The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess

Burgess was always trying new things: new genres, new styles, new words. In The Wanting Seed, one of his earlier novels, dating back to 1962, he tackles the science fiction sub-genre of dystopian prediction.

Paul Magrath
4 min readJul 11, 2020
Bully for you. Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Burgess’s brave new world is a Malthusian nightmare in which the UK has become horribly overpopulated, where the countryside has been absorbed into an endless urban sprawl, and the growing population, starved of agricultural produce, has turned on itself as a source of nutrition. An authoritarian government’s efforts to curb population growth by promoting homosexuality and abortion may sound crass to readers of today, but it probably seemed more transgressively satirical in 1962 when both practices had yet to be legalised in the UK. What remains taboo is the cannibalism to which the desperate population is ultimately driven, a modest proposal dressed up in euphemistic references to tins of “bully”: but the shocking truth of how the fresh meat is sourced only emerges at the culmination of a pilgrim’s progress through the land.

The pilgrim is Tristram, a teacher who discovers that his wife (Beatrice-Joanna), is having an affair with his brother (Derek), a government official whose demonstratively camp conformity to the approved sexual orientation conceals an all too fertile heterosexual lust. Having recently lost a baby, the wife finds herself accidentally pregnant again, with twins, risking a double outlawry. She wants to keep them if she can. But when Tristram confronts her with knowledge of her affair with his brother, she decides to leave him and makes her way to her sister and brother in law, who live far away in what remains of the farming country up north, hoping to have her babies in safe seclusion there. Meanwhile Tristram, in hapless victimhood, gets caught up in a street demonstration and is arrested. He spends time in prison, manages to escape, makes his way up north in search of his wife, encountering strange people and customs and practices on the way; but before he can find her is caught again and press ganged, by a subterfuge, into the army; and after some perfunctory training is sent off to do battle in an unexplained war in which, it turns out, everyone is intended to perish, so that their corpses can be conscripted into the human food chain. But somehow Tristram escapes and finds his way back to Beatrice-Joanna, now in Brighton, who in the meantime has had her own adventures and mishaps but has managed to bear and keep her outlaw twins, and the story ends with them reunited, looking out towards the sea and a hopeful future.

There were times when Tristram’s peregrinations reminded me of the weirder sequences in Lyndsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man! Other aspects of the story, the industrialised cannibalism in a future world that has become overpopulated and authoritarian, crop up in Soylent Green, though I have only read about it, not seen that film. (The novel on which it was based, Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, came out four years after The Wanting Seed.)

Burgess is strong on the human strangeness, less sure on the scientific predictions in his futuristic dystopia. The ceiling-mounted stereo televisions, foldaway furniture, and other mod cons for a cramped urban world are gamely mentioned in passing but now seem hopelessly anachronistic. They don’t share in the retro-futurism of the best SF of the period, and the world they belong to is much less fully realised than the dystopia in A Clockwork Orange, which was published in the same year (though it’s fair to say we owe much of that to Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 film version). Like a lot of his books, The Wanting Seed seems to be based on a good idea with a lot of potential, not fully realised in its perhaps too hasty execution. But another way of looking at it is to imagine him dividing his work, like Graham Greene, into novels and “entertainments”. On that basis, as a thought-provoking pulp sci-fi shocker, The Wanting Seed succeeds.

But it’s not one of the Burgess novels anyone reads or talks about much these days, is it? There’s Earthly Powers (whose 40th anniversary falls this year) and A Clockwork Orange; the Malayan Trilogy; perhaps the Enderby novels. A lot of what he wrote was experimental in some way, playing with ideas. Experiments are conducted for their own sakes, and should not be regarded as failures if they don’t produce the intended result. You could say he spent a year writing, at speed, two pulpy sci-fi dystopias, and one of them wasn’t A Clockwork Orange; but it was an experiment worth conducting, and for me, a book worth digging out and reading. With its atmosphere of apocalyptic doom and authoritarian menace, it also seemed curiously apt for the coronavirus lockdown.

Further reading: Anthony Burgess Foundation, Dystopias: The Wanting Seed and Dystopian Reproduction



Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.