Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Dystopian

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll know that quoting mid-20th century dystopian novels is really “in” right now. Since we started the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency, a lot of these older works have startling new relevance. I’ve got George Orwell’s 1984 covered (it’s one of my long-time favourite books), but I’m sick of chuckling along obliquely when people start talking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World is kind of like 1984’s homely cousin. There was some beef between the authors when Orwell accused Huxley of ripping off his plot (Orwell believed it was just a bit too similar to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin). Huxley always maintained that Brave New World was actually inspired by the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He originally intended the book to be a satire, a “negative utopia” sending up all the novels that implied humanity could solve all of its social and economic issues with science. But then, as Huxley later wrote to a friend, the author “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas”, and he ended up creating an entirely dystopian future where developments in reproductive technologies and psychological theories (sleep-learning, classic conditioning, etc.) have turned society on its head… and not necessarily in a good way. Brave New World was essentially the Black Mirror of the 1930s.

The foreword in this edition is pretty weird. Huxley wrote it himself, and his main message seems to be: “a writer should never feel remorse for the mistakes they made in their books and it’s no use trying to go back to fix them, but I could totally fix all the problems in Brave New World if I wanted to, and here’s exactly how I’d do it…”

Brave New World was published in 1931, and set 600 years in the future from then (so, the year 2540 to us, or the year 632 “After Ford” for the characters). Citizens of the Brave New World (called the “World State”) are engineered in artificial wombs, indoctrinated as children into predetermined castes, and kept calm with the constant use of a drug they call “soma”. Epsilons (the lower caste) are the giants, and the Alphas (highest caste) stand on their shoulders – without Epsilons, the “utopian” society would collapse. This is a metaphor for basically everything: capitalism, sexism, racism, and every other power structure you can think of.




 

The story kicks off with the beautiful Lenina (who works in a “hatchery”, breeding babies) and the dumpy Bernard (a psychologist who hates everything) taking a holiday together. They visit the natural world outside the confines of the World State (called the “Savage Reservation”), and there they meet Linda. She was once part of the World State, but got dumped in the reservation when she found herself naturally pregnant. Everyone in the World State is encouraged to fuck one another silly, but natural pregnancy and procreation is a huge no-no, so she’s basically shunned. Bernard can’t resist the opportunity to rock the boat a little back home, so he brings Linda and her son (John) back to the World State with him.

Lest you be mistaken, Huxley has A PointTM to make, and he goes in hard. He certainly doesn’t waffle on at all, and you can tell that every sentence is perfectly crafted to have maximum impact. In that regard, Brave New World reads more like a short story than a novel. This is a good thing in the sense that it makes the book a quick read. However, you do start to miss flowery descriptive moments and drawn-out passages, because they would give you a bit of time to process all of the information-dumps.

‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.’

Around the time he started to write Brave New World, Huxley was really freaked out by the Great Depression (1931). There was mass unemployment and changes to the currency in Britain, leading to a lot of uncertainty. A trip to the United States didn’t help Huxley much; there, he saw youth culture, commercialised and promiscuous and narcissistic (he would have shit himself if he’d come forward in time and discovered Instagram). He also came across a copy of My Life and Work by Henry Ford (yes, of the Ford Motoring Company), which greatly influenced Huxley’s approach to the book. See, the whole book is based around the fear of losing individual identity and ceding free will. Ford is actually revered as the creator of the World State – not quite a deity, but close (so, instead of saying “oh my god”, people in the World State say “oh my Ford”). I wonder what you’d pay for that kind of product placement now… 😉

Anyway, back to the plot. Bernard returns to the World State with his “savages” in tow, and things start to fall apart. He parades John around like a performing monkey, which garners a lot of attention, but John really hates it. John has a passion for Shakespeare (considered smut in the World State) and quotes him endlessly (don’t worry, it’s mostly the well-known plays, so no prior knowledge of the Bard is required to follow what’s going on).


Linda reveals that John’s father is actually one of the bigwigs in the World State government, leading to a huge fall-out. Around the same time, Lenina hits on John, but he goes full fuck-boy and attacks her, calling her a slut. There are a lot of complex sub-plots that weave in and out here, but basically it all ends up with John exiling himself. He goes off to live in an abandoned lighthouse, alone on the fringes of the World State. He overreacts somewhat to what he sees as the excesses and indulgences of that society, and starts whipping himself like that monk from The Da Vinci Code. Crowds gather to watch him, fascinated by “the self-flagellating savage”, until one day he thinks he sees Lenina in the crowd and he goes completely nuts. The story ends with a really haunting depiction of his suicide, alone in the lighthouse.

This review might sound pretty PG, but the American Library Association actually ranks Brave New World on their list of the most challenged books of all time (don’t forget, Banned Books Week is coming up!). It has been censored, banned, and/or challenged dozens of times all around the world. The further I get into the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, the more I realise that the most-often banned books are always the ones that offer the best insights into our world.

Huxley later wrote two follow-ups: an essay (“Brave New World Revisited” in 1958), and his final novel (“Island” in 1962). I’m not sure I’ll bother seeking those out, but I’m glad I read Brave New World. By way of a recommendation, this one is probably best suited to sociology students, and/or naïve teenagers who need a bit of a wake-up call. It’s definitely less depressing than 1984, if that’s your concern – they still have sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in the World State, after all 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Brave New World:

  • “The mass baby electrocution scene was epic. ZAP! That’s what you get for looking at books!” – John Sapinski
  • “Progressive claptrap” – John Harrington
  • “This is the business plan of the Progressive Party. It is the Mein Kampf of the Democrat. I commend it. It is always good to know what the train that is about to hit you looks like. Gives you a chance to dodge.” – Athelstan
  • “almost sickening book—strange—baby torture, toddler sex—just weird” – Gloria M.

 

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Given that I’ve pulled together a reading list of mostly popular and classic books, I’ve stumbled across a bunch that have been made into movies. I only mention that here because this is one of the very few times I’ve actually seen the film adaptation prior to reading the book, so I had some idea of what was up with A Clockwork Orange before I read it.

A Clockwork Orange, the novella, was published in 1962, but reached peak saturation after the Kubrick film adaptation was released in 1971. I saw the movie sometime in my mid-teens, fancying myself a bit disaffected and angsty, but hadn’t read the book until now. In terms of genre, it’s a hard one to pin down. I’ve seen it referred to as science fiction, which almost fits, but I would describe it as truly dystopian (as opposed to the cutesy Young Adult type of dystopian to which we’ve all become accustomed). Burgess wrote the whole thing in three weeks, and by all accounts he thought it kind of sucked, and yet it remains the work for which he is best known.

Shit gets very real, right from the outset. The narrator is Alex, a hardened juvenile delinquent with a passion for classical music. He spends a night with his friends, stealing cars and beating the living daylights out of unsuspecting civilians. The next day, he lures two very young girls home from the record store, and brutally rapes them in his bedroom. At this point, we’re only forty pages in. I mean, I’d heard that the book depicted a “subculture of youth violence”, but when this is the starting point… well, that description doesn’t seem to cut it, does it?

As A Clockwork Orange unfolds, Burgess just flat out makes up his own words. He called it “Nasdat”, a kind of Anglo-Russian slang. I’d imagine it’s a lot like reading a book written in a language in which you’re almost fluent – it gets easier and easier, but you still find yourself stumbling on a word now and then. It’s less like reading and more like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the context clues to work out what the hell is going on.

For some reason reading about the violence, delivered rapid-fire in this nonsense language, is a lot more confronting than seeing it on the screen. All of the nonsense language in the world can’t cloak or soften it. Perhaps I’m desensitised to violence in film and television (aren’t we all?), but not so much with book; in fact, I don’t think I had ever read a truly violent book… until now. I like to think I’ve got a fairly strong stomach for this kind of stuff, but Burgess really put it to the test. “Anti-hero” doesn’t quite suffice in describing Alex – he is unsympathetic in the extreme. I didn’t think I could dislike a narrator more than I disliked Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), but here we are.




Anyway, Alex gets caught by the authorities about a third of the way into the book, which is the first indication that something’s a bit hinky. In a traditional goodies-catch-the-baddie story, you’d expect him to get caught at the very end, after a bitching chase scene or something. In A Clockwork Orange, the actual story isn’t Alex’s crime(s), it’s his punishment.

The only bit of Burgess’ story that I didn’t quite buy was the politics of Alex and his “droogs” (translates roughly to “homies”, I think). Alex only gets caught because one of his droogs beats him with a bike chain and leaves him unable to escape from the cops, after an earlier leadership squabble. The cops don’t believe Alex’s bullshit story (about being led astray and lured into crime by a group of violent thugs), so he goes to prison. He gets by inside by cozying up to the prison chaplain and snitching (sometimes honestly, sometimes not) on his fellow inmates. His droogs inside end up dogging him too, blaming him for the death of a cellmate (when really they all got a few kicks in). He bitches about their hypocrisy and wails about their violent perversions, but doesn’t count himself among them. None of this seems like it would hold up in the real world of gangland violence. Snitches get stitches, after all, and a little bitch like Alex would be wearing concrete boots before long. It felt like maybe the only mechanism that Burgess had to drive Alex first into prison, and then into an experimental punishment/”cure”.

“In a sense, choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good.” – Prison Chaplain

Ah, yes, the punishment. As a psychology graduate (yes, I studied psych in a former life), it was both fascinating and (frankly) offensive to see old, basic concepts of behaviourism bastardised by a desperate government. Burgess called it the Ludovico technique – a form of aversion therapy, where the authorities injected Alex with nausea-inducing drugs while forcing him to watch violent films (the logical conclusion being that he becomes physically sickened at the thought of violence). In that sense, the book really takes aim behavioural psychology, but that’s just one thread of the ugly sweater vest. Is goodness still “good” if it’s not a choice? Given that we’re all exposed to persuasive powers on a daily basis, do any of us really still have “choices”? Is violence still violence when it is perpetrated by the State? Unraveling the philosophical questions raised by A Clockwork Orange would take a decade. For now, I’ll just get on with it, because thinking about all of this for too long really bums my flow.

Alex gets out, apparently “cured”, but finds himself homeless, rejected by his parents and looking for a way to end it all. He is attacked by a former victim, the police who rescue him turn out to be former droogs who just beat him further, and when he stops at a house to end it all – guess what – the resident is the husband of a former victim, too. Alex is really shit out of luck. It’s all very convenient, but at least the story moves quickly and there’s no bones about what Burgess is doing.

Alex ends up in the hands of a political group who are highly critical of the current government, and want to turn Alex into a symbol of police brutality. Facing a life as a cautionary-tale puppet, and realising that his “cure” has also made listening to his beloved Beethoven unbearable, he figures now is as good a time as any to execute his suicide plan. He cocks it up, winding up in hospital only to find that he seems to have been “cured of the cure” in recovery. He can go back to a life of violence and orchestral music without enforced illness and revulsion. Lovely!


In the original American publication, the story ended here, but there’s actually a 21st chapter, which was included in my edition. I guess this true ending is “happy” in a sense – Alex decides to give up his life of violent crime to seek a wife and have a child. Only, he acknowledges that, try as he might to renounce his life of crime, he won’t be able to exert any control over his hypothetical son who will go on to fuck everything up the way that he did, and have a son who goes on to do the same. So everything’s fucked, and none of it will get any better, even if Alex redeems himself in a life of domesticity (so maybe not that “happy” an ending after all). The book is arguably more realistic without this closing passage, and Kubrick famously refused to include it in his film adaptation.

A thought that struck me in the final chapters: is this what The Catcher In The Rye could have been, or tried to be? Funnily enough, A Clockwork Orange – undoubtedly more violent and confronting in basically every respect – didn’t face anywhere near the same level of censorship. Removal of the book from a handful of schools and libraries in the U.S. only happened after the release of the film, which was substantially more controversial. Really, it’s the ultimate case of literary one-upmanship; Burgess took the disaffected youth trope to its logical extreme, and forcefully confronted his readership in places that Salinger only gently poked.

I couldn’t possibly argue that A Clockwork Orange is an enjoyable read. I don’t think that I could bring myself to recommend that somebody read it, but simultaneously I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it either. My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Clockwork Orange:

  • “…. If the book had been written using the King ‘s English, it certainly would not have been a candidate for the Book of the Month Club. However, as I read the last page, I felt as if I had stopped to eat at an ethnic restaurant in this ethnic neighborhood where I ordered my meal from a menu written completely in this bizarre language, but I knew precisely what I wanted to eat.” – Barbara Moore
  • “I cannot like this book. How did this become a classic? The gibberish throughout hurts me. I feel dumber just attempting to read this ‘book’. My feelings are the characters are stupid. They beat people up, smoke, and cause trouble all in a language that is not English. Not fun to read. Not engaging. Not anything worth recommending. If I wanted to read nonsense I would find Dr Seuss books, at least those make sense.” – Amazon Customer
  • “the negative actions depicted in this book are not a good thing… duh. that was tony’s point! ‘no good, no bad’ idiocy makes tony barf his other lung. take responsibility for yourselves!!! (read that again!) try shock therapy if you’re still watching sports on TV. help someone today!” – A customer

 

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The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

And here we are! If you’re new to Keeping Up With The Penguins, you might need to check out the About page to work out… well, what this is all about.

This is the first cab off the rank, the book that finally got me using my commute for something other than reading work emails and tagging friends in memes on Facebook. I started with The Hunger Games simply because I already owned it; a few years ago, I picked up at a Big W for the princely sum of $2.37… and then never looked at it again. Until now.

Released in 2008, The Hunger Games is a New York Times bestseller, and the first in a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels (and it’s definitely the only book to which that sentence could ever apply, right?). Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they made a few movies out of it.

To summarise the plot and get that out of the way quickly, in a post-apocalyptic North America, a wealthy evil dictator makes each of the poverty-stricken districts surrounding a luxe capital supply a boy and girl once a year to fight to the death in a reality TV show. Winners get spoils and riches (like food, and not-dying). The social commentary is probably a revelation to the teenaged target market, and has already been discussed at length elsewhere I’m sure (in many a high school book report, at least).

The Hunger Games - President Trump Can't Do That, Can He? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Collins famously said that modern reality television served as a source of inspiration (clearly referring to The Bachelor). She recounted an almost-too-good-to-be-true story of channel surfing and flicking between scenes of people competing for a prize, and footage of the Iraq war. It’s not the most believable origin story (J.K. Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter while staring out the window of a delayed train and watching cows in a field, after all), but it’s nice and neat, isn’t it?

The story begins with the narrator – Katniss, the very-average-teen-girl-who-is-very-obviously-going-to-have-greatness-thrust-upon-her – insisting that “there’s nothing romantic between her and Gale”. Ergo, there’s definitely going to be something romantic between her and Gale before the credits roll. Sure enough, by page 453, it’s all “I can’t explain how things are with Gale, because I don’t know myself”. HA!




As it goes on, I literally laughed out loud on several occasions at the characters’ nonchalant descriptions of rather graphic violence. I’m kicking myself for not writing down an example (and too lazy to go back searching for one), but it’d be something to the effect of: “Oh, that guy? Yeah, the other guy beat his head in with a shovel, so he’s no problem *shrugs*”. I know it’s a comment on our culture’s desensitisation to brutality (particularly that inflicted on or by people of colour), and how it’s all perpetuated by the 24-hour news cycle… but it was also really funny. Other highlights included the narrator’s repeated descriptions of delicious lamb stew on rice, which were enough to trigger an intense craving for Indian food in this reader.

The story ends on a glorious cliffhanger – which, in the age of dime-a-dozen young adult trilogies, we all know means $$$. I can just imagine Collins putting an early draft – with a more resolute ending – on her editor’s desk, and getting an immediate “nuh-uh”. The Hunger Games would have stood perfectly well on its own, with a few tweaks in the final pages, but who cares about “perfectly well” when there’s a goldmine to be dug in the pockets of millennials?


My impressions of the book were definitely coloured by the film – and, in an unexpected plot twist, I actually thought the film was better. It was somehow more complex, perhaps because the viewers weren’t exposed to the keep-it-simple-stupid train of thought of a teenage girl narrator. The film had a subtlety that you just can’t get when the protagonist is spoon-feeding to you her every supposition.

On the whole, I think I enjoyed it, in a way that makes me sound (and feel!) like a condescending arsehole. I had a few chuckles. I didn’t get lost or confused (though the plot did randomly accelerate in places). It was light enough to ease me into this whole project without making me regret the idea entirely. I probably wouldn’t read The Hunger Games again, but I’d happily give my copy to a 13-year-old cousin who needed something to do on her Christmas holidays.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hunger Games:

  • “Loved the book, but it is dumb to make me review with minimum amount of words. Sometimes there just isn’t much more that needs to be said.” – Gretchen B. Hitchcock
  • “Just not my kinda book my daughter got it” – Carol Paulen
  • “I read the whole thing” – Teo

 

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