Courtesy of LinkedIn, I have been on a trip down memory lane.
Somehow, I came to be included in a thread which originated with an academic who teaches English at St Lawrence University and in which she drew parallels between Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella ‘Anthem’ and the situation today in the US. They were pretty far-fetched parallels, because it takes a very high degree of paranoia to see much similarity between the riot of different opinion evident in US universities and the rigidly controlled world described in Anthem, where everyone is assigned their place and the candle represents the apex of technology. Quite how libertarians can be so paranoid about the suppression of their views in the US, where they have Fox News and Breitbart, or in the UK, where they have the Sun, the Mail, the Express, the Times and the Spectator, all ready to give them platforms, is something only a psychologist can answer, but it seems to go with the territory.
Perhaps more worrying for the quality of education in the US is that this particular Professor of English seemed to think Anthem was a great piece of writing, despite the cardboard cut-out characters, weak story line and a plot reliant entirely on implausibly fortuitous discoveries.
First, a little bit of background to the book. It is only about 19,000 words long, and Rand completed it in 1937. It failed, at first to find a US publisher but was published in the UK in 1938. It was eventually published in the US in 1946 in the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries, but only attracted a decent-sized readership when it was able to piggy-back on the success of Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957.
That was about the time I started reading science fiction. There was a lot of it about in those days. Pulp mags such as Galaxy and Astounding were going strong, and were throwing out a lot of interesting ideas. Although classed as SF, if their stories had any relation to science at all, it was nearly always to the social sciences, not maths, physics, biology or chemistry. The freedom to use settings on other planets, or in other galaxies, or in the future, or in a re-imagined past, was exploited to the full. Some really good stuff was produced, much of it revolving around imagined dystopias and some of which, like Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, have more than stood the test of time. It was at some time during that decade, 1956 to 1966, that I first encountered Anthem. It would be an exaggeration to say that I read it. I think I managed a couple of pages before I decided that it was simply too awful to bother with, and handed it back to the person who lent it to me. I then forgot all about Rand and her very peculiar ideas for about fifty years.
It is not, however, with Cold War SF that Anthem is often compared, but with something much more mainstream, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Some people have even claimed that Orwell cribbed his plot from Rand. A pretty far-fetched claim, considering how many fictional dystopias there were around at the time (we were all living with the prospect of imminent nuclear annihilation anyway), but there are similarities that go beyond the grounding of both in the then all too obvious example of Stalin’s Russia. In each, the hero is living in a totalitarian state that exerts its power through control of the mind, in each he begins to doubt, in each he meets a girl and begins an affair, and their doubts are pooled, in each he finds a cache of material from the past that explains much to him, and in each he falls into the clutches of the state. It is there that the stories diverge. Rand’s hero, Equality 7-2521, is ultimately triumphant and the book ends with him re-naming himself Prometheus (he managed to learn an awful lot about past history and culture in the space of a few days) and preparing, like John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, to emerge at the head of a band of brothers to take over the world, with a banner emblazoned with the word ‘Ego’ rather than the dollar sign.
Nineteen Eighty-four ends very differently, with Winston Smith in tears, realising that he does, after all, love Big Brother. There is a pessimistic realism to Orwell’s work that leaves his reader with the uneasy feeling that it could happen here. Only the determinedly paranoid could read ‘Anthem’ and feel that there was any prospect of that happening anywhere, because none of the ‘characters’ are believable as human beings. When I was young I travelled in Communist Eastern Europe, the source of Rand’s nightmares, and in relative old age I visited the Kim empire of North Korea. Both were grim, but their grimness was of a different order from the world of Equality 7-2521. The people I met were still people, not zombies. In Nineteen Eighty-four Winston Smith has real conversations with believable colleagues, conversations that could be imagined as taking place under even those hideous real-life regimes. It takes the full power of the state to turn Winston into a zombie, but in Anthem almost everyone except Equality 7-2521 is born that way.
The unbelievability of Rand’s state is compounded by the unbelievability of her hero. True to form, she had to make him not only an intellectual genius, but god-like in his physical perfection. Compare her description of his first encounter with his own reflection, at a time when he was still using the compulsory ‘we’ to describe himself, rather than the ‘I’ that he eventually triumphally re-discovered, to Orwell’s description of Winston Smith.
Here is Rand, speaking as Equality 7-2521
“We sat still and we held our breath. For our face and our body were beautiful. Our face was not like the faces of our brothers, for we felt not pity when looking upon it. Our body was not like the bodies of our brothers, for our limbs were straight and thin and hard and strong. And we thought that we could trust this being who looked upon us from the stream, and that we had nothing to fear with this being”.
And here is Orwell, describing Winston Smith
“a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the Party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended”.
Which passage, one asks, is the more believable? And which, one might also ask, is the better written?
Nineteen Eighty-four is not, of course, without its flaws. The long didactic extracts from Emmanuel Goldstein’s imagined book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism are almost as boring as John Galt’s radio rant in Atlas Shrugged (although thankfully not nearly as long). And, as many readers have pointed out, while there was every reason for Winston Smith to fall for his eventual lover, Julia, there was precious little reason for Julia to fall for Winston Smith. Orwell’s attitudes to woman have quite rightly been seen as suspect, but they are not in the same league of dreadful as Rand’s. Here is Liberty 5-3000 declaring her eternal subservience
“Your eyes are as a flame, but our brothers have neither hope nor fire. Your mouth is cut of granite, but our brothers are soft and humble. Your head is high, but our brothers cringe. You walk, but our brothers crawl. We wish to be damned with you, rather than blessed with all our brothers. Do as you please with us, but do not send us away from you.”
Perhaps only readers in the UK will understand if I describe this as pure Mills & Boon