Despite having mocked the philosophy of Ayn Rand more than a decade ago when I wrote that preface to “The Myth of Natural Rights”, I had not actually read any of her books until this one. I said as much when I suggested covering this at the end of my last review of a novel. Part of what makes Rand mockable (as in “Mozart Was a Red“) is her elevation of abstract ideas over concrete reality, so that the concrete things she does value are as symbols. Anthem is an extreme example of that, not even qualifying as her usual “Romantic Realism”, and being entirely a novella of ideas rather than plot. Without a plot it culminates not in an event that would normally end a story, but instead in the protagonist writing a word that Rand likes.

One of the reasons I decided to read this after “We” is that I’d heard Rand ripped that off here. In fact the word “we” is used even more frequently hear than in that novel to indicate the collectivist nature of the dystopia. The difference is that Zamyatin was focusing on the concept from the perspective of the true believer (having been an early supporter of the Bolshevik revolution himself), while for Rand it’s just a word everyone is required to use where they would normally use “I”. It’s a precursor to Newspeak but also seems connected to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I suppose nowadays the very online might call it “wordcel” thinking, as if the specific words mattered. Readers of Steve Pinker would know that the euphemism treadmill can run over words that might have initially been used with one intent based on the practicalities of how people will actually use them in practice. Even in contemporary English we have “you” displacing the old singular “thou”, and nobody even thinks of it as naturally plural now (hence the popularity of “y’all” as a second-person plural).

Equality 7-2521 (again, close to Zamyatin’s naming convention, but allowing for a larger population) uses plural grammar for himself without ever truly believing in such ideals, though he does bemoan his disinclination towards his society’s Harrison Berger-esque norms in the candle-lit diary we are supposedly reading. The lack of electricity is an unusual feature of a novel set so far in the future nobody remembers our now-present, and doesn’t quite fit the motto of “Soviet power plus electrification“, or Zamyatin’s vision of totalitarian collectivism being spread even into space. However, it would be immune to Asimov’s critique of 1984 as having too much functional technology. Communist states did eventually fall behind the west technologically, though without actually losing electricity as in here, but since we know technological know-how can actually be lost as in Tasmania relative to even Australian aborigines (and that Imperial China suppressed modern astronomy), it’s not too crazy over a sufficiently long horizon if all the world really was overturned by the sort of ideology Robin Hanson would fear preventing us from becoming a galactic civilization. And there is more than one city in this world, although the forest outside the specific city Equality lives in is also ungoverned.

One way in which Rand differs from Zamyatin is that her protagonist is much more easily able to liberate himself once he decides to do so. Even the prisons are said to be easily escapable because nobody has even attempted to do so. Zamyatin ends things with his protagonist’s brain rewired and the society possibly falling to revolution, or perhaps maintaining the order via such brain-altering techniques. Rand is not enough of an enthusiast for revolution (even a libertarian one) to have that change anything, instead just depicting individual freedom via exit, just as Rand herself left the USSR for a country that already represented her capitalist ideals in the US.

In this depiction of a anti-individualist society as being relatively poor and scientifically unproductive (to the frustration of the scientifically inclined protagonist), Rand is actually somewhat close to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, although Le Guin was able to see some virtue in that society while for Rand it represents everything she hates. However, the fate Equality ultimately chooses is in a sense an even lower level of social development, since he’s with just Liberty 5-3000 (who joins him in the heresy of monogamy more explicitly than the less fire-breathing couple Le Guin wrote who could go long periods apart) eating wild goats rather than relying on a larger division of labor. For Rand this is laudable, even if they lack any of the technological modernity she valorizes, because their embrace of individualism and the forgotten tech of the past (somehow still standing) means they and their descendants could at least make progress.

Rand’s argument is a “progressive” one even if she’s normally thought of as right-wing. While she hated the USSR, she also looked down on pre-revolutionary Russia as a backward place of religious belief almost deserving of Marx’s new religion. As such her dystopia here might use words like “Liberty”, “Equality”, “Fraternity”, “Union”, “International”, etc but it’s not actually explicitly communist and in some ways resembles a caricature of the middle ages (complete with the burning of a heretic for saying the word “I”). Her denunciation of the existence of any masters or slaves, or subservience to any God, king or clan (the escape from which Mark Koyama would argue requires state-building) would actually fit with left-anarchism (such as that depicted by Le Guin). Rand just also denounces subservience to one’s fraternal brethren in any broad sense, treating everyone other than one’s direct partner (and it has been noted there are no children in Rand’s writing) like a stranger, with nobody owing anything by default. In this respect she does indeed (as I expected) resemble what Heinlein was critiquing in Starship Troopers as only recognizing rights rather than any duties those rights might depend on.

One virtue of Anthem is that it’s very short, barely over a 100 pages, so I was able to read it during transit or while waiting in line in just two days (its brevity also meant the book was easy to fit in a jacket pocket). It’s also not as difficult to read as “We”, since the narrator is far closer to our POV than his society’s. That about sums up its virtues though, as there’s really not much to it.

As of right now, my plan is for the next novel to be another dystopia set in an ostensible future resembling the past: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I’d already seen the first season of the TV show, and my one concern is that the show might have helped boost the popularity of that enough that if I had that checked out at the same time as the non-fiction book I’m currently reading someone might request its return before I actually start reading it.