Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#41: A Clockwork Orange, #21: The Forever War

A Clockwork Orange:

"Goodness comes from within...Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man."
"The heresy of an age of reason...I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong."
"Some of us have to fight. There are great traditions of liberty to defend. I am no partisan man. Where I see the infamy I seek to erase it. Party names mean nothing. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be prodded..."
A Clockwork Orange is a classic of dystopian fiction, and I think the only reason that it might not be as highly regarded as Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World is the fact that it is so shockingly violent. It was published in 1962, and I would imagine that it was even more startling back then than it is now. By any standards, the first third of this novel is eye-opening for its casual depictions of "ultra-violence" of all varieties. But the point of this novel (the main point, at least) is not simply to shock us with such brutality, but rather, to provoke thought on the issues of freedom, coercion, and criminality.
Before I dive into a brief description of the plot, I must note that Burgess's fantastic introduction, A Clockwork Orange Resucked, found in the Norton Paperback edition, is highly recommended. It sets the tone for the novel, particularly the latter two-thirds. I could see how a squeamish reader, not understanding what Burgess wishes to do later on in the novel, would drop it after a few chapters, due to the violence. Reading this introduction should alleviate situations like this, I think.
The novel begins with the tale of four restless teenage hooligans, led by Alex, our narrator. The four trouble-makers spend the evening in an unnamed city (I believe it is London), imposing their violent whims on whatever innocent bystander they happen to meet. They beat a man senseless and take his clothes. They break into a house, rip up a man's novel-in-progress and rape his wife. They fight with a rival gang. Later, Alex gets two under-age girls drunk and violates them. Throughout all of this, we get Alex's gleeful perspective on violence. He loves seeing blood, and he has no problem with any of what is being done --he enjoys it all, and he's startling casual about the whole affair.
Alex narrates this all in a strange Russo-English slang that takes some getting used to. Burgess was a disciple of James Joyce, and it certainly shows in the fun he has with language. I would compare the narration to what we see in The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, but I found that Burgess pulled off his own unique style of narration a bit better than Heinlein did. I found myself enjoying learning this new "language", where you find that certain words don't exactly synch up with any one English word (while others do), so you have to constantly reevaluate your grasp on the language. It's unsettling, but I think Burgess wants it that way.
After the violence of Part 1, Alex is eventually captured, sent to jail for several years, and forced to undergo a kind of moral conversion therapy. This treatment forces a negative physical reaction out of him when he has violent thoughts. The "therapy" also has its side-effect, purging Alex's love of classical music from his system. All the while, the reader is meant to question, Is this right? Are you taking away Alex's humanity by forcing him to be good? Is it worth it for the betterment of society to turn this complex human being into a piece of clockwork that will never cause any trouble? It's certainly thought-provoking stuff, and by the third part of the novel, after Alex has been released, we get another swing of the pendulum. Libertarian intellectuals have adopted Alex as a sort of poster-boy for their cause --unaware of the extent of his past violence, they label him a misunderstood young man who has been turned into an automaton by the government. But ironically, they too want to "use him for the cause", denying him his free will just as much as the government did with their conversion therapy.
The last chapter of the novel is yet another important one to consider, as Burgess throws something different at us that changes the whole thing. Of course, I won't spoil it here. There's a lot of philosophical complexity here, more so than most novels you'll read. There's a good chance that you will be going back and forth about the last few episodes in this book long after you have finished the novel. Both sides have powerful arguments: Alex's free will is very much a valuable part of humanity, but so is the dignity and livelihood of his victims.
I blazed through A Clockwork Orange in a matter of a few days. It was a quick, powerful, yet simply told tale (excepting the language barrier you must work through in the first few chapters). Characters like Alex, Dim, F. Alexander, and the prison chaplain all jumped off the page --the last one was especially well done, and in so little time.
I'd certainly recommend this classic to anyone over the age of 18 who won't go to pieces over a bit of violence and some neologisms. With the powerful, universal themes that it addresses, these small roadblocks are very much worth getting over, and very much what makes the book so effective. Indeed, this novel seems to be one of those works that will never stop being relevant.

The Forever War:

"I felt my gorge rising and knew that all the lurid training tapes, all the horrible deaths in training accidents, hadn't prepared me for this sudden reality... that I had a magic wand that I could point at a life and make it a smoking piece of half-raw meat; I wasn't a solider nor ever wanted to be one"
"...while my conscious mind was rejecting the silliness, somewhere much deeper, down in that sleeping animal where we keep our real motives and morals, something was thirsting for alien blood, secure in the conviction that the noblest thing a man could do would be to die killing one of those horrible monsters..."
"There had been an army in which that sort of thing was done, a strong quasi-memory told me. The Marxist POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War, early twentieth. You obeyed an order only after it had been explained in detail; you could refuse if it didn't make sense. Officers and men got drunk together and never saluted or used titles. They lost the war. But the other side didn't have any fun."
I'm not too well-versed in the rich subgenre of military SF. Probably the only other two works that I have read that fall under this term are Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Card's Ender's Game. I tend to gravitate more towards SF that focuses in on societal issues, rather than interstellar travel and battle (although I obviously don't mind the latter on occasion). But Haldeman's The Forever War is supposed to be one of the all-time greats of the genre, an excellent example of military SF, with the addition of some interesting social commentary, so I recently decided that a reading of this acknowledged classic was long overdue.
The Forever War tells the story of William Mandella, a physics student drafted by a United Nations-type ruling body to fight in a war against the mysterious Taurans in the near future. Nobody knows much about these aliens --their motivations, their language, even what they look like. All anyone knows is that a war has broken out between humans and the Taurans, and super-smart, fit, young people are needed at the front lines. Mandella goes through some tough training on Earth and Charon, a dark, Pluto-like planet, in preparation for a jump through space that will take him to a planet where the Taurans have set up base. While he's travelling in space, relativity takes its effect. Earth years shoot by, while he only ages a few months with his fellow soldiers.
We follow Mandella down the centuries (Earth time), as he returns from battle, finds himself unable to adjust to a grim new Earth, and is called back out into space by the army to do battle with the Taurans again and again. The novel is, for the most part, a fast-paced page turner. The sections leading up to Mandella's first battle on Aleph-1 are very much action-oriented. We breeze through exciting training situations and Mandella is off to battle in very little time. Haldeman manages to fit in some Hard SF elements and serious pondering as well. And the scene in which the Taurans are first encountered (and subsequently slaughtered) is extremely vivid and well-done.
Up until this point, the novel is practically flawless. But the pace slows down a bit when Mandella comes back to Earth the first time. He putters around in this strange new place, very much maladjusted and unhappy. In fact, the new Earth is filled with many non-military who seem maladjusted and unhappy as well.
The novel picks up a bit after he is called back to duty from Earth, really climaxing in the final battle scene, a tense ride that is probably the highlight of the novel. There's even an unexpected ending which strains believability somewhat, in my view...but, hey, this is science fiction.
One of the high points of The Forever War is how well Haldeman communicates the alienation that Mandella feels thanks to the time dilation he has undergone. For most of the novel, he is frustratingly alone in a group of people he doesn't understand --and vice versa. And these aren't even the people he's supposed to be fighting against! He's easily the most well sketched-out character in the novel, and I felt a definite uniqueness to his voice. I suspect that he is very much like the author, Joe Haldeman, in his demeanor and way of thinking.
We also get a great depiction of the monotony and boredom of army life in The Forever War from Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran, that is certainly effective, sometimes to the point of creating a similar effect in the reader. A lot of people have compared this novel to the Vietnam War itself, especially focusing on the seemingly pointless nature of the war, and the alienation of homecoming veterans afterwards, and I can definitely see the parallels. I don't know much about Vietnam War history, but this novel had a sort of bite to it that felt inspired by real life occurrences.
I enjoyed The Forever War quite a bit, especially the first and last sections, and found it to be a thoroughly effective anti-war novel. The violent action scenes where as well done as the pacifistic undertones. As far as the pantheon of SF is concerned, The Forever War can stand with a lot of great novels. It is quite well-written, tackling a unique concept that was probably even more revolutionary in its day than nowadays (although it still felt very new and original reading it today). I wouldn't call it the greatest science fiction novel ever written as some have, reserving that honor for something like Dune, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Star Maker, Brave New World, and a few others I've gushed about in the past. However, it's still a very solid, though-provoking book with a lot of fun action and a lot of interesting ideas.

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