Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Science Fiction

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

I love my Harper Voyager edition of Fahrenheit 451. It’s gorgeous! And it contains a really interesting introduction (yes, I still read those), written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary. In it, he describes how he wrote the entire book in the typewriter room of his local library. It cost him 10 cents per hour to use the machine, and the earliest draft cost him $9.80 to write, over the course of nine days. “So here, after fifty years, is Fahrenheit 451,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’m glad that it was done.”

This edition also includes Bradbury’s afterword, and he gives some great insights into the book’s publication history. He explains the various difficulties he found in completing and publishing a book that’s ultimately about censorship. The most interesting tidbit, I thought, was this:

“A young Chicago editor, minus cash but full of future visions, saw my manuscript and bought it for four hundred and fifty dollars, all that he could afford, to be published in issues number two, three and four of his about to be born magazine. The young man was Hugh Hefner. The magazine was Playboy, which arrived during the winter of 1953/4 to shock and improve the world. The rest is history.”

Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 afterword)

Maybe there really is something to the whole “reading Playboy for the articles” thing 😉 Anyway, if Hugh Hefner’s seal of approval doesn’t mean much to you, consider this: Barack Obama is also on record as saying that “Ray Bradbury’s gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world,”. Who can argue with praise that high?

Fahrenheit 451 is indeed widely regarded as the best of Bradbury’s works. It’s set in an unspecified city (probably somewhere in the American mid-West) at an unspecified time in the future (probably sometime after 1960). The story follows a fireman, Guy Montag, who becomes disillusioned with his job. See, in Montag’s world, firemen don’t put out fires – they burn books.



The plot kicks off when Montag meets Clarisse, his teenage neighbour and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who spouts a bunch of free-thinking hippie-dippie bullshit as they walk home together each day. Then, one day, she disappears without explanation. On that basis alone, pretty much, Montag decides to up-end his entire life. The next time he’s called upon to burn books, a stash discovered in the home of a sweet old lady, he nicks one. He wants to see what all the fuss is about for himself.

(That old lady decides to stay with her books, by the way, even as the flames rise and she is burned to death. She’s the real hero of this story, tbh.)

Montag chucks a sickie the next day, and contemplates a change in career. His wife is not impressed in the slightest; she needs him to keep bringing in the Benjamins so she can buy a new flat-screen TV. Montag’s boss shows up, ostensibly to bust his balls for faking a case of gastro, but they end up having a D&M about the true history of how books came to be banned. When the boss leaves, Montag shows his wife the contraband he’s hiding in the roof, and she freaks out even harder. He wants to have a go at reading them (against his wife’s stern advice), so he reaches out to an English professor he met years ago, Faber, and convinces the old guy to help him.

Now, here’s where Montag gets really stupid: he starts flashing his stash of stolen books around in front of his wife’s friends. Understandably, this gives her the shits, and Montag is pretty much on the couch for life at this point. One of her friends tips off the authorities, and Montag’s boss shows up, this time in the firetruck, and commands Montag to burn down his own house. Montag’s all “yeah, okay”, and he does it… but he also knocks out all his co-workers and kills his boss with a flamethrower. That is the final fucking straw for Mrs Montag, and she leaves him to fondle his books on his lonesome.



Montag’s a bit slow on the uptake, but these developments are enough to finally get it through his skull that he Done Fucked Up(TM). Unfortunately, that realisation dawns at the same time that his bad decision making starts paying off. He runs, floating himself down a river, and meets up with a group of drifters. They’ve got this whole keep-literacy-alive-cabal thing going on, and they’ve all memorised books as an act of rebellion against the state. While everyone sits around swapping stories, war is declared on the city from which Montag has just escaped. They can’t do much but sit there, watching bombers fly over-head and drop explodey-things miles away. Everyone, except the drifters, bites the dust.

They’re pretty nonchalant about their narrow escape, however. They sit down to have dinner (seriously, no wonder they were exiled), and listen to their leader give a lecture about phoenixes and mirrors and what not. Then, they all pick up sticks and head back towards the city under the guise of “rebuilding”. (I’m pretty sure they were all dudes, so they might encounter some problems with the re-populating bit, but no one mentions that particular elephant in the room and the book ends without another word about it).

I must say – and I realise how uncool this is to admit – I didn’t care for Fahrenheit 451. On paper, the premise is compelling and I dig it, but the writing seems like a messy patchwork, as though Bradbury was trying to emulate six different authors at once. It’s got a real young adult vibe, which is probably why it’s so popular as a prescribed high-school read. I probably would have got a lot more out of it if I’d read it for the first time back then. As it stands, for present-day me, it was just… meh. Another one that didn’t live up to the hype. Bradbury perhaps just didn’t spend enough time or give himself enough space to do his great premise justice in the prose.

He had plenty of material to work with, after all. He was inspired by the destruction of the Library Of Alexandria, horrified by Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s Great Purge, and nostalgic for the Golden Age of Radio (he probably listened to Video Killed The Radio Star on repeat for years). Bradbury saw new forms of media as a threat to literacy and books, as though mass media would cause us all to forget how to read. Montag’s wife and her vapid friends were basically his way of foreshadowing the Kardashians. Usually, when we talk about Fahrenheit 451, it’s in the context of a cautionary tale against state-based censorship, but Bradbury did his best to play down those elements, especially later in life; he was hell-bent on retrofitting his mass-media-is-evil message into his best-known work.



Are you ready for a heaping serve of irony? Fahrenheit 451 was subjected to serious expurgation by its publisher not long after it was first released. Ballantine Books released the “Bal-Hi Edition” 1967, targeted at the high-school students with whom they realised it had become popular. They censored words like “hell”, “damn”, and “abortion”, amending seventy-five passages all told. At first, they published both the censored and the uncensored versions side-by-side, but by 1973 only the censored version was being re-printed. Bradbury didn’t even know about any of this until 1979, when one of his friends showed him an expurgated copy. I’d imagine he hit the roof harder than it has ever been hit before, and someone at Ballantine got fired (maybe a lot of someones).

By 1980, they were back to publishing the original, uncensored version. Bradbury has since referred to the practice as “manuscript mutilation”, so I think he held onto that grudge for a good, long while. While the reinstatement of the original text is undoubtedly a win in the battle against censorship, it’s meant that the book has been subject to multiple instances of banning and redaction in schools and libraries. What does it take to convince yourself that banning a book about censorship is a good idea? Smh…

But not everyone’s that silly, and plenty of very clever people have really loved Bradbury’s magnum opus. In 1954, Fahrenheit 451 won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award In Literature. Thirty years later, in 1984, it won the Prometheus “Hall Of Fame” award. And then again, twenty years after that, it won a “Retro” Hugo Award (one of only six Best Novel Retro Hugos ever given). Fahrenheit 451 has also been adapted a few times over. Bradbury himself published a stage-play version of the story in 1979, and (despite his apparent objection to mass media) helped develop an interactive computer version of the game based on the book in 1984. More recently, HBO released a television film of the novel, which revived interest in its timely message.



Anyway, here’s my tl;dr summary: a middle-aged straight white guy in a dystopian future burns books for a living, until he meets a seventeen-year-old hottie and decides to have a mid-life crisis. *shrugs* I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I really wasn’t that fussed on it. I think Fahrenheit 451 is great for high schoolers, and its premise is fascinating, but unfortunately the writing itself just doesn’t live up to the hype. I’ll the shelving this one on my good-to-have-read-so-I-don’t-have-to-pretend-I-did-anymore shelf, and moving right along.

P.S. Almost everyone knows this already, but I figured I’d tack it on to the end here, just in case you missed it: Fahrenheit 451 got its title from a conversation Bradbury had with a fire-fighter about the temperature at which book paper burns. There was a bit of a miscommunication, though; 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites (i.e., starts to burn without exposure to a flame). Book burning, of the type depicted in Bradbury’s story, actually occurs at a much lower temperature. But why let the truth get in the way of a good title, eh? I got more cool bookish trivia here, if you want to check it out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Fahrenheit 451:

  • “If you haven’t read it,you better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Makes kids hate reading!” – j busby
  • “Only got half way through, was a downer burned books?” – KAREN K. FOOTE
  • “Literary sorts probably jerk off to books like this, but frankly it was just disjointed, poorly-constructed, lazy plagiarism of “1984”. Reads like an elementary student wrote it, to be frank.” – James Potter
  • “this is probably the worst book ever. not only is it horrible, the plot is awful. they are wasting their time burning other books when this is the book they should burning. would not recommend this to anyone” – Alex
  • “Very much the American 1984… and I don’t mean that in a good way. While Orwell’s work is subtle, entertaining, intelligent and incredibly powerful, Fahrenheit 451 spoon feeds you it’s message like a patronising primary school teacher.
    
It leaves no room for interpretation or thought and comes across as a 14 year old’s attempt to write something clever, rather than bringing forth any original or interesting insight. Worse than this though, it fails to be entertaining, and being entertaining, even in a novel with a message (even one as simple as “doing bad things is bad”, which is what 451’s amounts to) should be the primary aim.
    
The writing style is convoluted and childish, the story containing zero original concepts, and the whole thing is just rather uninspiring. I strongly suspect the only reason this book gained so much attention is because of the nationality of its author, as it is perhaps the only American title tackling government in a way unrelated to race or sexism.

    

In short, if you’re considering reading this, don’t. Bradbury is to Orwell what a wet turd is to a filet mignon, so go with the latter. If you’ve already read Orwell’s works then don’t bother with 451, it doesn’t even verge on the same calibre.” – Amazon Customer

  • “There was writing throughout the entire book” – Taylor
  • “This book sucks so much. It is the worst, most pretentious piece of crap I have ever read. I had to read it for school and I couldn’t even finish this poorly written atrocious piece of crap. If this book had a face, I’d punch it in the balls. Zero stars.” – Tyra Howell

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Well, I don’t know about you, but after last week’s adventure on The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I needed something a little more light-hearted. When I tell people I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is their number one suggestion/request. I couldn’t get to it for ages: it was super difficult to find a copy in my usual secondhand bookstores. One staffer literally laughed when I asked if they had it; every copy they get (and they don’t get many, because no one wants to part with it) is snapped up immediately. So, you’d better believe that I pounced as soon as I saw one! Even though I’m not a sci-fi reader, this one is such a cultural icon – and so many people recommend it so highly – I was really excited.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy actually began as a radio series, first broadcast on 8 March 1978. Adams didn’t adapt it to book form until the following year, but it’s a good thing he did because it sold 250,000 copies in just the first three months after its release. What makes my secondhand store find even more of a miracle is that this is one of those editions! The very first published by Pan Books back in 1979. Can you believe it?? You’ll pry this baby out of my cold dead hands! And I tell you this not just to show off: it’s actually quite important to know which edition someone is reviewing, because Adams made substantial re-writes between each print run. Even though the basic plot points remain the same, the editions often contradict each other with changes to character, dialogue, and so forth. So, anything that follows might be a little different to what you recall if you read a later edition, don’t @ me 😉

Right from the get-go, Adams is funny. His author bio says things like: “He has also worked at various times as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer, and script editor of Doctor Who. He is not married, has no children, and does not live in Surrey.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s a pretty kooky guy, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a pretty kooky book. Adams claimed that the concept and title were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy. And he was onto something, believe it or not: his drunken idea turned into an international multi-media phenomenon.


The story begins with THE END OF THE WORLD… literally. A Vogon constructor fleet vaporises our dear planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Luckily, an unassuming English gent – our protagonist, Arthur Dent – is rescued by Ford Prefect, the humanoid alien freelancer who’s writing a guide to Earth for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Ford drags Arthur up and away, and they hitch a ride on a passing Vogon space craft. And so, their misadventures begin…

As I’m sure you can tell already, I did a good job of picking a light read to counteract my last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is silly, it’s fun, and it’s quite satirical in tone (it reminded me of Catch-22 in that way, actually). Arthur Dent explores the galaxy with his alien buddy, and they make a few friends along the way: Trillian (another human that had escaped Earth prior to its destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy), and Marvin (the Paranoid Android). My favourite part was the off-hand mention of a planet where all the lost biro pens go: I think I could live there quite happily…


The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy ended up being the first in a series of five books that Adams ironically called a “trilogy”. After it, there’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, The Universe and Everything (1982), So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). There was also a sixth book in the series, called And Another Thing…, published in 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the novel’s release (but being that Adams is, well, dead, it was written by Irish author Eoin Colfer).

The series has inspired countless multi-media adaptations, beyond even the original radio broadcasts: films, television shows, music, graphic novels… Adams’ story is so pervasive in pop culture that when Elon Musk launched his Tesla Roadster in Feburary 2018, he emblazoned the dashboard with DON’T PANIC, and packed a towel and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on board (all of which are in-jokes from the book).

So, yes, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is perfect if you’re in need of a chuckle, as I was. I’m not sure I’d read it again, I didn’t love it that much, but I’m glad I gave it a go. It made me think a lot about how sci-fi is often maligned, and how varied the genre can actually be, unbeknownst to the readers that look down their noses at it. Most of all, though, I’m glad I finally understand the meaning of a cryptic note a former colleague left for me when he moved on to a new job; it said “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”. I puzzled over that for years, but now – thanks to my Keeping Up With The Penguins project – it finally makes sense! If you don’t get it, you’ll just have to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or die wondering 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

  • “felt a lost of i. q.” – albe
  • “A fun random adventure in an absurd future past about space Wikipedia. It was the most random book I’ve ever read but it was short and entertaining.” – Seth
  • “The words soar and scintillate, in exactly the way a brick doesn’t. Douglas, you left us too soon. Farewell.” – Mark A. Wilson
  • “Adventurous spirit of Star Trek meets scientific imagination of Harry Potter meets hilarity of Sharknado. At the end of the day, Douglas Adams is a genius and it’s not hard to see how this novel inspired a young Elon Musk!” – Pearl Ibarra
  • “Ordered by accident. Enjoyed Marvin the robots escapades though. When he disappeared I lost interest.” – Rich Bowen
  • “I know it is a “classic” and I migh have enjoyed it if I had been smoking weed but I don’t and I didn’t” – Headed South
  • “Among the worst of books. Imagine if Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett had a love child, and then that love child had no talent.” – Dr Funk
  • “I made it a quarter of the way through the book when I had to put it down. The paragraph in particular referenced a million gallon vat of custard and i couldn’t get past it. Even in science fiction, a million gallon vat of custard just isn’t believable. Belief cannot be suspended with this book.” – Lindsey Mertz

The Martian – Andy Weir


According to the blurb on the front cover of The Martian, the Financial Times called it “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe”. Indeed, like Gravity, the most compelling thing about The Martian is its premise: an astronaut becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to find a way to make 30 days’ worth of supplies last for years, 220 million miles away from Earth with no way to communicate. Our brains just aren’t wired to compute that kind of aloneness, so if you decide to read The Martian, be prepared for a bit of a mind-fuck.

Andy Weir began writing The Martian in 2009. He spent years researching (astronomy, space flight, orbital mechanics, botany) to make sure the book was as technically accurate as possible, based on today’s technology. Having been turned down by multiple literary agents in the past, Weir decided to go ahead and self-publish The Martian serially – one chapter at a time – on his own website. Within a few months, he had hundreds of fans requesting an eBook with the whole story, so he cobbled one together and put the first edition online for sale at Amazon’s lowest possible price point – 99 cents.

The Martian eBook quickly sold over 35,000 copies (more than had ever been downloaded for free), which was enough to send it straight to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list. Of course, this caught the attention of the major publishers. Weir eventually sold off the rights piece by piece (first audiobook, then U.S. rights, then international rights). All told, he made upwards of six figures, and The Martian had a second debut – in the twelfth spot on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015, a film adaptation starring Matt Damon was released, and it took over $630 million at the box office. Weir is one of those “overnight success” stories that was years in the making…

So, back to the story: American astronaut, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars. His crew had to take the drastic step of an emergency evacuation, six days into their month-long mission, due to a dust storm. Watney got blown off course en route to the shuttle, and – believing him to be dead – they left him behind. Whoops!

Once everyone at NASA back on Earth figures out he’s alive, shit really hits the fan. But never fear: Watney is a (remarkably unflappable) botanist and engineer. He figures out a way to grow crops, and he retrieves a communications device from a previous unmanned mission.

The opening chapters are a bit of an info-dump, but that’s hardly surprising given the subject matter. I’m not 100% sure I understood all of the technical specs that Weir threw at me, but I liked Watney’s “voice” as narrator. Even though it was written in the style of a mission log, it was really conversational. Then the point of view changed – to give the story of what was going on back on Earth – and it sounded not entirely unlike a Dan Brown novel.

There’s certainly a lot of interesting Mars facts in The Martian (well… duh). I learned that you can’t make or use a compass on Mars, for instance, because the red planet has no magnetic field. Still, far and away the most important thing I learned is that I am neither smart enough nor tough enough to survive on Mars. Seriously! If Elon Musk gets his way and we start colonising Mars in the next year or whatever, just go on without me. I’ll only slow you all down.

The rest of the story unfolds in a series of (fairly predictable) mishaps and misadventures. After several chapters of Watney explaining (in great detail) how important “the Hab” (an artificial habitat tent thing) is for his survival, of course it blows up. His potato crops die, and it looks for a minute like there’s a real risk that he’ll starve to death before anyone can pick him up. Other disasters include Watney accidentally destroying his communications equipment (he resorts to sending one-way messages to Earth by arranging Mars rocks into Morse Code), and NASA launching a re-supply rocket that explodes in the air. Despite the dire circumstances, there’s only one moment where Watney really panics, as far as I can recall – he has nerves of steel and unfailing optimism, which is jarringly unrealistic but also kind of vital to the plot (I mean, there’s not much of a story in an astronaut rocking in the foetal position on Mars until he dies, right?).


In the end, the crew that left Watney behind are able to return and retrieve him (with just a few other disasters slowing them down). In his final log entry, Watney starts waxing lyrical about the human instinct to help others, and his utter joy at being rescued. I was kind of disappointed that the story ended where it did; to me, the really interesting part would have been Watney’s return to Earth, re-settling after a year of the most extreme kind of solitude (perhaps there’s a sequel in that?).

I’m sure Weir wouldn’t want me to describe The Martian as a comedy, but I must say I found it really bloody funny. It was a little scary at times, sure, and very interesting, but most of the time I found it just plain funny. Watney was a fantastic narrator, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s so likeable that Australian scientists have actually – like, in real life – named a new species of bush tomato after him (Solanum Watneyi). I’m not even kidding.

I really enjoyed The Martian, but I stop just short of listing it as a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a fun read, but it’s not life changing, and I’m not all that inclined to run out and purchase copies of everything else Weir ever wrote. Pick up The Martian if you’ve read too many classics lately, and you need a quick read with a few chuckles and a feel-good ending.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Martian:

  • “The highly technical explanations turned my stomach. I like science fiction books, but not this. The Supreme Court would not allow it to be read to death row inmates. The little story there was could not keep me reading.” – Howard J. Fox
  • “Much Mars.
    Such science.
    Wow.” – Jordan Mendez
  • “Mechanical engineering porn. Good stuff.” – Casey
  • “i hate the book because it says the F word in it and I do not like survival books also why I do not like the book is because I do not like space books.” – Lost in the jungle

 

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.

 

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m on a bit of a roll now, with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the definite article that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages. In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show. Stevenson’s popularity declined hard after his death – his wife and son apparently went around publishing every half-finished scrap of work that they could find to keep the money coming in, which put a bit of a dent in his literary reputation – but that doesn’t seem to have deterred today’s fanboys and fangirls at all.

The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. It’s the shortest undertaking on Keeping Up With The Penguins so far, and I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest book on The List. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!

That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep into a critical analysis. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about his handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board! (Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgänger lit”, which is just so niche, I laugh every time I think of it).

So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.

“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”

Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he takes it too far and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck off. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor prick literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.

Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself. Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own good name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.


Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – I love it!

Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…

What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out. I’ll definitely read it again; I’m not sure it rises to the ranks of “recommended” here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, but it’s short and accessible and familiar enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:

  • “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
  • “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
  • “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer

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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 books; 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”). 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 ask for help – 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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