Tuesday 10 July 2018

Did grimdark start in 1984?

Did grimdark start in 1984? By which of course I mean did it start in 1949?

1984 is a novel I first read at a time when 1984 was the future. It's a work of literary genius. Also it is very definitely science fiction. Also ... it might be the first, or at least most famous, grimdark novel.

This post contains spoilers for the book.

Even though much of the science foreseen in the book (primarily mass surveillance through networked cameras) has come to pass, albeit not generally in our own homes, some has yet to be effectively implemented. We haven't yet got any novel writing machines for example, unless you count Brandon Sanderson and some rather less successful AI attempts.

More recently the book's prediction of the wholesale undermining of truth have been realised in a deeply disturbing fashion with the surge of that many headed hydra #FakeNews. The phrase "alternative facts" could have been plucked directly from the dictionary of Newspeak that our "hero" Winston's colleague is working on.

And whilst the Thought Police have not yet become a state institution we all know that there are more than enough recruits to fill their ranks ready and waiting on Twitter whichever side of the political divide issues the call.

However, it is not this grim prescience that makes the novel a strong candidate for the first grimdark book. It is the fact that the whole society described in 1984 is designed to destroy hope, force conformity, replace truth with political narrative, and oppress the population. Not only this, it is achieving all these goals with near total success.


Our hero in all this is not a paragon. Winston is an everyman, and his opposition to the state is driven by the fact that he can't help his "free thinking" and finds the constraints intolerable. He's driven by very basic needs rather than laudable ideals, desperation rather than bravery. A woman he is attracted to shares his interest. Their sexual relationship is against the law because Winston is married and sex is only allowed for procreation within wedlock. Winston wishes he had killed his wife when he had the chance to make it look like an accident. In short, Winston is no hero. He is in opposition to the regime because he is not getting what he wants from it.


And tonally this is a dark, dark book. Let me hit you with some quotes.

"In the face of pain there are no heroes."

"We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them."

"To die hating them, that was freedom."

"Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me."

"History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."

"He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear."

& of course the famous:

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." 


And of course there is violence. The book approaches its end, where SPOILER the bad guys win comprehensively, via an extensive sequence of torture involving the dreaded and infamous Room 101. In Room 101 you get to meet your own worse nightmare, and you can be sure that Big Brother knows exactly what it is.

So, that's my pitch for 1984 being one of the grandfathers of grimdark. Go check it out if you haven't already. And if you have then try some more Orwell. It's all good, from the incredibly short but hard hitting Animal Farm to his autobiographical works Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in London and Paris.

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