Looking Backward

1985

by Anthony Burgess
Little, Brown, 272 pp., $8.95

Anthony Burgess has words the way the be-bop saxophonists used to have notes—in scads. With him as with them, you have to hear something slow before you can make up your mind. Nothing Like the Sun and the Enderby books prove that Burgess is as clever as he seems. His utopian satires, of which 1985 is yet another, mainly just seem clever. At a generous estimate there are half a dozen ideas in each of them.

1985 avowedly exaggerates trends already visible in present-day Britain. The unions are in control, everyone is on strike, children learn nothing in school, and the whole place is overrun with Arabs. Readers will have no trouble recognizing the reality behind the exaggeration. Britain is certainly a bit like that. So why exaggerate? To point out the obvious? A better reason for concocting this kind of fantasy is to expose what is not obvious—in a word, to analyze. Burgess himself is given to saying that this is one of the things serious writers can do that science fiction writers cannot do.

A good case can be made for Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell having struck deeper than the science fiction writers. The case does not look quite so strong to anyone who has actually read reasonably widely among the science fiction writers, but let us suppose for the moment that it is watertight. The question remains whether Burgess can be enrolled along with Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. The Wanting Seed, for example, hammers its theme—overpopulation—with no more subtlety than the best science fiction writers of the Fifties were wont to employ, and a good deal less invention. The world is short of food; England is urbanized from end to end; infanticide is officially encouraged; wars are arranged in order to kill people off.

All these ideas were handled at least as vigorously by science fiction writers. Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, in The Space Merchants, showed a world so crowded that whole families in New York were sleeping on the stairs of skyscrapers. The main source of food was an enormous hunk of protein called Chicken Little, who could be kept from engulfing her attendants only by an ultrasonic whistle. Most of the other effects in the book were comparably striking.

Pohl and Kornbluth come to mind again when you consider A Clockwork Orange, the book for which Burgess—to his understandable dismay—is best known. A handy transitional primer for anyone learning Russian, in other respects it is a bit thin. Burgess makes a good ethical point when he says that the state has no right to extirpate the impulse toward violence. But it is hard to see why he is so determined to link the impulse toward violence with the aesthetic impulse, unless he suffers, as so many other writers do, from the delusion that the arts are really rather a dangerous occupation. Presumably the connection in the hero’s head between mayhem and music was what led Stanley …

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