By Ayn Rand
Two editions published by LibriVox
Read by Chere Theriot and Phil Chenevert
I was somewhat surprised and amused to find this audiobook listed under science fiction in the LibriVox catalog, but perhaps I should not have been. Written in 1937, Anthem, is a classic post-apocalyptic dystopia.
It takes place in the future although just how far into the future it is hard to say, although my guess is that it is at least one thousand years after whatever fall of civilization happened. That’s just a wild guess and it could be much longer, but we learn that there have been many generations since then. Eventually we also learn that the purpose of the “Scholars” is to determine what new technologies (if any) can be reintroduced to society – apparently they have only had candles for the last one hundred years and whether or not to allow them inspired a fifty-year long debate. This bit, I feel, was gross exaggeration since candles have been in use for over twenty-five hundred years (or possibly much longer, depending on who you listen to). Perhaps, she had in mind the fact that in Europe candles were not introduced until somewhat later, but only because there was ample olive and other oils that were used for illumination instead, so that it was not until the Middle Ages that candles began to replace oil lamps there, and her society seems rather medieval, technology-wise.
The Society is one of complete collectivism, which as any reader of Ayn Rand should be aware, was a societal form she was entirely against and with good reason. The story, however takes it to a ridiculous extreme and, for me, somewhat beyond belief. but I am getting ahead of myself.
The story is told in the first person, but done so with intentional clumsiness as the people of this future society have no knowledge of any first person pronoun. The society supposedly trains them from birth to have no conscious of individualism. Honestly, I believe that is impossible. The people in the story, who have names that sound like old-fashioned phone numbers (Equality 7-2521, Union 5-3992, International 4-8818, Beachwood 4-5789 and Pennsylvania 6-5000) The lack of the first person also makes it difficult, at first to figure out just what is going one too until you realize that everyone is going to sound like a king… or an editor. However, even without a first person pronoun to use, it becomes apparent that the people naturally have the concept, so that part of it falls apart even if in the story the discovery and use of the word “I” is punished by burning at the stake.
The actual story – that of Equality 7-2521 – is a thin tale of how he became a street sweeper because he had expressed a preference to be a scholar (a punishment that probably should have been reserved for politicians) and how during his street sweeping he met a woman with whom he fell in love with on first sight, in spite of the fact that he had no word for that either. He immediately gave her a name in his mind – “The Golden One” (proving the language does have the concept of individualism after all) and later we learn she has named him, “The Unconquered.”
After he is arrested for being late to bed while discovering electricity (which somehow he immediately uses to power a light bulb – take that Mister Edison! Oh, okay, he found an old light bulb underground), he manages to escape his prison simply because no one thought to lock him in or guard him (really?) since no one would fail to accept his just punishment, he takes his discovery to the Scholars who tell him he must be kills and his discovery destroyed lest it disrupt the Department of Candles. So he grabs is box with the working light bulb and hightails it for the wilderness only to discover that his girlfriend has decided to follow him there.
They find a place to live that amazingly has not only failed to fall to dust and rubble, but is in good shape with lots of books to read. Amazingly everyone is literate and the language has not change a whit since the fall of civilization. Eventually he becomes Prometheus and she is Gaea and they plan to bring individualism back to the world. Happy ending?
Okay, let us face the truth. The story, such as it is, is only window dressing. It is just there to allow Rand to expound on the evils of collectivism. If you are looking for a fully developed plot, look elsewhere. The situation is ludicrous and the conditions of collectivism utterly impossible in such a state. However, societal realism was not what Rand was trying to portray. It is obvious that she intentionally took all forms of collectivism to their logical extreme. I seriously doubt even she believed such a society might be able to exist, but then I also do not believe she was attempting to tell a story. Her purpose was to expound her philosophy.
Was she successful? Yes, I think so. The story is much better than Orwell’s 1984 (which came along over a decade later) but just as heavy-handed as his Animal Farm. Also I must say I would have preferred to read Anthem in high school that anything by Orwell, but I will leave my rants about how I think required reading is selected by school boards for another time.
Both readers did an acceptable job on this novella. Each had their strengths and weaknesses so which you might prefer is a matter of taste. Librivox actually offers several recordings of this story, so if you don’t like one, try another. I liked Theriot’s pronunciation of the character’s names, but was not entirely pleased by the way he voiced the characters. On the other hand, Phil Chenevert had a tendency to sound sarcastic in many passages. In some cases that was appropriate, but not always. In all, however, I enjoyed listening to both. I think both readers attempted to read the story respectfully, which I will admit can be difficult as I have rarely read or listened to a story more open to parody.
So if you like dystopias with heavy handed philosophical messages, this might well be the tale for you. As I said above this seems more appropriate to me as required high school English reading than anything by George Orwell, but anytime a story gets too serious it becomes all the more easy to satirize. Either way, it could be worse, but as for picking the better reader, I’ll leave that up to you.