It is now a journalistic cliché to remark that George Orwell’s “1984” was “prophetic.” The novel was so prophetic that its prophecies have become modern-day prosaisms. Reading it now is a tedious experience. Against the omniscient marvels of today’s surveillance state, Big Brother’s fixtures — the watchful televisions and hidden microphones — seem quaint, even reassuring.
Everything about the world Orwell envisioned has become so obvious that one keeps running up against the novel’s narrative shortcomings.
I am more impressed with another of his oracles: the 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb,” in which Orwell more or less anticipates the geopolitical shape of the world for the next half-century. “Ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make,” he explains, “will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance … A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.”
Describing the atomic bomb (which had only two months before been used to flatten Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as an “inherently tyrannical weapon,” he predicts that it will concentrate power in the hands of the “two or three monstrous super-states” that have the advanced industrial and research bases necessary to produce it. Suppose, he asks, “that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate?”