When we discuss the great novels of the 20th Century, we usually look at mainstream or literary fiction. We talk about The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, The Sun Also Rises, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses and anything by Hemingway. To that list, I’d add The Remains of the Day, a near-perfect book if ever there was one.
But science fiction usually doesn’t make it into the conversation. Even the pieces of genre that the literati accept aren’t quite in the select group. 1984 and Brave New World fall just short, and the only other major crossover SF book, The Handmaid’s Tale, is crap (the subject is wonderfully chosen, but I would have liked to see it in the hands of someone who understood the dynamic of SF–Ursula K. Le Guin would have been wonderful).
There is one exception, one book, that, though it’s definitely science fiction, gate-crashes the conversation.
I was afraid A Clockwork Orange would be a difficult, dense read. One of the first things you learn about this book, after all, is that Burgess invented a new slang for a lot of it, and that is never fun.
But there’s something you need to remember about Burgess. He’s a virtuoso, a brilliant writer who isn’t afraid to write brilliantly. So despite the book being in unusual language, it works perfectly well. It’s a quick, almost light read.
Of course, it isn’t quite a light read, because the subject matter is a savage attack against… well, as a reader it wasn’t quite clear to me what Burgess was attacking other than the excesses of government in involving itself in people’s lives. I found it to be more of a commentary about the breakneck pace of modern lives and how it affects the subcultures involved. Answer: they get extremely violent…
Now that answer may not seem particularly groundbreaking, and in the hands of a lesser author, it wouldn’t have been. But Burgess makes it work. This book is a must-read, and I was fortunate to buy the Folio edition pictured before they ran out.
But whichever edition you can get hold of, there’s absolutely no excuse to give this one a pass unless you either hate the best books in the 20th century hate anything that looks speculatively at the future.
As an aside, this is considered Burgess’ greatest book, but it’s not my favorite. The Kingdom Of the Wicked is a romp through the ancient world which is unmatched even by Gore Vidal’s Creation. And that is saying quite a bit.
But returning to Orange, all I can say is that the very few hours you’ll spend on this one will be worth it. Sometimes it’s nice just to let a master lead you by the nose.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own vision about how society will fall apart around us can be found in the novel Outside. You can check it out here.