Friday, 23 December 2016

Book review: Atlas shrugged

This originally appeared at but I don't maintain that any more. Don't miss my review of Anathem.

Quick summary: (too) long, interesting, enjoyable (as long as you skip stuff), but ultimately unacceptable.

A famous work; here's its wiki entry. I'm not going to bother attack its many faults too strongly, because they are too obvious. If you want to read someone disliking it, try CIP. As a token: the many long dense passages of philosophy - Rand's "Objectivism" - that lard the book get increasingly boring as they repeat. This culminates in John Galt's 70-page 2-3 hour speech on the radio, which is more like something you'd get in Cuba or communist Russia than in the cold West. Some of the characters - the dashing pirate - are laughably implausible. But enough criticism (errm, I won't keep to that. Sorry).

The image the book conjures up - of a fading darkening America crumbling under the weight of an unproductive, uncomprehending and eventually almost unwittingly hostile bureaucracy or parasitic class is well done, and will strike a chord with anyone who actually makes things. Those who work for the govt may be less impressed (token: I find her hatred of all govt funded research ridiculous. But hey, I was a govt-funded scientist for years). But Rand's solution - that all the able folk withdraw their labour and their physical selves and rebuild society in a quiet corner before, presumably, walking into the territory emptied by starvation, cold and strife is hard to see as acceptable. As an aside, at the present day, the central core of the hardened capitalist struggling to keep a railroad - yes, a railroad - going seems very quaint and 50s.

A veil is drawn over most of the deaths, but she helpfully provides one example: the wood burning transcontinental sleeper train taken through the long tunnel. It gets stuck inside, and everyone dies. Rand is at pains to set up the incident as an example of bureaucratic stubbornness and buck-passing (someone at the top decrees the train must get through, but all the way down officials area at pains to ensure that the disastrous orders they give can't be traced back to them) and does her best to make it seem as though all the passengers deserve death; but they don't.

You'll have to forgive me some vagueness here: I started reading the book on the way back from the Amsterdam marathon last October, and finished it a few weeks later, so my memory is fading.

And yet the two key intermingled ideas are worth thinking about: that there is a parasitic class leaching off the productive, and that this class is actively harmful (in Darwinian terms, they are bad parasites). In the book, as things go wrong, the parasites use fear of the problems to gain more power and control, and they use that power to throw patronage at their friends, but they also make genuine (to them; at least the book doesn't try to say otherwise) attempts to fix things, but because they are incompetent things just get worse. The attempt-to-fix-but-fail stuff is very true to life for anyone watching politics ever. The Tobin Tax propsed for the EU is a possible example. The stupid carbon trading schemes are another. These are examples where pols motivated by - well, we cant see into their minds, so we have to guess - a combination of shallow and wishful thinking, carelessness and stupidity, and a desire for patronage, act to make the world worse.

Since I've mentioned Darwin I need to complete the thought: which is, that parasites are universal, unless you make great efforts to remove them. Rand's idea is for a parasite-free society. Like many others she has no patience for fixing the old - its a tired toy, she will throw it away and make a new shiny one; lives don't matter to her; or at least, not the lives of small people. Inevitably, her new world would acquire parasites, but that's for the future. Our world is infested by parasites; what keeps them down is partly Democracy and blah; partly that anywhere that becomes too uncompetitive gets out-competed. That's not a careful analysis, but what I mean is that we accept a balance as we must: as long as society functions, and produces enough wealth for all or most, we tolerate some parasites. And at least at the moment it is working: the share captured by the unproductive isn't too high. In Atlas Shrugged Rand has had to produce a less capable society that succumbs to the weight of parasites - though even there it isn't really clear that it would do, if it wasn't for the "strike". Rand's various protagonists have decided - amongst themselves - that all the invisible deaths are worth it, to them. It is a very individualistic philosophy, and to support its plausibility all the lead characters are implausibly capable.

If you agree that Rand's apparent solution - restrict, retreat and rebuild - isn't very plausible, what lesson does the book teach? Just, resistance to stupid bureaucracy I suppose. Put like that, its not profound. And I do sense that many of the book's admirers are motivated more by some savage uncomprehending hatred of The System rather than by a desire, themselves, to try to build something better. Nonetheless there is something there.

[Edited to add: if I'm not mis-remembering, another important element to Rand was the coercive power of the State: its structure and authority is based ultimately on force. She doesn't like this; it doesn't fit with her individualistic world. Nonetheless in the book the state is rather uncoercive: only at the end is there a carefully contrived torture-John-Galt scene, which is inserted only to fulfil her own prophecy, that the state will ultimately resort to force. In this, I'm firmly with Thomas Hobbes and against Rand: without the Civil Sword, no compacts and hence no civil society is possible. Rand's insistence otherwise places her with the hippies and flower children, who she would despise.]

Book review: An Inspector Calls

Technically a play not a book, but I read Miranda's copy. We will be going to see the play, too, so you may get a "play review" next year.

An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley is, as wiki says, 'classic "drawing room" theatre'. It works very well; well written, neatly handled, and there is one (or perhaps two) clever and one not so clever twists at the end. However there are flaws: the final ending is not needed and is one twist too many, and probably blurs the message; the inspector's final speech reads like something out of Ayn Rand (though mercifully much shorter) and is far too unsubtle; and the whole thing is, in a way, too well turned.

Let me do that last criticism first. The play is very "neat": everything fits carefully together, all the threads fit, everyone reacts as they have to. This helps keep things moving along and helps keep you reading, but begins to feel by the end a little too pat, a little too careful (yes I know my criticism of the final twist somewhat vitiates this point, but never mind, I shall leave you with it anyway).

The inspector's final speech is a rousing cry to, well, whatever; I didn't actually read it; or if I did, I immeadiately forgot it. I've read such things before. For an actual real inspector, it would have been totally out of character, and I think you'd have expected Mr Birling to notice and complain of this. But more importantly, it is entirely unnecessary to anyone who has been paying any attention to the play. The play has carefully brought out the various aspects of the way in which the family's behaviour has lead to the death of the young woman - or, when you realise she may have been a composite, the various aspects in which they have degraded the lives of various women. That's a good way to do it, because in a sense the audience "discover" this for themselves, and will be inclined to accept the ideas. But when the inspector jumps up and tries to ram the same thoughts down your throat, you rebel. Or at least, I did.

The revelation that the young woman is - probably - a composite is clever, and well done. Probably the best bit of the play. Suddenly, a number of things we saw before - principally, the inspector only showing a photo to one person at a time - all make sense. Also, excellently, we see the way different people react to it: most obviously, the two children retain their - deserved, admitted - guilt; whilst the parents discard it, concerned only for outside appearances. And Gerald is perhaps ambiguously in between.

A tension that I think could have been explored, but wasn't: what will the two children do? The implication, by the end, is that disgusted by their parents they will leave home, and live on... what? How will they balance their conscience against comfort and financial security? Another unexplored aspect was the relation between Gerald and Sheila. The implication is that their nice, comfortable but rather shallow "love" has been disrupted by events, but perhaps they have come to see each other more deeply; Sheila's brief note that they'll need to start from the beginning again is quite touching. Perhaps that's all that is needed.

I expected more about knighthood. At the start the scene is carefully set: Arthur is prosperous but second-rank, and the marriage and knighthood would pull him up. As the play went on he should have become more and more desperate to avoid any of this becoming public (he is concerned to some extent, but not nearly as much as he should be). Perhaps that wasn't necessary; the play is about something a little deeper than social class.

Lastly, the final twist - that someone really has died - rather jars. It seems pointless and disruptive. "What does that mean?" we inevitably ask, and inevitably there is no answer. Does it mean that the carefully constructed twist about the composite Eva is wrong? That would be most unsatisfying. Does it mean that instead of having to consider their morality, we're back to a rather more straightforward tale of worrying about nasty details becoming public? That, too, would be unsatisfying. Again, it seems so unsubtle; as though some theatre manager, unsatisfied with the play's existing subtle and ambiguous ending, wanted some zing at the end. Before that last twist, the "inspector" has come to seem like something supernatural, a kind of angel, who has brought harsh truth into these people's lives, and given them the chance to react and show their characters. That was all that was needed.