Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthem by Ayn Rand

A powerfully preachy dystopian fable
These days Ayn Rand may be best known as the patron saintess of libertarian politics, but lets not forget she was also a writer of fiction. It’s possible to appreciate Rand’s books without buying into her philosophy heart and soul. I enjoy Rand’s work not because I agree with her political views, but because I agree with her literary views. As an outspoken proponent of Romanticism in the vein of Victor Hugo, Rand believed literature and art should depict an idealized view of the world that celebrates the human spirit. Unlike perhaps any other novelist of the modern era, Rand’s books convince you that they were written to change the world. Though such books come across as propagandistic, I prefer a novel that pushes a philosophy to one that merely shows me a slice of life. A preachy novel is better than a pedestrian one, and as far as preachy novels go, no one lays it on thicker than Rand.

Anthem, originally published in 1938, is a science fiction novella. Rand grew up in Soviet Russia, and here she presents a dystopian vision of the future that illustrates communism taken to its extreme. The hero of the story, Equality 7-2521, lives in a world where any expression of individualism is punishable by death. Though the story takes place in the future, the society depicted is pre-mechanical. Its technology is stalled at the level of horse and candle, and its moral code resembles that of colonial New England Puritanism crossed with the eugenics of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This future world has embraced the idea of equality and brotherhood to such an extent that singular pronouns no longer exist, and the narrator is forced to refer to himself as “we.” Equality 7-2521 has lived his whole life under strictly enforced conformity. As he becomes a man he starts to realize that he is different from his brothers and begins to exhibit a rebellious spirit. Cursed with a scientific mind, he wants to explore how the world works and begins to question why things are the way they are. The powers that be, however, crush every innovative thought and will not tolerate his independent nature.

As science fiction, Anthem is brilliant. Like Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, Rand presents a dystopian vision of the future that’s vividly conceived and disturbingly thought-provoking. The narration by Equality 7-2521 serves as a vicarious indoctrination into his brainwashed view of the world. All the “we”s, “they”s, and “our”s contribute to the authenticity of the experience, but at times the relentless plurals can get confusing and annoying. Imagine an entire book narrated by Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Overall, however, I admired Rand’s riveting storytelling and the fervent thrust of her individualist message. In the last couple chapters she kind of lost me though, as Equality 7-2521 began to sound less like an inspirational freedom fighter and more like an up-and-coming dictator with a grand plan.

Anthem is Rand’s shortest novel and the only one of her works that’s freely available in the public domain. These two qualities make it a perfect introduction to her work for those who have never read her writing, yet at the same time it only hints at the complexity and propagandistic bombast of her more monumental works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. While those bigger books require some deep thinking, this quick read will appeal to any science fiction fan who appreciates a good dystopian tale.
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