SF Book Review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

8810

4.5/5 Stars

Why did it take me so long to read this book? It should be mandatory reading material for anyone interested in dystopian Spec Fic, or any SF for that matter. What Burgess has done here, in relatively few pages, is so mind-bogglingly brilliant I wish I could exhume his corpse and dance into the sunset with it. The language! My Bog, the language! It’s amazing how a little thing like inventing your own slang can breathe life into a novel in a way that mere imagery, characters, and plot could never achieve.

But Anthony Burgess was an asshole, you say! The movie was so much better, you say! A Clockwork Orange is nothing like the rest of his work, you say! I say, “Shut up.” I’m sure he was an asshole. I don’t care. Here’s a little secret about writers—the good ones are all assholes! If we wrote off every writer who verbally abused his family, packed his nose full of cocaine and/or bled pure gin we’d have precious little left. And they’re never happy with their work. That’s probably why they’re assholes. Embrace it.

(I have no comment on the movie. I’ve tried to watch it a couple of times and always get bored after Alex goes to prison. I’m sure Kubrick is doing some amazingly wonderful cinematic magic in his rendition of the novel, but I didn’t get it. I get books.)

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess does everything you’re not supposed to do in a novel—he makes up words, his characters are putrid irredeemable shit-bags, he revels in the cruelty and violence of human nature without giving us any respite—and yet this is one of the most readable un-readable novels I’ve ever encountered. Unlike Riddley Walker, which I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count, A Clockwork Orange lets you slip into its world on a wave of milk and blood. By the time you realize you have no idea what the fuck you’re reading, it’s too late. You’re in.

No, there are no likeable characters in this dystopian tale of horror and ultra-violence. Why are you so hung up on that? Why do you have to like someone to be able to learn from them? Alex and his droogs are the bi-product of a violent and controlling world. We are supposed to be horrified by them. That’s the whole point! They are the street-level doppelganger of the very government they think they are rebelling against. That’s what is horrifying about them.

It’s not just the suggestion that young men are capable of violence—robbery, rape and murder—for entertainment. Burgess’ not-so-subtle hint here is that all people are capable of this, that to be good or to be evil is a choice. There are no good people and bad people, there are good acts and evil acts, and any one person is capable of doing either. In our lives we may make a combination of choices, some good and some bad, and none are capable of defining us in that one singular act. This choice is what makes us human, rather than animals (governed by instinct) or robots (programed by their maker). If we take away this choice, human life becomes meaningless. We become nothing but an empty shell. A clockwork orange.

Yet for most, the empty shell is a preferable state to the human who makes anti-social choices. We are the ones being condemned by Burgess’ novel. Those of us who value humanity only when it is subscribing to society’s definition of right and wrong, even when that society is as corrupt and evil at its core as the “evil” people it breeds. The only time in which Alex is truly beyond redemption in A Clockwork Orange is when his programming has disabled his ability to make his own choices. At this point, he has no soul. He is little more than an object, a pawn in the world to be shoved about by others—whether this is to his detriment or to his gain is irrelevant.

When Alex is reconditioned again, when he is given back his ability to choose, we are disappointed that he goes right back to his old ways. What we forget is that it is the choice that makes him human and alive. And in the final chapter we see an inkling that perhaps Alex’s days of bad choices, of violent choices, are coming to an end. He beings to see other choices, other paths he might take. Had he remained in his conditioned state Alex would never have been able to evolve. He would have remained a toothless monster—a zombie—until the day he died, unable to defend himself from the world.

Anthony Burgess uses Speculative Fiction exactly the way it is meant to be used. This little novella explores more deeply into the idea of humanity than many philosophical and spiritual texts I’ve read. And it is able to do so because it’s not afraid to embrace the inner asshole lurking in every one of us. No, it’s not a complicated thesis. But it is one that is too often overlooked and glossed over. Our world is built upon the idea that we can categorize and classify everything in it from pond scum to architectural designs to personality types. Burgess suggests that things might not be as simple as we wish them to be.

SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

6372501

4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.