Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"

Mad Men returns… along with Ayn Rand

26 Jul

I couldn’t believe it when the Season 4 premiere of Mad Men opened with the line “Who is Don Draper?”  Too perfect—considering that this time last year I wrote an article on the parallels between Mad Men and Ayn Rand’s famous fictional characters for the Season 3 opener.  “Public Relations” brought back familiar waves of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead déjà vu as well as some fascinating character evolution.

In sum, the tv and literary characters I matched up last August aren’t the same this summer.  And now, at least, we know who John Galt may be.

Read at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching.  And watch out: Spoilers for both Mad Men and Ayn Rand’s novels below.

Don Draper: Hank Rearden

Don doesn’t know how to answer that famous first line in an interview the new advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Price (that’s a tongue-twister for Joan, isn’t it?) hopes will turn out to be a great PR opportunity for them.  They’re so strapped for cash in this season four debut that they can’t even afford a proper conference table, and Don Draper—brilliant creative director—is the goose that lays the golden egg.  But in this interview, Don’s standard taciturnity doesn’t come off as modest or mysterious.  As Roger Sterling says after reading the article, it’s terrible publicity—and “plus, you sound like a prick.”

That’s an interesting comment considering that Ayn Rand detractor’s often criticize her heroes as being cold, hard, and selfish.  Hank Rearden refuses to support his mother and (admittedly a loser) younger brother, and Howard Roark bombs a housing community for the poor, for goodness’ sake.  Pricks?  Maybe for readers who don’t appreciate the philosophy behind Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

It’s the same with Draper.  When Roger Sterling, Bertram Cooper, Lane Price, and Harry Crane of all people ambush him with criticism about the negative PR the article’s bringing—Don’s laconic reserve actually lost the ad man a major television account Harry had just cinched in Los Angeles—Draper can’t understand why he’s being required to be personable or charming on newsprint.  “Who gives a crap what I say anyway?” he asks, more bewildered than I’ve ever seen him;  “My work speaks for me.”

This is classic Hank Rearden.  In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden makes an astonishing metal alloy.  To use his own words, “I want Rearden Metal to be to steel what steel was to iron.”  And it is—or at least, it should be: it works.  But Hank Rearden has the same problem Don does—bad press.  He’d rather be lovingly watching his mills pour out the first heat of Rearden Metal than at one of his wife’s high-society parties; he’s known for his bluntness and chilly demeanor; he gets little pleasure at home where he must conform to society’s expectations, and ends up finding fleeting happiness elsewhere—in the arms of other women as unlike his perfect wife as possible.  Sound familiar?  (quoth Roger Sterling from the season 3 finale: you can’t maintain relationships “because you don’t value them”)

Don Draper: Howard Roark

But in “Public Relations,” Don Draper transitions from Atlas Shrugged’s Hank Rearden to the hero of The Fountainhead: Howard Roark.  In one particularly disturbing scene of this episode, Don spends his Thanksgiving with a woman we can presume is not just a prostitute, but a regular—and what he likes, it seems, is her to slap his face as hard as she can (all right, all right: cue jokes about Ayn Rand’s violent sex scenes).  This seem to indicate a self-loathing similar to Rearden’s when he first sleeps with Dagny Taggart: the morning after, Rearden goes on a long tirade about what terrible people they both are, and all the more terrible for not caring about the fact that he’s married and by all social conventions they’re acting immorally.  Who is Don Draper?  He doesn’t answer, because for all his success in work—he’s not proud of himself, because he’s unable to live up to society’s expectations of a husband.

By the end of the episode, however, Draper has his Howard Roark moment.  When a prudish bathing suit company balks at his ad campaign (But it’s not a bikini, Don!), he won’t have it anymore and storms out of the “conference room”—sans table, of course.  And while Peter Campbell tries to sweet talk the clients into giving the volatile artist a little time to come around, Don storms right back in and comes pretty close to physically throwing the two “choir boys” out of the building.  This is a lot like Howard Roark the architect—a creative director of sorts, himself, who refuses to take commissions from clients who compromise his vision.

The turnaround may come in part, I think, from his divorce.  Although it was Betty leaving him and not the other way around, Don no longer has to play the social game he did before—at least at home—and he’s finally ready to be just as uncompromising in his work.  Hence the final scene, the complete opposite of the first: when a new reporter (this one from the WSJ) asks which name in Sterling Cooper Draper Price defines the firm, Don takes ownership of his identity.  And that’s totally new, considering that, for the last three seasons, he’s been wrestling with the fact that it isn’t his.  It may be symbolic that we didn’t have a single Dick Whitman flashback this entire episode.  His final interview shows that new confidence—and willingness to talk about himself and his genius.

Peggy Olson, Dagny Taggart, and the new Eddie Willers

Last year I was inclined to compare Peggy to Eddie Willers, the faithful sidekick of Atlas Shrugged’s unflappable female executive, Dagny Taggart.  But Peggy’s moved up in the world—in the season 3 finale, she called Don on his expectation that she just up and follow him “like a sick poodle.”  Don replied thus: “I think of you as an extension of myself… but you’re not.”

It’s true.  Eddie Willers was, in a sense, an extension of Dagny—naïve, hard-working, omnicompetent, and unfailingly supportive.  But Peggy Olson in her new capacity as the head copywriter of SCDP is her own woman: independent, self-confident, and far better dressed (not to mention, the bangs are longer too).  The first time we see her in season four, after all, she’s sitting atop her desk, relaxed and self-assured, bantering with Peter her own sidekick Joey.

Who is this guy anyway?  And is he the same man who accompanies Peggy to Don’sapartment on turkey day?  In that introductory scene, I thought for a moment he was Smitty.  But this is a new season, taking a place a year after the season 3 finale, and there have been some new hirings as well.  Joey’s a pleasant guy and literally runs to work when Peggy says “chop chop”; of course there’s that other man (or is he the same?  either way, it’s kind of disconcerting that he’s Alex Linus’s boyfriend Karl from LOST) who defends her when Don gets upset about a PR stunt gone awry and takes it out on Peggy.  Don doesn’t know who he is either—and gets the answer “I’m her fiancé… Mark.”  Neither may true, but Peggy seems content with his explanation that “it just slipped out.”  Ayn Rand fans might find that logical too, thinking back to Eddie’s not-so-secret love for Dagny.

Oh, and the new Peggy smokes like Dagny too.

Betty Draper (should I say Francis?) and Lillian Rearden

First of all, I don’t think Betty’s the evil scheme Don Draper’s wife is in Atlas Shrugged.  But there are some similarities, and don’t forget—Henry Francis’s mother, Betty’s new mother-in-law, notes that children are terrified of that “silly woman.”

Betty has, throughout the series, been everything the postwar culture expected of a woman: a perfect wife and mother, a perfect homemaker, prim and proper and perfectly coiffed.  Compare with Lillian, the impeccably-groomed wife resentful of her husband for pretty much the same reasons Betty left Don.  And because of this, the two women could get a lot of sympathy.  But Betty isn’t being completely reasonable herself: she wants that picture-perfect life but, because of this focus on the exterior, just ends up looking hollow herself.

Pete Campbell and Co: Not Peter Keating, anyway

Peter the rich kid with a sense of entitlement and a knack for climbing the social ladder didn’t make an appearance in this first episode of season 4.  Oh he’s still the charming, consummate account man, but he’s sloughed off the envy for Don Draper that most made him like The Fountainhead’s slimy Peter Keating.

After the formation of SCDP, everyone in the firm became a self-made man—earning them some major Ayn Rand points.  And no one’s flourishing more than Peter Campbell, who at one point in the episode actually sold the new firm to Don: “We’re the scrappy upstart!” he says, actually delighting in their independence and slightly disreputable image (apparently, having no conference table is a big deal in the 1960s ad agency world).  It’s the American ideal, pioneering and making something new, and now it’s not just Don embodying that sentiment.  Not even Harry Crane crumbles under Don’s loss of his hard-earned Los Angeles account—“Fix it!” he demands, the most assertive two words he’s ever said.

So it’s looking up for Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and so far it’s Ayn Rand protagonists all around.  But even Howard Roark falls on hard times, and we’ll see who spirals downward this season.  As Don said, after all, “They raise you up, and they knock you down.”

But until then, let the Ayn Rand fanfiction continue.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction? (book review: Anthem)

3 Jul

Ayn Rand’s name was everywhere a couple months ago, when Tea Partiers started brandishing “Who is John Galt?” signs to protest increasing government intervention in the economy.  It’s a reference to her magnum opus, Atlas Shugged, the 1,200 page economic epic of railroads, utopia, and a collapsing welfare state.  Add some of the passionate sex scenes Rand’s (in)famous for (see: The Fountainhead), and you’ve got a bestseller.

Interestingly, in the midst of our own economic downward spiral and government bailout fad, 2009 was Atlas Shrugged’s best year in sales—ever—which is pretty impressive considering it was published in 1957.  Right now, it’s #1 in Literature/Classics on Amazon.  Or in other words, Dagny Taggart just pwned Elizabeth Bennet.

But a decade before Atlas Shrugged hit the shelves, Ayn Rand wasn’t writing charged political thrillers or 60-page radio speeches.  She was writing science fiction.

De-individuation is the most horrible future novelists and television producers have given us.  We recognize that.  We hate Big Brother and we hate the Borg.  We want them destroyed!  Nobody, after all, likes a Hive Mind.

Anthem (1946) tackles this dystopian nightmare in an elegant 75 pages, three years before Orwell and decades before Star Trek.

Equality 7-2521 is a man struggling against a completely collectivized society—to the point that the word “I” has disappeared completely from the vocabulary (which makes the first-person narrative… plural, and unique).  Anthem is the story of the discovery of his individuality—and an anthem (see what I did there?) to the value and power of the human mind, human creativity, and, well, the human.

It’s classic Ayn Rand philosophy in a short, highly readable format that’ll stick with you.  For Ayn Rand newbies, it’s a great introduction to her ideas (take it from last year’s Ayn Rand Institute intern).  For veteran readers of her more famous fiction and nonfiction, Anthem shows a different, more innovative side to her writing that might be refreshing after spending a month or two (or three… four…) on Atlas Shrugged.

Verdict? A one-afternoon read, and well worth the time.  Makes me wonder what the genre would be like if she had kept writing science fiction… somewhere in the multiverse, Ayn Rand’s having drinks with Isaac Asimov.  I’m sure of it.

Anthem can be downloaded wirelessly and completely free at Amazon.

Anarchy on the Internet (and why it’s good)

24 Nov

Everyone knows that middle-aged sexual predators lurk in chatrooms, posing as insecure tweens looking for a friend; or friend other insecure tweens on MySpace; or that if you don’t lock up your wireless network tight, terrorists are going to tap into it and turn your naivete into massive-scale crime; or that that email with the suspicious subject line is a virus that’s going to delete all your files (even if you do have a Mac); and that if you don’t forward this message of holiday cheer to 42 people by midnight, an axe murderer will sneak into your room at 3 am and— ZZSWAR9ARG7Z

You get the point.  There are dangers hiding behind every hyperlink.

I don’t mean to be flippant (no, that’s a lie; I do, but it’s strictly rhetorical)—the Internet can be a scary place, and scary people use it.  I’m all for parental controls and spam queues.  What I’m not for is the underlying premise beneath Internet fear-mongering—because it’s not always just “Stranger Danger.”

Some of the outcry against danger (or obscenity, or perversion, etc, et al) comes with a call to action that frightens me more than any technological boogeyman—if the Internet is dangerous because it’s so open, because anyone can do, really, anything, why not regulate?

In 1993, SF author Bruce Sterling (“Junk DNA,” remember?) wrote an article called “A Short History of the Internet,” which you can find in its entirely online, and which I highly recommend.  For my part, I’ll focus on just a few key facts, some of the points from the reading assignment for today’s American Studies lecture on “The Internet Revolution.”  So:

1. The very openness and decentralization of the Internet that makes it “dangerous” was built into its most basic structure—from the perspective of a Cold War scientist, you see, a communication network would have to be as decentralized as possible in order to still function after a nuclear holocaust wiped out God-knew-where in the United States.  With this in mind, the less authority—the better (sounds strange for a military-government program, doesn’t it?).

2. And after decades of evolution, that’s what we still have: no authority.  Sterling asks:

Why do people want to be “on the Internet?”  One of the main reasons is  simple freedom.   The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional  anarchy.   There is no “Internet Inc.”   There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders.  In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political.

Sixteen years after those words hit shelves in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and that’s still true: it’s simple science fact, and no less amazing for it.

Online, you are what you type, upload, or post—identities are fluid.  It’s true that might mean a fifty-year-old man staring at a glowing screen in his basement could pretend to be a junior high girl on a some Edward Cullen fan site, but it also means that young Peter Wiggin can blog and be seen by the world as an elder statesman.

It’s freedom to be creative without the stigma of age, sex, race, or anything else that might lead someone to prejudge you before looking at your work or ideas: online, you are your ideas.

Blogger and SF writer Cory Doctorow’s name (which I feel I mention every other post) is almost synonymous with Internet freedom.  Publishing his novels under a Creative Commons license for free distribution online (DRM-free, I might add), Doctorow could almost be a character from one of his own books—Alan/Adam/Albert/Avi, for example, from Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, spends the time he’s not brooding about his troubled childhood as the eldest son of a mountain and a washing machine, setting up a free, open, wireless network for the people of his local town.

(I did say almost a character.)  In any case, he practices what he preaches, and in all his books shows just how cool our world is.  I’m going to have to quote Makers again– we’re living in the “weirdest and best time” in the history of the world.  Witness the astonishing success of modern anarchy:

“No one needed to draw a map of the Web,” Kurt said, “It just grew and people found its weird corners on their own.  Networks don’t need centralized authority, that’s just the chains on your mind talking.”

I have to give my professor credit—revolution was a good title for the lecture.  Even after our first Revolution, observers (read: Alexis de Tocqueville) noticed a tension in American society between liberty and equality, freedom and democracy.  Oftentimes, they clash (see any debate on social welfare programs—the object is equality of outcome, but at the expense of freedom to use and dispose of one’s property, money).

But no political arguments in this post about liberty and equality: the anarchy of the Internet is one of the only places where you don’t really have to choose.

Cory Doctorow’s Makers predicts the present

10 Nov

I finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel last Sunday, at a commercial break during the season finale of Mad Men.  Notable for portraying a Don Draper losing his cool, one scene has the frustrated ad man shouting:

“I want to work!  I want to build something of my own.”

In the context of having just read Makers, that’s a telling line.  But I’ll explain—

Twice the size of Eastern Standard Tribe and absolutely dwarfing his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Makers is an epic of economics, technology, corporate psychopaths, and people who “just want to make things.”  It isn’t Homer, but there’s definitely something Greek about the fates of a number of central characters—fatal flaws, tragic irony, all that—and by the time I logged out of Preview and filed Makers away on my desktop with the other PDF copies of Doctorow’s books, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, but I was sure that Doctorow had succeeded in capturing and articulating something significant in the culture.

Here’s why:

Makers tells the story of the birth and untimely death of an economic movement reporter/blogger (and initial protagonist) Suzanne Church calls the “New Work,” aimed at turning ancient, lumbering “dinocorps” into flexible teams of innovators.  In the words of Tjan, one of the “suits” who works with the original New Work team of Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks (an eccentric pair of hacker-inventors who act more like an old married couple than a business partnership), the purpose of the New Work is this:

“We’re going to create a new class of artisans who can change careers every 10 months, inventing new jobs that hadn’t been imagined a year before.”

And when reporter Suzanne questions the stability of that sort of system, he argues passionately for his idea—

“That’s a functional market,” he insists, going on to deliver a free market sermon that made me want to stand and applaud:

“If you want to make a big profit, you’ve got to start over again, invent something new, and milk it for all you can before the first imitator shows up. The more this happens, the cheaper and better everything gets. It’s how we got here, you see. It’s what the system is for. We’re approaching a kind of pure and perfect state now, with competition and invention getting easier and easier—it’s producing a kind of superabundance that’s amazing to watch. My kids just surf it, make themselves over every six months, learn a new interface, a new entertainment, you name it. Change-surfers…”

It doesn’t sound like stereotypical science fiction—alien invasion, cyborgs, and omnipresent governments of a nightmarish dystopia.  It’s our world, the world today, with bloggers outstripping traditional print papers and corporate bureaucracy doing its best to smother fluid, mobile models of small groups of innovators under the weight of its own inertia.  It’s at once the “weirdest and best time the world has yet seen.”

But Dickens and faux-Chinese proverbs will have out—if it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and everyone knows that to live in interesting times is a curse.

That’s something Doctorow’s characters learn the hard way.

For the sake of saving the plot for the readers, I’ll just say this: the brilliant whirlwind of creativity we find in Part I isn’t the end—Parts II and III take us from this dizzying height to a doldrums of frustration and stagnation.

It’s what our high school English teachers would call a “chiasmus,” a crossing of paths or slopes or fate lines, with characters selling-out or buying in or suing or countersuing each other so fast that I can’t tell who to root for anymore.

But if one thing is clear, it’s this:

The title of the novel could apply to literally every character in the story, all of whom express at some point or another a deep desire to make/do/create.  But their hands are tied by red tape, or they’re strangled by lawsuits, or their fate lines are snipped off with the shears of the bureaucratic Atropos: inertia.

“All he wanted was to have good ideas and make them happen,” Doctorow writes of Sammy Page, a Disney dinocorps executive trapped by the rigid structure of the company.  “Basically, he wanted to be Lester.”

But the politics engulfing Lester’s once-happy life as an inventor selling his creations on eBay make it so that even Lester can’t “be Lester”: “Why couldn’t he just make stuff and do stuff? Why did it always have to turn into a plan for world domination?” he thinks.

Sound something like Don Draper?  (or maybe Howard Roark?)

Cory Doctorow writes on his blog that his science fiction represents “radical presentism,” a prediction of the present rather than the future—meaning that in Makers it’s our world today he’s looking at, probably the reason the novel’s so unnerving.  Doctorow creates a cognate of modern America, a place in a frenzy of invention and creativity—until the idealism dies.  The tragedy is that the frustrated desire to just make stuff doesn’t die along with it.

AMC, at least, is catching on to the cultural drift—if a little after Doctorow—and I have to say, the Mad Men finale is a bit more optimistic than the fifteen-years-later epilogue of Doctorow’s epic.  The smaller, more flexible new agency of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, after all, is staffed completely by makers.

“Losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying”

2 Sep

When it comes to the Borg Collective, not all will be assimilated.

No one knows that better than Captain Jean-Luc Picard (aka Locutus of Borg).  I’m pretty sure no one has revealed the true futility of assimilation better than Picard, who managed to escape and regain his individual identity.

Of course, there are other reasons Picard is the greatest of all Star Trek captains (he can quote pretty much every work by Shakespeare, in its entirety, off the top of his head… and to quote the Picard vs. Kirk page of the eminent Uncyclopedia, which is much more reliable than Wikipedia, I assure you: “To which captain would you entrust the safety of your daughter?”)– but this ability to regain his sense of self after assimilation is probably the foremost.    And until Hugh, he was the only one who could make that claim.

I’d never seen the Star Trek: TNG episode “I, Borg” until I watched a rerun yesterday night– the basic plot amounts to this: a wounded member of the Borg is discovered on an otherwise uninhabited planet, its spacecraft having crashed and killed all of the other members of the Collective inside.  The crew saves him, takes him back to the ship, and plans to “infect” him with what is essentially a computer virus—when he, designate “third of five,” is reabsorbed, the virus will infect the entire Borg (and hopefully destroy it). 

That’s the plan, at least, until members of the crew begin to grow attached to Third of Five, who wants a name (they call him “Hugh,” derived from “you”), discovers that his feeling of isolation is loneliness, and grows very attached himself to Geordi, a friend rather than fellow arm of the Collective.  Even a skeptical Whoopi Goldberg is convinced of his, for lack of a better word, humanity.  Picard, however, is adamant that the plan must continue.  He does agree, however, to meet with “Hugh” face to face and test his supposed growing individuality.

Maybe it’s just because it was very late at night, but I was incredibly moved by this scene, and thrilled that I had unexpectedly stumbled onto an example of popular culture which so overtly celebrates individualism.

Not only that—it celebrates egoism.

Egoism is defined as: “an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”  It’s most prominent contemporary proponent has been, of course, Ayn Rand, who firmly believed that “Man is an end in himself.”  You have value as an individual, not as a member of any “Borg Collective.”

“I, Borg” parallels Ayn Rand’s Anthem rather closely in this respect—as Prometheus’s “eureka moment” is his discovery of the word “I” (he had, like Hugh, previously been using “we” and “us” exclusively), Hugh’s use of the singular first person pronoun is an epiphany for himself—and proof to Picard that he is not Borg after all.

Hugh’s new vocabulary is a signal of his similarly new egoism—he realizes that people have the right to make their own choices, and in their own interests, and not be sacrificed to any greater good.  Example: Picard insists that even Geordi must be assimilated, and Hugh responds, confused, “He does not wish it.  He would rather die than be assimilated!”

Earlier in the program, Geordi had made the comment that “losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying,” and he’s absolutely right.  Why is the Borg the most frightening enemy in all the Star Trek universe?  Why does the Borg strike such a chord of horror in viewers?  It doesn’t kill; it doesn’t torture; and it claims to be doing what is best for all life forms.  And still, the Borg Collective sends a shiver down our spines.

It’s because it’s close to home.

Okay, so technically it’s way out in space, but the parallels to modern politics and culture are readily apparent.  Star Trek: The Next Generation was developed in 1987—the Borg is easily the futuristic, alien specter of the Soviet Union.  Geordi’s comment about assimilation being worse than death, after all, has much in common with another anti-Communist novel: George Orwell’s 1984.

[Spoilers below]

When I first read the book in high school, I thought that the scene with the cage and the rats and poor poor Winston’s very exposed eyeballs was as bad as it could get— there’d bee a quite dramatic build-up to “Room 101,” after all.  It was supposed to be the place where your worst fears, your worst nightmares, became real.  And yet, that wasn’t the end.  That wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, torture and death.  After all his resistance and insistence that whatever the Party could do, they couldn’t touch his mind and his sense of self, the last line of the novel was:

“He loved Big Brother.”

The ending of “I, Borg” is no less horrific, and for the same reasons.  In this case, the viewer is left without knowing whether Hugh is absorbed successfully into the Borg or manages to “infect” the Collective with his newfound individual identity.  He says: “Captain… I do not wish to forget that I am Hugh.”

De-individuation is the most horrible future novelists and television producers have given us.  We recognize that.  We hate Big Brother and we hate the Borg.  We want them destroyed!  Nobody, after all, likes a Hive Mind.

So why do we accept it in politics, culture, and society?  Modern culture gives us the ethos of self-sacrifice—your money should be commandeered to help someone else; what you want isn’t important when compared to what everyone else needs; the “common good” comes before your individual good; and of course, the government knows what’s best.

I very much hope that we get to the point where our future compares with that of Captain Picard and his crew, who have a system of values which not only tolerates but celebrates the word “I.”

In the words of Hugh: “Resistance is not futile.”

I’m rooting for the Mad Capitalist Who Went Too Far

30 Aug

Edelman’s political leanings are commendable—his characters’ operational definitions… not so much.

David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy has been my reading matter of choice this last month, and all in all I have very little to complain about.  Edelman’s megalomaniacal protagonist Natch (“the Mad Capitalist Who Went Too Far”) is almost Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike, if Steerpike had been born into a similarly upwardly mobile, free market society (hey, it’s no coincidence Edelman wrote the introduction to Peake’s Titus Alone).  Of course, that’s only Natch in Infoquake—by the time MultiReal comes around, with Natch hiding out in a secret enclave of business leaders who have been mysteriously dropping out of society lately because they’re fomenting a “revolution of selfishness” (I’m sorry… what book am I reading again?) and in possession of a technology which pretty much makes him the Kwisatz Haderach, the reader is left wondering just how Frank Herbert and Ayn Rand managed to enter the picture unseen.

Not that you can really go wrong with Mervyn Peake, Frank Herbert, and Ayn Rand.  In fact, this synthesis might just make Jump 225 my new favorite science fiction series… not that I even really know what Jump 225 is yet.

What does go wrong is in the line of political commentary.

Edelman’s world is a place of constant conflict between two factions: Libertarians who support decentralized government, and Governmentalists who believe in a strong centralized government.

On the libertarian side we have Natch, whose business ethics aren’t exactly commendable; in the governmentalist corner there’s the Defense and Wellness Council, circa 1984.

As the conflict over expanding DWC power crystallizes in the fight over a new technology, MultiReal, Natch is pitted against all the powers and resources of the centralized government.  Without giving too much away… it’s pretty clear that Edelman’s sympathy lies with his central character.

No complaints about that.

What bothers me is the implication throughout that a free market, though it upholds individual rights, equals anarchy.

In a not-really-veiled-at-all reference to Ayn Rand, Edelman created the group Creed Thassel, which is dedicated to promoting individualism and “the virtue of selfishness.”  And yet, the definition of selfishness the Thasselian leader provides is horribly, horribly wrong.  He says:

“Margaret Surina called it freedom from cause and effect.  But only Kordez Thassel had the courage to call this freedom what it really is: selfishness.”

I know what you’re thinking—and no, Kordez Thassel is not the Merriam-Webster of Edelman’s world.  Meaning: we don’t have to accept his definition.  Selfishness is not freedom from cause and effect.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of that.

Selfishness is concern with your own interests.  That’s it.  And concern with your own interests means you can’t act without thinking, without regard for the consequences of these actions.  You have to plan long term.

Ayn Rand was the original proponent of a virtue of selfishness, not Kordez Thassel, and she made very clear that rational self-interest does not equal hedonism.  Desire to escape cause and effect is “whim-worshipping.”  And this, she wrote:

Is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.

Edelman’s Thasselians are exactly these sort of Nietzschean egoists.  It’s only irrational self-interest that desires an escape from cause and effect.

But I’m not too worried; the spokesman for Creed Thassel is not only irrational– he’s a thoroughly unsympathetic character.  Edelman has not made a creepy Creed bodhisattva the lone defender of selfishness: Natch is no Thasselian.

So I’m looking forward to Geosynchron for the resolution of this political dichotomy.  And I am also quite confident that the third installment in the trilogy will see Natch and his rather more rational self-interest justified.

I think.

Mad Men and Ayn Rand parallels

13 Aug

With “Man Men” coming back to air for Season 3 this Sunday, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the parallels between the AMC series’s characters and those in Ayn Rand’s fiction.  The eccentric Bertram Cooper, after all, spends most of his time on screen handing out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his employees.

Watch out for spoilers below, by the way:

Pete Campbell and Peter Keating

I started watching “Mad Men” online this last spring, and after a recent re-read of The Fountainhead, the similarities jumped right out.  Both men excel at using their youthful good looks and charm and/or personal connections to bring work to their respective firms (Campbell and the Clearasil account, for example, or Keating and… well… all of his commissions).  Campbell even tries to blackmail Don Draper about his false identity, in a misguided attempt to ascend to Creative Director himself.  Fortunately, Bertram Cooper doesn’t give a damn, and Campbell’s efforts are less successful than Keating’s foray into blackmail, in which he induces a stroke in Lucius Heyer, and so makes partner.

Moving on to his personal life—Campbell makes a Keating-like choice when he marries the wealthy, well-connected Trudy (and then admits to Peggy Olsen that he chose “the wrong girl”); Keating had the same motives and regrets when he chose Dominique Francon over Catherine Halsey.  Though, to her credit, Peggy seems to be a much stronger character that Katie… then again, she doesn’t have an Ellsworth Toohey breathing over her shoulder day in and day out.  Cue shudder.

Don Draper and Hank Rearden

I’ve heard a lot of discussion about this recently, and I’m inclined to agree that the comparison is apt—even his fellow AMC characters (Cooper, at least) agree.

Laconic and extremely good-looking, Draper, like Rearden, has what society would consider the ideal life and the perfect wife—two things he’s rather indifferent to.  But both are self-made businessmen with ignominous origins and incredible professional integrity.  Like Rearden, Draper painfully maintains the pretense of a good husband and provider, upholding the system and age of conformity he lives in—even when he gets no return in happiness or enjoyment from it.

Of course, what does seem to provide him some pleasure are his sundry extramarital affairs with (shocker) beautiful, driven, successful women.  Most notable is probably Rachel Menken, the head of a major Jewish department store, who insists on the same respect as any of Sterling Cooper’s clients even if she is a woman.  Compare with Rearden and Dagny Taggart’s affair, Dagny being “the beautiful woman who runs a transcontinental railroad,” demanding a similar respect in her line of work, also dominated by men.

Peggy Olsen and Eddie Willers

If Don Draper is Hank Rearden, then his former secretary Peggy would no doubt match up fairly well with Rearden’s omnicompetent secretary Gwen Ives.  Peggy, however, does not have a static career—

Somewhat naïve but unfailingly hard-working, Peggy reminds me more of one of my favorite characters in Atlas Shrugged: Eddie Willers, Dagny Taggart’s devoted assistant.  Like Eddie admires Dagny, Peggy clearly has very high regard for Draper.  And while their relationship is (like Eddie and Dagny’s) strictly platonic, Draper, notoriously secretive, seems to trust her more than anyone else in his office.  After all, Peggy was the one Don Draper called to bail him out of jail while he was being held on drunk driving charges.  Not that I think Dagny Taggart would drive drunk or anything…

 

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to the return of the series this weekend—no less because it looks to be, as Folly’s House of Mirth very wittily commented, something along the lines of Ayn Rand fanfiction.

“Benevolent Science Fiction”

20 Jul

Abroad, for a human being in an inhuman tyrannical social system, has a particular and rather radiant sort of definition.  In her article “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy,” Ayn Rand defines the word as conceptualized by a person in Soviet Russia:

“The meaning of the word for a Soviet citizen is incommunicable to anyone who has not lived in that country: if you project what you would feel for a combination of Atlantis, the Promised Land and the most glorious civilization on another planet, as imagined by a benevolent kind of science fiction, you will have a pale approximation.”

Abroad, as in Europe or the United States, is both a utopia (Atlantis) and the land of opportunity (the Promised Land).  But the reference I found most interesting was her connection of advanced technology or high culture not only to science fiction, but in particular a “benevolent” kind.

She’s right to imply that a kindly, optimistic science fiction is a lot less common than the darker variety.  Just a few examples: Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone is downright disturbing, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is about as pessimistic as you can get, and while Isaac Asimov may be less dark his Foundation series is undoubtedly creepy.  Not to mention that absolutely nothing Philip K. Dick writes is ever pleasant.

Admittedly, I don’t read much hard science fiction (I’m a Humanities major, for God’s sake)– but “soft” science fiction (which deals often with social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, anthropology, etc.) tends toward the distinctly dystopian.  Think 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451.  Paranthetically– Ayn Rand’s Anthem is a bit sci-fi itself, and not in the least “benevolent”… but then that’s the point, isn’t it?

In any case, science fiction which doesn’t involve human beings destroying the planet, the galaxy, the universe, the species, or alien species is a bit rare these days.  “Benevolent Science Fiction” would, on the other hand, present an optimistic vision of human ability and the future: freedom, not a security state, or technology as advancing the quality of life rather than enslaving its creators.

The Green Movement today tells us that industry and technology is killing the planet; that humans are hopelessly destructive and should be quarantined to their single globe and not cause any more damage.  Environmentalism isn’t, after all, opposed to pollution or killing baby seals– it’s opposed to technology.

Doubt me?  I was horrified a couple days ago to find a trailer for the upcoming documentary “No Impact Man” on the Apple Safari homepage.  I will not put the link to the trailer up here because it feel it would pollute my blog environment, but here is the description and summary provided:

“Author Colin Beavan, in research for his new book, began the No Impact Project in November 2006. A newly self-proclaimed environmentalist who could no longer avoid pointing the finger at himself, Colin leaves behind his liberal complacency for a vow to make as little environmental impact as possible for one year. No more automated transportation, no more electricity, no more non-local food, no more material consumption… no problem. That is, until his espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping wife Michelle and their two year-old daughter are dragged into the fray. Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s film provides a front row seat into the familial strains and strengthened bonds that result from Colin’s and Michelle’s struggle with this radical lifestyle change.

Welcome to the Dark Ages, friend.  (And with no electricity, that’s quite more literal than flippant on my part.)

But let’s think about this– is electricity evil simply because it makes an “impact” on the environment?  Even the earliest humans used natural resources for tools, or altered the environment with agriculture.  We can only survive by making an impact on the environment.

So if technology is evil, so is what makes it– the human mind.  This movie sounds like science fiction to me, and more specifically, the malevolent kind.

Modern culture is telling us that progress is evil, so today, on the National Space Society’s “Space Settlement Blog Day,” the idea of a benevolent view of science, technology, and the future seems both relevant and important.  Space colonization and settlement still sounds like science fiction to most people, even when we had men walking on the moon forty years ago.

And honestly– at the rate that some fields of technology are advancing, how does the accomplishment of half a century ago still stand as the summit?  Looks like technology-haters are getting what they want.

Even today, and even in the West, the idea of going abroad (this time from the planet) seems like an improbability (if not an impossibility).  It’s an idea pulled from a genre of benevolent science fiction– except, now, with technology the new bogeyman, there’s no such thing.

 

For more information on Exvironmentalism and how conservation and space colonization can mesh, I direct you to Dr. John Bossard’s blog, the Plasma Wind.  He has posted a copy of the keynote speech at a recent Exvironmentalist conference, where I was happily in attendance.

Dagny Taggart was Catholic

19 Jul

Some literary exegesis for you today, in honor of the dramatic increase in Atlas Shrugged sales this year.

Since I first read Atlas Shrugged, I found myself particularly (maybe inordinately) interested in the brief scenes from various characters’ childhoods– particularly those of Dagny, Eddie, and Francisco (and even Jim in this case, I guess, as much as that fact irritates me).  And one of the lines I like best is in the description of Dagny’s conception of “worship.”

“She never tried to explain why she liked the railroad.  Whatever it was that others felt, she knew that this was one emotion for which they had no equivalent and no response.  She felt the same emotion in school, in classes of mathematics, the only lessons she liked… a science that was so clean, so strict, so luminously rational.  Studying mathematics, she felt, quite simply: ‘How great that men have done this’ and ‘How wonderful that I’m so good at it.’  It was the joy of admiration and of one’s own ability, growing together.  Her feeling for the railroad was the same: worship of the skill that had gone to make it, of the ingenuity of someone’s clean, reasoning mind, worship with a secret smile that said she would know how to make it better some day.  She hung around the tracks and the round-houses like a humble student, but the humility had a touch of future pride, a pride to be earned.”

Clearly, Dagny’s sense of worship and humility, which includes pride in man’s ability and one’s own ability as integral, is a tad different from the traditional view that worship means self-abnegation and humility a sense of one’s own worthlessness.  Still, there’s religious imagery there: worship, humility, pride– even the word “luminous” conjures haloes or heavenly apparitions.

More explicitly, when Dagny passes the statue of good ol’ legislator-killing ancestor Nat Taggart in the concourse, she compares the room to a house of worship:

“She had always felt that the concourse looked like a temple.  Glancing up at the distant ceiling, she saw dim vaults supported by giant granite columns, and the tops of vast windows glazed by darkness.  The vaulting held the solemn peace of a cathedral…”

And then, of the statue itself:

“To look at that statue whenever she crossed the concourse, was the only form of prayer she knew.”

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but if she had always considered the concourse similar in atmosphere to a church, or what a church ought to be, (and remember that Dagny was barely into double digits when she informed Eddie Willers that she would run the railroad some day– the kid was undoubtedly familiar with the concourse even then) it seems logical that Dagny would also have a familiarity with temples or cathedrals from a young age.  (Cathedrals, by the way, are pretty distinctly Catholic– as are stained-glass windows.)

The diction is important too– Dagny had always felt the concourse looked like a temple, but Rand does not write that she had also always considered her admiration for Nat Taggart to be prayer.  When referring to the statue, Rand writes of Dagny that it was the only form of prayer she knew, not had ever known.  Another indicator that the Taggart children had a religious upbringing.

And now into the apocrypha–

The 35th anniversary edition of the book (the copy I happily have) includes an introduction of sorts by Dr. Leonard Peikoff.  He includes a number of enlightening passages from Ayn Rand’s notes on the book, one of which mentions a character she ultimately cut from the final version of the story: “Father Amadeus.”

Father Amadeus, Peikoff comments, “was [Jim] Taggart’s priest, to whom he confessed his sins.  The priest was supposed to be a positive character, honestly devoted to the good but practicing consistently the morality of altruism.  Miss Rand dropped him… when she found that it was impossible to make such a character convincing.”

Many (most?) Protestant denominations neither use the term “priest” for the reverends/ministers/pastors nor recognize the sacrament of Reconciliation (absolution of sins with a clergyman as intermediary) as valid.  This is pretty strong evidence that Jim Taggart, at least, was (originally intended to be) not only a religious man but a practicing Catholic– and a pretty good practicing Catholic at that, if his confessor was to be a character with a name, backstory, and all the trimmings. 

Now I can see an evasive, tormented, guilt-ridden man like Jim Taggart turning to religion as a means of comfort or something to grasp onto, but it’s also plausible that he was born into the religion and carried it through to adulthood.  And if he was raised in a Catholic family, judging from Rand’s non-fiction discussion of Catholic doctrine in “Requiem for Man” and “Of Living Death” (and of the doctrine of Original Sin as well), it’s not only possible but probable that Jim’s sense of his own worthlessness was compounded by adherence to beliefs which taught him that humans are innately evil and helpless.

So here’s the thing– I happen to hold the unorthodox opinion that fictional characters have lives outside of the plots of their books (maybe even lives their authors don’t know about) and so am personally convinced that Jim Taggart was a practicing Catholic throughout the novel (now there’s a scary thought).

And if he was raised in the Church as a child, then it’s almost certain that his sister was as well, if only for a very short time.

 

Quotes from Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand