Review: Sandra Newman’s Julia a worthy companion to Orwell’s 1984

By Michael Grossberg

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the seminal novels of the past century.

An early inductee (appropriately enough, in 1984) into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, Orwell’s cautionary tale was inspired by the totalitarian horrors of Soviet Communism, yet remains a far broader warning about the perils of tyranny, no matter its variants and extremes of Left or Right.

Given the acclaim and reputation that Orwell’s classic has attained and deserves, it would seem foolhardy for anyone to dare to write a sequel. After all, how could it possibly measure up?

Yet, Orwell’s estate authorized novelist Sandra Newman to do just that with Julia – or more precisely, offer “a retelling of George Orwell’s 1984” (as subtitled on its hardback-book cover.)


Inventive and imaginative but also utterly real and convincing in its well-chosen details, Julia (published by HarperCollins’ Mariner Books) succeeds against the odds as a fresh yet darkly familiar companion to 1984.

Not only does this companion piece expose the horrors of authoritarianism carried to an extreme, but it also explicitly underlines the virtues of freedom in making life livable.

By making the central character Julia (in Orwell’s 1984, the largely one-dimensional lover of bureaucrat Winston Smith), Newman’s novel adds a woman’s proto-feminist perspective with new insights enriching and deepening Orwell’s dystopian vision of Newspeak, Thought Police, Thoughtcrime, Two-Minutes Hate rallies, constant telescreen surveillance, ever-shrinking dictionaries, collectivist one-Party rule and Oceana’s dizzyingly endless and ever-changing War with Eurasia today and Eastasia tomorrow.

While portrayed in Orwell’s novel as the largely one-dimensional love object of his central character Winston Smith, Julia is revealed in Newman’s novel to be more self-aware, sophisticated, worldly and cynical than Winston.

Julia embraces her seemingly humdrum existence while also subverting it.

Working as a mechanic fixing novel-writing machines within the Fiction Department of the bureaucratic Ministry of Truth, Julia takes time off to revel in and release her promiscuous impulses for fun, feisty sexuality and subversive risk-taking. She’s simply a more interesting and involving character, frankly more full of life, and embracing greater agency than poor dull Winston ever had.

Weaving in and around the events of Orwell’s classic novel while adding revealing flashbacks and more recurrent characters that broaden his important and enduring themes, Newman reveals Julia as both victim of and accomplice to Big Brother’s regime.

THE NIGHTMARE OF TOTALITARIANISM
Her nuanced retelling not only exposes the horrific evils and cruel excesses of tyranny but also reminds us of the resilience of many people even while everyday life is seemingly crushing them under the boots of dictators.

From the black markets that give the desperate food and other small comforts to the hidden relationships that sprout underfoot like stray flowers in barren wastelands, Newman finds the intrinsic connections among life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

George Orwell. (Creative Commons license)

Like Orwell, Newman eloquently and chillingly dramatizes how unchecked dictatorship, reinforced with thought control, propaganda and Puritanical repression, always strives to stamp out any remnants of individuality.

Anything it can’t control or anything that might become a threat is anathema to authoritarian systems – from the individual and the family to love and the untamed currents of sexuality inside us all.

Part of the enduring cautionary power of Orwell’s classic novel is the way it illuminate the utter darkness of absolute tyranny, along with its attendant and inevitable cruelties and abuses of power.

Julia persuasively replicates Orwell’s chillingly totalitarian atmosphere and his novel’s dreary landscape of London, chief city of England’s rebranded Airstrip One, Oceana’s most populous province.

At the same time, Newman brilliantly enriches the tapestry of often-secretive life within Orwell’s compelling fictional landscape to reveal new dimensions of both horror and the resilience of humanity even within a suffocating and seemingly inescapable nightmare of oppression.

Julia’s bold and subversive enjoyment of illicit love-making is only part of that tapestry of humanity in a very adult novel, suggested for mature audiences because of extreme violence and explicit sex scenes.

Yet, Newman also builds on Orwell’s best, from her creative reworking of the cruel and insidious tortures within infamous Room 101 to the book’s unexpected and twisty coda, which goes beyond the events of 1984 with a few more chapters offering at least glimmers of hope amid an ironic reminder of the seemingly endless cycles of the perennial conflict between Liberty and Power.

THE BEAUTY AND LIVELINESS OF LIBERTY
Gripping and fast-paced, Julia is a provocative and surprising novel that offers beautifully written moments, some positively poetic in making freedom palpable.

For instance, in an interior monologue, Julia “imagined freedom as exuberance, a clumsy romping… In her mind, it was tied to her childhood days, the hours the exiles had spent complaining, fighting, singing at kitchen tables, while Julia played soldiers with hairpins at their feet. The rich food the exiles had eaten was freedom, and the music called jazz, with its horns and wails like wonderful sickness. Her mother had told her those songs were made in another universe. That universe, then, was freedom.”

Even while Orwell’s dystopia remains grim in this chambers-of-horrors retelling, Newman somehow manages to find telling flashes of light, joy, subversive pleasure and playfulness amid the gloom – all reminders that while total tyranny remains inhuman, anti-life, anti-sex, anti-reason and anti-objective-reality, at least some remnants of humanity and positive human behavior can and do tend to persist.

Julia is more explicit in its sexuality, but also much less romantic in focus than 1984.  Winston’s hopes of love with Julia prove to be naïve and false here, as seen from her more pragmatic and less emotional perspective.

In this and other ways Newman’s deft reconception of Orwell’s fictionalized future is more realistic and far-flung in its portrayals of the same nightmarish future. Yet, Julia also admirably transcends and deepens the classic that inspired it, even as one must concede that this sequel may never replace it in influence or stature.

If anyone’s wondering, Julia works just fine as a stand-alone novel. Even so, it bolsters one’s appreciation of Newman’s achievement if you’ve read Orwell’s 1948 novel – even if you last read it many years ago.

Few novels dramatize the horrors of totalitarianism so powerfully and poignantly as Orwell’s undeniable and influential classic, but Newman’s worthy sequel comes impressively close to that high standard while extending Orwell’s vivid world-building into illuminating new territory.

Brilliantly updated and fleshed out to subtly reflect today’s deeper understanding and broader perspectives about the political and psychological dynamics of the past century’s brands of authoritarianism, Julia offers a trenchant portrait and indictment of absolutist tyranny, no matter its ideological flavors.

Note: Julia is one of 17 nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel. The Prometheus Best Novel judges will select a slate of (typically five) Best Novel finalists by mid-April. Stay tuned here, on the Prometheus Blog, for that news.

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees and read the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-nominated authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series of more than 100 past winners since 1979.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction, jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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