The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938)

AnthemIn the author’s introduction to Anthem, Rand states that is story was written in 1937. It was originally published in 1938 but the edition I read – the 1995 Penguin Modern Classic edition – is the 1946 publication. Rand states that the occasional word was changed but the mood, “spine and spirit” were not changed. I’m not sure what the spirit of this novella is. I have mixed feelings.

I try not to take any prejudice into anything I read in this series, but that is literally impossible. I knew I found Gulliver’s Travels boring and I knew I loved Frankenstein before reading them again for this series. Through reputation alone, I had some trepidations but was generally intrigued when I picked up Anthem. As usual, I refrained from reading any introduction or notes not written by the author.

The story of Anthem begins with a confession of sin from the first person narrator – writing by candlelight in a tunnel that he discovered –  who refers to himself as ‘we’ and states “our name is Equality 7-2521”. All the characters are named in similar terms. Union 5-3992, Liberty 5-3000 and Similarity 5-0306 are examples. The latter belongs to the World Council. We are in a city in the distant future, but it is a low-tech one. Candles and glass are the apex of technology. In some distance past, known as the Unmentionable Times, something catastrophic happened with only a few survivors. This world has grown from some ashes that Rand never defines. Equality spends the first few pages describing the society he lives in: Children are raised in a collective, away from parents; careers are assigned (he is a street sweeper) even though he was good at science as a child; everything has a council (Council of Vocation, World Council of Scholars and many others); everyone lives and works (even plays are about toil) for their brothers and sisters – who are kept apart except for the Palace of Mating, and no-one has an individual life. This is a true authoritarian dystopia – men are punished with lashings or death without a trial.

350px-Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195306Our protagonist witnessed a public execution aged 10 and this seems to be the catalyst for change. He loves the Science of Things. He is curious. He shouldn’t be. And so when he discovers his tunnel, rather than tell his superiors, he keeps it a secret and works on a potential society-changing discovery. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl he sees by the side of a road (Liberty 5-3000). Their love is forbidden but grows slowly in any case. He names her the Golden One, even though individual names are also forbidden. He determines to present his discovery to the World Council of Scholars, dreaming they will accept him into their bosom. They reject him. He escapes the city, and with his Golden One, discovers a house full of books from the Unmentionable Times. He believes he will become a god-like figure of liberty to all men, and is worshiped by his mate. They rename each other Prometheus (him) and Gaea (her). He reveals the final forbidden word.

There are so many parallels in Anthem and books both before and to follow its publication. The lack of individualism and coded names reflect We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) – both authors lived in Russia. The collectivism and child-rearing away from any parental love feel similar to Brave New World (1932) by Huxley (the scenes when Equality is a child and wakes in the dorm in particular). The general dystopian society and the forbidden love that frees the man and woman may have influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). People are worn out at 40 harks back to The Fixed Period (1882) and forward to Logan’s Run (1967). And Anthem generally must have spurred many subsequent dystopic fictions

However, most of the classics in any genre are both derivative of, and influencers for, many other works. Standing on the shoulders of giants or turtles all the way down, however you look at it. That isn’t my issue with Anthem. I enjoyed pretty much the first two thirds of the story. It took a page or two to get used to Rand’s harsh style. However, once it picked up pace, some of the prose was quite poetic (“the sky is a soggy purple” being my favourite description). The story is a classic of course, boy meets girl, boy wants to shackle the chains of the oppressive authority and his curiosity naturally leads him to a way of doing so, girl falls into subservient love without knowing anything about boy – except maybe a spark she sees in herself; Rand never explains her backstory or hints at why she’s rebellious like Equality.

However, once Equality escapes and the Golden One catches up with him in the forest I found the tone oddly uncomfortable. We becomes I as the narrator reads the books he finds. I personally believe that the liberty of the individual is the most important tenant in life. Rand, for a short while, follows this path. The collective is a failure and the individual must rise. Freedom and liberty are what must be victorious. I kind of get that. However, it soon seems that the newly Christened and singular Promethues is looking to achieve god-hood over his fellow man (he calls them sons and his “chosen friends”); he will show them the error of their ways and lead them into the light. The final reveal left a bitter taste in this reader’s mouth.

There is a lot to admire about Anthem. While barely an original word or thought, it is like a smart and interesting remix of previous fictions and philosophies, and also demonstrably influential. It is not a Utopian rant or a polemic despite its philosophy, and has the bones of a story to it. It is of course, proper science fiction – examining a potential future while discussing the nature of man. I enjoyed reading it for what it was, up to the final point, and can see how Rand’s mind must have been working.

 

Image credit:By Popular Publications / Lawrence Sterne Stevens – http://www.philsp.com/mags/famous_fantastic_mysteries.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46698666

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