Aug 29, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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I picked this book up with some trepidation. It was on my Science Fiction Classics list, and I knew I'd have to read it sooner or later, so I decided to get it over with. I've seen the movie, once, and while I'll concede that it's a work of art, I never want to see it again. The same with the book. This was a hard book to read, in the sense that it made me feel physically sick at times. (Some spoilers ahead, in case you haven't read the book.)

The main character, Alex, a total psycho who has no empathy whatsoever, goes on to commit horrible acts of violence with joy in his heart. Later he goes to prison and is subjected to more violence, just as hard to witness. Talk about unlikeable characters! But there is a difference in medium: to me, the book was easier to stomach And somehow you do want to read on, because Alex's voice is so unique, and his love for classical music creates a nice dissonance in the character, makes him interesting. Even though he's a horrible person, I did feel sorry for him when he was strapped to the chair for the behaviour modification treatments.

The edition I read had a foreword from Burgess, where he said that the meaning of the title was widely misinterpreted. Many people thought "clockwork orange" was a metaphor for a hand grenade, but it isn't: it means a fake orange with clockwork inside, a toy, I guess. It's a metaphor for Alex. The book is about the idea of choice. Can you really be good if the choice is taken away from you? If you're forced into acting like a good man without truly repenting and making a choice to be good, are you just a hollow thing, like that wind-up toy?

The question becomes, is Alex choosing to go through with the treatment a choice to be good? Probably not, considering how the book turns out. Another interesting thing I learned was that when the book was published in America, the publisher left out the last chapter in which Alex is shown growing bored of the violence and dreaming about a family of his own. So that's a different book, and that's the book Kubrick based his movie on.

Another thing that divides opinions is the Nadsat slang, a fictional teenage lingo that's a mix of Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, and Shakespearian English. If you've been reading the blog for a while, you might have noticed that I'm a language freak, so it's no surprise I loved it. It's so cleverly done: you can work out what the words mean from context, and Burgess is careful not to introduce too many new words at a time. I only know a few words of Russian, but I had no trouble following the story. The slang's function is to distance the reader from the violence, and I think it did help a bit.

Okay, writer trick time: one thing that jumped out at me was that Alex addresses the readers as "Oh, my brothers," which is kind of disturbing, like it makes the reader a part of the atrocities he commits. Burgess also used the phrase "What's it going to be then" repeatedly; first, when Alex is at the milk bar with his gang, thinking about what they're going to do that night; then when he's in prison being subjected to the treatment; and, finally, in the last chapter, which mirrors the first, except in Alex's attitude. Very cool.

 I do find the idea that people just grow out of teenage violence a bit unbelievable. Alex isn't a normal person; normal people don't do the things he does. There's something very wrong in his brain. When we feel empathy, what's happening to someone is reflected in our brain. That's how you can feel someone else's pain and empathise. Empathy's probably been a useful trait when people banded together for survival in humanity's early days. Nowadays we know that some people don't have normal responses to distress cues and don't feel empathy, even get pleasure from extreme stimulus, like hurting someone. That's one explanation for psychopaths. That's what Alex seems to be. So no matter what he wants, he probably wouldn't be able to have a normal life without serious therapy.

I can't really say I liked this book, but I can see why it's a classic. Be warned, you need to have a strong stomach to get through this one, but right now I feel that it was worth the nausea.

Science Fiction Classics read 43/193

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes when social workers deal with such people they don't use human emotions such as saying that's bad, or shame on you, they resort to their computer voice saying "The consequences if you are caught will be..."

    Which leads me to wonder how many former delinquents are acting on consequence, not conscience? And how many of us are zombies, just going along, without convictions?

    An interesting similar concept is "scientifically" explored in Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's latest work Quantum Night. It's still only out in hardcover. I liked it.

    I think it is very Canadian that Sawyer doesn't do as much sex, violence and human degradation as, say, Hollywood does. Sawyer has won both the Hugo and the Nebula: his work is solid, mainstream, not classic like Burgess, of course.


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