Anthony Burgess

Twentieth Century 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: The Wanting Seed and Dystopian Reproduction:

In many works of twentieth century dystopian fiction, overpopulation and the means of reproduction have been the focal point of the future worlds. In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), reproduction is controlled by the state by the outlawing of reproductive sex and the cultivating of embryos in test tubes and in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) there is the threatening presence of the Junior Anti-Sex League.

After the Second World War, the Baby Boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s increased the population in Western world. With more easily available medical advances and better standards of living that brought clean water and cheaper commodities came an increase in birth rate and a decrease in mortality rates. People in the West were looking at countries such as India and China and seeing what damaging effects increased population had on the world. Anthony Burgess himself had experience of densely-populated places. He writes about his time in Malaya in You’ve Had Your Time (1990): ‘I had lived in the pullulating East and re-read Thomas Malthius: indeed, I was to write a definitive study of him for a learned American journal. There would, some day, be too many mouths to feed. This was not apparent in the West, except on Oxford Street’. From these observations and readings, he wrote a dystopian novel about overpopulation and famine: The Wanting Seed (1962).

The novel deals with the growing power of the State to impose controls on the populace. Set in an unspecified future, the story concerns a world whose governments are struggling to maintain order in the face of food shortages and sprawling, densely-populated cities. The fictional London, in which the protagonists Tristram and Beatrice Foxe live, extends from the south coast to Birmingham in the north. In order to combat the rising population the totalitarian Ministry of Infertility polices the populace with the brutal ‘greyboys’, encouraging homosexual relationships with the slogan ‘It’s Sapiens to be Homo’. From this set up, Burgess explores increasing global famine and military dictatorship.

The Wanting Seed is not the only dystopia dealing with reproductive freedom and overpopulation in the 1960s. In Burgess’s world, the inefficiency of birth control leads the government to control the populace by eliminating citizens through a phoney war. William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s novel Logan’s Run (1967) depicts the world of 2116, where citizens are executed with a pleasure-inducing toxic gas once they reach the age of 21. Overpopulation is the subject of Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, a novel that was adapted into the film Soylent Green (1973) starring Charlton Heston. As with The Wanting Seed, the film’s solution to famine caused by overpopulation is the conversion of people into food, the soylent green of the title. Burgess claims in his autobiography that ‘Harry Harrison, on his own confession during the downing of a bottle of Scotch in my New York flat, stole the ending for the film of his novel No Room! No Room!, called Soylent Green’. Burgess may have misremembered this: as the writer Ramsey Campbell has noted, Harry Harrison was deliberately excluded from the production of Soylent Green by the film-makers, and Burgess gets the name of his novel wrong in the anecdote too. However, several key themes and ideas are shared between The Wanting Seed and Soylent Green.

As time passed, themes of overpopulation were replaced by themes of mass infertility. Sexual and reproductive freedom was still a major concern, but had a different emphasis. A good example of this kind of dystopia is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Set in the Republic of Gilead, a fictional state within the borders of the future United States, where there is declining fertility and the need for ‘handmaids’, women who are still able to conceive and have been bound in sexual slavery by the ruling classes. The narrator Offred, one of these ‘handmaids’ owned by the Commander, is forbidden from reading and has vivid memories of her life before the installation of a right wing, Christian fundamentalist government. The novel is both a critique of religious right wing politics, and a feminist discussion of the role of women in a supposedly civilized society. A review featured in Playboy states, ‘We won’t be the only ones to compare Margaret Atwood’s haunting novel to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — it’s that frightening’.

In 1992, the crime writer P.D. James published Children of Men. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it deals with mass infertility and it is also a state-of-the-nation narrative. In James’s novel, set in 2021, there has not been a human birth since 1994 and Britain has become a dictatorship. The protagonist, Theo, is recruited by a mysterious group to help overthrow the tyrannical government and protect the only pregnant woman in the world. These two novels suggest that different anxieties had emerged in the later twentieth century. No longer was there the Free Love of the 1960s. Now, ideas of sexual intimacy had become entwined with images of disease and death with the high-profile threat of AIDS. Burgess claims that AIDS ‘reminds us that there are limitations to our sexual freedom’ just as syphilis did in the past and new diseases will in the future.

Dystopian writing continues to focus on ideas of sex, reproduction and overpopulation. Novels such as The Road (2006), which shows women who are in sexual slavery to produce babies for food in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, continue to take the reproductive dystopian genre into darker and more complex territory. In other media films such as Gattaca (1997) and In Time (2011) have depicted worlds with totalitarian controls on reproduction and population numbers.

The threat to reproductive freedom in the dystopian novel is often used as a metaphor for the dissolution of social freedom. The ability to continue a family line without intervention from ruling bodies is a key freedom in a democratic civilization. These novels are about the ultimate control of the state, oppression so insidious that it finds its way into the most private of activities.