“Who is John Clelend.”
The hand painted sign has drawn a crowd and this terrifies the religious authoritarians who now control the country. Any disobedience is severely punished, sex outside of marriage results in a man being gelded by laser and a woman being hideously disfigured; to those in control this is considered a kindness, because those in control think that God would do much worse to the souls of the perpetrators.
Evil is Live Spelled Backwards is a science fiction novel from Andrew J. Offett that was published in 1970. It presents a vision of 21st century America under the boot of religious extremism. The streets are controlled by soldiers who are true believers and the rules are written by priests ordained by God rather than politicians chosen by the people.
The world has become a top-down authoritarian nightmare where the people hold no power at all and we are all kept in check as much by our neighbours as we are by the authorities.
The story follows Staunch Kirk, a member of the Federal Obscenity Police, a Faithful Guardsman of the so-called Pastorean Guard, as he encounters one crisis of faith after another. Culminating in the meeting of him and a young woman named Purity White in the dungeons beneath the headquarters of the Federal Obscenity Police.
Purity White was an average young woman until she found out about the Underground Resistance and their secret meetings. But then she attended one and met the Horned God that led them into debauchery with the words “let there be license” and she changed; it was this change that led her father to denounce her to the FOP.
But Purity’s cell of resistance isn’t the only one and slowly they begin to push back against the puritanical force holding them. They hack into the nightly sermons and broadcast deviancy and develop a gas that makes its victims loose all inhibitions.
The underground fight back against the puritanical with the best weapon they possess; obscenity.
Evil is Live Spelled Backwards is a perverse take on Orwell’s 1984 that takes the unsettling subject of government oppression and manages to make it simultaneously more unsettling and hilarious at the same time. Its hard not to laugh when a bus full of nuns are subjected to the Undergrounds gaseous weapon; but its also hard not to feel your stomach twist when you learn what happens to Purity White in the dungeons beneath Police Headquarters.
Andrew J. Offett pulls few punches and it’s often difficult to decide whether the whole thing is an elaborate obscene joke or whether you really should be as disturbed as you often feel while reading.
The peculiar approach Offett takes with the book becomes more understandable when his other work is considered. When looking through his bibliography it seems that during the 60’s and 70’s he wrote what may have been hundreds of pulp erotica novels alongside his science fiction and it may have been that Evil is Live Spelled Backwards may have been his first attempt at a novel aimed at a more mainstream audience.
While essentially being a pulp science fiction novel Evil is Live Spelled Backwards strikes a rather unsettling chord. It’s hard to imagine such a world happening but sometimes, too often actually; it’s all too easy to see the connections when you look at the real world around us.
Everything about the novel is subversive, God becomes the ultimate authoritarian tool and the Devil becomes a symbol of truth and freedom; and throughout it all we see that everyone is more complicit in the obscenities around them far than they would care to admit. A great deal of this does ring true within the book and it all makes for a disquieting look at the world around us in comparison.
A part of the core that drives the novel is moral certainty and the dehumanisation of those who do not follow the same code as the ruling class.
This is something that perhaps the modern world should look at more deeply as despite the fact that this book was written almost fifty years ago it seems that we have learned very little since its printing. As in the real world the novel depicts a world where no one is innocent of this and perhaps considers that the most basic tenet of freedom should perhaps be the freedom to be wrong.
In this way Offett’s novel stands beside Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange as even though both books are almost completely different in almost all respects they both ask the same question.
Is free will worth the evil it often inspires? Especially when we consider how often we perpetrate horrors to keep this evil at bay.
Or to put it another way…
Is safety worth the freedom we must sacrifice to achieve it? Especially when we consider that those in power often abuse that power and erode our safety in the process.
Ultimately Evil is Live Spelled Backwards is a far more interesting book than I initially thought it would be. It was far more disturbing as well; and far more amusing. It’s a pick-and-mix of inappropriateness that often sits unevenly and sometimes amuses and sometimes offends.
And after some thought I think this was probably the intention.
It argues, on some level at east, that freedom and offense walk hand in hand and to have the one you must risk the other.
But perhaps you will see something different in this irreverent novel.
Either way all I can say is that it’s all food for thought and perhaps we need more novels to explore these questions.
These are my thoughts at least.
If it interests you then you should grab a copy and see for yourself.