A Clockwork Orange Author Anthony Burgess Lists His Five Favorite Dystopian Novels: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Island & More


From Sir Thomas More’s 1516 philo­soph­i­cal nov­el Utopia to Dis­ney’s 2016 adult-friend­ly kids’ movie Zootopia, the genre of the “-top­ia” has been remark­ably durable. Tak­ing Pla­to’s Repub­lic as their mod­el, the first utopi­an fic­tions flour­ished in an opti­mistic age, when polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy imag­ined a per­fect union between gov­ern­ment and sci­ence. Such fic­tion por­trayed most­ly har­mo­nious, high-func­tion­ing civ­i­liza­tions as con­trasts to real, imper­fect societies—and yet, as mod­ern indus­try began to threat­en human well-being and for­mer­ly ide­al­ized forms of gov­ern­ment acquired a tyran­ni­cal hue, the genre began to project into the future not hopes of free­dom, ease, and plen­ty but rather fears of mass suf­fer­ing, impris­on­ment, and mis­rule. In place of utopias, moder­ni­ty gave us dystopias, ter­ri­fy­ing fic­tions of a hell­ish future birthed by war, total­i­tar­i­an rule, gross eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, and mis­ap­plied tech­nolo­gies.

Before John Stu­art Mill coined the word “dystopia” in 1868, pes­simistic post-Enlight­en­ment thinker Jere­my Ben­tham cre­at­ed an ear­li­er, per­haps even scari­er, word, “caco­topia,” the “imag­ined seat of the worst gov­ern­ment.” This was the term favored by Antho­ny Burgess, author of one of the most unset­tling dystopi­an nov­els of the last cen­tu­ry, A Clock­work Orange. Depict­ing a chaot­ic future Eng­land filled with extreme crim­i­nal vio­lence and an unnerv­ing gov­ern­ment solu­tion, the nov­el can be read as either, writes Ted Gioia, “a look into the moral­i­ty of an indi­vid­ual, or as an inquiry into the moral­i­ty of the State.” It seems to me that this dual focus marks a cen­tral fea­ture of much suc­cess­ful dystopi­an fic­tion: despite its thor­ough­ly grim and pes­simistic nature, the best rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the genre present us with human char­ac­ters who have some agency, how­ev­er lim­it­ed, and who can choose to revolt from the oppres­sive con­di­tions (and usu­al­ly fail in the attempt) or to ful­ly acqui­esce and remain com­plic­it.

The rebel­lion of a sin­gle non-con­formist gen­er­al­ly forms the basis of con­flict in dystopi­an fic­tion, as we’ve seen in recent, pop­ulist iter­a­tions like The Hunger Games series and their more deriv­a­tive coun­ter­parts. And yet, in most clas­sic dystopi­an nov­els, the hero remains an anti-hero—or an un-hero, rather: unex­cep­tion­al, unim­por­tant, and gen­er­al­ly unno­ticed until he or she decides to cross a line. A few of Burgess’s own favorites of the genre rough­ly fol­low this clas­sic for­mu­la, includ­ing Orwell’s 1984. In the short list below, Burgess com­ments on five works of dystopi­an fic­tion he held in par­tic­u­lar­ly high regard. Two of them, Aldous Hux­ley’s Island and Rus­sell Hoban’s Rid­dley Walk­er, break the mold, and show us two oppo­site extremes of civ­i­liza­tions per­fect­ed, and com­plete­ly anni­hi­lat­ed, by West­ern progress. Burgess’s first choice, Nor­man Mail­er’s The Naked and the Dead seems not to fit at all, being an account of past atroc­i­ties rather than a spec­u­la­tive look into the future.

Nev­er­the­less, Burgess seems will­ing to stretch the bound­aries of what we typ­i­cal­ly think of as dystopi­an fic­tion in order to include books that offer, as Mail­er’s nov­el has it, “a pre­view of the future.” See Burgess’s picks below, and read excerpts from his com­men­tary on these five nov­els. You can read his full descrip­tions at The Inter­na­tion­al Antho­ny Burgess Foun­da­tion web­site.

The futil­i­ty of war is well pre­sent­ed. The island to be cap­tured has no strate­gic impor­tance. The spir­it of revolt among the men is stirred by an acci­dent: the patrol stum­bles into a hor­nets’ nest and runs away, drop­ping weapons and equip­ment, the naked leav­ing the dead behind them. An impulse can con­tain seeds of human choice: we have not yet been turned entire­ly into machines. Mailer’s pes­simism was to come lat­er — in The Deer Park and Bar­bary Shore and An Amer­i­can Dream — but here, with men grant­i­ng them­selves the pow­er to opt out of the col­lec­tive sui­cide of war, there is a heart­en­ing vision of hope. This is an aston­ish­ing­ly mature book for a twen­ty-five-year-old nov­el­ist. It remains Mailer’s best, and cer­tain­ly the best war nov­el to emerge from the Unit­ed States.

This is one of the few dystopi­an or caco­topi­an visions which have changed our habits of thought. It is pos­si­ble to say that the ghast­ly future Orwell fore­told has not come about sim­ply because he fore­told it: we were warned in time. On the oth­er hand, it is pos­si­ble to think of this nov­el as less a prophe­cy than the com­ic join­ing togeth­er of two dis­parate things — an image of Eng­land as it was in the imme­di­ate post-war era, a land of gloom and short­ages, and the bizarrely impos­si­ble notion of British intel­lec­tu­als tak­ing over the gov­ern­ment of the coun­try (and, for that mat­ter, the whole of the Eng­lish-speak­ing world).

Jael 97 is facial­ly over­priv­i­leged: her beau­ty must be reduced to a drab norm. But, like the heroes and hero­ines of all caco­topi­an nov­els, she is an eccen­tric. See­ing for the first time the west tow­er of Ely Cathe­dral, one of the few lofty struc­tures left unflat­tened by the war, she expe­ri­ences a trans­port of ecsta­sy and wish­es to cher­ish her beau­ty. Her revolt against the regime results in no bru­tal reim­po­si­tion of con­for­mi­ty — only in the per­sua­sions of sweet rea­son. This is no Orwellian future. It is a world inca­pable of the dynam­ic of tyran­ny. Even the weath­er is always cool and grey, with no room for either fire or ice. The state mot­to is ‘Every val­ley shall be exalt­ed.’ This is a bril­liant pro­jec­tion of ten­den­cies already appar­ent in the post-war British wel­fare state but, because the book lacks the expect­ed hor­rors of caco­topi­an fic­tion, it has met less appre­ci­a­tion than Nine­teen Eighty-Four.

Nobody is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly con­di­tioned to be hap­py: this new world is real­ly brave. It has learned a great deal from East­ern reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy, but it is pre­pared to take the best of West­ern sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and art. The peo­ple them­selves are a sort of ide­al Eurasian race, equipped with fine bod­ies and Hux­leyan brains, and they have read all the books that Hux­ley has read.

All this sounds like an intel­lec­tu­al game, a hope­less dream in a founder­ing world, but Hux­ley was always enough of a real­ist to know that there is a place for opti­mism. Indeed, no teacher can be a pes­simist, and Hux­ley was essen­tial­ly a teacher. In Island the good life is even­tu­al­ly destroyed by a bru­tal, stu­pid, mate­ri­al­is­tic young raja who wants to exploit the island’s min­er­al resources.

Eng­land… after nuclear war, is try­ing to orga­nize trib­al cul­ture after the total destruc­tion of a cen­tral­ized indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion. The past has been for­got­ten, and even the art of mak­ing fire has to be relearned. The nov­el is remark­able not only for its lan­guage but for its cre­ation of a whole set of rit­u­als, myths and poems. Hoban has built a whole world from scratch.

Burgess’s list gives us such a small sam­pling of dystopi­an fic­tion, and with so many clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary exam­ples about, it’s tempt­ing to add to his list (one won­ders why he choos­es Hux­ley’s Island and not Brave New World). There’s no rea­son why we can’t. If you’re so inclined, tell us your favorite dystopi­an nov­els, or films, in the com­ments, with a brief descrip­tion of their mer­its.

H/T to one of our fans on our Face­book page, John B.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Sur­pris­ing List of His 10 Favorite Books, from C.S. Lewis to Tom Clan­cy

Stephen King’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (22) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (22)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jan Annoot says:

    The Gate to Wom­en’s Coun­try by Sher­ri S. Tep­per. Fan­tas­tic post-apoc­a­lyp­tic dystopian/utopian (fem­i­nist) future that every­one should read … female and male!

  • George B. Qakvik McClintock says:

    I have read 1984 and Brave New World and watched Kubrick­’s Clock­work Orange. There is one nov­el that I think mer­its inclu­sion in this list.

    On the cov­er of The Mod­ern Library edi­tion (2006) is a quote by Ursu­la K. Le Guin — “The Best Sin­gle Work Of Sci­ence Fic­tion Yet Writ­ten.”

    The nov­el is “WE” by Yevge­ny Zamy­atin, writ­ten in 1921. Well worth read­ing.

  • Evan Knudsen says:

    I was think­ing about read­ing it. A few years ago, I post­ed a quote from it on Face­book:

    “You see, it is the ancient leg­end of par­adise.” (“p” like
    a foun­tain.) “That leg­end referred to us of today, did it
    not? Yes. Only think of it, think of it a moment! There
    were two in par­adise and the choice was offered to them:
    hap­pi­ness with­out .free­dom, or free­dom with­out hap­pi­ness.
    No oth­er choice. Ter­tium non datur. They, fools that
    they were, chose free­dom. Nat­u­ral­ly, for cen­turies after­ward
    they longed for fet­ters, for the fet­ters of yore. This
    was the mean­ing of their world weari­ness, Weltschmerz.
    For cen­turies! And only we found a way to regain hap­pi­ness.….
    No, lis­ten, fol­low mel The ancient god and we,
    side by side at the same table! Yes, we helped god to defeat
    the dev­il def­i­nite­ly and final­ly. It was he, the dev­il,
    who led peo­ple to trans­gres­sion, to taste per­ni­cious free­dom-he,
    the cun­ning ser­pent. And we came along,
    plant­ed a boot on his head, and … squash! Done with
    him! Par­adise again! We returned to the sim­ple-mind­ed­ness
    and inno­cence of Adam and Eve. No more med­dling
    with good and evil and all that; every­thing is Sim­ple again,
    heav­en­ly, child­ish­ly sim­ple! The Well-Doer, the Machine,
    t4e Cube, the giant Gas Bell, the Guardians-all these are
    good. All this is mag­nif­i­cent, beau­ti­ful, noble, lofty, crys­talline,
    pure. For all this pre­serves our non-free­dom, that
    is, our hap­pi­ness. In our place those ancients would indulge
    in dis­cus­sions, delib­er­a­tions, etc. They would break
    their heads try­ing· to make out what was moral or unmoral.
    But we … Well, in short, these are the high­lights
    of my lit­tle par­adise poem.

  • Mark Stewart Cassidy says:

    “We” by Y.Zamyatin (1921) isan under-read dystopi­an nov­el with a gru­elling unhap­py pace and an end­ing which lives up to the tone of the book,to say more would spoil it if you want to read it.

  • L.A. McCue says:

    I’ve read 1984, A Clock­work Orange, Rid­dley Walk­er, and We. I rec­om­mend Ira Lev­in’s This Per­fect Day. It’s not as chal­leng­ing as the oth­ers and is dat­ed in some dis­com­fit­ing ways, but despite qual­i­fy­ing as dystopi­an fic­tion it’s a fast and enter­tain­ing read.

  • Jim Sumner says:

    A wor­thy addi­tion to the list would be Nev­er Let Me Go based upon the nov­el by Kazuo Ishig­uro. Haunt­ing and unfor­get­table with excel­lent act­ing.

  • kerouac22 says:

    Rid­dley Walk­er is a mas­ter­piece! Glad to see it men­tioned here.

  • Lucio says:

    i know is about films and i’ sor­ry but i wan­na men­tion the Some­where in Time Iron Maid­en cd.

  • Peter Francis says:

    A Can­ti­cle for Lei­bowitz — This nov­el makes the dystopi­an future even bleak­er by hav­ing human­i­ty repeat its mis­take after bare­ly climb­ing back to civil­i­sa­tion from the ash­es. Not sure if the few flee­ing on the rock­et ship won’t repeat … is human­i­ty always doomed?

  • joost stolk says:

    Day of the trif­fids — John Wyn­d­ham
    This per­fect day — Ira Levin
    The stand — Stephen King

  • Richard says:

    One of Antho­ny Burgess’ most over­looked nov­els is “The Want­i­ng Seed”. It does to the pop­u­la­tion explo­sion what Dr. Strangelove does to nuclear war. It’s eas­i­ly one of Burgess’ best nov­els and would nice­ly fit into the dystopi­an genre.

  • Rik says:

    Dhal­gren by Samuel R. Delany

  • Micky says:

    Aye it’s up there with my favourites too

  • Jackson Hills says:

    Not dystopi­an, but those who like these books would also appre­ci­ate ‘Erewhon’ by Samuel But­ler.

  • Peter says:

    In 1984 Britain was mere­ly Airstrip 1 mind, mere­ly Amer­i­ca’s air­base…

  • Timothy Augustin says:

    I might be crazy but I real­ly enjoyed the book “Jen­nefer Gov­ern­ment” by Max Berry

  • Out says:

    The Iron Heel by Jack Lon­don writ­ten in 1908 deserves to be men­tioned in any list of dystopi­an nov­els.

  • Jim says:

    Island, like Eco­topia, is autopia. Good essay, but bad nov­els both.
    And I rec­om­mend both.

  • Sm says:

    Lucio , with respect,Piece of Mind is by far Iron Maid­ens best album. Also Von­da McIn­tyre The Exile Wait­ing and Tanith Lee Days of Grass are two of my favorites.

  • Dr. Curiosity says:

    I’d sus­pect “Brave New World” isn’t on his list because it would already be on peo­ple’s lists. There’s no point in fur­ther com­mend­ing it.

  • John Lucas says:

    Fahren­heit 451 by Ray Brad­bury

  • Ryan says:

    We IS 1984. It was so heav­i­ly lent from by Orwell as to be con­sid­ered pla­garism. I’m sur­prised Burgess select­ed 1984 instead, actu­al­ly. But the book did get the mes­sage across to a greater pop­u­la­tion as opposed to We, so that may explain.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.