism. Orwell was wise enough to know that socialist talk about equality is just lies. Perhaps Asimov did not.

Now, Asimov decides to make it personal, because he does not chide the English for being class conscious, but Orwell, himself, personally. What this has to do with the merit of the work is obscure. As I said, it is a gratuitous dig.

Of course, this dig is odd hypocrisy when voiced in an essay a-drip with snobbery. One galling example of Asimov’s snobbery we shall see later on, when dismissing idea of totalitarian revisions of history, on the grounds that proles believe whatever hogwash they are told to believe. One who thinks the Proles do not look at books or old photos, so those books need not be edited, nor the photos airbrushed, is hardly one to chide another for his snobbery.

In the selfsame sentence, parenthetically, Asimov comments that the Spartans, in their system of tyranny, treated their helots in the same way as Orwell here depicts the treatment of the proles under Ingsoc, namely, by killing any of those who show talent or promise.

In other words, Asimov knows full well tyrants since the Bronze Age have enforced a class system, requiring underlings to be unlettered, disarmed, unable to own property, discouraging any sign of ambition or ability among them. And yet, when Orwell adumbrates just such a system enforced by Big Brother, Asimov calls Orwell a snob.

Once again, how Asimov in one breath, can dismiss Orwell’s scientific speculation as to the possible techniques of futuristic tyranny as unrealistic, and then name a real example from history or contemporary events of the selfsame technique in action is mindboggling.

Asimov seems to be trying to take the art of unselfawareness to a transcendental level, beyond mortal comprehension.

I kid you not. Asimov mocks, as unrealistic, secret police techniques in use since Sparta, and places them beyond the Overton Window, as it were, of what science fiction readers should accept. Such a thing is too speculative for Asimov to consider it speculative fiction.

Allow me to quote:

   Furthermore, he (Orwell) has a system of volunteer spies in which children report on their parents, and neighbours on each other. This cannot possibly work well since eventually everyone reports everyone else and it all has to be abandoned.

Let the reader pause a moment to let the magnitude of smug naivety on Asimov’s part sink in. He dismisses the idea of children reporting on parents.

Pavlik Morozov, call your office.

Asimov does not think it possible for neighbor to turn neighbor into the secret police.

Words fail. Imagine if, in 1980, years after the moonshot, a science fiction writer were to dismiss as unrealistic a story where a rocket was shot from an launch base in Normandy to land on London.

Worse, since tyrants have set neighbor against neighbor since the days of the Crypteia of Sparta, imagine a science fiction writer dismissing as unrealistic, not a tale of rocketry, but of archery.

Asimov with breathtaking blindness simply denies that tyrants can last long. He cites the examples of Khrushchev being milder than Stalin, the Gang of Four being milder than Mao, as leaps to the absurd conclusion that tyrannies, throughout history, always ease their severity as time passes, as if this were a law of nature.

This is blind not merely because it is thoughtlessly false, it is disingenuous for assuming Orwell’s book was not set during a period of severity.

Keep in mind, the characters in the book have no idea of real historical events, and Big Brother is anonymous. Hence, even if Asimov’s absurd assumption that tyranny always grow mild with time were true, this book could be taking place during the Ingsoc version of the Cultural Revolution, or when new Party Leadership is consolidating power.

With blindness even more breathtaking, Asimov denies language can be warped or corrupted to political purposes. He uses the example of calling a “taximeter cab” a “taxi” or a “cab” to show that changes in language are not always sinister.

To quote him:

There is no sign that such compressions of the language have ever weakened it as a mode of expression.

He goes on to say that political obfuscation is usually wordy rather than brief, and that “We are therefore in no way approaching Newspeak in its condensed form, though we have always had Newspeak in its extended form and always will have.”

But if Newspeak is always with us, it is not clear why this is a source of complaint for Asimov. Rereading the passage (a chore I would wish on no man) I see his sole complaint is that it is unrealistic for Orwell to suppose Newspeak would make new words out of abbreviations of old ones.

So Asimov scoffs that Orwell has his characters say “BIPOC” rather than “Black, Indigenous, or other Persons of Color.” He dismisses this as unrealistic beyond what a science fiction story may legitimately imagine.

Alas, excuse me, BIPOC is a real term really in use in modern political discourse. I meant to use an example from Orwell’s entirely fictional and allegedly unrealistic book.

Asimov then likens Newspeak to teen slang, which misses the point so entirely, that, once again, one must suspect Asimov is arguing in bad faith, if not gaslighting the reader.

From this Asimov concludes it is unrealistic to imagine Newspeak corrupting and replacing the Queen’s English.

Unrealistic, he says. Find a Person of Woke and tell that to xir.

Unrealistic, says he. This, from a man who penned yarns about mind-reading time-travelling robots organizing utopia.

It is no excuse to say that, in 1980, when Asimov wrote this tripe, politically correct self-censorship of speech, much less laws threatening those who use pronouns unpolitically, was unknown and unforeseen. The special jargon and cant of communism was well known to the general public in Orwell’s time, and at least two generations prior. All readers recognized Newspeak instantly for what it was, and what real-world parallel it drew.

Again, Asimov here must be arguing in bad faith: it is impossible to be unaware of the use of smear-words and euphemisms to shape political dialog. To call the despotic oligarchy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics “republics” is itself an example of Newspeak.

Another shallow point Asimov’s makes, or pretends to make, is to say that totalitarianisms have no need to falsify the past, to airbrush old comrades out of photos, or expunge prior editions of the encyclopedia.

Asimov smugly yet idiotically says people will merely accept the word of the organs of propaganda without any need to falsify records.

He then mentions examples of real record falsification performed by the Soviet Union. This is while he is saying that such things would not take place because they need not.

Again, his unselfawareness of his own self-contradictions is amazing.

But even if it were true that people do not need false records to believe falsehoods, and even if countless examples of communist censorship and historical revisionism not been obvious to all men for generations, Asimov also forgets he is reading make-believe, not a police report.

He also overlooks that in a work of fiction, exaggeration is not only permitted, but, at times, required.  Whether Orwell was exaggerating, however, is an open question.

For someone who mocks an author for not imagining the future, Asimov could not even see the present happening around him, or remember the past through which his generation lived.

With even more sophomoric blindness, Asimov refuses to believe scientific progress can lag under world tyranny. I suggest he read Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM for a fictional version, or merely look to the Soviet Russian and Red Chinese unimaginative copycatting of Western technology for a real version.

He refuses to believe that technology investigated for military applications would not be released for peaceful civilian purposes by the world tyrants.

If Big Brother had discovered a means, to use an example mentioned in the book, of artificially inducing earthquakes in enemy terrain for military purposes, nothing makes it impossible or even unrealistic to suppose Big Brother would keep the technology secret, and never release it to civilian mining operations. I honestly cannot see what Asimov’s point here was.

Asimov finishes by spending a dreary length of words mocking Orwell, in 1948, for failing to predict the exact nuances of postwar politics, such as the rise of the oil sheiks in the Middle East.

Meanwhile he praises him for predicting the rise of communism in China, which, Asimov forgets, was undergoing Mao’s revolution when the book was being written.

Dispraising Orwell as unrealistic for not foretelling the unforeseeable while at the same time praising him for predicting events already past is the final of many examples of unselfawareness, smugness, and self-contradiction.

Asimov ends with these words:

George Orwell in 1984 was, in my opinion, engaging in a private feud with Stalinism, rather that attempting to forecast the future. He did not have the science fictional knack of foreseeing a plausible future and, in actual fact, in almost all cases, the world of 1984 bears no relation to the real world of the 1980s.

A private feud, is it? The word “Orwellian” would not have entered the vocabulary thirty years before Asimov penned these words had no one been concerned for the themes Orwell raised aside from himself and Stalin, nor seen the parallels to the particulars Orwell imagined.

In his final sentence, Asimov mistakes science fiction authors for crystal gazers. He knows well that our business as authors of futurist fantasy is not prediction but daydream and speculation.

To call the world imagined by Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR implausible is foolishness beyond folly. It would be a more trenchant criticism to say it was too realistic hence unimaginative, because all the elements of Big Brother in England were playing out in Soviet Russia concurrently to Orwell’s day, and in Red China in our own.

To dismiss a work for failing to predict the future is the single most stupid criticism of a work of science fiction I have ever read or can imagine.