Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Burgess, Anthony

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


Working name of UK composer and author John Anthony Burgess Wilson (1917-1993), known primarily for his work outside the sf field; as a composer he worked under his full name. Trained in English literature and phonetics, Burgess taught at home and in Malaysia 1946-1960, then returned to the UK (though later moved to Monaco) and became a full-time Protean man of letters, novelist, musician, composer and specialist in Shakespeare and James Joyce. Devil of a State (1961), set in an imaginary caliphate, skirts sf displacement, and several subsequent novels engage in linguistic flirtations with modes of Fabulation.

Burgess remains better known, however, for his first sf novel proper, A Clockwork Orange (1962; with final chapter cut but NadSat glossary added 1963), filmed by Stanley Kubrick as A Clockwork Orange (1971). A compelling and often comic vision of the way violence comes to dominate the mind, the novel is set in a Dystopian Near Future London and is told in a curious but readable Russified argot called NadSat (see Linguistics) by Alex DeLarge (ie Alexander the Great), a juvenile delinquent whose eventual brainwashing by the authorities destroys not only his murderous aggression but also a deeper-seated sense of humanity (typified by his deep love for the music of Beethoven). It is an ironic novel in the tradition of Yevgeny Zamiatin's and George Orwell's anti-Utopias. Burgess's untidily mixed feelings about the film version inspired The Clockwork Testament; Or, Enderby's End (1974), whose protagonist – a character Burgess several times used as a mouthpiece – is hounded to death in a squalid New York by the widespread revulsion caused by a lurid film loosely based on his (intermittently hilarious) screen treatment for "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (written 1875-1976; 1918) by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Much later, Burgess adapted A Clockwork Orange as a play to be accompanied by his own music, publishing the result as A Clockwork Orange (1987 chap); his original film screenplay, described as far more violent than the film, had been rejected by Kubrick.

In The Wanting Seed (1962), an uneven but not unentertaining satirical fable set in a Near Future Britain, Overpopulation is controlled by a strict anti-fertility ideology limiting births and promoting homosexuality. When the government discovers that mocked-up but genuinely fatal Wars represent a more efficient curb, the land undergoes a libidinous culture-shift.

The Eve of Saint Venus (1964), originally an opera libretto and then stage play (both unpublished) before its modification into a novel, was clearly inspired by tales of Venus brought back to life, the most famous of these being F Anstey's The Tinted Venus (1885), but is far more explicit than its models about the Sex involved. "The Muse" (Spring 1968 Hudson Review), a story of altered Perception and Time Travel, offers an alarming explanation for Shakespeare's never having blotted a line. Beard's Roman Women (1976), a fantasy, is the melancholy tale of a widowed writer haunted in Rome by the supernatural presence (and insistent telephone calls) of his deceased wife. Two genuine sf novels followed: 1985 (1978), which is divided into a competent essay on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and a blustering sf tale set in a 1985 dominated by Arabs and left-wing unions; and The End of the World News: An Entertainment (1982), again a book divided but this time in three, with a short not unfriendly life of Sigmund Freud jostling a Broadway musical (without the music) about Leon Trotsky, both tales being filmed and viewed long afterwards aboard a Spaceship which – in the third segment of the main narrative – has escaped the End of the World just before a wandering planet strikes the rest of us dead. Much later this third part appeared solo, significantly revised, as Puma (2018). These novels both give off a sense of underlying sarcasm which has, perhaps, as much to do with Burgess's disdain for Genre SF as with the tales' ostensible targets. In Any Old Iron (1989), a contemporary dysfunctional Welsh/Russian family discovers King Arthur's sword Excalibur (which had been earlier extracted from a Nazi hoard), and may (or may not) use it to redeem the terrible twentieth century [for Arthur, Excalibur and Matter see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Burgess wrote little short fiction; some of the stories in his first collection, The Devil's Work and Other Stories (coll 1989), are of genre interest.

As a critic, Burgess reviewed prolifically, and sympathetically covered works representing a wide range of Fantastika, many of these reviews appearing (sadly unindexed) in the vast Homage to Qwert Yuiop: Essays (coll 1986). About a third of the authors selected in his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939: A Personal Choice (coll 1984) have entries in this encyclopedia; the book as a whole is far more adventurous, and rather better written, than its competitors, which include the seriously underpowered and sadly provincial Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without (coll 1967) by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey (1927-2008) and Charles Osborne (1927-2017), and the palpably overcautious The Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels in English Since 1950 (coll 1999) by Carmen Callil (1938-2022) and Colm Tóibín (1955-    ). [MJ/JC]

see also: Music; Psychology; Quest for Fire; SF Music.

John Anthony Burgess Wilson

born Manchester, England: 25 February 1917

died London: 22 November 1993

works (selected)


about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies