Review: Anthem

by Tom Ingram

I have to admit, I went into this book biased. I didn’t want to like Anthem, because in general I don’t like Ayn Rand or most of the stuff she stands for. Objectivism has some good ideas that are no-brainers, and then some really batshit crazy ones, and in general I think you’d be better off picking your beliefs via dartboard. Also, Rand is legendary for her long-windedness. So Anthem was a bit of a surprise.

The book follows Equality 7-2521 (herein referred to as Dave), as he begins to have doubts about the nature of his civilization. It’s written in first-person, journal-style. The civilization in question is in the far future, after humanity has fallen and uber-collectivists took over. The needs of the state became all-important, and individualism was not only frowned upon, but banned and eventually made unthinkable by endless brainwashing. One of the results of this is that the words “I”, “me”, and “mine” are no longer used, and everyone refers to themselves and others with plural pronouns. This is supposed to make a point, but it does lead to grammatical weirdness at times.

Dave finds an ancient subway station while on the job, and decides to take the place as his own. He sneaks away whenever he can and performs scientific experiments, gradually learning that everything he was ever taught is wrong and his entire society is based on willful ignorance and slavery.

He also meets a woman, who he nicknames “The Golden One”. The two of them exchange secret greetings while they work outside the city. Dave shares his secret, forbidden thoughts with her, and the two of them become close, although they’re still missing something. Meanwhile, Dave manages to reinvent the lightbulb, and plans to give it to the World Council of Scholars as a gift. Things don’t go as planned, and Dave has to leave the city forever and rediscover the old spirit of humanity.

Anthem‘s major theme is individuality and its importance. Overall, I think that’s a good message, but it’s hammered in a little too hard. The book says nothing that wasn’t said a decade later and much better by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s also a prologue at the beginning that smacks of authorial whininess–Rand complains that initially American publishers were reluctant to publish it, saying “you may make your own guess as to the reason why”. One assumes that they didn’t believe the book would sell well, and therefore it wasn’t in their best interests to publish it. After all, they’re not a charity. Ain’t irony a bitch, Ayn?

Anyway, that aside, Anthem was an enjoyable read. It still hasn’t made an Objectivist out of me, but I honestly can’t find all that much to complain about in this story. It’s fast-paced, tightly plotted, fairly well-written, and above all, short.

You can find Anthem online at Chapters, McNally, or Amazon if you’re internationally inclined.