The second installment of the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is out now, which is sparking renewed interest in the late author’s works. In one on-line forum, someone brought up her novella, Anthem. As in George Lucas’ THX-1138, or William F. Nolan’s Logan’s Run, the average citizen is reduced to a number.
I find that rather unrealistic.
Dystopian novels where everyone is reduced to a number, and the concept of the individual ceases to exist bother me on a number of levels. First, it flies in the face of human psychology and reproductive strategy. Second, it implies that the founders of that society, and a plurality, if not majority of that society’s first generation were more than willing to go along with those leaders in no longer answering to their given names but to accept a non-individual identity. This also flies in the face of human psychology. While I can understand the desire of most societies to exist under a strong alpha male (we are, after all, glorified monkeys), the beta through omega males want some recognition and a shot at passing their genes on. Successful societies play on these desires to achieve their goals. Thus they regularly recognize individual accomplishments in an effort to inspire others to work toward advancing society materially or morally.
North Korea is probably the most dystopian society on the planet, in the history of the world. And yet, the North Koreans have individual names, and they reward exemplary effort. They have to, because otherwise the people who make up that society will lose faith in its leadership and try something else.
I used to have arguments with people online about the nature of the Soviet Union. The common belief there was of a police state where everyone lived in fear of disappearing. I kept pointing out that it requires human beings to maintain such a society, and they’re not likely to be very effective if they’re always worried they might run afoul of the powers that be. I also pointed out there were scads of Russians who longed for the days of Stalin. If they all lived in fear of their lives, why would they want a return to that?
Orwell’s dystopia (1984) made no sense to me. Even its leadership was subject to disappearing — though it was never mentioned who the person making these decisions was. Someone would have to operate without fear of retribution — and he would have to have a number of trusted flunkies who felt the same way. And there would have had to be enough people in that world who believed everything was just hunky-dory or the whole system would collapse. Remember, even if they tried to eradicate the concept of revolt against the system, someone would have to understand that concept to root it out in other citizens, and that person could not be alone as he would need help in a society of millions.
Rand’s dystopias strike me the same way. They are unrealistic and therefore do not make sense to a rational reader. Neither she, nor Orwell, nor half a dozen science fiction writers (Ursula LeGuin and Anne McCaffrey, I’m looking at you) really understands human nature enough to create a decent dystopian society.