Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dystopia Schmystopia

If you’re anything like me and many Generation-X pseudo-nerds, then you have a love/hate relationship with future dystopian sci-fi novels. Don't get me wrong—I've read and love a lot of these books. I think they resonate especially with we jaded Gen-X'ers who grew up in the shadow of the last decade of the Cold War. Remember the movie 'Red Dawn'? Enough said.

Although we're no longer terrified of the Soviets lobbing a city-killer sized nuke over Canada, we've experienced a scary last eight years. Partly because of the newly rekindled fire feeding the spread of terrorism (“Bring it on!”), I think we're feeling a slight return of that distant sense of doom. The other day I saw a guy walking around DC wearing a t-shirt that read One Nation Under Surveillance. That's what I’m talking about. Way to distill it to four words, shirt company! Maybe I'm imagining this mood on the street, maybe I'm projecting, but I'm not imagining the hundreds of underground anti-establishment podcasts with themes of mistrust, anarchy, and disdain for our ruling authorities. I listen to them on my lunch break and they make me A) glad to have the freedom of speech B) want to reach for a future dystopian novel.

One problem is the immense number of these novels that are out there—it’s impossible to keep up. If you look to the past you have to go all the way back to Mary Shelley in the 1820s to see this genre first taking shape. In the mid 1900s come the most crucial post-industrial dystopian novels: A Brave New World, Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451. There were also many other lesser-known masterpieces like Naked Lunch, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Postman, and it’s really never stopped since then. Okay, end of sermon. But I would like, O’ my brothers, to talk partially about a novel published in 1962, and what is in part the target of this malenky report, my merry droogs, this being the audio book presentation of a novel of future London, that is, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess.

In high school and in college, people kept telling me I had to read this book. “Dude, you've read Nineteen-Eighy-Four, now you need to try something harder.” But I’d pick up a paperback edition of Clockwork with tiny type on gray paper and end up putting it down shortly thereafter and start making up excuses: I just can't get into the lingo. It's immediately too dark to get into, it just doesn't click. That all changed two months ago when a library patron returned a 6-disc audio book version of it and suggested, no demanded, that I rip it to my iPod. (BTW, recommendations of patrons, by the way, are how I’ve come across most of my favorite books. Bog bless Washington’s enthusiastic readers and well-stocked libraries!)

Anthony Burgess wrote dozens of novels from 1956 to 1995, but to his chagrin it was Clockwork that won him superstar status. Burgess expressed regret over this any chance he was given. The small tome was just one of many books he'd written over the decades, and not his favorite by any means. Nevertheless, for better or worse, it is for this quirky chronicle of teenage depravity, and largely due to the hit film based on it, that people remember this author and vision of the future.

When I think of the sixties, I picture people sitting around on shag rugs listening to the first Pink Floyd record, often in altered states of mind. But this book was published in 1962, before the hippie thing had exploded. It was in this silence before the coming social hurricane that Burgess gives us his terrifying vision of a bleak, sprawling future full of unrestrained crime carried out by poorly parented teens, all living in fearful concrete suburbs. The only reason I know this is because of Tom Hollander, and Recorded Books.

From the first line, What’s it going to be, then, eh? The character of poor Alex is vividly and effortlessly imagined thanks to Hollander’s perfect cockney accent, urbanized and infused with Russian slang. This isn’t a book report and I don’t want to color anyone’s opinion of the work. I'm not addicted to audio books like some people—I still prefer hard copies. All the same, I do want to throw this out there: I’ve been through A Clockwork Orange three times (!!!) now on my iPod, after having picked up and put down the paper version at least twice as many times. Put it on hold—it’s painless and well worth the minimal trouble, even if you’re a lazy reader like me. You will get pulled in and, if you're anything like me, you'll like it so much you'll laugh out loud on the train and embarrass yourself.

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