Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is the way to read Ayn Rand

Anthem by Ayn Rand

So I had heard of Ayn Rand before and I had heard that her novels were very philosophical and perhaps life-changing? I was hesitant to say the least. Then I saw the length of her two most famous novels. I decided that perhaps Ayn Rand wasn't for me. Then I read a summary of some of her philosophies. That confirmed it.

And yet when I came across this particular book I took a second glance at it and was curious enough to read the dust jacket. It sounded interesting enough and happened to be short enough (less than 90 pages) so I decided to read it that day.

The setting is your typical dystopia. An indeterminate future time where individuality is not only suppressed, it is downright illegal. To enhance this idea the entire novel is written in first-person plural. The main character refers to himself as "we" and to other characters as "they". The main character is torn between his scientific curiosity and the ingrained idea that individuality is a sin. The two come to a head when he discovers an ancient tunnel from the "before times" that no one is allowed to talk about.

This story has all your typical dystopian traits. Future world, individual thinker against a group mindset, love as an expression of individuality. The thing that bugs me is that Rand's anti-individualist future resembles the dark ages. Rejecting science is apparently the way to get everyone thinking the same way? Whatever. Also, how the heck does this guy survive once he breaks free of the repressive society? He'll have to learn to hunt, to fashion weapons, to grow food...none of which he has any training in or knowledge of. He was friggin' street sweeper after all. He can sweep and pick up litter, but plowing and knowing when to sow? I remain unconvinced that he survived his rediscovery of individualism.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Science fiction without science

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a straight-up love story about a man and a woman (Henry and Claire) who just happen to first meet each other at different points in their lives. This is because Henry has a genetic mutation that causes him to time travel. So Claire ends up first meeting Henry when she is about 6 and Henry is time traveling from his mid-30s. Henry first meets Claire when she chances to visit the library that he works at, while he's not time traveling. Are you confused yet? The rest of the story describes how Henry and Claire attempt to maintain their relationship through not only the uncertainties of regular life but the added complications of Henry's time traveling, which happens involuntarily and with little advance warning.

If you are easily confused by time travel and causality paradoxes then you probably shouldn't read this book. Although the author provides useful dates, ages of the leading characters in the current scene, and indicates which narrator is speaking it might be easier to follow along if you create your own timeline of the two characters' lives.

The reason I call this science fiction without the science is because there is no science. Well, okay, maybe a tiny, minuscule, vague hint at science in one chapter when Henry visits the geneticist. That's it. Henry's time travel has nothing to do with levers, gears, complex chemical reactions, etc. It just happens. The only common denominator is Henry's stress level, which is consistently very high, especially for someone who works in a library. Maybe if he didn't time travel so much he'd have less stress...but wait, that's what causes him to time travel...oh noes!

So yeah, there's a few paradoxes that crop up because Henry invariably visits times and places and people that he knows in the past or will know in the future. Henry states that actions in the past or the future have already happened bringing up loads of questions about free will. In my mind it doesn't necessarily negate free will, people remain free to choose their actions, Henry just happens to already know their choice. The paradox then comes when he shares his future knowledge with people. You're left with a situation where that person made a particular choice because of what Henry told them but what Henry told them was based on the fact that they had already made that particular choice. Okay, now you're confused.

In summary, Niffenegger wrote about 150 more pages than was really necessary. She wrote excellent foreshadowing but because of Henry's statement of causality early on, the last part of the book becomes fairly predictable. I wouldn't classify this as science fiction as other people have but nevertheless it is a pretty good story.