Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Transgression of Gary Stus

Anthem, Chapter 1

So, where we last left off we were just getting into the Council. We talked a bit about our protagonist's "curse" - that is, he's a 6 foot tall canon sue and, by virtue of that, different from everyone else in this world. I suppose when everyone in the world is the same and willingly goes along with this degenerate, straw-stuffed form of "collectivism" - which is unlike any form of collectivism that I've ever bore witness to; not even anarcho-communism is like this, and fascism elevates some individuals above others - if you even make the slightest wave you're going to stand out. But the novel shines on our friend, Equality 7-2521. He has a long and storied history making waves by being better than everyone else. But then, this comes with being a canon sue, so there should be no surprise there.

We, Equality 7-2521, were not happy in those years in the House of Students. It was not that the learning was too hard for us. It was that the learning was too easy. This is a sin, to be born with a head which is too quick. It is not good to be different from our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them. The Teachers told us so, and they frowned when they looked upon us.
The house of students is sorta like a school, I imagine.

I can relate to Equality here. I was, and still am, one of those people who never has to study for a test. I made it through High School just on passing tests I never studied from and graduated with a 3.2 GPA. I am a human calculator; while my math skills aren't great, I can still add and subtract quickly. I get better with practice, like any person, and because I picked up GURPS lately and have been exploring that, my math skills have been getting a lot of that practice (fun fact; GURPS factors the square/cube law into character design, and into monster design for the GM. I was suitably impressed). I had a history teacher back in middle school who hated me. He wasn't one of the best teachers I've had - his usual routine was boiled down to this: you sat down, the bell rang, and you'd copy notes from an overhead. That was it. Then you'd take a test on those notes. I'm sure there might have been a little more, but that was pretty much all there was to it. I never did that. I'd go in, I'd space out or do something else, and still manage to pass the class with an A because I scored so high on all of the tests.

So I can relate on being quick. And I can relate to Teachers looking negatively on you for it - but it was a minority of teachers that did it. Most of my teachers left me with enough room to go about doing my own thing. Or they'd compliment me for it; I had a history/social studies teacher who was impressed with me and would compliment me quite a bit (it helps when one of the first questions you asked in class is "Isn't that near the Tien Shin mountains?" The rest of the class is looking at you like you're fucking nuts, but the teacher is floored. Does the average 17 year old know those mountains exist, much less have the ability to visualize them on a map? Does that average 40 year old?) Even in college - one of the compliments I got from a professor in college comes from a doctor who graduated from Loyola and Yale Universities and never took shit from anyone. She commented that I was "heads above everyone else in my program." It's a combination of retention of knowledge, learning and memorization techniques, and being able to fill gaps with reasoned guesses.

The difference between me and Equality is that I'm not superior to anyone. I learned my strengths early on and I taught myself using those strengths - visual and verbal (but not auditory). In fact, there are people out there worlds smarter than I am and I acknowledge it. I'm not in the best of physical condition, and I never have been no matter how hard I try (being poor sucks), and I know there are better athletes than me. I am superior to nobody. I'm better than some people at some things, but that doesn't make me superior to them by a long shot.

This is how you know when you're dealing with a qualified Mary/Gary Sue. The word "superior" or some other superlative expression comes up. Everyone is unique and special in their own way; everyone has their own quirks and ways of learning and memorizing and their own things that they're good at. Even people who get regarded as idiots by the bulk of the population have features that make them intelligent in certain ways (why yes, I am a proponent of Gardener's Multiple Intelligences theory, why do you ask?). There is no such thing as a "superior person." The only place you find this "superior person" is in Mary Sue fiction. Which is what this is rapidly becoming. Equality makes this sudden announcement that he's "superior to his brothers" simply because he's an advanced learner who wouldn't be out of place with the AP kids (who mind you, I will never teach - for the very reason that Equality is highlighting here: the notion that being faster and smarter makes you better than everyone turns you into an arrogant snot). Equality just went from being a semi-sympathetic figure to being an arrogant douchebag in with one word.

What comes next doesn't help at all.
So we fought against this curse. We tried to forget our lessons, but we always remembered. We tried not to understand what the Teachers taught, but we always understood it before the Teachers had spoken. We looked upon Union 5-3992, who were a pale boy with only half a brain, and we tried to say and do as they did, that we might be like them, like Union 5-3992, but somehow the Teachers knew that we were not. And we were lashed more often than all the other children.
 Here, let's pretend that we're like this half-wit over here.

Wait - fridge logic moment. If it's a sin to be different, why wasn't Union 5-3992 lashed? Obviously this is another kid who's outside of the bell curve; through this around enough and you start to sound like the guys who designed FATAL, but the bell curve is a real thing. When teachers design lessons, they look to the bell curve to get the most students; those students who are outside of the bell curve are usually on the more advanced end or the end that puts them behind the class. State tests are pitched on a bell curve. Obviously the best way to ensure that everyone is the same is to play to the bell curve, and the averages. So we have this guy here who's fallen behind on the bell curve - but he's not punished for it like Equality is. Oh, wait, because he's not *special* like Equality 5-2521 is, and Equality has to be punished. This is a weird form of collectivism; if everyone is supposed to be alike, why is this guy tolerated? At the end of the day, he's no different from Equality; both of them are outside of the bell curve, both of them are different from the rest of the herd.

Unless he's just average, and Equality says he has "half a brain" because it's Equality's own sense of superiority coming through. That's just as likely, if not more likely, given that we've already established that Equality is an arrogant asshole.

This concept of superiority runs through Objectivism. It's not just present in Rand's books, it's a framing device in all of them. All of her protagonists view themselves as being superior to the "socialist and collectivist vermin" that they're constantly pit against.

It's about here that we finally get an introduction to the Council of Vocations. Teachers were appointed by the council. They're the "voice of all justice" and they pick your career for you. You're not suppose to get your hopes up about a career because the Council of Omniscient Vagueness picks one for you. Because they're "better" than the people they pick for, because certain people can't be trusted to determine what they want.

I'm convinced that the argument Rand here is that collectivism is hypocritical. That collectivism still favors some people over others, in a "the tallest blade of grass is the first to get whacked" sort of way. Again, directing my historical compass to the Soviet Union, the environment Rand grew up in, that was actually the case. Stalin was utterly paranoid of anyone smarter than him (which was likely a few people), which is why he had all of his scientists arrested and taken to jail. However, I doubt the Soviet Union was like this; I'm pretty sure that people will still individuals and it was only people who were in the Inner Party that had to really worry (thus making the Soviet Union under Stalin much closer to Oceania in 1984... which is what Oceania was written to criticize, mind you). If that's the case, then she has a point to make. However, that does nothing to remove Equality from the fact that he's an asshole, which totally skews how the narrative is read. Him getting his job from the council is really no better.

Before we get there, though, let me condense some info. We get introduced into what gets called the "Transgression of Preference", which is the unforgivable sin of enjoying certain lessons above others. Because we're equal but not equal, you see. I'm beginning to wonder how people function in this society; this is a sin that everyone commits every day. Hell, I committed it when I chose my degree program (which ties into the Elders). They didn't like the history of the Councils elected in years past, but they liked the "Science of Things". They asked so many questions that the Teachers forbade them from asking anymore.

In short, we learn that Equality wants to be a scholar. He would be most at home in the Home of Scholars, which is where the people who get nominated to be scientists go. They're responsible for all of the new inventions, like the candles with wicks (I'm not kidding). He's a man driven by questions - egged forward by these questions, and determined to find an answer to them even though the society at hand wants him to stop.

I'm reminded of a scene from my novel here - I've use this satirical device before. Renee is sitting in her Bible Science class, and they're watching a film on why Evolution is wrong. They start out by talking about White Hole Cosmology (keep in mind, Renee is a junior in a classroom full of them - in short, she's only 16) and move onto mankind and dinosaurs working together. Renee gets intrigued when they talk about dinosaurs (who wouldn't? Dinosaurs are cool), and gets irritated when they move onto talk about the Great Flood. Renee hasn't quite had the desire to learn beat out of her, but it's close to it and she doesn't ask questions in class anymore. The narrative highlights all of the questions that Renee had about Noah's Ark and the Great Flood that she wanted to ask but never got the chance to, because the android managing the class would smack her hand with a ruler for trying to ask questions that the lecturer on the flat screen didn't have answers for.

The authority doesn't want you asking questions. This is universal; questions, especially to those who aren't prepared to answer them, can seem like a direct assault on their assumed authority. This is why politicians make appeals to emotion more than appeals to rationality (that and it works). When you start appealing to logical and rationality, you open yourself up to questions. In a situation where you're talking about an Earth that's only 10,000-6,000 years old and was destroyed by a Great Flood, the questions that a teen or a child might ask can really unsettle that world view because they have a habit of asking questions you didn't think of or you don't have answer for. Hence, the no questions policy. The only questions that are good questions are those that reinforce the policy at hand and reinforce that world view; which is why politicians use audience plants to ask questions, or hold their meetings without giving the audience the ability to ask questions.

Eventually, we get to the Hall of Vocations, where everyone is assigned the job that they'll be doing for what's likely the rest of their mercifully short lives. We get an idea of the demographics of the council; there were five, with three males and two females. Classic gender equality that. If anything you'd have two males, two females, and one genderqueer or something to that effect. I can see the value of having an odd number - it keeps there from being ties. I can also appreciate that the demographics are strangely close to the SCOTUS, but at the time this was written, the SCOTUS had a different demographic set. Their hair is white, and their faces "cracked as the clay of a dry river bed." This is followed immediately by "they were old."

We call this "countersinking."

Saying "they seemed older than the marble of the Temple of the World Council" is a good description. That "they were old" is a sentence unto itself that really isn't needed and only serves to restate the point that the description drives home.
And we saw no breath stir the folds of their white togas. But we knew that they were alive, for a finger of the hand of the oldest rose, pointed to us, and fell down again. This was the only thing which moved, for the lips of the oldest did not move as they said: "Street sweeper."

We felt the cords of our neck grow tight as our head rose higher to look upon the faces of the Council, and we were happy. We knew we had been guilty, but now we had a way to atone for it, but we now we had a way to atone for it. We would accept our Life Mandate, and we would work for our brothers, gladly and willingly, and we would erase our sin against them, which they did not know, but we knew. So we were happy, and proud of ourselves and our victory over ourselves. We raised our right arm and we spoke, and our voice was the clearest, and the steadiest, voice in the hall that day, and we said:
Street sweeper.

This is likely another stealth criticism of Stalinism. I can easily see this society being a case of kicked to the top; get the stupid people out of the way before they can do damage. It's obvious that he's angry by that first sentence, but has bravely accepted that he will "work for his brothers".

Apparently, in Rand's world, street sweepers are worthy of disrespect because they work for their fellow citizens. Teachers are worthy of disrespect because they work for the future of the society. We were happy, Equality says, because the council told us we were going to be street sweepers and therefore, we conquered ourselves.

For those of you keeping track at home, I'm only half-way through Chapter 1 now. There's 6 pages left, which start us into his life as a Street Sweeper. And I guarantee you that it will be very bit as interesting as the book has been so far.

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