The Sins of a Dystopia

So I recently read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a dystopian novel set in a collectivist society. Ms. Rand has gathered a cult following, yet she is almost as universally mocked in the literary field as she is in the philosophical field. Anthem is a short read, only about 100 pages long so you can power through it in an evening. I didn’t take away anything from the novella other than how not to write a dystopian novel.

A dystopia depends on a few factors. First of all it depends one some aspect of society taken to the extreme. For instance in 1984 it was the surveillance state and governmental control taken to the extreme. In Anthem it was collectivization and the abolition of individualism taken to the extreme. These are meant to show the flaws in these aspects of society and to raise awareness of the world around us. However the obvious flaw in this is that anything taken to the extreme is bad. I could write a dystopia on if every person owned more than one cat. Of course a few people owning more than one cat is okay, but if every person did then the earth would soon be overrun with our feline masters. See how the scenario is taken to the extreme? Most things can be good in moderation but we can analyze and criticize anything when taken to the extreme.

Another trait of dystopian novels is the parallels between the dystopian world and the world we live in today. This is the reason sales of Orwell’s 1984 sharply rose after the uncover of the government surveillance program in the United States. This makes for that eye opening realization about our real world that people like to connect. It is the same with Brave New World. It is to make the reader keenly aware of some aspect they may not have noticed before, and then warn them of the implications of it. In the cat example above, the reader would then realize “Hey, there’s a lot of cat owners around. Most own more than one cat. I should probably do something about this, it’s kind of eerie, like that book I read.”

One reason I was not a fan of Anthem, was not because my acute dislike of Rand, but because it truly did not add anything new to the argument. I am not offended at was she was arguing against, but simply how bad her argument was. As I mentioned above, since one aspect of society is greatly exaggerated it is quite easy to poke all day at that trait. I displayed that in my cat example. There was no great realization of any sort, when it ended it simply ended. What I’m trying to get as you can’t simply point out the obvious flaws of a society, you have to make the reader come to a great epiphany, usually through the parallels of society I also mentioned.

So be weary when writing your dystopian novels. This does not mean all dystopian stories are in vain, because as we have seen they have a great deal of effect on society. But make sure to do more than point out the flaws, anyone can do that for anything. Dig deeper than that. Make the readers take something away from it, drive them to a moment of realization, do not simply use your writing as a vehicle for your opinions as Rand does. And to the readers, always be critical of what you are reading. Do not just take the author’s word for it, think about what the text says what flaws the author has.

For those who are curious to read Ms. Rand’s Anthem, I would not sleep well if I suggested to you to buy it. It is simply not worth it. But, there is a free edition on the kindle store for those especially curious. Even if you don’t have a kindle, you can download it and read it on your phone through the free kindle app. Here’s the site for the free e-book.

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30 thoughts on “The Sins of a Dystopia

  1. I think one thing to bear in mind when reading Ayn Rand is her audience and the period in which she wrote. Ayn Rand died in 1982 and her best-known work, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957. It is not surprising to me that someone looking at her work through today’s eyes would not get much out of it. I think the most important thing Ayn Rand put forth was the idea that some facts are facts regardless of someone else’s wishes or beliefs. In the mad dash toward relativism, we ignore this at our won peril. This is in direct opposition to the current popular idea the reality should vary from person to person. Believing that one man’s axe murderer can be another man’s ideal role model is very dangerous for society in general.

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    • Putting Rand into perspective seems to be at low ebb. Described as reactionary porn and unreadable, it WAS on everyone’s high school reading list in the 1960’s. I have no affinity for Rand’s philosophy but it is coherent. I wonder if people’s willingness to invest in reading is to blame

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  2. Haha, that’s Rand for you. I have the biggest grudge against her ever since I lived with an objectivist for six months. I remember reading that she was originally going to call that book “ego.” Never was one for subtlety.

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    • The original title was mentioned in the introduction to the copy I have. I’m my apologies for having to live with an objectivist for that long. I plan to do a critique of her after I finish Atlas Shrugged and whenever I find a copy of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I don’t hold her very high either.

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  3. I enjoyed Anthem. It was a little difficult to read with “we” instead of “I” throughout the book (those who have read it will know what I’m talking about), but I still liked it.

    I also enjoyed the fact that it didn’t drone on and on and on and on like Atlas Shrugged. (I’m still trying to get though that tome. I feel like since I started it I’ve graduated, got married, had kids, and am now a proud grandparent.)

    I don’t agree with all of Rand’s ideas, but I agree with enough of them to recommend her work. Anthem would be the one I’d recommend as the “gateway drug” to her other works.

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    • I’ve started reading her work but for maybe not all the right reasons. I’ll agree it was rough at the beginning with her use of the word ‘we’ but by the end I got used to it. Overall it was technically decent novella, but the problem I had with it was that she was poking fun at an exaggerated society which anyone can do.

      For instance if I was going to write a counter novella to Anthem the society would look like this: harshly individualistic. People are chastised if they ask for help at work and becomes a life or death situation when competing for higher job positions. People that cannot get jobs at all are outcasts of society and are assumed to be riddled with mental illness. Any sort of community is banned, gatherings of more than 3 people are outlawed because it shows signs of unity.

      See what I mean? Her writing itself was fine I just thought the general concept of it was sub-par. Maybe it will be better after I read through Atlas Shrugged, or Fountainhead, whichever looks more appealing to me.

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      • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a Rand “fan,” but I do like her commentary on society in Anthem and Atlas Shrugged (although I question whether or not it needed to be spread out over 1,600 pages).

        The one thing that puts me off about Atlas Shrugged more than its wordiness is her use of taking God’s name in vain and using it as a cuss word throughout the book (but that is a big irritation for me in ANY book).

        By the way, if you wrote a dystopian about harsh individualism I’d read it, however, when one looks at society (and the direction it’s going in), one must admit that Anthem’s harsh collectivism is probably a more likely scenario.

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  4. I have ATLAS SHRUGGED and have tried to read it just because some people I know think so highly of the book. It is a dull book, the ideas behind what she wrote are probably better than the writing and it sounds like ANTHEM is written in the same style.

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  5. Warning: this comment contains many spoilers.

    I actually kind of liked the book…at first. Because I wan’t around in a time when it was looking like collectivism was going to go too far nor did I ever run away from Soviet Russia, the message is more or less lost on me. Though not exactly (for all we know) timeless, Anthem must have meant much more than it does now when this exaggeration seems ridiculous rather than speculative.

    But I’m getting off course. What I was saying: I liked it at first. I found the main character sympathetic and lovable. A man who wants to be a scientist but instead, for being too much of a deviant, is made a street sweeper and then finds advanced technology from his past and reverse engineers it. Furthermore, he finds himself in a forbidden love with a strong woman who throws grain into the fields with a look a highness and nobility, who is so apotheosized that she is called The Golden One. The two find themselves against the world, just trying to stay Unconquerable in the face of a dysfunctional and abusive system.

    But I’ve gone too far again. What was my point? Right, that I liked it /at first/. These characters – these two characters that made the book more than bearable for me but actually interested – break. In the last act, the love interest defies her world and leaves it behind only to become completely submissive to the main character. The main character, in turn, goes from sympathetic to self-righteous and starts to control her. This killed the book for me, and the ending word was the icing on the cake. It wasn’t strong; it was painful.

    Am I looking at this from too much of a feminist lens?

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    • No actually that’s a very good observations, I failed to see that myself. The Golden one leaves her controlling government to be controlled by the main character. I also got the feeling though that she was a sort of cardboard character with no real personality. Like almost she was there just be the main character’s partner and nothing more. I had a few problems with that as well.

      It’s important to note that this may not have just been a coincidence, but most likely on purpose. Rand was against feminism in all forms and that sexually, women should desire “hero worship” to fulfill their needs. I wish I was making this up. This article from the official Atlas Shrugged Society explains:
      http://atlassociety.org/objectivism/atlas-university/objectivism-q-a/objectivism-q-a-blog/4302-feminism-and-objectivism

      And just for some more fuel on the fire here’s this:

      I agree with you on the last word. The problem with it was it has no real sentimental connection to the reader, especially in the literal sense in which she used it. In fact the first time I read it I thought “wait, what?”

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      • Wow. I don’t have much to say to that article and video but that I find it shocking.
        And yeah, what was up with that last word? I was thinking throughout much of it that the forbidden word is “I.” Now that, while predictable, would’ve meant something. I’ve had an english professor tell me that the word she used had a much different connotation than it does now. So, IDK, maybe it’s the Soviet Russia thing all over again.

        And, gosh, the government part isn’t even what really bothers me. It was more the whole confessing her love twice where he never says it back, saying he can physically harm her and treat her badly as long as he keeps her around, and letting him choose her new name instead of choosing it for herself – the thing that would have made the moment of empowerment for the characters actually empowering – that got to me.

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        • What her intentions were for the word ‘ego’ does have a different meaning, and it did then as well. In the introduction to my copy she says:
          “I used the word in its exact, literal meaning. I did not mean a symbol of the self— but specifically and actually Man’s self.”

          So I think the word had more meaning to her than anyone else. I agree that ‘I’ would have made much more sense considering throughout the narrative it was limited to ‘we’

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  6. I love this post. Especially when you said “you can analyst anything”. I will be talking about the difference of ideology and philosophy in my next post so be sure to stay tune. For anyone who doesn’t know about my blog, you can check it out at trupaiduex.wordpress.com and follow my youtube channel I make videos similar to my post

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  7. Rand was a bad writer. But pandering to the instinct to hoard doesn’t need reason or an acute command of language. I always like to close any comment I make about Rand by pointing out that Medicare was a better program when she used it.

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  8. Ayn Rand’s first novel was rather a simplistic attempt to describe what she felt was happening to Russia after the revolutions. Her second novel was a better attempt to portray that same set of experiences. Orwell, on the other hand, did not merely write about the extreme surveillance state. In fact, that really wasn’t his theme at all. The state of Big Brother was the example of ultimate control over the individual by removing any and all points of reference to reality. That was the focus. Constantly falsifying the past and the future creates an illusion that memories are unreliable. Emotions become suppressed to the point that the party members fail to feel much emotion at all. Only the “slaves” at the bottom are allowed any emotional content to their lives. And in the end, the protagonist loses his identity completely, he might as well be dead and he even asks for death. If you missed all of that, go back and read the book again. The theme is mind control. In this regard Rand writes her first two novels along that line. Only Orwell does the superior job.

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  9. Haha, we are going to get along famously. I have been going through your posts and I love most of them already. Will follow. Thanks for the like, it was quite lucky for me, I came to this place curious to know who liked that post 🙂
    Cheers!

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  10. Thank you for giving likes on buddhameditation.wordpress. I finally took some time to a little bit read (I am kind of busy at present, but I will try to take more time later) what you were talking about. I don’t know about Anthem but 1984 is quite intriguing. We are in 1984. Could it be a prophecy made by Orwell, or a feeling from the elements he had at this time and that he projected into a future ? But more and more I wonder if the persons in power did not use these science-fiction political and technological prophecies to mould their policies on them. This is frightening but why not : Orwell made a prophecy about the possible dangers linked to the dictatorships’ logics and the politician followed these ideas. They did not integrate the social and political warnings and thought, “well, yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do that” and after they tried to found the technological tools to implement this. I hope that it is not this but it is possible. Anyway 1984 is a good book.

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  11. I’ve read Anthem. I thought it had some beautifully imaginative moments but I do agree that it did not add anything to the overall picture given by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World”. I must admit I am a huge fan of Huxley and consider the efforts of Rand and Orwell to be merely mimicry of Huxley. Orwell was a great thinker in his own right, and did add quite interesting elements to the dystopian ideal and his other writings do hold some very interesting thoughts and theories.

    I do however, think it must be admitted, that Rand did have a powerful mind, though she was guilty of anger and hatred for the system that ruined her father and her family life in the society they escaped from. This anger swallowed her whole in the end, and also led to a series of unfortunate personal social happenings for her and later quite cruel interpretations and actions in the name of her philosophy.

    Orwell of course was a student of Huxley and this is evident in his later worldview and attempts at reconciling ideas and theories for the greater populace.

    I am always a little disappointed so many people do not realise that Brave New World was written 17 years before 1984 and that Orwell was a student of Huxley. This little detail is quite important I think, and something that people will hopefully learn on a greater scale in the coming years. For while 1984 is a glimpse into the world we are coming to know now, I am of the mind that the world predicted by Huxley will be closer to the one that eventually arrives.

    Good blog, thought provoking.

    Heres a link to a copy of a letter that Huxley sent to Orwell after 1984 was published, from an article in the Daily Mail. Interesting stuff.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2111440/Aldous-Huxley-letter-George-Orwell-1984-sheds-light-different-ideas.html

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