Category Archives: dystopian

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

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Who is John Galt?

This is the mystery at the center of Ayn Rand’s 1957 brilliant, controversial but flawed magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Since Rand and her work remain deeply polarizing, I hope those of you who have already made up your minds about Rand will persevere with this post and hear me out.  Especially those of you who haven’t read her work, but have formulated opinions based solely on the actions or words of individuals who champion her work or hit pieces from the progressive media.

Despite the seemingly ceaseless parade of straw men from the writers at Salon, AlterNet and every other cesspool of progressive dross who attempt to prove otherwise, Atlas Shrugged is prophetic and radical on every level. It is perhaps more radical and relevant now than it was in its day, but mostly, because she’s asking the reader to empathize with heroes who are generally regarded as objects of revulsion and contempt. Individuals who, according to broad swaths of the population, need to be regulated, taxed, supervised and preferably, jailed. Individuals who, according to prevailing modern progressive mindset, are despoiling the earth, exploiting the worker and hoarding the wealth of the world.  These heroes are, of course, industrial magnates.

Atlas Shrugged is set in post-WW2 America, but it’s an America that never existed. It’s a mythological, dieselpunk retro-futuristic dystopian America. In this respect, Atlas Shrugged is properly understood as a work of dystopian science fiction. It is essentially a story of two industry leaders who are driven by a deep sense of purpose, but are thwarted by political apparatchiks, bureaucrats and would-be do-gooders whose greed, envy and narcissism are wrapped in pretensions of altruism of every stripe. As they proceed, other producers are mysteriously dropping out of society, and our heroes set out to unravel the mystery while the slow stranglehold of bureaucracy chokes progress all around them. Needless to say, it’s also an extended philosophical treatise on Objectivism which spells out Rand’s views on morality, ethics, the role of the State, and the rights of the individual. Rand does not suffer a shortage of critics of her writing or her worldview, and to be honest, a few of these criticisms have merit, but none detract from the towering achievement of this novel.

Rand’s first radical choice was making the heroes of the story captains of heavy industry. Though there are doubtless examples of railway and metallurgical innovation to be found, viewing the steel manufacturing and railway industry as dynamic fields of innovation was itself a leap of imagination. As the novel begins, Rand sets up an industry not yet completely captured by labor and regulation. She tacitly asks you to dispel the idea of the cartelized half-public/half-private industry that presently exists in America. As Amtrak proves itself a compost heap of mediocrity and inertia in the real world, Rand asks the reader to imagine steel and railways through the eyes of an Elon Musk-type mindset and builds the drama around the slowly accumulating regulatory death spiral.

As the title suggests, she also made these heroes movers of the world; titans of business which undergird modern society, and without which modern society could not function. Since the very notion of “capitalism” is presently so deeply tied to banking, high finance or software development, Rand grounds the novel with characters who make physical objects and must themselves literally move the earth in order to realize their plans.

This is an Ayn Rand novel, so naturally, our heroes are beset by the forces of collectivism and state authority at every turn. Just as she did in The Fountainhead, Rand rolls out her cannons of contempt and fires volley after volley at the ramparts of academic royalism, media pusillanimity and government bureaucracy. The regulatory state, economic planning, academic postmodernism, and state sponsored science are among her many targets. She reserves much of her heavy artillery for the statist orthodoxy of scientism and its attendant effects on social activism in order to illustrate the pernicious influence it breeds in academics, labor unions, lobbyists and social justice warriors.

Atlas Shrugged is an epic novel with a host of characters and subplots, but the main storyline centers around two characters: railroad heiress Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Hank Rearden. The heroes are eventually united with the mysterious John Galt and all of the dissident producers who dropped out of society to join the productive utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Hank Rearden is the steel industrialist and a classically Randian heroic archetype. When we are introduced to Rearden, he is portrayed as an elemental force; a portrait of grim stolidity whose iron will was forged in the same molten furnace that makes the steel beams he sells. In a subsequent scene, we’re introduced to his family and close associates. As each character is introduced, Rand is showing how each preys on Rearden’s spirit and goodwill in different ways and is laying out the themes and dramatic conflicts that will unfold throughout the remainder of the book.

I found Rand’s portrait of Rearden family life incisive and resonant. Rand shows how Hank feels like a stranger within his own family while exposing the how family members use guilt to extract obedience. Rearden’s mother criticizes him for being too consumed by his business and wishes he’d show more humility, but he’s annoyed that she seems unwilling to recognize how much he loves his work and the dedication he brings to it.  His wife wants a rich social life and wants him to be as interested as she is in the appearances of success. She affects a posture of progressive virtue and enlightened cosmopolitanism, but he simply can’t be bothered. His brother Philip is also a progressive and what would be referred to in today’s parlance as a social justice warrior. He’s annoying, predatory, miserable and ungrateful.  Even when Hank gives him exactly what he asks for and wishes him happiness, he remains an ungrateful cunt. All of the manipulations and machinations which surface in Hank’s family dynamic are a microcosm of the the phenomena each hero experiences as the novel progresses.

Though I understand why feminists in general are put off by Rand, I still can’t help but to find it deeply ironic. Dagny Taggart is the female badass that feminists seem to revere and she’s infinitely more believable than Katniss EverdeenImperator Furiosa or any of the many ass kicking would-be archetypes that are de rigueur nowadays. Rand made an extremely radical choice by making Dagny a railroad magnate. The feminist power fantasy heroine that’s commonplace nowadays emphasizes physical strength wildly disproportionate to body size, combat capabilities obtained without training, superhuman scientific expertise or all three (looking at you Rey). By contrast, Dagny Taggart has the courage of her convictions and willpower. She climbs through the ranks of Taggart Transcontinental on pure ambition, skill and work. She doesn’t rely on affirmative action, global feminist PR campaigns, sexual favors, nepotism or any other form of special pleading. Not only does Dagny face down the sexist attitudes that surround her with work and results, the attitudes Rand invokes feel appropriate for the time period and the industry. Unsurprisingly, contemporary feminists seem intent on promoting the idea that 50’s era attitudes are not only normal, but more widespread than ever. While this does seem to be the case for progressive politicians and celebrities, feminists continue to crusade against words and the slightest perceived transgression against womanhood. Rand gives us a heroine who seeks only to be judged by her skills and her achievement.  If only feminists would pay attention.

Through Dagny Taggart, Rand presents a refreshingly adult view of female sexuality and consent which stands in stark contrast to the neo-Victorian victimology of contemporary feminism. Rand knows that when a woman wants sex from a man, it’s not necessary for him to ask for consent at each juncture. An adult woman doesn’t demand that a man she truly wants comply with a set of consent rules imposed by government bureaucrats, feminist activists and academic elitists. Contrary to the contemporary feminists who shamelessly flog rape statistics as a psychological truncheon in order to extract compliance, shame and obedience from men, Rand emphasizes the pleasure Dagny gets from sex. Rand gives us an adult woman with full sexual agency uninhibited by religious or secular Puritanism. Feminists, on the other hand, seem intent on presenting themselves as hapless victims of a predatory patriarchy. It’s strange that feminists are the ones squashing the idea that women actively seek sexual congress and companionship while ignoring that women are always the gatekeepers of sex in a normal, healthy relationship.

Contemporary feminists also insist on rehashing the seemingly deathless talking point of an alleged stigma that’s applied towards women who have active sex lives. Rand gives us a character who simply has no fucks to give around what anyone has to say about her sex life.  On a related note, Rand is also remarkably dismissive of monogamy. She sees no moral transgression in the extramarital liaison between Dagny and Hank. It is an aspect of her worldview that sets her apart from traditional conservatives and on which the libertine wing of the Left has been strangely silent. There is more than a faint air of wish fulfillment to Dagny’s amorous associations throughout the book. Is Ayn Rand injecting her own fantasies into the novel by making Dagny the savior of civilization who gets to bang the three most powerful industrialists in the world? It’s not an unreasonable guess.

I suspect that there a couple things about Rand that really get feminist panties in a twist. First, is that she portrays feminine bliss and joy as full submission to a man. For all of Dagny’s strength and independence, Rand is pretty explicit about her willingness to submit completely to Rearden and Galt. Secondly, she’s unafraid to portray female predation, vindictiveness and pathology. Rand is unsparing in portraying Lillian Rearden as vampiric and toxic influence on Hank. That kind of emotional honesty certainly doesn’t square with a worldview which casts feminists as saints who are exempt from any kind of moral judgment.

Repeating a theme of The Fountainhead, but taking it to a whole new level, Rand sharpens her critique of academic postmodernism and the elitism and nihilism it breeds. Of the many themes in Atlas Shrugged which have only accumulated in strength and relevance, this one is certainly near the top. Behind the scenes of today’s social justice activism is a years long indoctrination campaign which prioritizes social pseudoscience, cultural Marxism, nihilism and self-negation over principles of individualism, productive work, and liberty. These forces conspire to derail the heroes and infect the thought of thought of everyone who surrounds them.

Upon completion of the John Galt Line, Jim Taggart is completely unable to take pride in the achievement. Wallowing in his pointless and narcissistic self-flagellation, he befriends a young cashier and future wife, Cherryl Brooks, for the exclusive purpose of flailing at the void and whinging over the great emptiness of it all. She indulges his pretentious blathering and condescending attitude with aplomb and grace, but it’s a foreshadowing of pitfalls to come. We discover later that Cherryl tries to remain self-possessed as Jim’s megalomania increases, but meets a tragic end.

Rand correctly attributes a religious proselytizing quality to postmodernism and hints at the spiritual role that has been assigned to it in the wake of America’s increased secularism. In his insufferable soliloquy to the infinite futility of life, Jim Taggart appeals to the “higher values” which are apparently inaccessible in the pursuit of economic gain, but can be understood by studying the solipsistic wanks of Dr. Pritchett’s hilariously and appropriately titled bit of pompous dreck, The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. One needs only to spend a little time perusing the New Peer Review account on Twitter to find ample evidence that Rand’s aim was true with respect to the navel gazing pointlessness of the entire spectrum of postmodern academic studies.

It’s unlikely that any Left-leaning feminists or gender constructionists are even paying attention, but Rand even engages in some gender swapping that’s all the rage with the Tumblristas these days. The main difference is that Rand doesn’t deny biological sex differences nor does she wallow in pomo relativism. She merely acknowledges that there are general qualities found in men and women that are both biological and social norms. The fun is in observing how Rand inverts these expectations. When Jim Taggart finally marries Cherryl Brooks, she approaches Dagny and haughtily reminds her that she’s the “woman of the family now”. That’s okay, Dagny says. “I’m the man”. Boom! Suck on it, Judith Butler.

Rand made it very clear that her fiction was a vehicle for the philosophy of Objectivism. It can be seen as a distinct philosophical worldview with unique epistemological propositions. Specifically, it posits the idea that “existence exists” and all that exists is what can be perceived through sense data. Metaphysical contradictions do not nor cannot exist. There is no a prioristic knowledge about the world nor is there a spiritual reality. It is a secular, materialistic framework which is equally explicit about the objective existence of morality despite Rand’s openly atheistic convictions. What makes this especially interesting is that Rand still chose to frame morality using the language of theistic belief throughout the novel. Rand is unequivocal about the objective existence of the good and evil dichotomy. Dagny Taggart believed, for example, that “the greatest sin on earth” was to do things badly. The Objectivist conception of morality and ethics is somewhat clinical on paper, and it’s not clear how one would arrive at the exact same formulation of objective morality she specifies through a process of pure deductive reasoning. Rand never discusses the origins of morality in Atlas Shrugged nor does she sufficiently explain the existence of good and evil. Given that she is very explicit about where the moral fault lines lay throughout the novel, it seems like a foundational flaw in the overall epistemological framework. If morality itself is a metaphysical abstraction, how can one acquire certain knowledge of the objective existence of morality, let alone moral error, without appealing to some a priori external, metaphysical absolute? Even after listening to lectures from Atlas Society luminaries like David Kelley and Yaron Brook, Objectivist ethics and metaphysics strike me as questionable at best and somewhat daft at worst.

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In the Randian worldview, there are two very distinct and equally objective conceptions of moral truth. The bureaucrats, planners and looters hold just as steadfastly to their ideas that suffering is virtue just as the producers hold to their ideas of selfishness as virtue. These moral relativists are also claiming that their mandates and proclamations are objectively true. The only difference is that they require the power of the State (i.e. guns) in order to manufacture consensus. The best you can say about Randian morality is that she makes the distinction between the two worldviews very clear and asks you to make a choice. In the realms of ontology, moral psychology and ethical metaphysics, you can’t argue that there is objective error unless the behavior is being measured against some kind of metaphysical archetype or absolute. Nor am I convinced that morality is some emergent property of material reality or that the mere act of reasoning is inherently moral. Once you introduce these subjects, you have already departed from material reality. One wonders if perhaps the theists have a point when they say that atheists have generally failed to find a secular moral framework which doesn’t devolve into relativism, utilitarianism or cultish groupthink.

Yaron Brook in particular claims Ayn Rand’s ideas to be the apotheosis of enlightenment thought, but if anything, Rand is railing against a secular, enlightenment mindset run amok. The enlightenment consensus also proclaimed reason to be the ultimate engine of virtue and the French Revolution proved that disastrously false. It is the planners and bureaucrats who are able to usurp power by claiming that we live in an “enlightened age” where the altruistic values of being one’s “brother’s keeper” have prevailed. You can practically see the venomous sneer on her face as she as she heaps mounds of contempt on the idea that the mandate of a politician or a bureaucrat is equivalent to a law of nature. Objectivists undoubtedly view their creed as something beyond theistic morality, but it’s awfully difficult to see a dramatic difference between the Objectivist and the theist in the realm of moral truth.

Even more puzzling is that she speaks very openly about the existence of love, spirit and being. As the marriage between Jim Taggart and Cherryl Brooks unravels, Cherryl’s disillusionment comes from misplaced admiration while Jim’s desire for it was rooted in an overindulgence in feelings. Rand draws a clear distinction between Jim Taggart’s vision of feelings based love as an act of empty faith in contrast to Cherryl’s more noble desire for love as a true expression of affection earned through virtuous deeds. Both Cherryl and Rand consider Jim Taggart to be a parasite of the spirit and the produce of individual; someone who wants both unearned emotional and material reward. Rand is presumably making a sound point about the connection between mental health, emotional maturity and moral values, but once again, it’s not at all clear how one can distinguish these ideas as objective truths which emerge from material reality.

Adding to the credibility hurdles in Objectivism is her apparent belief in blank slate construction of selfhood which she shared with her postmodernist, neo-Marxist opponents. Rand seems to hold that people can just detach themselves from the a priori conglomeration of genetic memories, parental imprinting, emotional traumas, psychological conditions, cognitive biases, unconscious being and learned prejudices and view the world through a lens of cold reason and logic. And that’s saying nothing about IQ disparities found throughout the population. It may sound appealing, but it steps over some significant realities of the entire apparatus of the human mind. Developing the mental discipline necessary to think logically about deep philosophical questions requires not only a certain level of scholarly dedication but some willingness to wrestle with one’s own tangle of emotional proclivities and ideological biases. I suspect this may be one of many reasons people have a difficult time buying into Randian heroes. People could buy into Mr. Spock because he was a Vulcan. Accepting human characters with similar attributes may be a bridge too far.

Rand’s opponents have frequently derided Objectivism on the grounds that it is too self-centered and lacks compassion. Atlas Shrugged certainly lends credence to these charges since Objectivism seems to take a dim view of charity. The third act of the novel deals with Dagny’s arrival in Galt’s Gulch, and when Dagny suggests that Midas Mulligan give his automobile to Galt for a short usage, Galt quietly reminds Dagny that “giving” is verboten in this would-be paradise. In Galt’s Gulch, everything is earned. Rand clearly wants to draw a bright moral line around productive labor, but even the most virtuous people need assistance, care for the indigent is a genuine concern, and charity is a virtue that’s both necessary and actively cultivated. Rand is certainly correct in denigrating politicians and apparatchiks who exploit the language of altruism in order to advance political agendas, but her apparent disdain for even voluntary acts of charity seems misplaced.

This stinginess of spirit also extends into other realms of being. When Hank Rearden’s ex-wife, mother, and brother attempt to appeal to his sense of generosity and compassion as his steel mill’s economic pulse begins to seize up, none is forthcoming. They keep hoping that their emotional entreaties will get through to him, but he remains resolute in his refusal to offer even the slightest glimmer of mercy. This is entirely consistent with both Hank’s disposition and the overall framework of thought Rand has laid out, but it is also a deeply constrained and niggardly conception of humanity. Though she borders on making her heroes monochromatic in their Objectivist stoicism, Rearden refuses his family and ex-wife because of their betrayals and parasitism. The impression with which you’re left is that their posture of penitence was disingenuous and manipulative thereby justifying Hank’s cold blooded indifference. Fair enough. But Rand seems hostile to even the possibility of either genuine repentance or forgiveness. Hank is only willing to forgive if his mother encouraged him to quit and disappear. It also beggars belief that Hank didn’t harbor tons of pent up resentment and didn’t want to just vent a little. I could buy into Roark’s spartan emotional life in The Fountainhead, but giving these heroes the exact same attributes smacks of repetition and lacks basic dramatic credibility. This seems to be yet another unnecessarily impoverished Randian archetypal ideal. Even if we take the case that his family were just as duplicitous and spiritually bankrupt as Rand portrays them, sometimes people do genuinely seek absolution from those they’ve wronged. Conversely, granting forgiveness can offer just as much redemption for the person bestowing it as the person who seeks it. And sometimes, you may have to forgive the wrongs others have perpetrated if purely to achieve peace of mind because contrition is certainly not guaranteed. Not only does Objectivism seemingly disallow these possibilities, there is nothing within the framework of logical deduction that would lead anyone to seek or bestow forgiveness. Both require a certain measure of humility, and a purely rational analysis of material sense data is an insufficient epistemological model with which to develop a robust toolkit of human relations.

Objectivism has been described by some of its detractors as an atheist religion. I contend that there is validity to this charge. Objectivism’s big calling card is its claim on secular ethics. Anyone who devotes herself to the development of a set of philosophical principles which are intended to supplant the role that religion has traditionally played will undoubtedly attract a following who treat these ideas with the type of reverence normally reserved for actual religious faith. Rand denigrates and derides religious faith as a superstition which paves the way for the kind of slavish obedience to “higher authority” on which the villains preyed, but simultaneously venerates her heroes’ adherence to a higher metaphysical truth from which they drew their strength and independence. Replacing one set of theistic metaphysics with another set of allegedly secular and materialist metaphysics still constitutes an act of faith. Even as Galt’s life hangs in the balance in the novel’s climax, Wesley Mouch desperately wants him “to believe” in their cause. Like Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, she perpetuates a false dichotomy between faith and reason by asserting that the exercise of one faculty necessarily precludes the other. Or that the process of reasoning is somehow divorced from any embedded prerational biases. The human ability to conceptualize and concretize abstract archetypes and metaphysical ideals through language is the very essence of faith. The looters of Atlas Shrugged want to dispel the idea that the individual possesses a sovereign consciousness and that the “enlightened” citizen will abdicate logic and cede the act of thinking to the experts. Rand is essentially asking you to make a leap of faith wrapped in a tautology that’s scarcely different from that of theists. Human consciousness, free will and morality exist because existence exists.

At its core, Objectivism seems an elaborate hymn to the Logos stripped of any references to the divine. I can appreciate that she set out to create a secular philosophical framework which was intended to maximize virtue, but it seems lacking. Objectivism starts from the proposition that reason alone is the engine of virtue, reality is limited to that which can be perceived by the senses, and an objective world exists independent of our perception. Rand was deeply opposed to Immanuel Kant’s contention that both morality and human cognition were filtered through an a priori structure, but on this point, she was wrong and Kant was right. Rand rejects all prerational and a prioristic knowledge, but leans on prerational and a prioristic concepts like Good and Evil. Good and Evil all by themselves are transcendent concepts which exist outside the domain of reason. By disallowing traditional, prerational and hereditary knowledge from the Objectivist framework, the Kantian criticism of pure reason stands. A collection of independent minds processing sense data divorced from any a priori, cultural, or hereditary knowledge will necessarily arrive at different conclusions.

Rand is frequently lumped in with the conservative tradition, but Objectivism all by itself sets her solidly within the tradition of post-Enlightenment rationalism, and by extension, classical liberalism. Rand’s philosophy could be viewed as a distinct branch of thought that descends from the classical liberal tradition set forth by Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Ironically, her rigid insistence on the primacy of a posteriori empirical data as the only valid source of knowledge also puts her thought in close proximity to the quasi-socialist thought of Auguste Comte. Rand’s unalloyed contempt for the intellectual class and intellectual gnosticism in general is the one, and perhaps only, strand of her worldview which aligns her with the Burkean tradition. Though it doesn’t negate the existence of objective reality, one wonders whether the revelations of quantum mechanics would have prompted doubts in Rand’s mind over the viability of pure materialism.

Rand was militant in her political neutrality and vilified conservatives and libertarians alike. Though she derided them as “hippies of the right”, Rand and Objectivism are currently and rightly identified with the more secular, minarchist wing of the libertarian movement. Despite her vehement condemnation of anarcho-capitalism, Galt’s climactic speech does, in fact, spell out Non-Aggression Principle in very explicit terms. I believe this aligns her thought at least superficially with modern libertarianism.

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that no man man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? No man may start – the use of physical force against others. 

Despite the flaws in its foundational propositions, it can’t be denied that Rand reaches some sound conclusions about both the productive class and the collective “unpersoning” to which they are frequently subject. Specifically, that there is a relatively small fraction of society that does a majority of the productive labor while simultaneously being demonized as either puppet masters or vampires. As Jordan Peterson has argued, the Pareto principle applies to the distribution of workers at the top that do most of the heavy lifting. It’s the kind of thing that sends progressives into conniptions, but Galt’s speech does correctly identify the fact that progressives use the rhetoric of “equality” to pit the will of the majority against this minority. The so called 1% are convenient villains. While many are quite eager to make common cause with progressives and affect the posture of virtue that Rand righteously derides, her overall criticism of the perverse and inverted morality of progressives is dead on.

‘The public,’ to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any virtue or value, whoever achieves it, whoever provides the goods you require for your survival, ceases to be regarded as part of the public or as part of the human race. 

The cult-like environment Rand built up around herself in her later years is well documented. The reputation of modern Objectivists appears to have done little to alter this perception. Rand didn’t come across like the most jovial or happy person to be around despite her open affirmation of the pursuit of happiness as the highest human aspiration. A keen intellect for sure, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.

The knee-jerk hatred of Rand from progressives is puzzling because, at a bare minimum, one would expect that they would be sympathetic to several components of her thought. Her militant individualism, her zealous insistence on the application of the scientific method as the ultimate epistemological framework for determining reality, her materialist worldview and libertine approach towards sex set her far from anything in the conservative tradition of thought. Aside from her views on the free market and the role of the State, I see little daylight between her and the likes of Russell, Harris and Dawkins. If anything, the hatred she gets from progressives serves as confirmation that Objectivism is an untenable proposition as a complete philosophy of the world. People filter the world through a set of biases, and if anything, the very materialistic worldview she espoused has bred a fealty to political power as the font of virtue. Aside from the relentless demonization she gets in the media, the mental dissonance the mere perception of her message creates in the progressive mind likely creates too much of a barrier to warrant engagement. Because after all, how many Rand haters can actually say they’ve read her work?

The fact that Ayn Rand’s work has become a both a progressive dog whistle and lightning rod that is meant to signify the thought of all conservatives or libertarians says quite a bit about the effectiveness of leftist propaganda and the power of her work. Like Adam Smith, it’s assumed that if you’re conservative or libertarian, you automatically subscribe to everything she had to say and that your beliefs mirror hers exactly.

Above all else, Atlas Shrugged is an extended diatribe and warning against the slow encroachment of socialism in a free society. Contrary to the idiotic screeching about the alleged advent of fascism that emanates from the MSM echo chamber 24/7, totalitarianism doesn’t just spring forth from a single politician. It’s the slow accumulation of a consensus built slowly and carefully by bureaucrats and intellectuals. This book’s greatest strength is its sustained attack on the influence of the intellectual class in building a consensus for socialism. People have criticized Rand for the voluminous length of the novel as well as the lengthy philosophical expositions contained in the monologues of various characters, but there is a painstaking deliberateness in every word of this novel. Rand wants you to see and understand collectivism in every manifestation. She wants to show how each character is ultimately corrupted by it until it spreads through society like a virus and brings the gears of progress to a grinding halt.

Rand saves her heaviest artillery for the economic central planners. Upon Dagny’s return to the rapidly collapsing world after her convalescence in Galt’s Gulch, she returns to a Taggart Transcontinental laboring under the weight of the bureaucratic mandates of Directive 10-289. The regulations had throttled the normal functions of the line and plunged the operation into a spiral of unused resources, service shortages and diminishing short-term profit chasing. Dagny pried her hapless brother for any sign that he was thinking in the long-term for the company. Rand loads the cannon, and fires an ordnance directly at the legacy of John Maynard Keynes by putting his words in the mouth of hilariously named Railroad Unification bureaucrat, Cuffy Meigs. “In the long run, we’ll be dead”, he snorts. Indeed, Mr. Keynes. It’s too bad you were so dismissive of the price in human liberty your demand management models would extract for a little short term boost in GDP.

Rand clearly wants to venerate and celebrate the heroism she sees in the producer. The producers in Galt’s Gulch do not recoil or retreat from hard physical labor even if they were failed intellectuals in the world of the looters. They revel in the pride of having the opportunity to put their minds and bodies to their highest use. Work is always a virtue. Success that is honestly earned is never a vice. It’s also worth emphasizing that the crony capitalists who make common cause with the bureaucrats and planners are the ones that Rand considers villains.The caricature of Rand that’s widely circulated is that she blindly worshipped corporations and businesses while keeping her scorn limited to moochers and bureaucrats. Not so. The archetypal Randian hero stands alone and seeks only to be judged by the quality of his work.

The popular conception of Rand’s work is that she championed the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations. Anyone who actually reads Atlas Shrugged (or any of her other works for that matter) will recognize that this is a complete misrepresentation of her position. One of the key events which spurs the heroes to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the leaders of industry is their visit to an abandoned car manufacturing plant. After making their way through the squalor of the dying town which remained after the factory shuttered its operations, Hank and Dagny stumble upon the plans for a car powered by renewable energy. That’s right. Ayn Rand, the living epitome of capitalist rapacity and insensitivity, imagined a non-carbon based, renewable energy source in her book. I wonder why this little detail is overlooked in the Rand hate mill. Through this storyline, Rand simultaneously rebukes historical materialism and gives an elegant lesson on the virtues of free market innovation. When new technology is developed, it displaces old methods, increases efficiency, and frees up every individual. It is the absence of capitalism which leads to degradation, exploitation and servitude. The only thing Rand got wrong was that she didn’t anticipate that the planners would lure the masses into submission with lofty promises of an environmentally friendly techno-utopia.

It’s a theme that doesn’t figure as prominently in Atlas Shrugged as it does in The Fountainhead, but when she swings the wrecking ball at media mendacity, it’s well deserved demolition. As society grinds to a halt in the novel’s final chapters, the media remains focused on narrative while ignoring the chaos and violence happening throughout society. 

Atlas Shrugged is filled with big ideas, but there are plenty of small details that suggest that Ayn Rand’s foresight wasn’t limited to macro phenomena. As the bureaucratic bigwig Mr. Thompson tries to forestall societal collapse by attempting to negotiate with Galt, violence and civil unrest breaks out in California. Rand describes a band of communist militants led by Ma Chalmers and her “soybean cult of Orient admirers”. Ma Chalmers became a soybean mogul by securing government subsidies. If you simply swapped in “Yvette Felarca and the Antifa Soy Boys“, it would sound like a headline ripped from today’s alternative media.

Another central theme in the book that’s accumulated relevance is the corrupting influence of the State on science and the attendant appeal to scientism in political discourse. In the novel, Rearden and Taggart each have to contend with would-be scientists who spend their time idling in the government insulated confines of the National Institute of Science drawing up industry mandates wrapped in a veneer of “public good”. The bureaucrats at the National Institute of Science end up creating a deadly sonic weapon which is greeted by a great rhetorical fanfare of Unity, but for which no one will take ultimate responsibility.

Rand righteously skewers the false antagonism between commerce and science.  In Dagny’s quest to discover the inventor of the mysterious atmosphere powered motor, she seeks assistance from Institute of Science charlatan, Dr. Stadler. Stadler expresses his smug, entitled incredulity at the idea that such a brilliant mind would squander his discovery in the realm of commerce, and Dagny shoots back with a barbed retort about how he probably enjoyed living in this world. 

Near the novel’s conclusion, Stadler makes a final appeal to Galt in which he attempts to justify his alliance with the State. He pleads ineptitude at persuasion while denigrating the masses of unthinking plebs as his justification for resorting to force in order to pursue the life of scientific progress he envisioned. This monologue is simultaneously one of the most powerful critiques of modernity in Atlas Shrugged and one of its biggest contradictions. Progressives have supplanted a spiritual worldview with a purely scientific one. Rand scores another ideological point by devoting so much of the novel to this line of critique, but the very materialistic rationality she espouses is the framework that allowed the mentality of the likes of Stadler to flourish. 

She extends the critique of State influence on science into the mentality of the artist. Richard Halley is Dagny’s favorite composer, and she delights in having the opportunity to meet him in Galt’s Gulch. Once again, Rand lays waste to the belief that art and commerce are mutually exclusive.

For if there is more tragic a fool than the businessman who doesn’t know that he’s an exponent of man’s highest creative spirit – it’s the artist who thinks that the businessman is his enemy. 

Hating on Ayn Rand is a subgenre of the political Left that’s well established at this point. I have yet to read a single anti-Rand diatribe which doesn’t straw man her position or blatantly distort her message in some way. It’s also quite fashionable to be penitent about your former fascination with Rand and proclaim that you’ve “grown up and opened your eyes.” All of these mendacious, spineless, virtue signaling twats can suck on it. Rand was a serious thinker and her ideas warrant serious engagement. It seems churlish and uncharitable to focus on what she got wrong rather than the really important stuff she got completely right.

Heaping smug disdain on Rand is an easy way to score points with leftists. While I’m sure there are leftists who actually attempt to engage honestly with what she’s written and that there are surely legitimate critiques to be found, everything I’ve read is throwaway snark, a pathetic straw man or knee-jerk disdain. You don’t have to look very far to find people who bash Rand, and to be fair, there are definitely shortcomings to her writing and her philosophy.

Some criticize her prose as leaden and hamfisted and I think there’s some merit to this charge. In her defense, I propose that the world has become so accustomed to obfuscation and postmodern obscurantism, her writing seems artless by comparison. The straitjacket of Objectivism also partially accounts for this phenomenon. She has no difficulty portraying corruption and evil, but when she wants to convey transcendent acts of heroism or romantic ecstasy, it feels wooden because she has confined all of these phenomena to the realm of reason. It fails more often than not.

There is also something emotionally arid to the various philosophical monologues. The content is great, but no one I know talks like that. Maybe hardcore Objectivists do, but most people don’t. The only way the dialogues make sense is to view them as mythological Randian archetypes. Even if you set aside the leaden tone of the content, she’s also recycling the basic dramatic template she used in The Fountainhead. The forces of collectivism conspire towards one dramatic event with high stakes which sets the table for the hero to lay down a heavy philosophical lesson on morality and virtue.

The sex scene between Dagny Taggart and John Galt is a bit of a groaner, too. Rand is trying to render the heat of erotic passion using the language of Objectivist rationalism and it comes off as clunky as it sounds. It’s clear that she’s saying that sexual fulfillment emerges from mutual respect and shared values, but like everything else in the Objectivist framework, this seems too narrow a view of humanity. To suggest that pure physical attraction doesn’t play some role in sexual arousal seems daft. Besides some level of pure animal magnetism, long-term relationships which prioritize communication and intimacy also play just as big a part in sexual fulfillment as mutual respect and values parity. Rand apparently sees it through this clinical and antiseptic lens which steps over some rather significant aspects of human psychology, physiology and pair bonding.

Despite all of their flaws, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged both deserve respect. Rand was trying to provide an all encompassing philosophy for life which addressed the question of how to formulate a system secular morality. There’s a reason that religion and a religious worldview animated the great achievements of Western civilization. Mankind flourishes when he upholds ideals larger than himself. The pre-Enlightenment worldview stood atop the premise that man was striving for divinity and that the works of civilization must reflect this pursuit. Strip away that foundational view, and you’ve got a very large void in the human consciousness to fill. Unless you can fill it with a higher metaphysical ideal, the vampires of the State are going to fill it for you. I believe Ayn Rand knew this as well as anyone in history you can name whose highest aspiration was the emancipation of the individual. The fact that she fell short of meeting the challenge shouldn’t preclude an earnest engagement with the ideas she laid down in Atlas Shrugged

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Artificial Intelligence: Building the Perfect Precog

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Philip K. Dick’s dystopian short story from 1956, “The Minority Report”, presented a future police state where a collection of mutants with parapsychic abilities anticipate violent crime before it happens. Subsequently, most violent crime was eliminated, but thousands of citizens who technically hadn’t committed a single crime filled detention camps. The central speculative conceit of the story was the idea that mutants with precognitive abilities could foresee the future. Given the near absence of violent crime, their forecasts were presumed correct and the Precrime unit was accorded legitimacy by the public. Needless to say, we have yet to identify people, with or without mutations, who possess such abilities. Regardless, Dick’s vision was prescient all the same. The central idea he was exploring was the human capacity to exercise free will. If Precogs could predict violent behavior, then that suggested that human behavior was deterministic and Precogs possessed the ability to anticipate these actions.

The fact that humans possess free will has frustrated bureaucrats and central planners for ages. Despite all their best efforts to make it so, humans never behave in completely predictable ways. However, it appears as though the Silicon Valley technorati are determined to design a world which simultaneously removes human agency and lends itself towards the micromanagement of human behavior. If humans can effectively be “programmed” to behave in predictable ways, then the task of designing AI algorithms which anticipate human behavior becomes much easier. In short, artificial intelligence is starting to look like an attempt to build the perfect algorithmic Precog. More specifically, it’s starting to feel like the technorati are trying to become God by manufacturing an omniscient digital substitute.

The most explicit manifestation of the police state foretold by PKD is the facial recognition software which supposedly can detect your sexual orientation, IQ, political views and your disposition towards “criminal behavior”.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Using photos, AI will be able to identify people’s political views, whether they have high IQs, whether they are predisposed to criminal behavior, whether they have specific personality traits and many other private, personal details that could carry huge social consequences, he said.

Not only is the AI project taking on the aura of a PKD-style cyberpunk police state, it’s also starting to resemble a Logan’s Run-style dystopia. In other words, lull the unwashed masses into submission with automated comfort and convenience and you remove the opportunity for individuals to exercise agency. Automobiles, for example. People are too stupid to be trusted with driving, so let the AI take over. It’ll be fine.

And we will have no choice but to get in and hope for the best – because vehicle automation will not be a matter of choice. Stevie Wonder can see what’s coming. Automated car technology will be mandated; the SELF DRIVE Act being the preparatory groundwork. It standardizes things at the federal level; gives the federal regulatory apparat the power to nudge.

All of this begs some deep questions of where the AI project is heading and whether it’s benign or malevolent.

How much control of our lives do we want to give over to machines – and to the corporations that build and operate them?

How much control do we want to give over to machines and the corporations that build them now that the ideological biases and political allegiances of the Overlords of Silicon Valley are well known?

I am everything the religious right despises: a scientist, an atheist, a leftist (by American standards, at least), a university professor and a Frenchman. – Yann LeCun

Furthermore, to what degree are we destroying the physical work ethic by automating so much low skill labor? To what degree are we sacrificing variety and the vitality of individual innovation in favor of mass produced plenitude? Surely, there are many successes to applaud, but given the influx of an immigrant population which tilts heavily towards the low skill end of the employment spectrum, how many will have the proclivity or intelligence for high tech training? The same question applies to unemployed and underemployed working-class Americans.

Last month’s White House economic report predicted that if a job pays less than $20 an hour, there’s an 83 percent chance it will eventually be eliminated by automation.

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Elon Musk along with several other technocrats and thinkers have gone public with their reservations over the AI project. But True Believers like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe we’re headed to techno-utopia.

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When you’ve got powerful and influential industrialists and intellectuals offering such vocal opposition to the AI project, how might you help accelerate the willing acceptance of technocratic rule? By creating a religion with an AI godhead, that’s how.

Enter AI mogul and True Believer, Anthony Levandowski. Way of the Future is what he has branded this cybernetic theocracy, and at present, little is known about it. It’s already receiving a fanfare in the progressive media, so that should be an indication of the ultimate trajectory of the AI project. To quote Jung, wherever the spirit of God is extruded from our human calculations, an unconscious substitute takes its place. There is arguably nothing that ideologues crave more than unquestioned allegiance, and if one aspires towards such an end, you are going to do it by exploiting the human psyche’s capacity for faith. I think the technorati are keenly aware of this and want to pave the path while it’s still relatively early in the game.

The entire artificial intelligence debate is as old as Frankenstein. I suspect that few of us really thought that cyberpunk future would be a reality quite this quickly, but it’s here and the debate over its ramifications will intensify. Films like the Ghost in the Shell remake are starting to feel less like distant future speculations and more like statements of intent. Technology has given us a wealth of marvels, but the pursuit of the One Algorithm to Rule Them All seems more like the height of hubris and megalomania.

And researchers still have a long way to go in achieving anything that resembles human intelligence or consciousness.

There’s a certain cold blooded cynicism at the core of the AI project that strikes me as Benthamite calculus taken to its absurd and inhuman conclusion. It glorifies the notion that humanity itself can be reduced to an algorithm. It consigns our individuality to bytes of data to be managed by a cadre of unaccountable elites. While I enjoy the convenience and connectivity the information age has ushered in, I’m more than a little skeptical over what the AI project portends for the future of humanity.

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Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow sci-fi film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.

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Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having an aura which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.

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First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the sci-fi premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.

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Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a sci-fi action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional sci-fi cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.

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We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.

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The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.

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Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.

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I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…

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Dark City (1998)

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers. When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, “Harrison Bergeron.” I am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior. Its perfection lies in Vonnegut’s ability to trace out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway. Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results. This radical egalitarianism can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement. A obsession so perverse, it not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  Let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York is a longtime personal favorite and, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever. I’m both amazed and gratified by how durable the editorial remains.

For example: 

  1. The police state is indistinguishable from the military.
  2. The police kill with impunity.
  3. The president is a narcissistic figurehead who is relying on a pre-recorded speech on which world peace presumably depends.
  4. The hero is ex-military and now a convicted felon and is the person best suited to infiltrate a prison and mete out the brutality necessary to fulfill the rescue.
  5. The cops have all the best weapons. Everyone assumes automatically that Snake’s possession of firearms means that he’s working for the government.
  6. Snake is carrying out the rescue mission not voluntarily, but because his life is being threatened.  
  7. The hierarchy of violent goons in the prison is indistinguishable from the hierarchy of violent goons guarding the prison. 

And perhaps most importantly, when Snake asks the president how he feels about all the individuals who gave their lives to rescue his, he mutters some half-hearted bullshit about how the “nation appreciates their sacrifice”.

Absolutely essential.

Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed

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Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel is an admirable work. I really wanted to like it. It mines some rich veins of philosophical thought which include individualism versus collectivism, gender equality, the difference between intellectual property and ideas as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas of a speculative anarchist society.  Unfortunately, the novel is ultimately derailed by some fallacious notions and stale, toxic ideas couched in a pretense of edgy progressivism. Sadly, despite Le Guin’s recognition of the scarcity, insularity, and conformity bred by the allegedly revolutionary values she espouses, she doubles down and limps to the conclusion waving the flag of communist ideals in a cloud of unearned triumphalism.

The Dispossessed tells the story of a physicist named Shevek from the anarchist world of Anarres. Shevek develops a groundbreaking theory which has the potential to unite humanity throughout the universe. Though the Anarrestri profess revolutionary values, they are unreceptive to his work. He sets out to the sister world of Urras, the civilization from which the Anarrestri fled, in hopes of bridging the divide between the two societies.

Le Guin makes a courageous attempt at tackling the questions of morality and ethics in the absence of state or religious institutions, but she ultimately succumbs to some really dumb and deeply clichéd antipathy towards market economics. This includes an equally rote denigration of property rights and, by extension, their inextricable link to human freedom. She is apparently on record crediting the blatherings of post-Marxist anarcho-collectivist wankers, Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin, as the philosophical underpinnings of this book. The anarchist society of Anarres is essentially her conception of anarcho-syndicalism.  In other words, it is a society in which there is no private property and no system of prices, competition or currency. Everything is “shared” and used for the “common good”. All economic activity is centrally coordinated by bureaucratic “syndics” and the division of labor is determined by computers. Subsequently, her philosophical commentary bears some unfortunate remnants of Marx, Rousseau and even the poisonous proto-fascist drivel of Georges Sorel. Le Guin’s Anarres is probably best described as a fantastical vision of a world envisioned by feminists, social justice warriors, utopian eco-socialists and anarcho-communists.

To her credit, she addresses the limitations of the collectivist worldview in this novel. This puts her work in philosophical proximity to another notable female writer who tackled very similar themes but arrived at very different conclusions.  Contrary to her professed disdain for Ayn Rand, the themes of this novel are very similar to those contained in The Fountainhead . The two books share more than a few similarities. Each book presents a brilliant male protagonist who seeks to contribute his unique talent to society and each is called upon to adhere to principle in the face of demands from authority or perceived authority. Le Guin appears to take direct aim at Randian ideas of “egoism” and “altruism” at various points in the book.  Though when she does, she ultimately misrepresents both.

Le Guin is widely lauded for tackling gender and sexual politics in her work, but I personally found this aspect of the novel the most grating. All of the editorial around gender carried the sanctimonious stink of contemporary feminism.  Her perverse obsession with equality of outcomes can be traced to an obvious refusal to accept biological differences and individual choices within the paradigm of market economics. True to standard progressive form, she also heaps piles of scorn on those who hold religious beliefs. She holds people of faith in contempt for promulgating a sexist and patriarchal belief in the inherent superiority of men over women. I absolutely concede that most religious faiths affirm the traditional role of male breadwinner and female caregiver, but this line of argument feels tiresome.  If she were referring specifically to the manner in which Islamic societies rigidly enforce a subordinate role for women, it might have more bite. I’m doubtful that was her intent.  It’s particularly dubious hearing this petty nonsense from an author in the Western world who presently enjoys numerous freedoms that are hallmarks of the market economy and liberal society.  Le Guin can be an atheist without fear of violent reprisal. She can compete in the marketplace with men. She can and does claim property rights and has achieved fame and notoriety for the merit of her creative work within the context of a free market.

She wastes no time carving out the contours of her main character and the central ideas of the book. The opening passages describe the wall which cordons off the spaceport of Anarres from the rest of the planet. Right away, Le Guin is telling us that this is a story of walls; walls that stand between societies, genders, and ideologies.

As a character, Shevek is kind of dull. Just as modern writers pander to feminists by writing female characters which are divorced from any conventional femininity, Shevek is the result of Le Guin doing the same thing in reverse. Shevek is arguably Le Guin’s beta analogue to Rand’s alpha Roark. He’s sensitive, vegan, and lives a monk-like life of the mind. As Anarrestri custom dictates, he holds womyn in reverence.  Since her editorial point of view is so rife with dumb and confused ideas, it’s difficult to view him as a heroic archetype of any set of virtuous attributes.

The first chapter is devoted to Shevek’s arrival on Urras.  Shevek struggles to understand the customs and culture of the Urrastri. He simply cannot fathom a world that holds religious beliefs, has state institutions and operates under a market economy. Having constructed a framework for a dramatic clash of ideas, the reader is guided through Shevek’s quest as events alternate between Anarres and Urras.

After this exposition, Le Guin takes us back to Anarres and Shevek’s childhood where the cornerstones of his development were built and the values he acquired from his culture are fleshed out.  Here and in every other subsequent chapter, Le Guin’s muddy logic and dubious editorial comes into sharper focus.

Groan inducing commentary abounds in The Dispossessed, but Le Guin’s disdain for property rights is highest on the list. True to the authoritarian and quasi-religious nature of all collectivist political thought, Shevek’s indoctrination to Odonian values begins at childhood. As most children are wont to do, young Shevek is naturally inclined to view possessions as his property. He is hastily scolded for entertaining this notion by his caretaker. Like Rousseau, Le Guin regards property rights as infantile and the source of human sin. That’s so very progressive and original, Ursula. Throughout the remainder of the book the words “profiteer” and “propertarian” are used as pejoratives. Her disdain for capitalistic property ownership is expressed very clearly through Shevek during his tenure on Urras.

Le Guin considers the ownership of property all by itself as an expression of power. It’s an idea that’s tired and nonsensical in equal measures. She attributes Shevek’s sense of unease on Urras to his perception that a society which affirms property rights is one of “mutual aggression”. This stands in contrast to the feeling of “mutual cooperation” that is the guiding principle of the self-abnegating hippies on Anarres.  It’s more than a little ironic that Le Guin venerates this alleged utopia devoid of private property and denigrates the statist aggression of Urras. In real life, she’s more than happy to advocate for state aggression to enforce copyright law.

This moral confusion and sophistry extends further with respect to acts of actual aggression. Le Guin gets the fundamentals of the argument for anarchism right, but at the same time, she fails to present a coherent Odonian theory of morality with respect to the initiation of violence. This also happens to be the one area where, even if inadvertently, she veers a little too closely to the Sorellian belief in revolutionary violence. In a conversation with an Urrastri woman named Vea, he explains that Odonians are striving for actual morality by abolishing institutional power. That way, Odonians are free to choose morality instead of having it forced upon them by their alleged betters.  So far, so good. However, when Shevek is beaten up arbitrarily as a teenager, he accepts it as a “gift”.  This suggests a lack of appreciation of the inviolability of negative rights and perhaps illuminates her apparent inability to distinguish the state monopoly on the application of force versus private and voluntary exchange.  At the same time, she engages in some typical moralistic handwringing over the usage of defensive force to protect property.  Since she’s already established the ownership of property as an expression of power and a moral wrong, then anyone who uses force to defend against theft or violent expropriation is possessing “power no one should have”.  Make up your goddamn mind, Ursula.

The Odonian credo of self-sacrifice is equally moronic and cringeworthy. It also tips the scale towards a Sorellian concept of “myth”.  For Odonians, the experience of “shared pain” is the principle that binds Anarrestri to one another and to which they must consistently subordinate themselves. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious article of faith or any of the collectivist fantasies promulgated by politicians. 

The one idea which truly torpedoes her book is the centrally planned nature of the Anarrestri economy.  She concedes a bureaucratization of Odonian life, but her failure to recognize the inherently preposterous nature of the idea cannot be overlooked. For a SF novel, The Dispossessed is remarkably short of speculative science or any fantastical leaps of imagination. Aside from Shevek’s theory, the DivLab computer is actually one of the wildest speculations in the whole book. Le Guin spends no time discussing it or how Odonians developed such a thing in the first place. Odonians live a life of self-imposed poverty and austerity, and yet, a really sophisticated computer determines how labor resources will be allocated. There’s no regard for the individual, purposeful human action which drives skill specialization and gives rise to supply and demand. Not only is it wildly preposterous that Odonians could develop such a sophisticated piece of technology, the remainder of society is utterly devoid of any other comparably sophisticated technology.  Nor is there any other labor saving machinery. Her description of Shevek’s feelings of “brotherhood, adventurousness, and hope” while waiting to receive instructions during the Anarres famine sounds like dumb, nationalistic propaganda. For all of the realism she brings to every other aspect of the book, Le Guin apparently spent no time examining why central planning was a failure. I can’t help but fault her for her intellectual blindness on this front.

Her actual grasp of physics and science is equally questionable. For all of Le Guin’s emphasis on the Odonian passion for scientific knowledge, she manages to smuggle in some dubious notions which sound like applications of scientific theory derived from feminist epistemology. Apparently, Shevek arrives at his big breakthrough because he was able to extend beyond pure scientific theory and include the realms of “philosophy and ethics”. Good science is philosophy, and is the product of sound ethics. For a woman so apparently keen on equal gender representation in STEM fields, she starts to sound like Luce Irigaray here. As a cheerleader for women in STEM, Le Guin is doing a great job. As someone who earns a living telling stories built from scientific speculation, this is kind of laughable.

Le Guin also attempts to counter Randian ideas, but her conception of both “egoism” and “altruism” are both straw men.  By her reasoning, “egoism” can either be Shevek’s desire to assert his ideas in the face of ostracism or it can be overtly public displays of sexual affection.  As a young child, Shevek is accused of “egoism” when he attempts to formulate his own ideas separate from the tightly controlled confines of the Anarres public school system.  To use contemporary parlance, Shevek would have been accused of using microaggressions.  Here, she suggests an upside to “egoism” which more or less maps to Rand’s conception. However, she ends up diluting her editorial when describing Shevek’s revulsion at the “egoism” of an Urrastri couple getting hot and heavy in full view of a group of people.  Apparently, immodest displays of sexual attraction are on par with individual displays of independent thought.  Got it, Ursula.

Her notions of altruism are equally daft and run afoul of Rand’s actual position. Shevek and his friends conduct their own Stanford Prison Experiment on one another just to feel what’s it’s like to deny freedom to another and to experience an absence of freedom.  When Shevek expresses concern for their captive friend, he is chided by his compatriot not to get “altruistic”.  Le Guin is clearly trying to highlight the monstrosity of imprisonment, but she completely mischaracterizes Rand’s view of altruism. Rand consistently argued that altruism was a toxic and debilitating worldview because it ultimately fueled a pointless and narcissistic sense of self-abnegation. Most importantly, she abhorred the ceaseless desire to petition an authority to adjudicate the parameters of the alleged altruism.  To be fair, Le Guin’s usage of the term alternates between pejorative and complimentary, and it’s difficult to tell where she ultimately stands.

The major intersection between Rand and Le Guin occurs in Shevek’s development of the Theory of Simultanaiety; the theory which would allow the development of an intergalactic internet. Not only does Le Guin use this to distinguish the importance of asserting individualism, but she uses it to make a worthwhile point about sharing ideas even if she misrepresents the nature of intellectual property in the process.  Just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Shevek risked ostracism and reproach from fellow Odonians in order to develop the idea. According to Le Guin, intellectual property belongs to the State, and subsequently, is just another form of dominion over others. This is partially true, but fundamentally false. Intellectual property is a monopoly right conferred by the State to the holder of the property claim. It confers state power to the holder of the right.  Ursula Le Guin would know. She’s a huge advocate for it.

Though her commentary on gender is rife with progressive clichés around “equality”, it is noteworthy that she appears to be a forerunner of the whole neutral/non-binary view of gender that’s all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, her views hew very closely to the pretentious postmodern ramblings of Judith Butler.  In the Odonian tongue, “brother” and “sister” share the same noun. Odonians have sex with males and females as adolescents and there is no stigma associated with this activity.  She also anticipated the current trend of subverting gender stereotypes by casting females in roles traditionally perceived as male. The entire book seems like the blueprint for the now omnipresent push for women in STEM. Like most contemporary feminists, Le Guin seems to dismiss equality of opportunity and focuses obsessively on equality of outcomes. She seems to relate to inequity of outcome as evidence of retrograde attitudes all by themselves. She also disregards the gender imbalance in science as a product of natural choices or differences in skill levels. While on Urras, Shevek expresses total surprise at the complete absence of women in science. Naturally, she portrays the scientists of Urras as sexist oafs who are somehow keeping women subservient and subordinate.

She goes so far out of her way to create female heroes and invert every gendered convention, that it feels overly calculated. At times, it suggests a subtle contempt for motherhood. In this respect, Le Guin’s thought seems to anticipate the broader trend in feminism which all too often reduces to a singleminded focus on terminating pregnancy. This Orwellian attempt to erase any semblance of women as caregivers in art is now commonplace. In other words, it comes across like propaganda. Odo, the matriarch of the revolution was female and her teachings formed the foundation of Odonian society. What a coincidence. The foundations of a revolutionary anarchist matriarchy were written by a woman. How totally meta, Ursula. Shevek’s mother leaves his father when he was a baby to devote herself to her engineering career because her Duty to the People® took priority over her own child. The physicist who inspired Shevek’s work was a woman, too. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s got a uterus and she had theories which weren’t taken seriously even in the matriarchal utopia of Anarres. To Ursula Le Guin, women just don’t get taken seriously in this capitalist patriarchy and motherhood and biology are no big deal. 

Le Guin betrays a smug, repressive elitism towards women who flaunt their sexuality by wearing makeup or provocative clothing. It’s an attitude that’s sadly endemic to a significant segment of the contemporary feminist “movement”. Vea is portrayed as an attractive woman, and yet, for Odonians and Le Guin she’s a “body propertarian” whose humanity is absent simply because she’s provocatively dressed and made up.  Who’s the one objectifying and dehumanizing, Ursula? You or that evil patriarchy?

And what feminist novel would be complete without a scene of sexual assault?  Apparently, we just can’t talk about gender politics without some rape editorial. The assault scene between Vea and Shevek stands in sharp contrast to the scene between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon portrayed in The Fountainhead. Here, Le Guin betrays a pretty obviously low opinion of men’s capacity for self-control.  Once Shevek gets a little bit to drink and is in the presence of a woman who’s made up and wearing sexy clothes, he is seemingly unable to stop himself from committing assault. His monk-like existence amongst the joyless, preachy pro-feminism communists of Anarres just couldn’t contain those toxic male urges. 

The Dispossessed is book that’s moderately engaging and asks the right philosophical questions, but mostly arrives at the wrong conclusions. In science fiction, I expect some flights of imagination, and in this respect, Le Guin borders on a sort of pedantic realism that feels slightly inappropriate for the genre. It’s almost as though she’s disconnected from the things that make science fiction fun and engaging. It’s burdened by a certain overly earnest preachiness and stoicism.  As a work of philosophy, it gets a few things right, but misses the mark more often than not. Kropotkin, Bookchin and Le Guin were completely correct about state power. Unfortunately, she and her intellectual forebears were incorrect about property rights, market economics and the proper application of violent force.  I would be inclined to disregard all of the gender politics, but the collection of ideas presented are so prevalent nowadays, it demands a vigorous rebuttal. The stranglehold of Marxist and post-Marxist ideals remains as strong as ever. The eco-communist ideas of Murray Bookchin are even getting a second wind in the alleged “anarchist” feminist utopia of Rojava. Naturally, it was dutifully reported by the progressives at the New York Times. I hope Le Guin is happy that a real life version of Anarres is being attempted right before our eyes.

The argument for anarchism is the definitive argument of our times and Ursula Le Guin is to be commended for making an earnest contribution to this debate through science fiction. It’s too bad she’s on the wrong side of the argument.

Ayn Rand: Anthem

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After going 43 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.

No surprises.

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 surprise! his invention is a light bulb).  There is simply no questioning the validity and veracity of her revelations!

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.

Divergent (2014)

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Candy coated dystopian SF for the youth set. Not completely shitty, but it certainly squanders a juicy premise.

Society is run by five factions (Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent) because the state has determined that this particular social order keeps the peace. Naturally, the do-gooders in Abnegation run the government and they are virtuous and pure and all of the poor souls in this faction work for the government.  They live in homes which are completely uniform, they conserve energy, eat nutritious but meager meals, and most importantly, indoctrinate the idea that you must place the concern of others above yourself and that this sense of altruism must be funneled into government service. They’re presented as one dimensional puritans yet likeable enough to make you somewhat sympathetic. The heroine of the story, Beatrice, is the daughter of the leaders of Abnegation, and as you can imagine, she dreams of escaping the suffocating piety of her faction. Mysteriously, they are apparently as virtuous as they are portrayed and society runs like a charm under their benevolent hand, but whatever. We’ll go with it.

Everyone in society submits their children to a ceremony in which they choose a faction to which they’ll remain faithful for LIFE!  Not only that, everyone submits to a chemically induced test which offers a “suggestion” about which faction they should select.  So far, this is an awful lot of obedience to government power and yet, life still seems pretty serene and pleasant. Food is apparently plentiful. There is advanced technology, all of the factions are productive and happy, homelessness is present but manageable, and get this, the law enforcement faction, Dauntless, is pure and virtuous and NEVER resort to militaristic crackdowns!  They are super sexy have rad tats to boot.  Again, this is a lot of overall pleasantness considering that what’s being presented is a totalitarian society, but whatever. We’ll go with it.

Beatrice takes the test, and surprise! She’s Divergent! Which means she cannot be controlled by the government! Of course, she’s warned not to reveal this information because she’ll be marked for death.

She chooses the Dauntless faction, turns herself into a badass, and gets all hot and heavy with her hunky, tattooed squad leader.

As it turns out, the Erudite faction is planning a coup d’état by drugging the Dauntless goons and ordering them to grease the hippies in Abnegation en masse.

And this is where it gets a little groan inducing.  The inevitable struggle between Beatrice and the despotic Erudite bitch who engineered the coup ensues. Naturally, the goons are centrally controlled by a computer program and as long as our Divergent heroine dismantles the program, the world is saved, order is preserved, and the spotless virtue and benevolence of Dauntless remains untainted. So in other words, our individualistic dissident Divergent Beatrice asserts her individuality by SAVING THE GOVERNMENT and restoring power to the do-gooders in Abnegation.  Because apparently, a totalitarian society with an enforced social order isn’t so bad if it’s run by do-gooders!

The only thing that redeems this bit of inanity is that she and the be-tatted hunky dude bail from society altogether. I realize we live in a society where the lines between corporate power and state power are intertwined. But it really burns my ass when people do dystopian SF and ascribe all benevolence and/or power to government and completely disregard the distinction between economic life and state power.

It feels half-assed and timid.  George Orwell was unequivocal about the source of malevolence in 1984, folks. It’s worth remembering this.

But enough carping.  It’s entertaining enough.  A pleasant Diversion.

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

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A first rate war SF and dystopian tale.

This book’s reputation as a classic is well deserved.  It succeeds at being an engrossing and very convincing tale of a futuristic war while simultaneously etching out the contours of the grotesque and horrifying political world that would send soldiers to the farthest flung corners of the universe to fight a seemingly unconquerable enemy.

It is a well documented fact that Mr. Haldeman intended this book as a commentary on Vietnam, but I believe that he achieved something far greater. By placing events in a far future, his extrapolations succeed in leveling a critique of the absurdity and inhumanity of the state war machine that seem chillingly plausible.

Over half the Earth’s domestic population are unemployed and all taxpayer funds have been diverted to fund the war.  The best and brightest citizens have been conscripted and all of the technological innovation is being deployed in service of the conflict. Heterosexuality has been bred out of the population as way of maintaining control of the herd. Private citizens have to hire bodyguards because crime is so rampant.  Gun control laws prohibit the acquisition of lasers except for law enforcement. The government has completely overtaken the management of the economy.  And so on.

Haldeman’s physics are also quite convincing. He is attentive to details but never at the expense of momentum. The training maneuvers which take place on Charon (!!!) at the beginning of the novel are harrowing because they are remarkably detailed but rendered with the voice of unforced, casual detachment one hears from a soldier enduring any earthbound military shithole.

Haldeman is also wisely attentive to economics as well as physics.  SF has given us so many fantastic visions of scientific advancement, but often at the exclusion of the economic portion of the equation. This aspect lends this book yet another layer of resonance.

As someone who has been fortunate enough not to have seen the horror of war, this book more than succeeds as a reminder that the warmomgers of the state deserve our fullest contempt and our most fervent opposition.