Monday, 7 October 2013

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Despite potential arguments against, I can't help but think of A Clockwork Orange as part of a thematic trilogy also including Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. All three deal with authoritarian societies, and each has made its own contribution to the collective imagination - everything from Big Brother to the cover of the first Angelic Upstarts album; also, both 1984 and A Clockwork Orange have rightly come to be regarded as literature, and having escaped the science-fiction ghetto can be discussed as such in polite company without too much giggling and pointing.

The most popularly known facts of A Clockwork Orange are probably that Stanley Kubrick's filmed version was banned - except that actually it wasn't - and that it isn't quite written in English. Some editions have included glossaries of Nadsat as an appendix - Nadsat being the pseudo-Russian argot with which Alex, our humble narrator, peppers his speech; but I must admit I never saw the necessity. The novel is written in such a way as to make the meaning of most of its unfamiliar terms as clear as you're likely to need through context and repetition. Written shortly after the invention of the teenager as something distinct from the adult with its own habits, customs, and language, A Clockwork Orange takes a wild, speculative, and possibly alarmist leap in predicting the future of the generation gap that opened up across the western nations immediately following the second world war, although of course the point of the book is not so much about teenage rebellion as how a society deals with its own disruptive element. The authorities of this world, much like those of our own, subscribe to the idea that individuals can be compelled towards that which they deem good, educating through drugs, propaganda and conditioning in the absence of any more legitimate inducement to obey the laws of a hypocritical system.

Half a century later this novel is as relevant as it ever was, and has lost none of its power thanks, in part, to the strength of Burgess's vision - a future society which is both immediately recognisable and nevertheless timeless though being referentially divorced from any single obvious era or source of inspiration. I'm inclined to wonder if Nadsat was chosen simply as something randomly plucked from the direction opposite to American culture of the fifties and sixties, but then it doesn't really matter where it came from.

I frequently encounter discussion of the death penalty as it presently stands in thirty-two American states, and it seems to me that the best argument for abolition makes no reference to either the sentenced offender, any general consensus of justice, or those offended against, but instead concentrates on what the existence of a death penalty says about the rest of us and our society as a whole. It is a similar argument, I would say, to that which Burgess sets forth in this novel, and with so many of the marginally privileged presently clambering over each other to demonise one minority or another - ethnic, economic or otherwise - purely because that's what it takes to get some people into the voting booth, A Clockwork Orange remains at least as relevant as it has ever been; almost certainly one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time.

1 comment:

  1. Good point about the thematic trilogy. A while back, I think Arthur Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' was seen as being in the same league as 'Brave New World' and 1984, but it's popularity has faded over the years because it was more specifically about the Soviet Union while as you rightly say, A clockwork Orange's concerns remain as relevant as ever. I read it a while back and it's still a good book though not anything that could really be considered science fiction. I also think that a Clockwork Orange's enduring popularity has far more to do with Kubrick than the book itself