A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess

Few things date as quickly as teen speech and fashion, but the outrageousness of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian satire of the state of England in 1962 (by most accounts a rather glum place), especially when combined with Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the same, make A Clockwork Orange nearly as fresh today as it must have been sixty years ago. Where Burgess’s made-up Nadsat still has a fierce intelligence and energy to it, Valspeak, for anyone who still remembers that, just seems stupid.

What has always impressed me the most about the book though is the humble narrator Alex’s presentation as someone who is both glib and charming but also thick as a brick. He fancies himself the leader of his gang of droogs, but even the hulking Dim manages to stay a step ahead of him all the time. Then there’s his surprise at figuring out that those aren’t vitamins he’s being injected with, and that the political do-gooders don’t have his own best interests at heart. Oh, to be so wicked and so naïve. Not a good combination, especially given what I think is the book’s most important political statement: that everyone is authoritarian in an authoritarian state.

The specter of a clockwork humanity was something Burgess thought “too didactic to be artistic,” an assessment that might also be leveled at the novel’s Sixties bunkmate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published the same year. Randle Patrick McMurphy and Alex are birds of a feather, free spirits broken by the system. In America, however, being anti-authority had less of a dark side. The Merry Pranksters weren’t raping and killing people (though Murphy does have statutory rape on his rap sheet). In England young people might have been seen as a more direct threat to the public. Or at least to the sad old codgers who use the biblio as a kind of senior center. Because Alex has a passion for classical music, but reading isn’t his thing. And that’s probably for the best.

The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau
By H. G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a novel that set up shop in my head as a kid when I purchased the cheap paperback tie-in to the 1977 film version, and it’s gone on to be the work by Wells that I most often return to. It’s so simple in outline and yet so ambiguous.

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is both an upper-class lightweight and the island’s sole survivor. He’s also a paradoxically spiritual materialist, seeking at the end of the book to transcend through science a humanity that now disgusts him. Dr. Moreau, at least in his own estimation, has more of an “artistic turn of mind,” being a sculptor of living flesh who is seeking “to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a human shape.” He wants to transcend humanity as well, but not for any utilitarian purpose or “intelligible object” (an “unspeakable aimlessness” which is what upsets Prendick the most about his experiments). No, the cruel doctor carelessly and irresponsibly pursues art for art’s sake, and in ways that go far beyond vivisection. He knows a creature’s “mental structure,” including its psychology and morality, can be shaped as well. A humanist Prospero then? A tyrannical Kurtz, much like Kipling’s Dravot or Nuñez in Wells’ own later story “The Country of the Blind”? Or just a colonial loser, another popular character type of the time?

And finally what is the state of nature that everyone, not just the Beast People, is in danger of reverting to? Because the Ipecacuanha is hardly an ideal state, Montgomery dies a miserable, drunken sot, and Prendick’s going native is foreshadowed from his first night on the island, long before he becomes one with the creatures that both sicken and terrify him. It’s hard to read his signing off “in hope and solitude” as anything other than a failed attempt to cheer himself up. He’s looked into the hellish abyss of the Beast People’s shantytown and seen “the whole balance of human life in miniature.” Not our evolutionary past then, but our future.

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells
Ed. by Ursula K. Le Guin

A lot of successful novelists see short stories as little more than finger exercises: warm-ups for more substantial work. I think this was how H. G. Wells saw them, considering stories as too restricted in both form and effect to bother with as much in his later career. That said, he wrote a lot of great stories and they’re nicely sampled here by Ursula K. Le Guin, who also does a great job introducing them.

Some preoccupations, for example flight, would be developed at greater length in Wells’ novels. Others, like out-of-body experiences and transferals of consciousness didn’t make it out of the stories. Le Guin correctly makes the point that SF doesn’t really deal with the matter of predictions, preferring “warning, speculations, and alternatives,” but Wells may be taken as an outlier here as many of his works were remarkably prescient. For example, the pale-faced clerks working “The Land Ironclads” (forerunners of tanks) are moving the same knobs and pressing the same buttons as they operate drones today.

The final stories veer into fantasy and fable, following an arc Wells’ career also described. But while they don’t have quite the same threatening edge, they do illustrate abiding themes in Wells’s work – ones that still resonate today.

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops
By E. M. Forster

SF authors score a lot of points for getting the future right, and E. M. Forster’s 1909 novella (or “meditation,” as he calls it) looks pretty good with a century-plus of hindsight.

Most of humanity have moved underground where they live in monastic cells, cared for by a mighty Machine and basically devolving into giant grubs (“white pap,” or a fungus) while connecting to others virtually by way of a proto-Internet. The pursuit of comfort has led to a paradoxical decadence: a “civilization” given over entirely to the life of the mind that’s helpless when faced with a mechanical crisis. The lectures and “ideas” that are its raison d’être all have to do with history and the arts, and there are no engineers.

Written as a response to The Time Machine, it’s a story that presents a similarly divided world where the Morlocks have gotten soft, and the Eloi more muscular and healthy by living close to nature. But what city would Forster have seen himself being a citizen of? This may be the real meaning of Homelessness.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth
By Walter Tevis

Walter Tevis taught English at university for a while, so if you want to identify him to some degree with the Anthean visitor Thomas Jerome Newton, for example reading it as “a parable of the artist” and the “truest representation of alcoholism ever written” (James Sallis), then also include the fact that Newton is a highbrow bookworm, even serenely perusing The Collected Poetry of Wallace Stevens at one point. He’s a man of letters, in a world he only learned about by listening to radio and watching TV. Is that where he went wrong?

Of course he’s also a Christ figure, except he’s all sacrifice with no redemption. Ending one’s days as a bitter and besotted hipster in Greenwich Village is no way to go, and Newton knows it. All he really has left is the ability to write million-dollar cheques. He’s Jesus as ATM, providing the shortest route to heaven.

It’s often said that today’s SF, with its dystopias, pandemics, and climate emergencies, has lost the optimism of the golden age. I think in 1963, when this book came out, SF was plenty downbeat. That a superior being falls so far by “going native” (that is, becoming human) is a damning parable. As for Nathan Bryce, he can take all that money and go to Tahiti and get drunk. Easy come, easy go.

Herland

Herland
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are thought exercises, their ideal communities or states serving as a critique of how we manage affairs in this, the real world. Herland is a feminist utopia in that its main target is the status of women circa. 1915, but it plugs into the tradition of Utopian writing in other ways as well.

Its neatest trick is inverting the usual presentation of men as being rational and women emotional. The three explorers who discover Herland are introduced as being men of science, but they are treated as little more than children (even schoolgirls!) by the race of alpha females. For all the men’s education, one of them turns into a helpless romantic while another is a lecherous brute only interested in a smorgasbord of “Girls and Girls and Girls.” Confronted by the mature (over-40) women who run the place this would-be player is disgusted at the sight of people who, in his own world, properly remain invisible.

In contrast, the citizens of Herland are, like most Utopians, thoroughly rational – “inconveniently reasonable” even. They don’t have any interest in sex (they reproduce by parthenogenesis) and have elevated the maternal instinct from a “brute passion” to a religion. The sublimation of the passions is usually a first step on the road to dystopia, but here it’s a blessing. Nature itself has been transformed, with the Darwinian struggle for existence elided by the “negative eugenics” of population control and evolution itself being consciously directed.

The cover calls this a “lost” novel but it seems to have just dropped out of print. Originally appearing in serial form in Gilman’s magazine The Forerunner, it was only first published as a book in 1979. Much of it has now dated pretty badly, but for anyone interested in the early days of feminist speculative fiction it’s an essential text.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet
By C. S. Lewis

There’s a dividing line in the twentieth century between what may be thought of as naïve and modern conceptions of other intelligent life in our solar system. In the earlier, naïve dispensation other planets, like Mars, could be host to all sorts of strange beings – friendly, hostile, and indifferent – essentially functioning as newly discovered continents. And so we have the Old Mars of H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C. S. Lewis, among others. But when scientists started learning more about Mars in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the best that could be hoped for was finding trace evidence of water or the potential for terraforming, our fantasies had to be pushed further afield.

In 1938 Mars was still open ground imaginatively, allowing C. S. Lewis to indulge a flight of space fantasy. Out of the Silent Planet is the first in a trilogy of books describing a kind of cosmic religious allegory directed at effecting “a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven.” Mars is Malacandra, an Edenic Technicolor playhouse inhabited by three rational species (Hrossa, Sorns, and Pfifltriggi) that are in turn ruled over by angelic beings known as Eldila. Earth, meanwhile, is the black sheep (silent planet) of our solar neighbourhood, the domain of a fallen (or “bent”) angel.

Not a book to read for its story, Out of the Silent Planet is more a novel of ideas, which are the main interest of the philologist Ransom anyway. The mockery of the (human) racist Dr. Weston is the highlight, and gives a good indication of where Lewis was most deeply engaged.

The Food of the Gods

The Food of the Gods
By H. G. Wells

The full title continues with “and How It Came to Earth.” I’m not sure why, since the Food is a man-made lab product and not some alien growth hormone. In any event, the novel has never been as popular as Wells’ early SF classics, for what I think are obvious reasons. After a rollicking start involving giant chickens, wasps, and rats – all that would be kept in place in the disastrous Bert Gordon film adaptation – it turns into a mushy sort of political fantasy (there’s even a captive princess) when “the children of the Food” rise up against the resentful masses of little people.

It’s not revolution so much as evolution when the boomfood generation comes of age, leading to the beginning of a world made new by the Food and its “great dawn of wider meaning.” We may think here of The Midwich Cuckoos and what that novel had to say about the incompatibility of different species. The world isn’t big enough for the little and the big to share even if they wanted to, and they clearly don’t. So there’s blood in the offing.

But there’s something mystical in all of this too as Growth becomes a kind of divine historical principle: “the law of the spirit for evermore. To grow according to the will of God!” It’s Victorian progress as theology. At the time quite radical, but in retrospect the last gasp of such optimism, at least couched in these terms.

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives
By Ira Levin

I don’t often hear The Stepford Wives discussed as an SF novel, which is strange. The nerds of Stepford have whipped up next-gen sexbots (a.k.a. “toys for needy children”) in their local research park, and while the nuts and bolts of just how these sexy helpmeets work isn’t gone into in any detail, they are clearly products of Silicon Valley and the RAND Corporation as much as Madison Ave.

What I was most struck by in returning to this book today is how well it holds up. As Dave Chappelle puts it in one of his stand-up routines, a woman only has to know four ways to please a man: “suck his dick, play with his balls, make him a sandwich, and don’t talk so much.” To this we might add keeping the house immaculate. Having fulfilled their reproductive duty, the real wives of Stepford are expendable. And the husbands, watching their porno films at the Men’s Association, know exactly what they want in terms of an upgrade/replacement.

A satire? Yes, but one without any laughs because it’s a totally heartless vision of relationships that hits far too close to home. And, in the twenty-first century with all our anxiety over robots and AIs taking our jobs, hitting closer every day.