Sunday, 16 August 2009

Strong Individuals

Well, I finally got to the top of the holds list for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a bit of a hoot – Jane Austen’s original with inserted zombie killings. It provides a kind of twist to left-field on the original story – it’s main characters have studied martial arts in the East, have dojos attached to their houses, and in Lady Catherine’s case are attended by ninja bodyguards. It has some quite funny moments, like when Charlotte Lucas gets infected shortly before her marriage to Mr Collins and slowly turns into a zombie, unnoticed by all but Elizabeth. Other bits are more predictable, like Elizabeth’s interview with Lady Catherine ending with a sword fight – no prizes for guessing the winner. Overall it’s a bit flat – I certainly won’t be lining up for any of the further Austen rip-offs leaping onto the gravy train.

More to my taste was a little book I picked up from the Lifeline book sale in January and finally got to reading. It’s a science fiction novel by Kate Wilhelm called Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. I’d never heard of Wilhelm but I can never resist a post-apocalyptic story and besides, it won the Hugo for best novel in 1977. I’ve since looked her up on the web and found she’s still active in her 80s and with a long list of science fiction and mystery publications.

The first thing that struck me on reading it is how much science fiction writing has advanced since 1977. The prose style is merely adequate, the characters mainly stereotypes and the plot a little sketchy. That shouldn’t stop you reading it, though, because it’s a fascinating example of how science fiction responds to the world in which it is written.

A quick summary for you. Humanity’s destruction of the environment leads to a rapid ecological collapse, combined with a plague that renders humans infertile. Most of humanity is wiped out, but a group of forward looking people establish a refuge for themselves in a remote US location and set up a cloning operation to ensure the continuation of the race until fertility recovers.

Things don’t exactly go to plan, because the clones aren’t entirely like other human beings. Each group of clones is not only genetically identical, but has a close telepathic bond which means they feel each others’ emotions and risk insanity when parted from one another. They develop their own collectivist ethos based on this bond – the group is more important than the individual, those who upset the group must be banished, natural birth is only of value in maintaining genetic diversity and providing new individuals to clone. Those few people who show individual traits, through accidents of birth or through separation from their “brothers” or “sisters”, are persecuted and in most cases eliminated.

Yep, you got it! This is a cold war story in which individualism and collectivism struggle for supremacy. Guess which one wins? Hint – the writer is an American. The community becomes more and more repressive – people are cloned in greater numbers, they are driven to work harder and explore further despite the damage this does to them. Yet with each generation the quality declines – they become less intelligent, less creative, less able to adapt to new situations. Meanwhile the hero of the latter part of the book, a boy accidentally born as a single individual and barely tolerated by the community, runs rings around the rest of them, finally breaking away with a few others to form his own community based on natural childbirth and individual initiative. 20 years later he returns to the original community and finds no-one has survived.

It’s an interesting idea but it skates over a few things – like was the environmental destruction that begins the book caused by collectivism, or by individualism? And how do the strong individuals survive without some sort of collective effort?

Wanting to explore a bit further, I decided to finally have a go at reading the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I picked up off a library throw-out table years ago. Rand is way more famous than Kate Wilhelm - not because she’s a better writer so much as a prominent philosopher, a key promoter of “objectivism” and radical individualism. She even has an institute dedicated solely to promoting her work.

I won’t bore you with her philosophy but let me tell you about The Fountainhead. It’s all about architects, used and abused as a symbol for the kind of world humans build. The architecture profession as a whole is portrayed as in thrall to the past, thrusting on the public a pastiche of historical European styles, while the architects themselves lie and cheat their way to the top. By contrast her hero, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect who can’t get work because he insists on designing buildings solely on the basis of their function and their location.

Sadly none of her characters are appealing, and Roark least of all. While the rest plan, scheme and betray their way to the top he remains an arrogantly aloof monomaniac, a man who has no friends, no sense of humour, no joy, no life except for the buildings he longs to design. I struggled on for a while with these unpleasant people and checked out at the scene a third of the way through where Roark rapes the key female character in the story and she enjoys it. If individualism is about people who have no life, refuse to compromise with anyone else and show their mastery by committing rape then Ms Rand can keep it.

At least Kate Wilhelm’s hero has some ethics – not only is he a great practical joker in a community with no humour, he does his best to save the community, only sleeps with women by consent and finally takes as many people with him as he can. But still, it only goes to show that, great individual though he is, he can’t survive on his own. We need each other. We are social creatures, we reproduce sexually, and our genetic and social diversity make us strong.

No comments: