DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy

By David Brin, Ph.D.

One of the most powerful novels of all time, published half a century ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. Or... at least, not yet. That we have so far escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath.

In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.


George Orwell [image from Britannica.com]

Since then, many other "self-preventing prophecies" rocked the public's conscience or awareness, perhaps helping us deflect disaster. Rachel Carson foresaw a barren world if we ignored environmental abuse -- a mistake we may have somewhat averted, partly thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green. Who can doubt that films such as Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe helped caution us against dangers of inadvertent nuclear war? The China Syndrome, The Hot Zone -- and even Das Kapital -- arguably fit in this genre of works whose credibility and worrisome vividness may help prevent their own scenarios from coming true.

Whether these literary and cinematic works actually made a difference can never be proved. That each of them substantially motivated large numbers of people to pay increased attention to specific possible failure modes cannot be denied.

As for "Big Brother" -- Orwell showed us the pit awaiting any civilization that combines panic with technology and the dark, cynical tradition of tyranny. In so doing, he armed us against that horrible fate. In contrast to the sheep-like compliance displayed by subject peoples in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems that a 'rebel' image has taken charge of our shared imaginations. Every conceivable power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, has been repeatedly targeted by Hollywood's most relentless theme... suspicion of authority.

To continue reading, please see THROUGH STRANGER EYES, a collection of my book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture, which was released in the Western Hemisphere by Nimble Books and in the Eastern Hemisphere by Altair (Australia). Included are those infamous articles about Tolkien and Star Wars, sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, appraisals of Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Verne, and Orwell... all the way to fun riffs on the Matrix and Buffy!