Anthony Burgess

Dystopian Fiction

This resource places Anthony Burgess’s writing in the context of the other dystopian novels of the period.

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Dystopias: Burgess and Aldous Huxley:

The inscription in the copy of Brave New World in the book collection at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation reveals that Burgess became familiar with Aldous Huxley’s dystopia in 1938, while he was studying at Manchester University. This seems to be Burgess’s earliest encounter a work of dystopian fiction. Huxley’s work would go on to play a pivotal role in the creation of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess wrote of Huxley that ‘no novels more stimulating, exciting or genuinely enlightening came out of the post-Wellsian time’.

In a review of Huxley’s last novel, Island, published in the Yorkshire Post, Burgess writes: ‘In the whole history of world literature no writer has been better equipped to create images of false and true Utopias than Aldous Huxley’. Burgess included three of Huxley’s novels in his selection of Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. The novels are After Many a Summer (1939), Ape and Essence (1948) and Island (1962).

While Brave New World proved to be an influential work for Burgess, it is likely that Huxley’s re-assessment of his own novel, Brave New World Revisited, prompted Burgess to write his dystopian novels of the early 1960s. Much of Brave New World Revisited, published in 1959, concerns that ideas that Burgess developed in A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed, both published in 1962. Huxley admits in his first chapter that he believes Orwell’s dystopia to be a more plausible picture of the future than his own, but certainly Burgess was taken with Huxley’s non-fiction writings on overpopulation, brainwashing, and subconscious persuasion.

Brave New World Revisited offers discussion of dystopian topics and a critique of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley writes that Orwell’s book describes a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment, yet (he claims) punishment will only temporarily stop undesirable behaviour. Huxley claims that, in order to be successful, future totalitarian states will have to control their subjects through ‘systematic reinforcement of desirable behaviour, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipulation.’ In other words, brainwashing.

Much of Ludovico’s Technique in A Clockwork Orange finds its basis in Huxley’s provocative non-fiction book, especially the chapter dealing with Palovian behaviour modification.

The Wanting Seed is also influenced by Huxley’s writing about ‘overpopulation’. The world situation in The Wanting Seed echoes Huxley’s premonition of an overpopulated planet in Brave New World Revisited: ‘The fantastically rapid doubling of our numbers will be taking place on a planet whose most desirable and productive areas are already densely populated, whose soils are being eroded by the frantic efforts of bad farmers to raise more food, and whose easily available mineral capital is being squandered with the reckless extravagance of a drunken sailor getting rid of his accumulated pay’.

In The Wanting Seed, Burgess suggests that the failure of the human population to procreate has been mirrored by nature. If man won’t breed, then nature won’t breed either. While Huxley stops at warning, Burgess takes the sparse and arid situation to a gruesome end-point, as the fascistic police (the ‘greyboys’) are overcome by reckless indulgence and mob rule.

Huxley writes, in Brave New World Revisited, that ‘death control is achieved very easily, birth control is achieved with great difficulty.’ Burgess’s narrative deals with the same concepts, beginning with the efforts of the futuristic state to control birth rates. When this fails, Burgess’s dystopia ends with a satirical depiction of the army, in which conscripted soldiers are sent off to a phoney war, with the aim of thinning the numbers. Or, to use Huxley’s terminology, birth control gives way to death control.