Monday, June 11, 2012

Council of Omnisicent Vagueness

Anthem, Chapter 1

So, we're still in chapter 1 of Anthem. Previously, I took a look at the character names - our protagonist, Equality 7-2521, refers to himself using the first person plural, "we", because at some point in the future people have lost all identity and individuality - never mind that Equality 7-2521 has a distinctive and individual name from his love interest, Liberty 5-3000. This has a very real literary purpose, but the mere fact that Equality 7-2521 has a separate name/number from Liberty 5-3000 suggests that they are separate individuals with distinctive personalities and therefore, have individuality. That they have individuality shoots Rand's message in the foot right out of the gate; they're not supposed to have individuality. This is a society without individuality, or one that suppresses individuality (by giving you individual names...). That's why they don't use the first person pronoun. Clearly, the book is contradictory on this when you think about it hard enough, but contradictory self-defeating logic are hardly unusual for Rand's philosophy.

I feel it necessary to state that again that it's necessary to have these distinctive names; otherwise, this would be a headache to read. "Now who the hell is this guy again?" We do it enough in books where the characters have separate names and personalities; attempting something like this would make the book unreadable (okay, okay, fine. Even more unreadable). I also feel it necessary to point out the fact that it's necessary for our protagonist to have a distinctive name shows that individuality is a human trait that, no matter how hard "collectivism" tries, will never go away. There's no amount of psychosurgery that could make that go away. To make that go away, you have to remove sentience, and therefore, you're no longer human. In fact, I remember playing (running, actually) a game called Alternity. Alternity is a game system; it has an attached setting called Star*Drive, which is a hard-ish ("hard" compared to Star Wars, "hard-ish" compared to Star Trek, and mushy soft when compared to Orion's Arm) science fiction space opera setting. One of the playable alien species in the game was a race of extremely humanoid rubber forehead aliens called the Aleerian. The Aleerian are actually born with integrated nanotechnology; it's an interesting concept, but you don't have to be an alien for that. Eclipse Phase does this with humans, who are born in exowombs. The Aleerian, however, are all wired into one another, and they willingly subdue their own personality for the greater whole of the species - in short, their hat was a theme park version of communism, manifest in alien cyborgs. They used names like what Rand uses, but they still retained a degree of individuality despite it; an Aleerian (or, because humans are bullies and creative, the Mechalus) did not have to totally submit their individuality (because, frankly, that'd make for a really boring species to play). Thus, names like Deidre-3201 and Gamma-34214, your "typical" Mechalus name, aren't unusual. There's the idea that they submit themselves to the whole willingly, but at the same time, they still have that degree of individuality present. Rand likely didn't want that degree of individuality there, nor did she want the idea that this was done willingly, since that undermines her message: collectivism does not eradicate individuality. Furthemore, the Mechalus are  fictional "aliens" with this as their hat, while these are supposed to be humans in Rand's book.

This is the problem with writing anvillious allegories. I walk a fine line when I write allegories, and I try not to let it get in the way of the story. Here in Anthem, the allegory is the story. Thus, little things like this can blow the narrative wide open, like an over-inflated car tire, and send the whole book screaming off the edge of a cliff 300 feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

So, it's easily enough said, "well, that does it for this book. When your key conceit does a bellyflop instead of a swan dive and misses the pool by about six yards, it's time to call it a day."Alas, where's the fun in that?

So, let's continue learning a bit about Rand's world, and see what other problems we can find!

So, what we know so far:
  • Our protagonist is named Equality 7-2521
  • He is doing something illegal
  • He refers to himself using the pronoun "we"
  • He was born "cursed" because he was taller than his peers (and nobody though to use a bat to break his knees? C'mon. Vonnegut's got you beat, lady)
  • "There is evil in your bones, Equality 7-2521" - the "your" is bold for a reason. "Your" is the second person pronoun possessive (they would've been better served with our, since everyone uses we. Naturally, what Rand tried to do here leads to a mountain of pronoun trouble, since language itself is not designed to do what she's trying to do). Anyway, there's evil in there.
  • His love interest is Liberty 5-3000.  Oops. We don't know that yet. Pretend I never said it.
So, we pick up with Equality 7-2521 feeling sorry for himself because he's different. "We were born with a curse. It has always driven us to thoughts which are forbidden. It has always given us wishes which men may not wish. We know that we are evil, but there is no will in us, and no power to resist it. This is our wonder and our secret fear, that w know and do not resist." It's a curse, you see, to think thoughts which are forbidden.

There are days when I wonder if I might have OCD. It's a very hit or miss sort of thing; some disturbing thoughts, and some silly and stupid, pointless (or dangerous, as the case maybe; trying to beat a stop light, for instance, otherwise something bad may happen) ritual to make it go away. Once it's gone, I don't hear from it again for a month or so; I don't get it checked into because a) it doesn't happen enough to justify it and b) I've actually talked myself out of doing the rituals before, despite going through an anxiety attack (worth mentioning is that not doing the ritual has the same effect; it goes away and doesn't come back for a few weeks or a month. Knowing that the ritual isn't necessary is enough for me to keep myself from doing it, but boy is that not fun). I know what it's like to get stuck with thoughts you don't want to have. At the same time, Equality 7-2521 is not mentally ill; not insomuch as I can tell, anyway. So these forbidden and unwanted thoughts are not OCD driven. These "forbidden thoughts" are thoughts that run contrary to what the greater society here wants; which is pretty much to obliteration of everything that makes us unique (again; a lady with a baseball bat makes those problems go away? Too tall? You didn't need to walk, did you?) So what we have here is a human, or some semblance of one, living among sub-sapient robots who were never human to begin with. Personally, that'd be enough to drive me to depression, but because I'm bipolar, it doesn't take much.
We strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike. Over the protals of the Palace of the World Council, there are words cut in the marble, which we repeat to ourselves whenever we are tempted:

We are one in all and all in one
there are no men but only the great WE,
One, indivisible and forever"

We repeat this to ourselves but it helps not.
 Ehhh... there's that "men" again. Rand does this a lot in the book. Anytime "men" gets used as a stand in for "humanity" you're looking a sexism; insidious or overt, with a side of ignorant laziness to boot. You're erasing all of the genders that are not male, and you're turning male into the default for humanity; otherwise, why isn't "woman" or "transsexual/transgender" considered a stand in for all of humanity? The proper noun in this case would be "humanity" or "people", because heaven forbid we try to be inclusive or anything. That other ~51% of the population? They can go fuck themselves. Sexism is huge in any Rand book; while Anthem has issues on this front, the real offender in her novel line up is The Fountainhead. Roark essentially rapes female lead, thus, the female lead falls in love with him. No, I don't see any sexism here at all.

Beyond this glaring error (and yes, it is an error), there's the fact that collectivism is a leftist ideology (usually), and tends to be a little bit ahead of the curve in gender equality. If there was absolute equality, with nobody treated any differently in this world, why are they still using "men" as the default for humanity? First your names cause the story to fall flat on its face before you can get any momentum at all, and now we have this sexism which yanks anyone with anyone with even the faintest clue about gender politics and how sexism and misogyny work out of your story and throws us back 40 yards into your own end zone. Rand, you are not off to a good start.

For my readers, I'm on page 19, or the third page of chapter 1. I'm not even 20 pages in and the story's died on me twice.

She said in her introduction that people told her she was being too tough on collectivism. Really, I haven't seen any collectivism in this story yet. I'm still trying to plow my way through all this gorram straw, and so far, I'm unimpressed with this straw dystopia. It's not even a good collectivist society.

Now, there's always the possibility that Rand was trying to make. Even with collectivism, there's the possibility that there will be discrimination and that collectivism cannot live up to what it says. This is largely true of any human ideology; there will always be flaws. However, this isn't what Rand is looking to do. I know this because I know that this gender inequality is par for the course even for the good guys in Rand's novels, and that the society is all about the obliteration of individuality and the names hint at the fact that there aren't supposed to be any differences between people at all, so the use of "men" flies in the face of that. Now, this may very well be a relic of the time she lived in, that's true, but I'm not going to be that generous. There was talk of women's lib and equality as far back as the late 1800s, and maybe further. There's no excuse except for having absorbed society's latent sexism, but that still undoes your novel's point by proving not everyone is equal.

It's in the lead in to this that we meet the Council and are told about the Great Rebirth. The Council is housed in the Palace, and the palace dates back to a time before the Great Rebirth. We're also told that the Council is the body of all truth, which frankly, sounds like something I'd hear from some batshit pastor at church. "I am the truth to all God's word! Believe what I say, since Jesus suspiciously believes the same stuff I do!"
But we must never speak of the times before the Great Rebirth, else we are sentenced to three years in the Palace of Corrective Detention. It is only the Old Ones who whisper it in the evenings, in the Home of the Useless. They whisper many strange things, of towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame. But those times were evil. And those times passed away, when men saw the Great Truth which is this: that all men are one and there are no will save the will of all men together.
 In the Blue Pimpernel, the Party achieved this sort of world by accident (cars, electricity, and skyscrapers still exist. Computers, however, aren't very common, the Internet doesn't really exist thanks to all of the legislation and policing, and any seriously advanced technology, like immortality treatments, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the like, are nowhere to be found). Their main goal was to stymie progress, because they long for "the past" and "the sensibilities of a simpler, and therefore, golden age." Here, there's no hint whether or not it was one on purpose. Regardless how it was done, the point is, what we have here is a society in the Middle Ages, or pre-Industrial society, because as we all know, collectivism stymies progress in favor of a golden era that never existed. Marx said it somewhere, and Lenin repeated it.

I hear that phrase, "Old One", together with "the Home of the Useless"...

Azathoth, the Blind Idiot God, the Daemon Sultan and the Nuclear Chaos, does not approve of your epithet
These were days when we had horseless buggies! Can you imagine? A horseless buggy! These people are practically Amish, except for the fact that I'm pretty sure that there's nothing in Mennonite theology that requires the complete and utter abolition of ones humanity to the group.

It's even illegal to talk about electricity. Everyone must be absolutely equal. Why is electricity so special? Why stop there? Why not go all the way back to plant domestication? Why not make it illegal to talk about other mechanical things, like pulleys and levers? Why not ban the wheel, since someone obviously thought it up and that someone was more equal that everyone else? When Vonnegut tacked this premise, he did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek, knowing full well how absurd this was. Again, I'm shocked they didn't just saw Equality's legs off. Or maybe it's illegal to talk about saws, too.

Again, the Party achieved the world they live on accident. It's not illegal to talk about biotechnology and such, but it's firmly integrated in American society to be met with revulsion because it's "playing God". The Party has the same labelistic approach to technology - "good" technology and "bad" technology - but there are ground rules at play. You can pretty much know they're going to consider human cloning "bad", until someone gives them enough money to let it happen anyway. And then it'll only be "bad" so long as they talk about it with the the people who agree with them; the Party are massive hypocrites who cynically play the tools that support them. I don't see any evidence of that here in this book. Maybe it's just because we haven't met the council yet, but this seems incredibly random and not at all defined.

So, for the moment being, they're the "Council of Omniscient Vagueness." Because apparently they know what you're thinking, where you sleep, and what you'll be when you grow up.

This is not a good way to start any kind of book, and it does not bode well for future examinations, but I didn't start this knowing that it would be a pretty thing. This book is ugly, and there's a metric fuckton (technical terminology) of fridge logic here. Of course, that makes taking it apart all the more satisfying.

1 comment:

  1. anyone recall the conversion ratio from metric fuckton to imperial assload?