After going many years not having read Ayn Rand, I am increasingly convinced that the degree to which you are able to enjoy her as a writer depends a lot on your overall receptivity to what she is laying down philosophically.
While I can appreciate that folks find the single minded and self-righteous implacability of her worldview repellant and impossibly self-centered, I have concluded that these criticisms are both right and wrong.
Thematically, this book is exactly what I expected. It portrays a future society in which the will of the individual has been completely subjugated by the will of the collective. The protagonist eventually escapes from society and reclaims his individuality and as a result, makes some revelatory pronouncements which certainly validate the view that Ayn Rand is a one dimensional harpy dispensing scorn and condemnation toward all collectivist impulses and sentiments. Love and respect is to be earned and not freely given. The pursuit of achievement is its own end and whether or not it is of any benefit to mankind is not the point. “We” can only be invoked voluntarily and if invoked in the context of political power or social activism is corrupt and evil. And so on.
On this front, the critics and haters are correct. As Whittaker Chambers so eloquently put it in his 1957 National Review piece, it’s the tone that dominates and the words are shouting us down. It’s clear that Ayn Rand wanted this book to carry the weight of a Biblical parable. The protagonist claims the name Prometheus and his invention is a light bulb. Despite her claims of atheism, Anthem seems very explicitly gnostic. Both the character and his invention literally bring the light of illumination to the enslaved masses. Rand undoubtedly sought to impart a religious certainty of the validity and veracity of her revelations to the reader.
With a worldview so rigid, the laws of physics take hold and the caustic, inverse reaction is inevitable. How could anyone really hold such a narrow view of the world and regard that as unassailable Truth?!
There are many possible lenses through which to view people and the world around us which are seemingly unaddressed by the Randian view. There are some people for whom voluntary charity and giving is a genuine expression of themselves. Some derive great satisfaction from knowing that their contributions are making a material difference to others. Some are edified and filled with joy by freely expressing love to others regardless of whether it is earned. Some are willing to place trust and faith in others to find their own self direction instead of relating out of the default assumption they are looters. The key of course being whether or not these actions are taken voluntarily versus being carried out by a state bureaucrat.
The punch line, however, is that Ayn Rand didn’t care about the haters. She wrote what she wrote and if you don’t like it, move on.
Where the critics and haters are wrong is simply a failure to fully appreciate the importance of individualism and self-interest. The key to happiness and self-fulfillment lies within each individual. You are your own best guide for navigating the challenges which life presents. Even if there have been worthy achievements made by the State, the placement of too much faith in the power of the State to rectify social ills is misguided and potentially toxic. I agree wholeheartedly that the freedom of the individual has lit the flame of progress for humanity throughout the ages and there are passages in this book which testify to the spirit of individualism and burn with a righteous fire.
Anthem is both a worthwhile read and a completely worthwhile addition to the dystopian SF canon.
And hey, just remember this. Any book which inspired Rush’s 2112 can’t be all bad.