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.