Antwerp, Belgium — If Big Brother had been watching, he would have been sorely disappointed. Disobedience reigned. Last Sunday, after three days of talk, writers and scholars who had gathered here to consider George Orwell and 1984 left without having agreed on a thing, proving - at least to some - that freedom of thought is alive and well - at least in the West.
''I'm not even sure why we're here,'' writer and critic Anthony Burgess commented. '' 'Nineteen Eighty-four,' in fact, has nothing to do with 1984. Orwell wanted to call the book something else, like 'Nineteen Forty-eight'. His publisher picked 'Nineteen Eighty-four' instead. Orwell didn't agree.''
Some said Orwell's work was prophecy; others called it history. Some said it criticized socialism; others said it didn't. Overall, it was a thoroughly disagreeable affair.
The conference, organized by the Belgian science-fiction organization Progressef - was the brainchild of Antwerp librarian Benoit J. Suykerbuyk, who says that science fiction is, above all, politics.
''Everyone who reads 'Nineteen Eighty-four' recognizes it immediately as politics, and that - along with 1984 being just around the corner - was the reason we decided to organize our annual conference on the 1984 theme. But 'Nineteen Eighty-four' is also science fiction - at its best.''
Many conference participants had other ideas. ''It's a satire of contemporary society rather than a prophecy of the future,'' said noted Orwell biographer Bernard Crick. Burgess, who called his own ''Clockwork Orange'' (1960) ''horribly old-fashioned now,'' agreed.
American academician Paul Chilton said the importance of Orwell's book lay in its treatment of language while American thinker Rachael Pollack said it was a treatise on the ''debasement'' of modern language. But Burgess said Orwell liked ''newspeak'' - ''totally plain, simple language people could understand, without ambiguity.''
For political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent, happiness was explaining that in his other books Orwell described various forms of social control beyond ''force and violence.''
''In 'Nineteen Eight-four,' '' Sargent said. ''O'Brien tells Winston Smith, 'If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.' This is a crude but effective method of social control,'' Sargent pointed out. ''But there are a variety of means beyond force and violence, and some are already being used by governments today.''
French thinker Jean-Daniel Jurgensen said the Khomeini regime's whipping up crowds to shout in fist-raised anger an example of the kind of thing Orwell had in mind when he wrote about ''hate weeks.''