This novel first came to my attention on the MPorcius Fiction Log and, recently, it was the subject of a discussion by Kevin Michael Grace on the Luke Ford YouTube channel.
Could two such sources be wrong in telling me it was worth a look? No.
So, before I dropped in on the Luke Ford discussion, I thought I’d read it.
I’ve been going back and forth about not reviewing everything I read, but there were some things I wanted to say on this one.
But I’d have to do at least a plot synopsis and explicate some of the major themes.
And then I realized I could just leech off MPorcius work.
Thus was born a new category of post: the parasite review.
Which means, in this case, you need to read MPorcuis’ post first.
Parasite Review: The Wanting Seed, Anthony Burgess, 1962.
In 1959, Anthony Burgess was wrongly diagnosed with brain cancer and given a year to live. Not wishing to leave an impoverished widow, he wrote five novels in the next year. One of them was this novel.
That may explain some of its faults and, for me, a somewhat inconclusive ending. Burgess himself said, “it needed to be longer in the oven … but I needed money”.
Like MPorcius, I think this a satire and not a serious effort at extrapolative prediction.
According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, it stands near the beginning of science fiction novels about overpopulation. My favorite overpopulation novel is Harry Harrison’s extrapolatively dishonest Make Room! Make Room!. Oddly, Burgess accused Harrison of lifting the cannibalism theme of The Wanting Seed for the film adaptation of Soylent Green. In fact, according to Harry Harrison’s essay “A Cannibalized Novel becomes Soylent Green” in Omni’s Screen Flights, Screen Fantasies, says cannibalism was put in the script by the film’s producers and his contract forbid him having any input with it.
So what is Burgess satirizing?
Well, military life for one. Burgess doesn’t seem to have been the ideal soldier. His Wikipedia entry indicates that, like Tristram, he got in trouble for desertion (though not, of course, like Tristram – after the Army tried to kill him). Like Tristram, he taught other soldiers and became a sergeant. One suspects that Tristam shares Burgess the soldier’s sharp tongue. He was arrested in Spain for insulting Francisco Franco.
One of the funniest moments in the novel, for me, is when Tristram shows up at military headquarters in London after its attempt to kill him and bullies all kinds of desk warriors. (I’m rather surprised, given Burgess’ frequent literary allusions, that he didn’t get out Matthew Arnold’s “ignorant armies clashing at night” from “Dover Beach” in that nocturnal World War One style battle between men and women.)
The greater satire is on the nature of government and democracy.
I’m not sure what Burgess’ politics were in 1959-1960 when he wrote this novel. He described them in 1971 as kind of an anarchism since a Catholic Jacobite monarch was unlikely to be showing up anytime soon.
Burgess’s idea of the cycling of political regimes between Pelagian belief in the innate goodness of man and the Augustinian concept of original sin struck me as insightful if incomplete. I’d say we were in one of his interludes when rulers in the West, though they would never say it, have lost faith in the innate goodness of humanity and the efficacy of admonishing some of us to behave well. Hence we have, instead of relying on common manners and freedom of association, the innovation, in the last couple of decades, of speech codes and hate crimes. Elites are appalled at the retrograde nature of those of us who won’t get with the program so we have increasing sanctions of law.
What Burgess, of course, didn’t see is that the enforcement of governmental will has been outsourced to private companies of similar ideology and goals. So, apart from his Pelagian-Augustine analysis (which formed part of his later novels, Wikipedia tells me, The Clockwork Testament and Earthly Powers), this novel seems to not have that much contemporary relevance.
I’m not sure how much Burgess ultimately wanted us to accept his Pelagian-Augustine cycle. At one point, Tristram wonders if it’s not a cycle but a spiral. Spirals end at a certain point. The spiral is not reoccurrence. Perhaps that explains the less than satisfying end of this novel with Beatrice-Joanna and Tristram reunited. Are we to believe the Pelagian phase of the cycle is already re-occurring and we’re back to the awful word of the beginning? Or are we in a new, stable phase of society?
The question of spirals and repetitions also brings up the use of other patterns in the novel, specifically counts and rhythms, probably related to Burgess’ keen interest in music. Elevator floors are frequently counted off. The poetic meter of public announcements is indicated. Snatches of prayer are parenthetically lodged in interior monologues.
There is a lot of Catholicism in this novel. Burgess seems to have renounced his Catholic faith at age 16 but remained marked and sympathetic to the faith.
This brings up a certain tension in the central question of any overpopulation novel: should fertility be regulated? Burgess does not directly give that argument though Shonny, Tristram’s devout brother-in-law, comes close. Rather, Burgess seems to use fertility to stand-in for all the powerful instincts that governments try to regulate. Indeed, to Burgess, sex and procreation are the foundation of all great art. Tristram says, “All art is an aspect of sexuality”.
Shonny has some unorthodox ideas, his own conception of God that does not match tradition. Perhaps he reflects Burgess’ contemplation of his old faith, the ideas he could have accepted in a church. However, I doubt that given that Shonny’s wife Mavis thinks it too optimistic and sentimental.
And Shonny’s faith is shattered when, against his optimistic faith that God will provide, his rebellion against the state gets his children taken away.
Shonny is not the only character with a split and conflicted nature, the faith and orthodoxies they hold cleaving their souls.
Beatrice-Joanna seems the symbol of instinctual female need to procreate. She doesn’t care what the consequences are. Yet, she can’t understand that, as much as she loves her twins, her sister Mavis would be worried about her offspring and the danger Beatrice-Joanna’s presence puts them in. Beatrice-Joanna may symbolize instinctual drives, but she can’t see that others may have similar drives.
For Tristram’s part, he represents male systematization. He’s a historiographer who will frequently and not very effectively lecture people on his theories. He may be a discontent who comes to desire the murder of his brother Derek, but he’s not enough of a rebel to want children like his wife. He’s also rather naïve in his pleas to get released from jail or in getting impressed into the army. Yet, a paternal instinct does eventually kick in. Perhaps, at novel’s end, we are to see Tristram’s hard-won knowledge and Beatrice-Joanna’s maternal love unified into a working whole symbolized by the sea that she thinks will – and eventually does – bring Tristram back to her.
Derek is a split character too though quite successful. In the beginning, he has his secret heterosexual tryst. He develops paternal feelings for his twins. But, in a political sense, he’s not as naïve and much more of a trimmer than Tristram is capable of.
The idea of the society adopting homosexuality as a population control measure seems bizarre to modern readers of this 56-year old story. (It also shows up in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.). I don’t think it implausible. After all, what is the closeted homosexual married with children if someone not adopting a behavior out of line with their innate tendencies? I have no trouble believing that a certain portion of society would at least strike, however insincerely, that pose if necessary to attain elite positions.
This novel brought to mind some other novels by writers influenced by Catholicism.
The failing rice and corn crops we hear about – with no real scientific reason given as to why – seem to suggest a natural world failing because man’s social world is out of whack. (And the crops seem to come back when the social world convulses and re-embraces its old fecundity.) That put me in mind of a similar theme in Arthur Machen’s The Terror which has a natural world attacking man in the midst of World War One. (Machen never formerly became a Catholic but enthusiastically admonished his friends to join the church.)
Tristram’s pilgrimage to find his wife and the new world he sees emerging reminded me of the mirror image ending of Mark Samuels’ recent A Pilgrim Stranger. Set in our time, its hero sees no rebirth of the world. He will have no children. He goes into the west to die, his faith telling him that God will redeem the world somehow.
Burgess seems to suggest redemption is inevitable, if temporary, the consequence of man’s political orders never lasting long.
Ultimately, even it didn’t quite work as a whole, I’m agreeing with MPorcius that this was an interesting novel.