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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anthem by Ayn Rand

A simple but profound piece of science fiction

I have not read any Ayn Rand before Anthem. I know this may seem strange for a person that enjoys politics, leans heavily to the right politically and enjoys science fiction, but it is true. The reason is quite simple - the people at the Ayn Rand Institute are so enthusiastic about Ayn Rand and her ideas on talk shows and in interviews that they seem like a religion to them. I feel similarly creepy about the postage paid information card that is included in my book. Plus, let's face it, her most famous works are L-o-o--o-n-g and I was not sure I wanted to invest that much time into Rand.

But, I decided to give Anthem a try because it is very short (105 pages) and my local bookstore had it on clearance.

So, what did I think?

There was a stretch of time before and after World War II, when the collectivization political movements were gaining momentum (fascism and communism) when some great novelists grew wary and wrote some fantastic and simply written works to warn others. Specifically, I am thinking of Brave New World, Animal Farm and 1984. Now, I can add Anthem to that list.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Anthem is set in a future world that has collapsed technologically due to some sort of disaster and the survivors value group cohesiveness, stability and tradition above all else. Innovation and original thought are stifled (violently, if necessary) and individualism is repressed to the point that the word "I" does not even exist in the language any longer. No individual choices are allowed - not in education, not in profession and no one is allowed to choose their own mates. One of their favorite sayings is: "We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers we are allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State. Amen."

Some are fine with this emphasis on the group but the main character, Equality 7-2521, is a natural-born scientist who likes to question and experiment. He is assigned to be a street sweeper instead (the reader is led to assume that he is not chosen to be a scientist precisely because he is know to be an innovator).  Equality 7-2521 mentions other characters who are especially gifted in an area but are not allowed to act upon those gifts who seem to be slowly going insane.

Equality 7-2521 develops a friendship with an artist (friends are not allowed) he falls in love with a pretty girl and he re-discovers some of the lost technology from the past (electricity and light bulbs). When he shows the science council what he has discovered and re-built they condemn him to death for daring to make the candle obsolete. They say to him, "...how dare you think that you could be of greater use to men than in sweeping the streets?" and, "How dare you...to hold yourself as one alone and with the thoughts of the one and not of the many?" and "What is not thought by all men cannot be true." Equality 7-2521 is sentenced to die but he escapes into the forest that surrounds his small city with his girlfriend. Together they begin to re-discover what has been lost and make plans to re-build civilization. Symbolically, they re-discover the word "I" and begin to use it.

Anthem is written in dramatic broad strokes. It is over the top in many ways - but it makes its point even stronger - it is a warning against the collectivist ideologies, telling the reader that this is where those ideologies all end eventually, if they are unchecked. I am still not a fan of Rand's philosophy (Objectivism), but this is still a remarkable novella - a warning of what can go wrong with collectivism.

My book had an introduction by Leonard Piekoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute. It also includes the original UK version of the story with Rand's handwritten edits. I found that mildly interesting but mostly ignored that section (fully half of the book).

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on June 28, 2011.

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