10/02/2012 01:43 pm ET

'A Clockwork Orange' And Dystopian Fiction (EXCERPT)

Reprinted from "A Clockwork Orange: 50th Anniversary Edition, the Restored Text" by Anthony Burgess, edited by Andrew Biswell. Introduction and notes copyright 2012 by Andrew Biswell. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

In 1994, less than a year after Anthony Burgess had died at the age of seventy-six, BBC Scotland commissioned the novelist William Boyd to write a radio play in celebration of his life and work. This was broadcast during the Edinburgh Festival on 21 August 1994, along with a concert performance of Burgess’s music and a recording of his Glasgow Overture. The programme was called "An Airful of Burgess", with the actor John Sessions playing the parts of both Burgess and his fictional alter ego, the poet F. X. Enderby. On the same day, the Sunday Times ran a front-page story about the same radio play under the headline ‘BBC in Row Over Festival Play’s Violent Rape Scene’. The newspaper claimed that the broadcast would feature ‘a live re-enactment of a rape scene based on the controv­ersial Anthony Burgess work, "A Clockwork Orange."’

Stanley Kubrick’s film, which was said in the article to have been ‘blamed for carbon-copy crimes’, was also criticised for its ‘explicit depiction of gratuitous rape, violence and murder.’ Yet anyone who tuned into the radio broadcast hoping to receive the kind of indecent gratification promised by the Sunday Times would have been severely disappointed. William Boyd’s play, which featured less than two minutes of material derived from "A Clockwork Orange," was a dignified tribute to Burgess’s long life of musical and literary creativity. Even in death, it seemed, Burgess (who had often parodied the style of no-nonsense, right-wing columnists in his fiction) could not escape being the subject of under-informed and apocalyptic journalism.

To understand the development of the controversy which has come to surround "A Clockwork Orange" in its various manifestations, we must go back more than fifty years to 1960, when Anthony Burgess was planning a series of novels about imaginary futures. In the earliest surviving plan for "A Clockwork Orange," he outlined a book of around 200 pages, to be divided into three sections of seventy pages and set in the year 1980. The anti-hero of this novel, whose working titles included ‘The Plank in Your Eye’ and ‘A Maggot in the Cherry’, was a criminal named Fred Verity. Part one was to deal with his crimes and eventual conviction. In the second part, the imprisoned Fred would undergo a new brainwashing technique and be released from jail. Part three would consider the agitation of liberal politicians who were concerned about freedom and churches concerned about sin. At the novel’s conclusion Fred, cured of the treatment, would return to his life of crime.

The other novel Burgess was planning at this time was ‘Let Copulation Thrive’ (published in October 1962 as "The Wanting Seed"), another futuristic fable about an over-populated future in which religion is outlawed and homosexuality has become the norm, officially promoted by government policies to control the birth-rate. In Burgess’s imaginary future, men are press-ganged into the armed forces to take part in war games. The true purpose of these conflicts is to turn the bodies of the dead into tinned meat to feed a hungry population. What "The Wanting Seed" and "A Clockwork Orange" share is an underpinning idea of politics as a constantly swinging pendulum, with the governments in both novels alternating between authoritarian discipline and liberal laissez-faire. Despite his gifts as a comic novelist, and the cultural optimism he had shown during his years as a school-teacher, Burgess was an Augustinian Catholic at heart, and he could not altogether shake off the belief in original sin (the tendency of humankind to do evil rather than good) which had been drilled into him by the Manchester Xaverian Brothers when he was a schoolboy. A similar fascination with evil is found in the works of his friend and co-religionist Graham Greene, whose novel "Brighton Rock" (1938) presents a comparable blend of social decay and teenage delinquency.

Before Burgess came to write dystopian novels of his own, he had spent nearly thirty years reading other examples of the genre. In his critical study "The Novel Now" (published as a pamphlet in 1967 and expanded to book-length in 1971), he devoted a chapter to fictional utopias and dystopias. Twentieth-century literary writers, he argued, had on the whole rejected the socialist utopianism of H. G. Wells, who denied original sin and put his faith in scientific rationalism. Burgess was far more interested in the anti-utopian tradition of Aldous Huxley, who challenged the progressive assumption that scientific progress would automatically bring happiness in speculative novels such as "Brave New World" (1932) and "After Many a Summer" (1939).

He was no less impressed by the political dystop­ianism of Sinclair Lewis’s novel "It Can’t Happen Here" (1935), a gloomy prophecy about the rise of a right-wing dictatorship in America, or by "The Aerodrome" (1941), Rex Warner’s wartime fable about the appeal of handsome young pilots with fascist inclinations. Burgess had read George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" shortly after publication (the title page of his diary for 1951 is headed: ‘Down with Big Brother’), but he tended to disparage Orwell’s novel as a dying man’s prophecy, which was unduly pessimistic about the capacity of working people to resist their ideological oppressors. In his hybrid novel/critical book 1985, Burgess suggested that Orwell had simply been caricaturing tendencies that he saw around him in 1948. ‘Perhaps every dystopian vision is a figure of the present,’ Burgess wrote, ‘with certain features sharpened and exaggerated to point a moral and a warning.’