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’s Favourite Dystopias:

In the following extracts from Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, Burgess reveals his favourite works of dystopian fiction.


The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

The British edition of this novel appeared in 1949, the same year as Nineteen Eighty-Four, and percipient critics saw that the two books had in common the theme of a new doctrine of power. Winston Smith’s torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four (q.v.) presents his victim-pupil with an image of the future — a boot stamping on a face for ever and ever. General Cummings in Mailer’s novel tells Lieutenant Hearn to see the Army as ‘a preview of the future’, and it is a future very like Orwell’s, its only morality ‘a power morality’. He, representing the higher command, and Sergeant Croft, the lower, are fighting fascism but are themselves fascists and well aware of it. Hearn, the weak liberal who will not, despite his weakness, submit to the sadism of Cummings, is destroyed by his general through his sergeant. Cummings the strategist plans while Croft the fighting leader executes; Hearn, who represents a doomed order of human decency, is crushed between two extremes of the new power morality.

The narrative presents, with great accuracy and power, the agony of American troops in the Pacific campaign. A representative group of lower-class Americans forms the reconnaissance patrol sent before a proposed attack on the Japanese-held island of Anopopei. We smell the hot dishrag effluvia of the jungle and the sweat of the men. Of this body of typical Americans, however, despite the vivid realization of skin, muscle and nerves, only Hearn and Croft emerge as living individuals. With the men there is an over-zealous desire to range the racial and regional gamut of the United States — the Jew, the Pole, the Texan, and so on. Mailer blocks in their backgrounds with a device borrowed from John Dos Passos — the episodic fragmentary impressionistic flashback, which he calls ‘The Time Machine’. This is something of a mill or grinder: it seems to reduce the pasts of all the subsidiary characters to the common flour of sexual preoccupation.

The futility of war is well presented. The island to be captured has no strategic importance. The spirit of revolt among the men is stirred by an accident: the patrol stumbles into a hornets’ nest and runs away, dropping weapons and equipment, the naked leaving the dead behind them. An impulse can contain seeds of human choice: we have not yet been turned entirely into machines. Mailer’s pessimism was to come later — in The Deer Park and Barbary Shore and An American Dream — but here, with men granting themselves the power to opt out of the collective suicide of war, there is a heartening vision of hope. This is an astonishingly mature book for a twenty-five-year-old novelist. It remains Mailer’s best, and certainly the best war novel to emerge from the United States.


Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

This is one of the few dystopian or cacotopian visions which have changed our habits of thought. It is possible to say that the ghastly future Orwell foretold has not come about simply because he foretold it: we were warned in time. On the other hand, it is possible to think of this novel as less a prophecy than the comic joining together of two disparate things — an image of England as it was in the immediate post-war era, a land of gloom and shortages, and the bizarrely impossible notion of British intellectuals taking over the government of the country (and, for that matter, the whole of the English-speaking world). The world is divided into three superstates — Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, two of which, in a perpetual shifting of alliances, are always at war with each other. Britain is part of Oceania and is called Airstrip One. Winston Smith, a citizen of its capital, has been brought up, like everyone else, to accept the monolithic rule of Big Brother — a mythical and hence immortal being, the titular head of an oligarchy which subscribes to a philosophy called, ironically, English Socialism or Ingsoc. Only the ‘proles’, the masses, are free, free because their minds are too contemptible to be controlled; members of the Party are under perpetual surveillance from the Thought Police. Winston, the last man to possess any concept of freedom (the title Orwell originally envisaged for the book was The Last Man in Europe), revolts against Big Brother, but he is arrested and — through torture allied to metaphysical re-education — rehabilitated. He learns the extent of the power of the Party, its limitless ability to control thought, even speech. Newspeak is a variety of English which renders it impossible to express an heretical thought; ‘doublethink’ is a technique which enables the Party to impress its own image on external reality, so that ‘2 + 2 = 5’ can be a valid equation. The State is eternal and absolute, the only repository of truth. The last free man yields, of his own free will (this is important — there is no brainwashing in Orwell’s cacotopia), his whole being to it.

Aldous Huxley admitted, in re-introducing his Brave New World (1932 — outside our scope) to the post-war age, that Orwell presented a more plausible picture of the future than he himself had done, with his image of a world made stable and happy through chemical conditioning. Whether Orwell himself, were he alive today, would withdraw any part of his prophecy (if it is a prophecy) we do not know. he was mortally sick when he made it, admitting that it was a dying man’s fantasy. The memorable residue of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as of Brave New World, is the fact of the tenuousness of human freedom, the vulnerability of the human will, and the genuine power of applied science.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a perfect novel, and some would argue that it is too didactic to be considered a novel at all. Orwell’s best work is to be found in the four posthumously published volumes of critical and polemical essay, and in his fable Animal Farm (1945). This last is certainly not a novel and hence cannot be considered for inclusion here.


Facial Justice by L.P. Hartley

England is recovering from World War III. There have been nuclear attacks and society has only recently emerged from skulking in caves. The new state is afflicted with a profound sense of guilt, and every one of its citizens is named after a murderer. Thus the heroine has been christened Jael 97. An attempt to formulate a new morality results in an outlawing of envy and the competitive urge. There must be no exceptional beauty, neither in body (which penitential sackcloth covers anyway) nor in face. A girl who feels herself ‘facially underprivileged’ can be fitted with a standard Beta face, neither ugly nor beautiful. Jael 97 is facially overprivileged: her beauty must be reduced to a drab norm. But, like the heroes and heroines of all cacotopian novels, she is an eccentric. Seeing for the first time the west tower of Ely Cathedral, one of the few lofty structures left unflattened by the war, she experiences a transport of ecstasy and wishes to cherish her beauty. Her revolt against the regime results in no brutal reimposition of conformity — only in the persuasions of sweet reason. This is no Orwellian future. It is a world incapable of the dynamic of tyranny. Even the weather is always cool and grey, with no room for wither fire or ice. The state motto is ‘Every valley shall be exalted.’ This is a brilliant projection of tendencies already apparent in the post-war British welfare state but, because the book lacks the expected horrors of cacotopian fiction, it has met less appreciation than Nineteen Eighty-Four. That Hartley was a fine writer with a strong moral sense had already been confirmed by his Eustace and Hilda trilogy, where, as is prefigured in the first book of the three, The Shrimp and the Anemone, a young man and woman are locked in a dance of death which they are powerless to halt. The anemone Hilda eats the shrimp Eustace: destruction is part of the law of nature. I hesitated to prefer Facial Justice to the trilogy, but on points of imagination and originality it seems to win.


Island by Aldous Huxley

As with so much of Huxley’s later fiction, one is not sure whether of not to call this book a true novel. It is less concerned with telling a tale than with presenting an attitude to life, it is weak on characterization but strong on talk, crammed with ideas and uncompromisingly intellectual. Huxley shows us an imaginary tropical island where the good life can be cultivated for the simple reason that the limitations and potentialities of man are thoroughly understood. He presents a conspectus of this life, ranging from modes of sexual behaviour to the technique of dying. Nobody is scientifically conditioned to be happy: this new world is really brave. It has learned a great deal from Eastern religion and philosophy, but it is prepared to take the best of Western science, technology and art. The people themselves are a sort of ideal Eurasian race, equipped with fine bodies and Huxleyan brains, and they have read all the books that Huxley has read.

All this sounds like an intellectual game, a hopeless dream in a foundering world, but Huxley was always enough of a realist to know that there is a place for optimism. Indeed, no teacher can be a pessimist, and Huxley was essentially a teacher. In Island the good life is eventually destroyed by a brutal, stupid, materialistic young raja who wants to exploit the island’s mineral resources. The armoured cars crawl through, the new dictator makes speeches about Progress, Values, Oil, True Spirituality, but ‘disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained’. The mynah birds fly about, crying the word that means enlightenment: ‘Karuna. Karuna.’

For forty years his readers forgave Huxley for turning the novel form into an intellectual hybrid — the teaching more and more overlaid the proper art of the story-teller. Having lost him, we now find nothing to forgive. No novels more stimulating, exciting or genuinely enlightening came out of the post-Wellsian time. Huxley more than anyone helped to equip the contemporary novel with a brain.


Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

‘On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs and how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.’ So the book begins. It is a dangerous and difficult dialect of Hoban’s own invention, but it is altogether appropriate to an as yet unborn England — one that, after nuclear war, is trying to organize tribal culture after the total destruction of a centralized industrial civilization. The past has been forgotten, and even the art of making fire has to be relearned. The novel is remarkable not only for its language but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems. Hoban has built a whole world from scratch. Sometimes these strange English people find remnants of old machines, but they have forgotten their meaning. ‘Some of them ther shells ben broak open you cud see girt shyning weals like jynt mil stoans only smoov.’ The lost past is contained in a kind of sacred book called The Eusa Story, whose first chapter is this: ‘Wen Mr Clevver wuz Big Man uv Inland they had evere thing clever. They had boats in the ayr & picters on the win & evere thing lyk that. Eusa wuz a noing man vere quik he cud tern his han tu enne thing. He wuz werkin for Mr Clevver wen theyr cum enemes aul roun & maykni Warr. Eusa sed tu Mr Clevver, Now wewl nead masheans uv Warr. Wewl nead boats that go on the water & boats that go in the ayr as wel & wewl nead Berstin Fyr.’ Finally they make use of ‘the Littl Shynin Man the Addom he runs in the wud’. This novel could not expect to be popular: it is not an easy read like The Carpetbaggers. But it seems to me a permanent contribution to literature.