Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Anthem by Ayn Rand

I’ve made multiple attempts at reading both Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but can get no further than the first 50 or so pages. Luckily, this novella only has 50 or so pages in it, so this is an Ayn Rand book I can finish!

Anthem is a post-apocalyptic dystopia that operates as a communist state. There is a planned economy, jobs are allocated by the government. Everything sucks, you have no freedoms. Pronouns are different: saying "I" is punishable by death, and so the first person is always "we", and the third always "they", which sounds surprisingly modern (not an endorsement). Romantic attraction is illegal, and sex is only done on a special day, with a partner provided by the Eugenics administration. Everything is done for the collective, everybody must be happy. Oh and by the way, this society somehow forgot technology, and is now living in the technological dark ages. In practice, everything is terrible, and everyone lives in fear.

The lack of nuance or any sort of silver lining in this novel is truly astounding. Ayn Rand’s ideas of what is good can be inferred directly from negating everything about the dystopian society.

The fact that the protagonist immediately sees all of the implications of the primitive electrical circuit that he discovers in his makeshift laboratory is clearly Rand projecting her love for progress. A lot of the rest of the writing lacks any sort of subtlety. The contrast between the bureaucratic Council of Scholars and the entrepreneurial rebel protagonist, supported by their piety towards antiquated technology is really on the nose.

Still, it has its moments, such as this passage reeling against group think and "design by committee":

"What is not thought by all men cannot be true," said Collective 0-0009. "Should it be what they claim of it," said Harmony 9-2642, "the it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles. The Candle is a great boon to mankind, as approved by all men. Therefore, it cannot be destroyed by the whim of one."

Ayn Rand seems to really enjoy asking rhetorical questions. I remember reading up to the "Who is John Galt?" Of one of her other novels. This one features chapters ending with questions like "What— even if we have to burn for it like the Saint of the Pyre— what is the Unspeakable word", and later, when the protagonist begins to awaken from his socialist stupor, "And we felt torn, torn for some word we could not find." Until finally the protagonist has their epiphany, which is of course that there exists a first-person singular pronoun, and the unbridled individualism that comes with it.

For the word "We" must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought. This word must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie.

I’m glad Ayn Rand has the answers. Certainly, she has the zealotry of a fanatic:

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: I.

Oh, and in case you were wondering why this society collapsed in the first place? Obviously because of the collective!

What disaster took their reason away from men? ... The worship of the word "we". When men accepted that worship, the structure of centuries collapsed about them, the structure whose every beam had come from the thought of some one man.

Ayn Rand’s writing is intense and views are extreme. At the very least, the book is historically interesting, and provides a counterpoint to the left leaning views espoused by my friends. Unfortunately this short novella is written in a way too closely resembling a wrecking ball persistently swinging at an already crumbling building.