Dark Futures Book 9: A Clockwork Orange

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we visit a stark image of society in decay, rampant youth and oppressive counter-measures to control them.

Some books have reputations that live in the minds of people that haven’t read them, impressions soaked up though media coverage, pop culture and that odd sort of conversational osmosis that makes you think you know something, or have seem something, when really all you’ve done is heard people talk a lot about it. I think that Anthony Burgess’ most famous work A Clockwork Orange, falls into that category, largely due to Stanley Kubrick’s movie version, banned for many years in the UK (and other places) due to it then-controversial levels of violence and ambivalent morality. And its been a long time since I saw even that, on grainy bootleg student VHS.

So reading the source material was always going to be a slightly odd experience, an impact of pre-formed opinion and reality.

A Clockwork Orange doesn’t make it easy for you. Narrated in the first person by Alex, it’s central character, in Burgess’ fictitious Nazdat street dialect, its a book that requires a bit of concentration to get into the rhythm of from the get go. And then the first act is a pretty graphically described night of violence and burglary and rape, presented as pretty much one of Alex’s typical “good nights out” of his wild and tempestuous youth. Almost straight away the book is throwing at you one of its most interesting qualities – horrific events from a bad person, narrated with an easy-going, breezy charm.

Once you get past that, there is quite a lot going on here, and we are solidly back to science-fiction futurism asking real and serious questions. This time we are onto that good old fashioned one, of Free Will. Specifically, is forcing a bad person to do good a price worth paying? Is it an answer? Is it moral? These are all good questions but I’m not sure that Burgess comes out with a satisfactory answer, and whilst I like the book, its ending with oddly ambiguous – and different from the films in a pretty crucial way.

For the most its very similar, though, although artificial structure of the book – 3 parts each of seven chapters, with common “steps” throughout – doesn’t quite come across on the screen. The first, as mentioned, front-loads the violence and horror, and for all Alex’s chippy, wasn’t-it-a-lark narration the rest of society doesn’t share his care-free attitude to rape and murder and locks him away. Here, in overcrowded, miserable prisons he “accidently” manages to kill again and is selected for an experimental “reprogramming” treatment with is makes him ill even at the thought of any sort of violent act. Cured, he is sent back into the back.

It’s the third act that is the pay off, and the book at its most artificial. Over the course of one night Alex comes across everyone he has wronged in the first act, who exact, each in their own way, their vengeance upon him, leaving him both unable to fight back or to delude himself on the impact of his crimes. Then finally, after a week comatose in the hospital, his conditioning “breaks” and as he somewhat chillingly puts it “I was cured, all right”. This is where the film, and apparently the original US printing of the book, finishes.

Burgess did however write a final (seventh, completing the symmetry) chapter for the final act and in some ways it’s the most interesting. We meet up with Alex some time later, and he’s seemingly back in his old ways, on the old ultraviolence beat. This time however he’s listless, unenthralled by it all, and so, wandering into the night passes a diner full of “normal” people and joins them, for no reason he can articulate. Therein, with another of the final acts great coincidences, he runs into a former gang member and his girlfriend, all respectable and the like, and finds he wants their life, not his own. The moral? He grows up, and puts away childish things (like aggravated burglary, murder and rape, presumably).

Its an odd ending, really, although an interesting one. As a comment on the usual moral panic about wayward youth, as a meditation on free will, as just an interesting and thought-provoking but of cyber-punk futurology a good couple of decades before William Gibson, A Clockwork Orange is more than its reputation – it’s vastly more interesting.

Next time:  A world in the grip of Global Warming, ecological catastrophe and flooded cities await in J G Ballards The Drowned World.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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