Anthem: Inferior to the Big Three Dystopias

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStarship Troopers by Robert Heinlein science fiction book reviewsAnthem by Ayn Rand

It’s incredible, the number of thematic similarities between Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). While there’s no direct evidence that Ayn Rand plagiarized those earlier works, she owes an undeniable debt to their dystopian future societies where the individual has been completely sublimated to the needs of the state. Moreover, I believe that We and Brave New World are superior works, both as literature and as novels of ideas. Finally, if we are discussing the greatest dystopian novels of the 20th century, we cannot ignore the most powerful condemnation of totalitarianism, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Since I had already read We, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthem felt like a much shorter and less nuanced version of those books. In Anthem, the protagonist is named Equality 7-2521, and individual thought and preferences are forbidden. The World Council decides all things, and people are permitted to use only the terms “we,” “our,” and “they,” instead of “I,” “myself,” “he,” “she,” etc. Children are raised by the state (just like in We and Brave New World), and although Equality is quick to learn and aspires to be a Scholar, he is assigned the menial task of Street Sweeper. He tells this story in the form of a diary. While sweeping, he discovers a hidden tunnel that reveals knowledge of the Unmentionable Times of the past, when men had freedom, individuality, and initiative. He falls in love with a girl named Liberty 5-3000, and they create forbidden nicknames for each other: “The Golden One” and “The Unconquered”.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEquality discovers a glass a box in the tunnel, and when, after much tinkering, he rediscovers the power of electricity, he naively decides to bring this to the attention of the World Council of Scholars for the benefit of mankind. They, however, are outraged that a lowly street sweeper would have the presumption to suggest an improvement to society. He is thrown in the Palace of Corrective Detention (just like Orwell’s later Ministry of Love), but escapes easily into the Uncharted Forest outside the City. Equality and Liberty reunite and find a house in the mountains. They read a numbers of books from the ancient times and discover just how much of man’s knowledge has been lost and suppressed by the oppressive World Council. The book ends with a heavy-handed speech about individual freedom, self-interest, invention, and reason.

Let me briefly summarize Zamyatin’s We. It is a totalitarian society gone mad, where happiness is defined as the absence of free will, and emotions are considering mental illness. Society is completely regimented with mathematical precision by the government (headed by the iron-fisted Well-Doer), public executions of any aberrant Numbers are carried out by the Well-Doer under the Machine (all individuals only have letters and numbers to distinguish them), and nature is suppressed outside a Wall that encloses a perfectly organized geometrical glass city where citizens live like clockwork, regimented by the Tables of Hours down to their waking, working, exercise, eating, even copulation. The story also takes the form of a diary written by D-503, builder of the Integral spaceship, which is intended to go forth and subject other planets to the benign dictatorship of the One Ship. He gets involved with a dangerous subversive named I-330, who drinks alcohol, smokes, and flirts with D-503. fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThey start to meet in secret in a cottage outside the city, carrying on a passionate affair. I-330 drags D-503 unwillingly into a plot to overthrow and destroy the United State. However, D-503 is caught and lobotomized by the state. He informs on I-330 and her conspirators, who are also captured and sentenced to death. However, the seeds of revolution have been planted by their valiant efforts, and the future of the One State is questionable. In the novel, the forest outside the glass city also represents freedom from oppression and state control.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Anthem was directly influenced by We or Brave New World. All four dystopian works have overlapping themes that were profoundly influential in depicting the evils of totalitarian and fascist regimes between the two World Wars. But, judging Anthem strictly in terms of its depiction of a future totalitarian state, I think it is far too slim and dogmatic to measure up to We, Brave New World, or Nineteen Eighty-Four. It mainly serves as a short and accessible vehicle for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which celebrates individual self-interest, reason, knowledge, and capitalism. Those ideas are more fully expressed in her later mega-novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which are beyond the scope of this review. I wouldn’t dream of reading the full versions (32hrs and 55hrs on audiobook), but I might be willing to try the abridged versions (8hrs and 11hrs) just to be “educated” in Rand’s philosophy.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. I appreciated Rand’s attempt at a different POV with the 1st person plural, it started to feel heavy-handed pretty quickly. I agree that this is not great literature, but it’s the only thing of Rand’s I actually enjoyed reading because it did feel like an attempt at something genuinely different.

  2. Since I’ve never been able to get past the first few chapters of Anthem, I’ve never noticed the (extremely striking) similarities to We, which is a far better novel. Good eye, Stuart!

  3. Joao Eira /

    Well, I’ll bite: I think Anthem is great, and by far the most lyrical of her writings. I have not read the other books you talk about, but be that as it may, I think Anthem is the best encampsulation of everything Objectivism is about (which I subscribe to pretty much in its entirety)

    One of my favorite quotes comes from Anthem actually:

    “I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”

    • Joao Eira /

      Also, I found a paper on Zamyatin and Rand you might want to check out (I haven’t read yet but will do later tonight):

    • I think its length was a strong point, Joao. Regardless of how I feel about her political philosophy, this book did the best job of telling a real story with the politics as a foundation. (Actually, We The Living is probably her best book, as far as I’m concerned, because of its emotional honesty.)

      Her two “masterpieces,” Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, as far as I’m concerned were mildly masochistic romance novels padded out with tons and tons of boring lecture.

  4. As the comments so far seem to show, with Rand you either love her or hate her. My wife loves her work, I loathe it.

  5. Thanks for all the comments! Ayn Rand is certainly a polarizing author (my favorite kind), and intensely political. I have some sympathy for Rand’s Objectivism, but Anthem as a story didn’t engage me. However, that is probably because I read it after the Big Three Dystopian Novels above.

    Joao, thanks very much for the article on Zamyatin and Rand. It sounds like it is quite possible Rand was influenced by his writings and lectures when she was at Russian university or after moving to America, but there’s no definitive link other than the laundry-list of plot and thematic similarities between We and Anthem.

    I’ve never tackled her “masterpieces” The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged because they are way too long and probably too heavy-handed. But I noticed that Audible has abridged versions of both that cut down the length from a bloated 32hrs and 52hrs to a more manageable 8hrs and 11hrs respectively. Ideally they’ve stripped out the most boring lecture bits but retained her philosophy intact. Will have to give them a try at some point!

    • Joao Eira /

      I wouldn’t recommend you listen to the abridged versions for one simple reason: they’re not the book she wrote. Whatever you think of the lectures (and Galt’s Speech is insane in that anyone thought you could have that in a novel), they’re essential to understand the characters and the framework of their behavior. And The Fountainhead doesn’t really deserve an abridged version, the only speech there is a courtroom speech which is the climax of the whole novel which doesn’t make sense to cut.

      You could try We The Living, as Marion said, it’s the best novel qua novel (I should reread it actually, it’s the only one I haven’t and the only one I don’t own a physical copy of.) and what philosophy there is isn’t expounded in speeches, only drama.

  6. On a whim, I decided to listen to Anthem again (it’s just 2hrs 25 min on audiobook) this morning while doing some errands, and I liked it better the second time round. It’s still inferior to The Big Three Dystopian Novels, but I’ll bump it up to 3 stars.

  7. Joao, I understand your stance about abridgments, but I have no idea what parts they have cut from either book. At the same time, reading (and listening) time is so precious with 400 books pending, that I cannot justify 30-50 hrs for almost any book nowadays. At least this way I’ll get a taste of her ideas before I retire, and if I’m blown away and converted, then I can always try the full versions. As it is, I’ll either try the abridged versions or nothing at all.

    • I don’t even like Rand and I’m with Joao on this one. I’d bet you the price of a 16 oz coffee drink of your choice that they do not edit out the scene of Dagny wafting down the stairs in her white dress all tremulous and radiant at her debutante party, for instance, and they do abridge the speechifying.

      We The Living gets more directly at the heart of Objectivism, I think, because you see the genesis of it for the writer.

  8. Joao Eira /

    I like Jason Stott’s post on that scene: which I think explains well the context of that scene.

  9. This is fascinating. I’m not being snarky, it really is, because Rand is such a strange and intriguing figure in American sociopolitical history. Not to be a buzz-kill, I just do want to remind people that the book Stuart reviewed was actually ANTHEM.

  10. Brad and Joao, this is a great discussion and I don’t mind having it here! I am now determined to give The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged a try, if only to know what the debate is about. But I will stick to the abridged versions first, because life is short and I am only beholden to myself and my own happiness :-)

  11. I didn’t like Crash.

    High Rise is fairly didactic. Actually, I think I liked it mostly because I was interested in the way architecture and space is used in novels. My favorite, and one I see as offering an ethical reaction to the Fountainhead on all levels, is He, She, and It, my favorite SFF novel, which I’ve reviewed on our site. The author, Marge Piercy, offers both a dystopian space created by a committee of Roarks run amuck and then counters it with a feminist, ecological space that is utopian but not perfect (because part of the point is that trying to make a perfect space — like Disney World — actually creates the opposite).

  12. Stuart, Altas Shrugged might qualify as we-bring-you-the-apocalypse science fiction.

  13. High Rise really is a critique of the type of architecture championed by Rand via Roark. If you do read The Fountainhead, it makes for a fantastic companion book. Or for another chapter of one’s dissertation . . .

  14. Brad, I like the idea that High-Rise actually refutes the phallic assertions of The Fountainhead. I will definitely keep that in mind. As for Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, I read your review and that book is very high on the TBR list. I’m actually chipping away at Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) on my Kindle, which also presents her nuanced views of a future utopia. I’m sensing a juicy dissertation comparing the utopian views of Rand and Piercy – any takers?

    Marion, it would be quite a stretch to add Altas Shrugged as SF, but maybe could squeeze in under our Edge category?

    • He, She, and It and High Rise were both part of my dissertation, following from The Fountainhead in chapter one. The Fountainhead, I pointed out, provided, in contrast, an entire ethical vision to which postmodern fiction reacted. I was attempting to define the postmodern novel in terms of ethical content instead of in terms of stylistic tendencies (which always leads people to say it was just an extension of literary modernism or even just a repetition of everything that had already been done in literary modernism).

      Okay, I’m starting to put myself to sleep.

    • I think it could fit the Edge.

  15. Fascinating discussion! I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and Anthem, although it’s been two or three decades for both. I enjoyed Anthem as a teenager, but on later reread it struck me as a rather facile parable. Atlas Shrugged fascinated me as a young reader — except for that 100 page radio lecture by John Galt. That’s the most excruciating thing I ever tried to plow through. I gave up on it eventually and jumped past it. No regrets! Skip that sucker, Stuart! :D

    Objectivism has some worthwhile aspects, but its promotion of selfishness as a cure for all societal evils does not, I think, ultimately hold water. Reading about Ayn Rand’s personal life made me sympathetic to her in some ways, but turned me off completely in other ways. Too much hypocrisy.

    • Is it hypocrisy if you are actively lying to yourself? My superficial, facile take on her has always been of a trauma victim who refused to acknowledge the effect of the trauma on her own development. (As I said, superficial.)

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