A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeTitle: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Publication date: 1962

A Clockwork OrangeWhat’s it about?

Teenage Alex lives in a dystopian society and regularly indulges in bouts of ‘ultra-violence’ with his three ‘droogs’, or friends. Arrested and imprisoned for murder, he undergoes a psychological conditioning technique that is almost as vicious as his own behaviour. He is released back into the world, but finding his place – and establishing his identity – within it is not as easy as it once was.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was on my bookshelves; I ‘borrowed’ it from my parents some years ago, but this is the first time I’ve read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that ‘nadsat’, the teenage slang spoken by Alex and his friends, is based largely on Russian. This was very interesting, as I studied Russian at school, and so a lot of the terminology in the novel was familiar to me. I don’t know whether this is why I didn’t find the book particularly difficult to read, despite significant chunks of it being written in nadsat; or whether it is simply that the invented language makes sense in its own context.

As I mentioned last year in my post on The Lord of the Rings, languages were my best subject at school and I’ve always been interested in how language can be used to convey meaning and nuance. Reading this book, and realising that I can figure out what Burgess’s made-up words mean purely from the context in which they are used, is fascinating – and a reminder that we don’t need to be able to speak the same language to understand one another.

Think of international road signs, which use symbols and colour to convey important information to a variety of linguistic groups. Think of sign language, which uses gesture and expression. Although our species has evolved to a point where many different word systems are used around the globe to communicate increasingly nuanced messages, it is testament to something deeper in the human spirit that we can still connect even when our words make no sense.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This novel deals to a large extent with the issue of free will, and poses the question: is it better to live in a world where everyone is forced to be good, or to permit human freedom and accept that some may use this freedom for evil?

Alex is conditioned, while in prison, to suffer extreme pain and sickness when he contemplates violent acts; this is designed to force him to adopt more socially acceptable behaviours. This clearly touches on the issue of how far a governing authority may intrude upon the life of an individual for the benefit of society as a whole. Of couse, there is no one right answer, and as such this is a popular theme for science fiction writers: for other takes on it, see The Minority Report by Philip K Dick and the episode ‘Charmageddon‘ from the TV series Charmed.

This topic is a key one for human life and development generally, as we make greater and greater discoveries in the sciences and ask ourselves, ‘just how far should we go?’ Any scientific advance, from nuclear fusion to stem cell research to the internet, has the potential to be used either for good or for evil. Do we refrain from developing a technique that could improve or even save lives, simply out of fear that it could be turned against us? Or do we go for it and trust to our mutual humanity to protect us from the worst possible outcomes?

A Clockwork Orange has reminded me that these are questions we all face every day, even those of us who are not government scientists. Any word we speak or act we commit could be misinterpreted and used to cause harm – but is that a reason to remain silent and passive? I don’t think so. I think the key may be greater mindfulness – but even as I write, I know the answer isn’t as simple as that. Yet even if I don’t have the answers, I certainly feel that this book has given me a greater awareness of the questions.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’ve been reminded of my love for languages; specifically, my interest in clever word-play and new worlds and systems dreamed up by imaginative writers. One of those authors, mentioned above, is JRR Tolkien, and there is a huge pile of Tolkien-related research out there just waiting to be read, digested and mulled over by geeky types such as myself.

A little while ago I purchased two volumes of conference proceedings from this field of study, which a Tolkien society was disposing of for a small fee. I’ve not yet made time to read any of the papers, as this random interest has never quite made its way to the top of my priority list; but when I come back from holiday, I am going to make a serious effort to dig out some of the research into Tolkien’s language building and get stuck in.

I can’t promise that I won’t get distracted by other Tolkien topics along the way, but the point is that I will actively make time for a fun project that usually gets discarded – but which I will hugely regret if I never indulge myself.

A musical interlude

This song sprang to mind almost instantly, despite my not thinking it had any particular connection with the novel other than the general vibe. But then I read on Wikipedia that the ‘themes and imagery in the band’s songs were often influenced by futuristic, dystopian or post-apocalyptic films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Terminator, Blade Runner and the Mad Max trilogy’ – and it suddenly all made sense.

I should also admit that I remember seeing this on Top of the Pops when I was growing up, so there is a definite element of nostalgia playing out here… It’s Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publication date: 1953
Genre: Dystopian fiction

What’s it about?Fahrenheit 451

In this dystopian version of America, books have been outlawed due to their potential to cause unhappiness and dissent among citizens. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job it is to burn any books found, but his position is compromised when he himself is discovered to have hidden a number of volumes at his home. The novel follows what happens to him and his hopes for the future.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Rather ironically, I wasn’t able to get hold of a print copy of this book from either of the two libraries near to me, so I ended up downloading it on to my Kindle app. Given that the novel deals with the unpleasant consequences of technological innovations overtaking books as a leisure activity, this feels very wrong! So at some point I intend to go out and purchase a print copy, to take pride of place on my shelves.

What did I learn from it?

I got a sharp reminder of the many ways we can be prevented from being alone with our thoughts. This is frowned upon in Bradbury’s vision of the future, because having space and time to think means we could potentially come up with criticism of the way the country is governed and take action against the powers that be.

The situation described in the book is extreme, but even now we suffer from multiple distractions. Television, radio, and of course the internet chafe away at our peace of mind, tempting us to be ‘always on’, to constantly seek out the next hit of soundbites, connection and noise, to feel we are keeping in touch with the world. Who has time to stop and think when there are tweets to be sent to complete strangers about our lunch, cats or political opinions?

Of course, it’s possible to resist succumbing to this never-ending stream of status updates, but Fahrenheit 451 is a salutary reminder of how easy it is to become attuned to this white noise and believe it normal. Even as I write, I am wearing earplugs, as my neighbour is singing very loudly to herself in her back garden, destroying my ability to focus. Cars are whizzing past, the television is humming away downstairs, and soon the ice cream van will come jingling round the corner in all its irritating, high-pitched glory.

It takes effort to distance oneself from the ongoing babble of modern life, but if we are to retain any control over our lives and our futures, it is vital that we at least try.

How did it make me see the world differently?

One of the reasons given for the burning of books in this novel is that they make people unhappy. In other words, stories are written about things that some might find difficult to contemplate. And the government of this fictional society has declared that, because people just want to be happy, they should not be exposed to views that upset them, whether politically or emotionally.

This reminded me very much of trigger warnings, which we see much more frequently these days than I recall seeing in the past. While, on the one hand, this is likely due to an increased awareness of the real harm that can be caused by forcing people into potentially traumatic or combative ‘conversations’, there is another school of thought that believes people should not be protected from attitudes they find objectionable, because this is life: it is full of differences of opinion, and being able to challenge any views we consider misguided is only possible if we know these views exist.

There is currently no consensus on whether trigger warnings are a good or a bad thing; as with most nuances of opinion, it depends on your personal circumstances and experience as to whether you believe they protect or mollycoddle. I will simply say that Fahrenheit 451 offers a somewhat chilling vision of what the future might look like if all dissent and offensive opinions were banished or burned.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I don’t think there’s been a single book during this challenge that I haven’t enjoyed to some degree – but I will admit that it is usually difficult for me to make myself pick them up and get on with them. Once I’m reading, it’s fine – the story carries me away – but getting started is generally a problem. ‘Oh, I’ve got to read my next Book Diaries book…‘ I usually end up squeezing them into weekends, which can be annoying if I have other plans.

Until this one.

I can’t remember the last time I was so carried away by a book, but I found myself wanting to pick it up and devour the next few pages even if I only had minutes to spare; consequently, I got through it much, much quicker than I was expecting to. Early weekday evenings were my best time for reading: the time I’d usually put my feet up after work, pour a glass of wine and scan the news (yup, that technological distraction…) – all that got put aside as I tore my way through this book.

It made such a pleasant change from my usual routine that I’ve decided to try and stick with it. If I can get in an hour every evening, I’ll free up more time at weekends, and with my freelance work taking over more and more of my week, I’m going to need my Saturdays and Sundays if I’m to do anything even vaguely creative. And I think this could be my way of grabbing back some time.

A musical interlude

Initially I thought I’d be able to find a song about books, but none of the ones that came to mind hit the right note. Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello? Great song, but not quite there. I then, almost flippantly, was on the verge of picking The Trammps’ Disco Inferno – but, again, I decided the vibe was (not surprisingly) completely wrong.

My wonderful subconscious then took over and presented me with my final choice: The Unforgettable Fire by U2. The song title references an artwork about the bombing of Hiroshima – not inappropriate, given the events that occur in the last few pages of the novel (that’s not as much of a spoiler as you might think). Fire is also an obvious connection with the book’s subject matter. And the song itself is not flippant, not trite, but hauntingly beautiful, which I feel is a fitting tribute to one of the very few books I have ever given a 5-star rating to on Goodreads.

Don’t just listen to the song, though. Go out and read the book.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger GamesTitle: The Hunger Games24 book challenge
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publication date: 2008
Genre: Young adult; Science fiction/fantasy (dystopia/post-apocalyptic)

The Hunger GamesWhat’s it about?

In a dystopian future, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to replace her younger sister in the annual ‘Hunger Games’, where teenage ‘tributes’ are pitted against each other in a fight to the death.

Katniss’s companion – and adversary – in the Games is Peeta Mellark, a boy from her district, with whom she must feign a romance in order to win over the viewers of the Games. Because popularity means sponsors – and sponsors mean an increased chance of survival…

Read a full description on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I was planning to get this one from my local public library. I checked their catalogue, saw that it was available, and found a friendly librarian to point me to the right shelf… but it wasn’t there. Sadly I’d left it a bit too late to wait for them to search for it, so I ended up buying it for the Kindle app on my tablet (a Google Nexus 10).

What did I learn from it?

A few hints and tips about outdoor survival. Katniss is shown to be an expert hunter, and through her actions in the Games arena we learn about the different ways it’s possible to live (and die) in the wild:

  • shooting, snaring, skinning, and cooking game;
  • identifying edible berries and roots;
  • recognising dangerous wildlife;
  • purification of water with iodine tablets;
  • tracking, climbing trees, hiding, and camouflage;
  • wielding a range of weapons;
  • and, not least, the importance of adequate food and water intake, which in our world we so often take for granted.

I wouldn’t say exactly that it reminded me of my youthful expeditions with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Scheme, but it did make me realise that I have lost a number of skills I used to have – even if those were identifying animals and plants rather than shooting a bow and arrow!

How did it make me see the world differently?

The detailed descriptions of what it is like to be genuinely near death due to lack of food or water made me feel very grateful for my comfortable first-world life. I’ve been going through a thrifty patch recently due to a slow-down in my freelance workload, but this book reminded me that having to buy cheap rice rather than posh rice, or having to forgo a packet of biscuits in order to buy potatoes, is really nothing compared to having no rice or potatoes at all.

The book also chilled me with its depiction of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship, where your very life depends on your ability to please those in power, even when those in power appear to be no more than irascible, irrational, spoiled children. To some extent we all modify the words that come out of our mouths, to suit our ‘audiences’ – we rarely express our raw, unadulterated thoughts – but so often this is merely to make our lives easier. Not to literally save them.

Incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks are a reminder that, whatever our circumstances, we are not guaranteed safe freedom of expression. The Hunger Games illustrates what life could be like if this freedom continues to be threatened.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’m only half joking when I say I’ll pay a bit more attention to garnering some more survival skills, in case of the world going tits up at any point! Not that I anticipate a full-on Walking Dead-style zombie apocalypse, but it can’t hurt to dig out a few water purification tablets and gen up on some edible plants, can it? You never really know what’s round the corner…

I’ll also try to be more courageous in the expression of my own beliefs. Given that a lot of what I think and feel isn’t likely to cause offence of a violent nature – I’m more afraid of being put down and laughed at – I realise I’m squandering the chance to speak my mind, when others aren’t quite so fortunate.

I hope that The Hunger Games will make me braver.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!