New Podcast: The Entellectuals

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A friend and I have recently begun a weekly podcast called ‘The Entellectuals’ (get it?).  We’re hoping to cover a variety of different topics depending on what we’re currently thinking about, or possibly studying in our courses.  Each episode has a general discussion followed by an argument from either one of us, then it concludes with a more light-hearted element.  If this interests you, check out the first episode in which we discuss alcohol, studentsInterstellar and the nature of artistic value.

We have been having some technical issues, unfortunately.  Despite all the online guides saying podcasts are easy to make, it turns out they’re anything but that.  There have been so many problems getting the podcast onto an Itunes feed, something we still haven’t succeeded at doing.  Soundcloud will apparently have to do for now.

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2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

—–

And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

Top 10 Closing Lines in English Literature

Contains spoilers.  Obviously.

The closing lines of a book can end up defining it.  They can bring a sense of closure to the story, complete plot threads and character arcs, or leave the reader wanting more with a cliffhanger.  They’re much more significant in literary terms (as opposed to marketing) than the opening lines, which can often be drab, unmemorable and difficult to absorb due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the story – unless you’re Jane Austen, anyway.  It’s a difficult/impossible task to compile a list of all my favourite endings to books, especially since I can’t claim to have read a significant portion of English literature – let alone the established canon – but I’m going to attempt it anyway.  So here’s my top 10 list:


10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

“But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me.  ‘Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”

These words form the colossal cliffhanger of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Suzanne Collins excels at bringing characters from despair to hope, and at bringing everything crashing down once again.  At this stage of the novel Katniss has just been rescued from the death-match arena, surviving her second Hunger Games which were supposed to be a death sentence.  Furthermore, her actions in the arena proved to be the final spark which blazed into life a rebellion against the Capitol and the brutal dictator, President Snow.  Yet after this we learned that Peeta had been captured by the Capitol forces in their escape and then, finally, we’re given this final line that states Katniss’ home district is gone.  We know that the government has firebombed the coal-covered District 12 and that her mother and sister are safe, but this shocking final message with its brutal lack of detail hammers it home as the reader runs out of words.  We don’t know how many people survived – if any, nor the wider context of this attack.  This cliffhanger is highly effective and is a taste of things to come in the third and final novel, Mockingjay.


9. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

” ‘And then what?’ said her dæmon sleepily.  “Build what?” ‘The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”

This final line to my all-time favourite book, though not a literary masterpiece in itself like other lines in this list, remains a highly fitting conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The central theme to the books is that humanity should not look to a deity, real or otherwise, for meaning and purpose, but find and build it within themselves.  The Republic of Heaven begins as an attempt to build a real society in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven which ends in war between the two, but it becomes clear that such a project is doomed to fail as people cannot inhabit other worlds than their own in the long-term.  Earlier in the book Lyra is told by a ghost, “We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”  At first she probably didn’t understand this, but her assertion at the end of the novel indicates she has embraced this philosophy. Knowing there is no conscious existence after death, nor hope of life in other worlds, Lyra has accepted after multiple sacrifices that she must live as fulfilling a life as possible in her own world during her own lifespan, bringing the thematic journey of the series to a satisfying conclusion.


8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1931)

 “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south–south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left.  South-south west, south-south east, east…”

This somewhat graphic description of John the Savage’s suicide brings Brave New World to a close.  These final lines are powerful because of the sheer brutality of their imagery, using the comparison of compass needles and an agonisingly long, drawn out list of directions to create a vivid image of his feet dangling from above.  This makes the ending far more effective, as his suicide had been built up to throughout the book as he struggled to adapt to this horrific new world he found himself in, and particularly after the confused and drug-induced events in the previous scene where he let down all his moral barriers, which could have made the ending seem predictable otherwise.


7. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.”

This closing line is important for several reasons.  Pagford’s divisions are laid bare between its wealthy residents and deprived families by the former’s collective act of looking away from the coffin of the woman who epitomised the latter, Terri Weedon.  The people of Pagford have made no success throughout the novel in understanding people in situations different from their own.  Their averted gaze symbolises the ignorance they held the family’s condition in, continuing to view their faults as self-imposed rather than the result of institutional, generational poverty.  For a novel which explores all aspects of human society, the good and the bad, this may seem surprisingly hopeless, though it’s important to remember the individual characters who have been redeemed throughout the novel.  This final line, then, confirms the novel’s message that although humans may see positive changes on an individual level over the course of the novel’s timespan, societal change is a much slower, messier process.


6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

   “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Fitzgerald’s lyrical writing flows from the page to summarise the novel’s themes, told by the narrator Nick Carraway.  These final paragraphs offer us two contrasting visions: the first of a temporary setback in reaching their dreams – the American Dream – and the second revelation that obsessively seeking your dreams, as was the case with Gatsby, merely drags you further into the past as you seek to recreate former glory.  Which is doomed to fail because, as Nick enlightened us earlier, “you can’t repeat the past.”  Furthermore, this is confirmation that the entire concept of the American Dream is a lie, or obsolete in this postwar world.  These final lines show us why The Great Gatsby remains hugely relevant for American society today.


5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

“Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

The closing line of this wonderful short story completes the narrator’s mental breakdown  having been confined to a bedroom in solitary confinement so she can ‘rest’, a barbaric but oh-so Victorian way of treating depression.  We watch the narrator’s mental state unravel as she becomes obsessed by the patterned wallpaper in her room, fixating all her world’s meaning upon it, and begins ritually walking round the room stripping the paper off.  Her husband, upon viewing her, faints, but this does not deter her and she continues walking her path over him.  These closing lines show just how removed from reality she has become that she is unable to even contextualise her husband’s identity and wellbeing, so severe has her mistreatment been.


4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

This last line of Adam Ewing’s diary brings this epic of a novel to a close.  By this point we’ve witnessed six different time periods, movements to abolishing slavery, multiple personal adventures, revolutions and even the end of civilisation itself.  In each of the six stories it is heavily implied that a major character is the reincarnation of another from a previous story.  Whether Mitchell means this literally or as a metaphor for the consistent nature of the human soul, be it habit of the strong to exploit the weak or the enduring power of love, this final line must summarise not just the entire book but also humanity in its entirety.


3. Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike.  No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.  The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This classic ending to Animal Farm completes the story’s circular plot of the farm being ruled by oppressive humans, the animals themselves in a brief period of freedom before being oppressed once again by the pigs.  Orwell masterfully shows the pigs gradually adopting more manlike manners by reneging on their laws outlawing alcohol and murder, among others, and then by the pigs entering the farmhouse and sleeping in human beds.  These closing lines bring this process to its natural conclusion where the pigs, to all intents and purposes, have become men.  As this is Orwell there is inevitably a political purpose, and here it is to show how the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union have become indistinguishable from the former Tsarist regime.  Never has there been a more successful allegory.


2. Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)

“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Without a doubt the most unorthodox quote you’ll find on this list, the final lines of Ulysses (as opposed to the final sentence, which is over three thousand words long) brings some perhaps surprising order to this novel that so many people find unfathomable.  Throughout the day of Leopold Bloom, described in eye-watering levels of detail, he has been portrayed as a gentle and kind person, a protective father figure for Stephen, possessing moderate political views in opposition to xenophobic Irish nationalism and remarkable understanding towards his wife Molly, who has just begun an affair.  As a result of this he is frequently emasculated by characters throughout the book, particularly during chapter 15’s nightmare sequence in which he is literally turned into a woman.  His inadequacy as a hero is reinforced with the constant allusions to Homer’s Odysseus, proving himself to be the stark opposite of this bold, heroic figure.  And yet, in Molly’s final soliloquy, her lasts thoughts before falling asleep are of Bloom as she remembers the day he asked her to marry him.  We can finally recognise Bloom as the undoubted hero of the novel as he wins this ultimate victory against his rival for Molly – a victory not just for himself but for his values of tolerance.  It becomes clear that Bloom is indeed a hero, and perhaps precisely the one that Ireland needs.


1. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”

Yes, Orwell again!  These famous lines represent The Party’s ultimate victory over Winston, providing one of the bleakest yet most powerful endings in English literature.  Throughout the novel Winston has opposed The Party and Big Brother, expressing his hatred of them both multiple times throughout.  And yet Orwell shows that even the deepest convictions can be uprooted by force, in Winston’s case through systematic torture and the horrors of Room 101.  The final sentence, deliberately basic in its construction, is an affirmation of Winston’s conversion, while the shift to a relaxed, reassuring tone expresses clearly how he has changed from the anguish-ridden man from the rest of the novel.  Completely at odds to the rest of the book, these final lines serve as the ultimate warning to the power of totalitarian regimes to bend and breaks their citizens upon their own whims.  It’s a message just as important today as it was in 1949.


Do you have any thoughts on this selection?  Have I made any notable omissions you think I should reconsider (or read!)? Let me know in the comments!

Insipid Sequels

This blog post is born out of my frustration of watching so many film sequels which are, frankly, not worth the discs they’re coded onto.  The latest example was my attempt to watch the entire Jurassic Park trilogy.  Although the original film isn’t the best film I’ve ever seen it did manage some awe-inspiring effects and was genuinely frightening in places.  It’s only big problem was the thinly constructed storyline.  It was abundantly clear that the film-makers wanted to make a thriller using their newly developed CGI; every element of plot in the film brings the characters to this point where they’re hunted by dinosaurs through the Park.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it just leaves the plot seeming rather stale, but the film mostly manages to hold its own in spite of this.

The problem arises when, as with many highly successful films, it’s decided to make sequels in order to capitalise on the popularity to gain greater profits.  This is an assumption on my part but the desire to make a profit seems to be the primary reason for making the sequel, rather than the film-makers have a burning desire to make another film.  Hence the complete lack of vision which Jurassic Park: The Lost World seemed to possess.  I’ll confess I gave up on it after half an hour of watching* – I was bored to death by the total lack of a storyline and none of the reviews I found suggested it improved, nor that the third film was any better.  Circumstances force the characters back to an island covered with dinosaurs, where they proceed to engage in banter regarding the lead’s girlfriend and his daughter, getting into danger solely through the characters’ own stupidity (“I’m going to go look at this dinosaur!” “No!” “Your girlfriend is crazy, lol.” “Ahhh, I’m being attacked, help me!”).  These seem to be common attributes of these insipid, profit-driven sequels: poorly written character-focused drama in which the characters create the film’s drama through their own unconvincing stupidity.  This does nothing to endear the audience to the film or its characters.  I’m aware The Lost World is based off a book, as is the first film, though I believe it’s quite a loose adaptation (and looking at the synopsis for the novel on Wikipedia, it doesn’t look particularly inspiring either).

The Lost World is [probably] a poor film; I could have left it at that, except this is a pattern I’ve seen so often before.  The worst offenders are often Disney films.  A couple of examples of sequels which absolutely ruined the legacy of the original which come to mind are Mulan II and Brother Bear 2.  The latter particularly annoyed me when I watched it – Mulan was a fantastic film with one of the best female leads Disney has produced, which the sequel reduced to an unbelievable romance film.  I’d also include sequels to The Matrix, my hatred of which I’ve already written about extensively.  There’s plenty of other examples, you just need to Google “worst film sequels” to find lists upon lists of terrible films, most of which I’ve mercifully never been exposed to.

Although universally popular, I’m not including sequels in franchises such as the Star Wars prequels or Pirates of the Caribbean.  The quality of these films may be up for debate – I personally quite like them – but I think most people would agree they’re different from the films I described above.  They do at least have plotlines which run throughout the entire film series and feature real character development across the films, rather than being 90 minutes spent emulating a sitcom (although the latest PotC film has begun to head down this direction…).  Other successful examples are The Lion King and Toy Story sequels. The difference is that, although these films were made because they were guaranteed successes at the Box Office, the filmmakers had a vision for the films they wanted to make.  So I’d say to screenwriters, producers, directors, and everyone else involved in sequels, by all means make a follow-up to the latest Box Office success but, please, have a vision which can justify it.  Perhaps if profits were determined by the quality of reviews rather than the number of sales we’d see more sequels with a justifiable existence.

Also, the reason I’ve focused on films rather than books is that although many terrible sequels to books exist, most do tend to have a certain minimal degree of plot and character development.  Perhaps this is because novels are usually the creation of one mind, who can easily stamp their vision into them, whereas film sequels seem to be the product of money-hungry film executives.

Have you got any examples of film sequels you feel fall into this category of ‘insipid sequels’, or ones you feel worked successfully?  Please let me know in the comments box!

*I know, this makes me sound such a lazy critic!  I’ll redeem myself when I review Ulysses

2014 Predictions

New Year is rapidly becoming my favourite ‘holiday’ celebration.  Why?  Unlike Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and most of the others, it actually seems to have a purpose that’s neither religious nor consumerist.  Although not the greatest fan of fireworks, I do enjoy using New Year as an opportunity for reflection on the year past, and to take a look at the year ahead.  I do this for my own life – though that would be dreadfully boring to put on this blog – but I’m also increasingly trying to do it for the world at large.  The rushed predictions I made for this year turned out to be 65% correct; next year I hope to beat that record!  I’m going to split the predictions into categories rather than just focusing on exciting/dull political developments as I did for this year.  So, without further ado, here are my 2014 predictions:

UK Politics

  • The Coalition will survive to the end of the year, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will really start ramping up the rhetoric to differentiate themselves from one another.  The Liberal Democrats will focus on the social liberal policies while remaining economically right-wing.
  • European elections: The Conservatives will lose out massively, perhaps dropping to 15-20%, while I expect Labour to lead at maybe 25% or so.  UKIP will, of course, dominate the news, and I expect them to come a close second to Labour but they won’t have a massive breakthrough.  The Liberal Democrat vote will collapse, falling below 10%.  The Greens will (hopefully!) keep at least one seat, while I think the SNP will make some gains in Scotland.  There won’t, however, be a clear leader in the election.
  • The Scottish electorate will reject independence in the upcoming referendum, but it’ll be closer than most are currently predicting.  The share voting Yes will be above 35%.
  • We might finally get some decent policy announcements from Labour.  Maybe.

Elections Worldwide

  • The constitutional referendum in Egypt will go ahead and provide a Yes vote, resulting in parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year.  I expect Sisi will run for president, or push a figure from the military.  These elections might not be completely rigged but I don’t expect their results to be universally accepted.
  • Libya will finally end up with a government by the end of the year, which will be more liberal-leaning than many other post-revolutionary governments in the region.
  • North Korea’s ruling party candidates will be returned to parliament with 100% of the vote.
  • Iraq will struggle to hold parliamentary elections within an increasingly violent atmosphere; Shia candidates will narrowly achieve a majority over Sunni and secular alternatives – Nour al-Maliki will probably continue as Prime Minister.
  • The European Parliament as a whole will see a massive rise of national eurosceptic parties – like UKIP – gaining seats in the legislature.  Otherwise, perhaps a small shift towards the left?
  • The Bharatiya Janata Party will defeat the ruling Indian National Congress in India.
  • The Fidesz Party in Hungary will consolidate its rule, leading to increasing concerns of authoritarianism in the country.
  • The ANC will be re-elected in South Africa, although with a smaller majority than in any other post-Apartheid election.  President Zuma’s popularity will continue to decline nonetheless.
  • In Sweden the Social Democratic Party, in alliance with the Greens, shall sweep to power.
  • Despite mass protests against her government earlier this year, I expect President Rousseff shall cling onto power in Brazil.
  • The Democrats shall take control of the United States Congress, finally ending the gridlock upon American politics. (I can dream)

Other World Developments

  • The Syrian conflict will become so depressing I’ll probably stop writing and talking about it.  The death toll shall pass 200,000, the government and Islamic radicals will become increasing winners at the expense of the population, and the international community will twiddle its thumbs while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah more and more start to call the shots.
  • The Sochi Winter Olympics will pass without too many more terrorist incidents.  There will be heightened international criticism of Russia’s human rights record, which will then be largely forgotten once the media coverage dies down.
  • We’ll be seeing a lot more about the travesty of oil-drilling in the Arctic.
  • There will be another coup, either in Africa or Asia.
  • Something big will happen to a South American country.
  • At least two countries will become more democratic.
  • Keep an eye on Ukraine – I expect certain elements of the country to increasingly resist Russian influence.
  • China’s economic growth rate will recede although still stay above the majority of countries in the world.
  • The dictator whose political demise I’ll predict this time is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria.

Cultural Predictions

  • Doctor Who: Steven Moffat will announce plans to resign within the next year, potentially followed by an announcement of a successor.  The return of an undivided series structure, alongside the return of multiple-episode stories (not yet announced) will improve series 8’s standing in my reviews.
  • Radiohead will release their ninth album, and it shall be amazing.
  • J.K. Rowling will publish her sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, which will become an instant best-seller.

 

North Korea: Orwell Was Not Exaggerating

Just a quick thought.  When I was doing research for my Advanced Higher English dissertation last year on dystopian literature, I came across a few critics who argued that Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to be an unrealistically extreme example of a totalitarian state to make his warning and message more effective.  I strongly disagreed back then; recent events in North Korea, meanwhile, are serving to remind me so much of the novel that, frankly, it’s frightening.

Back in November the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, was hauled out of a session of the ruling party by armed guards.  Recent reports indicate he has now been machine-gunned to death.  Formerly considered to be the most powerful man in the country during the leadership transition in 2011-2012, he has fallen victim to Kim Jong-un’s first serious purge.  Just like in Orwell’s Oceania, leading figures in The Party and the lower classes alike can be disappeared upon the whims of the country’s leadership.

The propaganda screaming out of the North Korean state media is even more terrifying.  Read it for yourself – it contains horrific excerpts like, “However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”  From memory, this is just as extreme as any of the propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-four, perhaps even worse.  I remember from various BBC documentaries, state imagery is prevalent across Pyongyang and much of the capital: great murals idealising the country’s leaders and quasi-Communist ideology; loudspeakers blare party doctrine and patriotic music across the city; the state controls both the television and the internet – North Koreans are only permitted to use a heavily censored country-wide intranet.  Like Oceania, the totalitarian state’s propaganda pervades every aspect of life.

In the novel, Winston works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’.  His job involves literally rewriting history: writing disgraced figures out of newspaper archives, editing history books and news broadcasts, and so on; doing whatever necessary to fit The Party’s current stance.  The state not only kills dissenters – it removes them from existence.  If you read that North Korean official announcement I linked to, it attempts to discredit Chang by suggesting he has planned to seize power ever since ‘long ago’ and destroy the revolution.  But it’s far worse than that – a recent state-sponsored documentary has reportedly had all mention of Chang edited out, while images have literally been photoshopped in order to pretend Kim Jong-un never truly trusted him within his inner circle.  While I couldn’t comment on whether the people of North Korea are so psychologically conditioned as the citizens of Oceania to just accept this change without thought, I certainly doubt it will be seriously questioned.

As the former North Korean ambassador for the UK has just told Newsnight, there is a real chance of North Korea starting up another crisis similar to the one we saw earlier this year, threatening to start World War Three and to turn South Korea into a ‘sea of fire’ alongside other such insane rhetoric.  Absolutely baseless, of course, but it serves a logical purpose: the North Korean people’s confidence in their leadership will be shaken after this recent report, so what better way to unify them alongside the ruling party than to show the country facing a threat from evil imperialistic powers?  By artificially creating a state of war and siege within the country, dissent can successfully be quelled through what may be only the beginning of a wider purge.  This is a central theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell dedicating an entire chapter to the political theory behind it, in fact – as Oceania is always at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia.  The constant state of war rallies people behind The Party and create a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty.

Dissenting citizens of Oceania are taken to the Ministry of Love where, through a combination of torture and brainwashing, they are forced to love Big Brother.  The aim is not to rehabilitate them into society; everyone entering the Ministry of Love has a death sentence above their heads.  For the Party it is not enough to kill a dissenter – they must die fully under its control.  North Korea, meanwhile, has its own form of repression.  According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are incarcerated in massive prison and labour camps.  This counts for almost 1 in 100 people.  Many of these are political prisoners of conscience, while others will be there through guilt by association to other dissenters alone – the family members of political enemies, for example.  Mass executions are common: that report mentions prisoners are often made to dig their own graves before being killed by a hammer blow to the neck; others are publicly beaten before being shot to death.  Women are frequently raped and then ‘disappeared’ to hide the evidence.  This goes on every single moment of every single day while we carry on largely oblivious.  Just like in Orwell’s vision, the North Korean state systematically tortures its own citizens.

These are only a few examples of how the North Korean state is in many ways identical to the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty Four.  Orwell’s masterpiece is not an exaggeration nor a satire; it exists today within North Korea.  The North Korean state is living proof that such a world is possible – it’s only by luck that we’ve avoided the same fate.  Stories coming out of North Korea might seem funny and weird but I hope I’ve convinced you that it really isn’t a laughing matter.  It is shameful for our entire species that these atrocities are still allowed to occur.  I have no solutions. I suspect, barring a spontaneous change within the North Korean political system – not impossible – the totalitarian state will only collapse once it loses the support of China.  By that point, I’m convinced, it would be utterly unable to function.  Until such a time, the anonymous millions within North Korea are destined to continue their suffering.

Image attribution: By stngiam (Mural outside Songdowon Hotel, Wonsan, North Korea) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons