[This is the text of the 2006 commencement address for the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley.]
Welcome to the Impossible World
By Rebecca Solnit
Some of you here today receiving degrees took time off to explore the world, work for a cause, or earn enough money to get to college, but I suspect the great majority of you went straight through from high school and thus were likely born in 1984. What does it mean to be born in 1984, the ominous year that hung over humanity for 36 years after George Orwell made those four numbers a synonym for totalitarianism; what does it mean to be born atop the high wall at the end of the grim future of the imagination?
I thought of that as soon as I was invited to give this talk, thought about the enormous gap between when Orwell, on the beautiful isle of Jura in Scotland, wrote this bleakest of anti-utopian novels in 1948, and the actual 1984, as well as the no less profound chasm between 1984, real and imagined, and the present moment. To contemplate those chasms is to recognize, in the most literal sense, just how utterly unpredictable the future is. To recognize that is to realize that a rapidly changing world requires an ability to appreciate uncertainty, and what in books we call wild plot twists, at least as much as the wobbly gift of prophesy.