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

Jul 15, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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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.


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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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