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.