Barry Eisler: A Grim Future Is Now In '1984'

Barry Eisler i i

hide captionBarry Eisler's books draw on his experiences as a former CIA operative, a technology lawyer and a startup executive. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hank Shiffman
Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler's books draw on his experiences as a former CIA operative, a technology lawyer and a startup executive. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hank Shiffman

In our series Thrilled to Death, suspense writers talk with us about their work, and then recommend the books they love.

Barry Eisler, a former CIA operative, is the author of two thriller series that have become international best-sellers. His latest book, Inside Out, explores issues of torture when dealing with enemy combatants. It's part of his Ben Treven series about a Black Ops soldier with a wicked sense of humor.

Realism is important to Eisler; to write his books, he's educated himself on explosives, hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. But even with all that preparation, it can be hard to get all the facts straight. So his website has an entire page devoted to mistakes that fans have found in his books. There, he addresses the difference between an "ex-Marine" and a "former Marine," and whether single malt Scotch should be spelled whiskey, or whisky.

Eisler talks with NPR's Michele Norris about his research process, and the various ways he strives for authenticity — even if that means zapping himself with a stun gun.

You can hear their conversation by clicking the "Listen" link at the top of the page. Below, read Eisler's recommendation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nineteen Eighty-Four
By George Orwell
Paperback, 368 pages
Plume
List price: $15.95

Read An Excerpt

Recommended Thriller: 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' By George Orwell

By Barry Eisler

A lone man hunted by faceless government spies. A doomed love affair, its urgent moments stolen against a backdrop of terror and war. Surveillance, capture, torture, betrayal. If this doesn't describe a thriller, the thriller doesn't exist.

I'm talking about Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course.

Orwell's novel offers such devastating political commentary that in spite of the classic elements I mention above it isn't usually recognized as a thriller. This is a shame, because in addition to its many other virtues, Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates the potential power of the form to deliver a dire warning.

I first read the book in high school, and at the time thought of it as science fiction: commentary about events set in a remote future that hadn't come to be. There was no Big Brother. Certainly no one was staring back at me while I watched television.

But today the book feels more relevant than ever, when you consider the increasingly pervasive government surveillance, and the ubiquity of the kind of euphemistic "Newspeak" Orwell so presciently predicted as a means of controlling public perceptions, wherein even something as clear-cut as torture isn't called torture any longer, but "enhanced interrogation techniques." Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is a "spill" or "leak." We don't call these euphemisms Newspeak, as the Party did in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But then, such an accurate description would defeat the euphemisms' purpose.

Most of us don't know that George Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. The reason Nineteen Eighty-Four is read so widely is, of course, that the novel — and the thriller in particular — provides a vehicle through which ideas can be brought viscerally to life through the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page. For readers, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning. For a thriller writer like me, it's something to aspire to.

Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Gabe O'Connor, Chelsea Jones and Miriam Krule.

Excerpt: 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nineteen Eighty-Four
By George Orwell
Paperback, 368 pages
Plume
List price: $15.95

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about 45, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was 39 and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The blackmoustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at streetlevel another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.

Behind Winston's back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.

The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, 3,000 rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all. Winston had never been inside the Ministry of Love, nor within half a kilometre of it. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons.

Winston turned round abruptly. He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen. He crossed the room into the tiny kitchen. By leaving the Ministry at this time of day he had sacrificed his lunch in the canteen, and he was aware that there was no food in the kitchen except a hunk of dark-coloured bread which had got to be saved for tomorrow's breakfast. He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese ricespirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.

Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful. He took a cigarette from a crumpled packet marked VICTORY CIGARETTES and incautiously held it upright, whereupon the tobacco fell out on to the floor. With the next he was more successful. He went back to the living-room and sat down at a small table that stood to the left of the telescreen. From the table drawer he took out a penholder, a bottle of ink, and a thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover.

For some reason the telescreen in the living-room was in an unusual position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which Winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. He could be heard, of course, but so long as he stayed in his present position he could not be seen. It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

But it had also been suggested by the book that he had just taken out of the drawer. It was a peculiarly beautiful book. Its smooth creamy paper, a little yellowed by age, was of a kind that had not been manufactured for at least forty years past. He could guess, however, that the book was much older than that. He had seen it lying in the window of a frowsy little junk-shop in a slummy quarter of the town (just what quarter he did not now remember) and had been stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it. Party members were supposed not to go into ordinary shops ('dealing on the free market', it was called), but the rule was not strictly kept, because there were various things, such as shoelaces and razor blades, which it was impossible to get hold of in any other way. He had given a quick glance up and down the street and then had slipped inside and bought the book for two dollars fifty. At the time he was not conscious of wanting it for any particular purpose. He had carried it guiltily home in his briefcase. Even with nothing written in it, it was a compromising possession.

Excerpted from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell published in 1949 by Secker and Warburg.

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1984
1984

A Novel

by George Orwell

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