Genre: Arts, History & Current Affairs

How to Build a Dystopia

by Dorian Lynskey


HOW TO BUILD A DYSTOPIA is a unique and brilliant biography of one of our most important and enduring stories — NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell.

Everybody knows George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, even if they haven’t read it. Its influence informs works as diverse as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. It inspired the most acclaimed television commercial of all time, a landmark in reality television, rock concept albums and countless fictional dystopias. Every year gives us new angles on the ideas represented in the novel’s key phrases and images: Big Brother, Room 101, The Thought Police, Doublethink, Newspeak, memory hole, 2+2=5, a boot stamping on a human face forever. Whenever we talk about authoritarianism, surveillance, propaganda, revisionism or post-truth, it is Orwell who has set us the broadest context for the conversation. Orwell’s greatest book continues to speak to us, louder than ever in the age of Trump.

But NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR has a context and a story of its own. It was, of course, a specific product of the post-war 1940s. The story of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is also the story of Orwell’s life and ideas, particularly between his service in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and his death in 1950. But follow the story backwards and a new angle reveals itself: NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is not just one of our most influential works of fiction, but one of the most influenced. In HOW TO BUILD A DYSTOPIA, Lynskey interleaves Orwell’s life between 1936 and 1950 with the history that helped create the novel — tendrils that extend back to revolutionary Russia, Edwardian England and fin-de-siècle America.

So, this is the biography of a novel: a story much bigger than Orwell’s alone. HOW TO BUILD A DYSTOPIA is the first book to treat NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR as a ubiquitous cultural touchstone rather than as an academic text. It spans the 20th century, and before and beyond, taking in literature, cinema, pop music, politics and technology. Deftly weaving these disparate strands together, Lynskey forms a remarkably fresh take on Orwell’s classic text as it approaches its 70th anniversary.