the Little Red Reviewer

The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess

Posted on: January 25, 2012

Vintage Science Fiction Month Returns!!

The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess

published in 1962

where I got it – garage sale

In this Dystopian futuristic London, Earth’s population has exploded,requiring government involvement to keep population under control. Solutions include limiting families to one birth, allowing a high infant mortality rate, and doing anything to discourage pregnancy. Energy is scarce, so nothing is wasted, and dead bodies are used as fertilizers and energy. Most people subsist on government supplied rations of artificially created foodstuffs.  Burgess writes so perfectly smoothly that you don’t even feel the disturbing qualities overtake the story. By the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late to put the book down.

The story follows Tristram Foxe and his wife Beatrice-Joanna. Tristram is a scholar and school teacher, and Beatrice-Joanna  is having an affair with her brother in law, Derek, who is a government official.  in a future where procreating families are looked down upon, homosexuality is a highly promoted lifestyle choice as a way of having a perfectly healthy sexual relationship where children are impossible. Many heterosexuals act homosexual in public, as overt homosexuality has become a way to further one’s career opportunities. Derek, for instance, flirts with men all day long, but visits Beatrice-Joanna as often as possible. Beatrice-Joanna becomes pregnant by Derek (after purposely misusing her government supplied contraceptives), and when Tristram finds out the child may not be his, he kicks her out, and she goes north to find shelter on her sister’s farm.

Their marital troubles aside, society is falling apart around Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna. The government has started to threaten random blood testing  of women for pregnancy, further enforcement of government supplied contraceptives, and social pressures for sterilization.  Ranks of the angry unemployed are hired as junior police officers and general goons to keep the populace terrorized.

When the food riots begin, meat starts to show up on street corners being barbecued. People who have never had anything more meat-like than soy are suddenly enjoying steaks and ribs three meals a day.  I know what they are eating, if you take the creepyness factor up another few notches, I bet you’ll figure it out.   No pun intended, but this is just the beginning of the biting satire.

Burgess’s “infodumping” is done through Tristram attempting to educate the young men in his class. His lecture about the cycles of goverment is most enlighting: The first phase is the belief that Man is generally good and should be lightly punished as all mistakes are simply accidents,  followed by a more totalitarian phase where the government feels continually disappointed in people’s supposed inability to be good and clamps down accordingly, followed by a phase of massive guilt where the government realizes if they back off people will step up and take the opportunity to be good again.  Each step is a gut reaction to the previous one, and it is a vicious cycle.

As the novel progresses, we see a high speed version of this transition, with society quickly transitioning from vilifying heterosexual trends to glorifying free love, fecundity and orgies. Everyone so wants to be a good citizen, so they go along with whatever lifestyle the government happens to be promoting that week.

Even with the cultural changes through out the story, overpopulation is still a problem. If the government now feels guilty over stopping women from having children, they will have to find another solution to their population problem. And don’t worry, they do. And it’s just as disturbing.

If this book was anything, it was terrifyingly creepy.  The populations that do and believe whatever their government tells them.  A startling story of a possible future, jam packed with satirical social commentary. This was my second Burgess, and it will not be my last. His prose often borders on poetic yet is so easy to read, and you can’t help but feel for the characters, even if you don’t agree with everything they are doing.

I’ll be posting a short bio of Anthony Burgess tomorrow.

Random useless information – I got this book at a yard sale, and it wasn’t in very good condition then, but I really wanted to read it.  By the time I finished it, the binding was literally falling apart in my hands.  There was something romantic about that, about being that particular book’s last parent. I hope it had a good life, I only knew it for a short time.

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6 Responses to "The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess"

Sounds very interesting. Makes me think of Soylent Green, because of the people eating (hope that wasn’t a spoiler). I’ve never read Anthony Burgess, but this might be a starting point as I am not that keen in A Clockwork Orange

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I was thinking of Soylent Green a little too (random trivia: Soylent Green was based on a Harry Harrison book that came out in the mid 1960s), The Wanting Seed is much more subtle about the whole thing because the focus is different. There are all these throwaway comments at the beginning about how when people die their bodies are broken down for fertilizer and other elements and such, so they are actually helping the rest of us live when they die. And people are subsisting on government supplied foodstuffs. . . there are so many subtle levels going on here, i’m eating my breakfast as I’m typing this and losing my appetite!

The Wanting Seed is a much, much easier read than Clockwork Orange. Very little in way of squicky-ness.

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Ahhh this is on my tbr pile! So excited for it. Must not see spoilers. *covers eyes* ;-)

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I’ve never been much of a Burgess fan. I’ve read one or two, can’t recall what, but they just didn’t “click” with me.

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Burgess was only understood by intelligent people.

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[…] review over at The LIttle Red Reviewer convinced me this needed to be on my […]

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