I’ve long been a fan of the dystopian genre, and several dystopian novels make it into my all time favourites list (or would do, if I bothered to keep such a list). Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale all spring to mind as excellent examples of the genre which I would highly recommend.
Recently I have read two well known dystopian tales, both of which are very notable works in their own ways. Firstly, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which is widely credited as being the first dystopian novel, and Anthem, a novella by Ayn Rand, whose work reflected her philosophy of objectivism and is still considered relevant and influential amongst libertarians.
There is some speculation as to whether Rand was inspired by We, perhaps having read a manuscript whilst she was still in Russia (long before it was published there; We was first published in 1924 in New York, having been banned in the Soviet Union). Whilst it is tempting to believe that We was a direct influence for Anthem, and there are definite similarities between the two works, it seems very unlikely that this was the case, and there is little evidence to support the idea. Both reject collectivism in favour of individualism, and this is probably the most fundamental similarity. However, other similarities, such as the use of numbers for names, are more superficial and strike me as something likely to crop up within this genre, rather than being a notable connection between different works. I prefer to suppose that these two stories were simply inspired by similar cultural influences.
Anyway, on to my thoughts about the two stories individually:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The main criticism I have of this book isn’t actually a criticism at all, merely an unfortunate consequence of me being already familiar with 1984, a novel heavily influenced by We. However, despite the familiarity of the basic concept and plot, it was a very enjoyable read. The world Zamyatin describes through the eyes of the central character, D-503, is vividly and beautifully drawn. As the story progresses D-503’s perception of himself and the world he inhabits begins to change, generating a great deal of internal conflict, to the point where he regards himself as insane and unwell. It is in this conflict that we find the real heart of the story. D-503’s strong desire to conform, to do what he has always been taught is right, combating with his sense of self and his own desires and needs, is central to the narrative. We see his half-finished thoughts and sentences and contradictions. For me, it is this personal struggle that held my attention more than anything else. The wider narrative didn’t engage me as much because, ironically, it felt like it was treading old ground. I suppose it was inevitable I would feel that given so much of the dystopian literature I have read owes such a lot to this original work. However, despite that self-inflicted impairment to my appreciation of this book, I still found it a very worthwhile read and enjoyed it immensely. I heartily recommend reading it.
Anthem by Ayn Rand
I’m actually finding it really difficult to express my thoughts about this novella. I think my biggest problem with it is that it seemed less like a well thought out story to me, and more like window dressing for her philosophy. It felt like blatant propaganda rather than something that was truly thought provoking.
Initially I quite liked the use of “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me” to suggest the loss of individualism within society, but it quickly felt contradictory to me, since Equality 7-2521 (the central character and narrator) quite obviously had a clear sense of his own identity and of the individual identity of others, that wasn’t altered by the use of different pronouns. It’s hard for me to explain, but it just felt to me that it was a narrative device that failed to do what it seemed like the author wanted it do do – a case of trying too hard, maybe. I don’t know. It’s just something that I thought was a good idea at first, but it just fell flat for me, and in the end was simply irritating.
There was also something about this story that rubbed me very much the wrong way as a feminist. In this society where everyone is supposed to be equal, and allocated to different houses according to how they serve society (ie their jobs), women are segregated from men and apparently excluded from the House of Scholars, for example. In fact the only women we encounter are working the fields, harvesting food. At first I had thought Rand had been clever in that there was no way to tell from the writing what gender anyone was, until it later became clear that the default was male, and women had their own special category. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, if that was something that was being criticised, but that’s not the case.
The only thing that is criticised is the concept of collectivism – the loss of individual rights and freedoms and one’s right to make choices. To be fair, Rand does a good job in that respect. However, I also think she oversimplifies the argument somewhat and presents us with a flawed premise to which she tells us she has the answer. I thinks it’s this last point, the tone of “you’re doing it wrong and I know best” that makes this feel like propaganda and not something I can take too seriously. I’m all for “what if” scenarios, no matter how far fetched, and I’m all for challenging established philosophies and politics and systems of government and what-have-you. I like to have my preconceptions challenged and to be given food for thought. Unfortunately Anthem doesn’t really come across that way to me. It felt like it was trying to tell me what to think, rather than asking me to question.
So, although I understand why some people consider this an important piece of writing, and I think Rand does raise some valid questions – I also think Anthem tries too hard to force its conclusions on me, and for that reason, above all others, I don’t really rate it highly at all. Am I glad I read it? Yes. But I won’t be doing so again.