Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Thoughts on THE WANTING SEED



Usually someone gives me an Amazon gift card around the holidays, and annually I use that as justification for the delivery of a bunch of books I might not otherwise have purchased—and, of course, I always way exceed the gift card’s value in doing so. Among this season’s haul is a nice Norton trade paperback (not pictured here) reprint of Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, his other futuristic dystopia, written and published at about the same time as his more famous A Clockwork Orange, and which dwells upon some of that book’s same themes of whether human goodness is innate or not, and what, if any, kind of government or social order can foster the best sort of behavior in people.

Since the book is readily available, and summaries of it abound online, I won’t detail its plot overly much, but it’s generally about a social transition that occurs in England during an unspecified future era, and the things that happen to a few closely connected characters during that period. The world is somewhat Orwellian, with a fair amount of Newspeak-style short-word jargon, but it’s not ruled by quite the same sort of repressive totalitarianism as Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Ingsoc regime. Instead, as the story opens, England is part of a multinational state called the “Enspun” (Newspeak for the English Speaking Union), which in turn is part of a world order that also includes the “Ruspun” (Russian-speaking, naturally), and its government and society is in what is described as a “liberal” phase. More on these phases later, but contemporary American Teabaggers and moral majoritarians would eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because the excesses of far-future liberalism, according to Burgess’s future-world, include: Forced Abortion! One-Child-Only Policy! Self-Sterilization! No Religion at All! The Intermixing of the Races! and, most obnoxious of all, Glorified Homosexuality!

Burgess was a comic novelist primarily—even A Clockwork Orange with all its horror is frequently laugh-out-loud funny—and his wit is baked thoroughly into the cake of his writing style, his word choices and multi-lingual jokes and seriously enormous vocabulary (who ever actually says “eleemosynary" several times in a single book, really?), his unexpected and sometimes weird metaphors, and jokes that are drawn out over long sections of the novel. For example, a secondary character’s odd verbal tic—he peppers his speech constantly with the phrase “do you see”—comes back eventually as the highlight of a stupidly funny scene well after one has probably forgotten all about it. So The Wanting Seed is super-funny fairly often, but…but…

But it’s also chockfull of homophobia and racism, do you see.  I’m not generally one to criticize dead writers and their work based on these things when they and it are of a period in history a lot different than now, and when the work is not primarily all about those issues. Also, I know that social change in England and America on issues like race and homosexuality has happened more rapidly in recent decades than it did during most of the twentieth century. I get it that everyone who has ever written fiction tends to have been a creature of his or her own era. For example, I strenuously disagree with a lot of other readers and writers in the spec fic genres who think that we ought to jettison H.P. Lovecraft and ignore his influence on the genres because he was a typical man of his culture—a turn-of-the-20th century New England white man freighted with tons of racist prejudices and patrician class biases. Unattractive? Sure as hell it is. But he didn’t write Mein Kampf. He may have been insensitive to and fearful of and uncharitable toward the Other but he wasn’t on an explicit mission to oppress people and didn’t actively work at promoting a hate-agenda with his work. One might think the same about Burgess, a man of his time, certainly not on a hate-crusade. Yet I winced and was annoyed every single time, while reading The Wanting Seed, when I encountered a stereotypical or straight-up mythical characterization of gay men and every time I encountered a reference to the non-English “races” and their attributes.
           
And they are legion:

This novel is hung heavy with the preposterous conception that a majority of straight men (they in the yoke of population-control “liberalism”) will actively feign homosexuality in order to secure career advancement, and that to feign such an (obviously) undesirable condition, one must simper and caper and lisp and have their balls cut off and otherwise cultivate faux-“effeminate” characteristics, and such references dot this tale almost from cover to cover, fading out only toward the end (when society has changed blessedly back to hetero-normal). Also, there eventually comes into being a brutal security force, crewed entirely by homo men, with a mandate to oppress the breeding straights, and which resembles somewhat the thuggery of Alex and his droogs in Clockwork (I must admit that this development appealed to me rather more than a little bit after chapters of homo-cliché…but still). But this is purely a satire, right? A joke, right? Maybe. More on that in a minute.

It’s also larded through with race business. Asians are small-boned and high-pitched in voice. Africans are huge, frightening. One of them, a Nigerian, has such a large mouth that it beggars the imagination that he is able to pronounce properly the sounds of English (he also seems endowed with a supernatural number of teeth). One woman is an “orchestra” of races, indecipherable as to her whole complex lineage. Again and again it is commented upon when non-white people appear, as if they are anomalous even in this future society of the Enspun which is supposedly past having such worries. Never is a non-white man mentioned without also mentioning some supposedly intimidating or unflattering characteristic of his appearance or behavior. It’s a multi-racial world with a lot of white people worrying overly much about mixing it up, and the reader is reminded of this all the time and by an uncritical narrative voice. However far in the future this England is, it’s still the ideal social norm to be white, rather patrician, and more than a bit scared.

Oh wait, how about sexism? From cover to cover, it’s this novel’s stock in trade, perhaps even more so than homophobia and racism. In the far-flung future of the Enspun, even when having babies is state-discouraged and literally illegal if you’ve had one already (even one that died young), women still don’t seem to have any reason to exist at all other than for reproduction. There is not anywhere in The Wanting Seed, a novel replete with incidental characters, a single occurrence of a professional woman other than a servant nor any sort of woman not in the thrall of an undesirable man and his broken-down jalopy of a social order. Which is just plain bizarre given the rest of this story’s trappings. I could embrace this more readily as the reader if the author didn’t seem to be tacitly in alliance with that social order.

Burgess proposed an idea of cyclical social/political history. It’s indicated in A Clockwork Orange, but elucidated more fully in The Wanting Seed. Basically, the organization of human affairs turns again and again from a “Pelagian” phase to an “Augustinian” phase, with a tumultuous transitional period in between. The names for the phases refer to the theologians Pelagius and Augustine. To very crudely summarize it, Pelagius believed that humans are basically decent and can be prodded toward good works and ultimate spiritual redemption, free of the Original Sin. Augustine, on the other hand, subscribed to the concept of Original Sin and pretty much assumed that humans had no chance at all short of redemption by way of submission to the Christian faith’s most doctrinaire doctrine. In the novel, Burgess’s protagonist calls these phases, in Newspeak fashion, the Pelphase and the Gusphase, with a transitional Interphase. As the story get under way, we gradually learn that the Pelphase is ending and a violent Interphase is beginning. What’s striking about these developments is that they appear to have little at all to do with the specific actions of the government of the time. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in one scene, lazes about in bed ignoring attempts at soothing from his “catamite,” oblivious to and helpless against the turning of the historical wheel that is happening around him. The protagonist explains to his social studies students early in the novel that the actions of parties and parliaments had eventually come to be irrelevant over the ages because the affairs of people just somehow naturally cycle from Pelphase to Interphase to Gusphase, and do so with a consistency that can be seen again and again in the historical record.

This book is comedic and satirical, but it feels as if its author’s views on things like race, gender and sexuality have passed almost unfiltered into it, because the comedy and satire seems never aimed inward at those biases. Though he indicates a calm and unworried supposition that the transition from Pelphase (liberal) to Gusphase (conservative) and back again, over and over, is the normal order of things, his own authorial alliance seems clearly with the Gusphase and its return to traditional roles for women (breeding stock), non-white races (scary, undesirable) and gays (outlawed). But why does this bug me more in Burgess’s book than it would if I’d encountered it in something written a half-century or more before it (like Lovecraft) or even from someone else from Burgess’s own time period who didn't delve into spec fic? I think it's because that he chose a couple of times to write science fiction in an era when he should have been more progressive. And also because he was in fact a real intellectual, world-traveled, an internationalist, and should have somehow just been too modern to have been so reactionary about social change. It’s almost like the reason that I don’t cut any slack for Orson Scott Card. Though in the case of Card, there is much less excuse: he is a currently living, producing writer who is also actively promulgating a crazy-ass view of things for political reasons. It's maybe because Burgess is a bit too recent, and that’s probably not a rational reason, but there it is anyway. But it does somehow feel different when Burgess refers to the weird and frightful attributes of the various races (the non-English people) than when Lovecraft gives the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” the name “Nigger Man” or when Card openly calls for the toppling of the United States government should gay marriage become legal (even while he continues to milk the gay-ass Enderverse for all its worth).

Since the course of real-world history seems always, in fits and starts, to be toward greater tolerance, inclusiveness and equality among various peoples, I think it gets under my skin when science fiction writers are so aggressively not progressive, and it bugs me more the closer they are to being my contemporaries. I can deal better with Lovecraft’s bigotries because his work is most of century in the past and it was never principally about being a bigot. I cannot deal with Card because he is currently working and is actively and deliberately a bigot. Burgess is somewhere in between. He came of age before the Second World War, but he saw the world from a position of great privilege after it—even living for a while in a motorhome on the Continent as a tax exile from Britain because he was so well-to-do and didn’t like paying his taxes. Because he was such a good stylist of a prose that can be so much fun to read, I wish that I could read The Wanting Seed without all these annoyances that repeatedly made me trip and stall during my hours with this book. 

In fairness, it's true that some of these things can easily be spotted in other British spec fic of the period, particularly in regards to the assumption that the English are the most accomplished race of people ever (a bias that white Americans inherited and still cultivate aggressively even now). For example, in J.G. Ballard's The Wind From Nowhere, we learn that the ever-accelerating titular wind is blowing to the ground all the shoddy cities and hovels of most of the rest of the world at a point where it has only reached the level of a nuisance in stoutly-built London. 

But, really? Extra teeth? A mouth so large, do you see.
           
But, on the other side of the ledger, The Wanting Seed does fairly pillory war and all the frauds surrounding it with some very funny comedy and satire. Later in the book, as the world passes out of the Interphase and into the Gusphase, a professional army is raised, its function: war. But the world has known no war in generations, England has no real infrastructure for it, and no particular enemy to fight, (shades of 1984 where it remains unclear whether Oceania’s perpetual enemies even actually exist). So the War Department—now not even a department of government but rather a private contractor—creates the illusion of such, shanghaiing people into the army, duping them with mock campaigns, noises of battle literally blasted over loudspeakers from record players. It’s all a scam to create corpses for the processed food industry and to provide a useful lie to sedate the public. As a character very cannily observes, perpetual war is perpetually popular so long as it has no impact on day-to-day civilian life. “Civilians love war,” it is noted, so long as they can continue to be civilians during it. It sounds very, very familiar and timely.

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