Saturday, October 4, 2008

THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO and SCIENCE FICTION: Out of the Gutter, and to the Stars

Ayn Rand was a promoter of the Romantic Realism school of literature, but stories such as ANTHEM and ATLAS SHRUGGED contain bits of science fiction and fantasy, genres she both defended as ideally related to Romanticism. Her influence has made its way into STAR TREK, SPIDERMAN, and the works of Terry Goodkind. What better idea than romanticism is as well-suited to a genre identified with the perennial question “what if?"

Rand is mentioned briefly but significantly in O'neil's SCREEN FLIGHTS, SCREEN FANTASIES: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema. The foreword by writer Harlan Ellison makes a typical backhanded compliment to Ayn Rand. First, he writes:

The history of the sci-fi-film is only as old as the history of the cinema itself; and it's a history being written new each year. If Coppola can create THE CONVERSATION ("But that ain't sci-fi!") and Frankenheimer can translate David Ely's SECONDS ("But that ain't sci-fi!") and Charly Gordon can stand before us on a screen and open his hand to bring tears to our eyes with nothing but a dead mouse ("But that ain't sci-fi!"), then even the Specter at the Banquet can retain some hope that one day the Lucases, Kasdens, Spielbergs and Ridley Scotts will put aside their flashy toys and pay heed to the only subject that is worth their enormous gifts: the study of the human heart in conflict with itself.

Ellison concludes: "And they will accept, perhaps, as their epigraphs, one of the few sane things ever said by Ayn Rand: 'Anyone who fights for the future lives in it today.'"

I am not familiar with Ellison enough to know the exact basis of his smear, except that his stories are typically dark and dystopian. I am not familiar with his examples to know what they represent (the dead mouse bit is sketchy, and the story of CHARLY, based on FLOWER FOR ALGERNON, is one of those "happiness is ignorance" type of stories.) But his quoting of Rand is interesting in his criticism of science fiction, because his criticisms of sci-fi are similar to the criticism that Rand made of the genre. And if Ellison were an honest critic of Rand, he would know that Rand provided many "sane" words on the topic and provided an antidote to the syndrome of sci-fi escapism, while he chose to stay involved with the very people he was fighting. Rand chose to depict romantically realistic worlds of heroes, while Ellison chose to focus on the dark with an attitude that intentionally antagonizes in the arrogant manner of a coward who thinks he's an egotist.

Rand is quoted in AYN RAND ANSWERS as saying that sci-fi is “a legitimate form of literature, but it's seldom good. Science fiction used to be original and sometimes interesting; today it's junk. I dislike it because it's too freewheeling. You can invent anything you wish and say that's the science of the future. They go too far that way."

Rand's complaint is similar to Ellison's, that most sci-fi falls into clich├ęs of high tech, giant monsters, and space cowboys. (Ellison points out that the idea of taking westerns and setting them in space is second-handed eclecticism.) And sci-fi stories that are set in the future often use "the future" as nothing more than a high-tech projection of today's current understanding. The irony is that science fiction is something of a misnomer; the original term was "speculative fiction." The "science" may be the star of the show, but the real story is the human mind. And not the mind as inventor of gadgets, but the mind that asks "What if?". Science fiction is ideally the offspring of Romanticism, the school of literature that says man is a being of choice and self-determination. The real questions are not "what if giant ants took over the planet", but "what if I decide this course of action?". "What if I take control of my own destiny?" When Ellison says that the only subject worthy of study is "the human heart is in conflict with itself," he is echoing Rand's dismissal of "man against nature" stories, of the sci-fi stories of the Jules Vernes variety, and, of course, the naturalistic stories of predetermination. Rand, like Ellison, criticized the flashy, action-oriented Wells-Vernes variety of sci-fi for their premise that "man possesses volition in regard to existence, but not to consciousness, i.e., in regard to his physical actions, but not in regard to his own character."

Just as Ellison calls to task the creators of b-movie sci-fi for its emphasis on creatures, spaceships, and flashing pyrotechnics as an end in themselves, Rand calls to task the culture that discourages the child from seeing past the eye candy for the deeper, abstract themes. "They arrest his value-development on a primitively literal, concrete-bound level: they convince him that to be like Buck Rogers means to wear a space helmet and blast armies of Martians with a disintegrator gun, and that he's better give up such notions if he ever expects to make a respectable living...'Buck Rogers?-ha-ha!-never gets any colds in the head...don't you go on imagining that you're better than the rest of us!"

Rand claims that "[t]heir motive is obvious...Every form of unleashed against a child at the first signs of his Romanticism...'Life is not like that!' and 'Come down to Earth!' are the catchphrases which best summarize the motives of the attackers, as well as the view of life and of this earth which they seek to inculcate."

Just as the Romantic school of literature was condemned for not presenting the "statistical average" of mankind, so the enemies of heroism and self-determination attempt to ground the young space cadet, to keep his head out of the clouds and his eyes fixed on the muddy ground that holds his feet. Actually, the so-called "grown ups" have no problem with the helmets and ray guns, but with the idea of heroism and moral judgment. Sci-fi stories of the popular action variety are often black and white in their depictions of heroes and villains. The stories are also accused of being nothing more than "escapism." But the child who is looking for another world does so because the adults around him have seemingly destroyed this one. Being small, young, and overpowered, he projects himself into environments where he can take control of his life, indicating a drive towards self-determination and efficacy. The adult who resents his own stunted aspirations will not tolerate any departures of the spirit from a child.

The child who is stunted in this way will be resigned to see sci-fi as nothing more than robots and spaceships, or accept values only in the realm of "other dimensions". The child knows that "it isn't exactly Buck Rogers he has in mind and yet, simultaneously, it is-he feels caught in an inner contradiction-and this confirms his desolately embarrassing feeling that he is being ridiculous."

Rand and Ellison both have a similar agenda against the trappings of genre conventions. But Ellison's stab at Rand is revealing of his own dark stylings. Ellison's rude, purposely offensive persona seems like the result of a child who grew up to reject the comprachicos, but gives them more significance than deserved by playing the devil to their angel. But since he quoted from the introduction to Rand's ROMANTIC MANIFESTO as a rare “sane” remark from Rand, it’s likely that he read further and did not miss Rand's conclusion to the chapter "Art and Moral Treason":

If he finds himself fearing, evading and negating the highest experience possible to man, a state of unclouded exaltation, he can know that he is in profound trouble and that his only alternatives are: either to check his value-premises from scratch, from the start, from the repressed, forgotten, betrayed figure of his particular Buck Rogers...or to become completely the kind of monster he is in those moments when, with an obsequious giggle, he tells some fat Babbitt that exaltation is impractical.

With that in mind, consider the following: Ellison was angry because his grim version of a STAR TREK episode was altered in favor of a more idealistic approach ("The City on the Edge of Forever", recently voted "Best Episode Ever") and was also fired on his first day at Disney for suggesting pornographic depictions of Mickey Mouse. Compare this to the goal of Rand's literature, the depiction of the ideal man. Yet Rand is the one, in his view, who makes insane remarks. Critics like Ellison should not be applauded for transmitting Rand's ideas but called to task for the cheap unqualified shots they take. Ultimately, Ayn Rand does more for science fiction than Ellison's rants and posturing.

(originally posted at


madmax said...

Ellison sounds like a typical left-liberal; a relativist with a tendency towards nihilism. And of course, all left-liberals consider Rand insane. If they didn't, they would be in danger of no longer being left-liberals.

Post-modernism's war against the hero is an extension of their war against values which is itself an extension of their war against reality and reason. Most secular liberals today do not believe in objective truth or moral absolutes. In fact they consider the very idea absurd. Such a mindset could never write romantic fiction. And such a mindset will always resent Rand because she did.