[Today's Reprise] THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO and SCIENCE FICTION: Out of the Gutter, and to the Stars

JoeM's picture
Submitted by JoeM on Sat, 2006-04-29 06:12

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. Her idea of romanticism is 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 JARS-quality backhanded compliment to Ayn Rand:

"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 clichés 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 punishment...is 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 that he was creating 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.

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Thanks for the comments,

JoeM's picture

Thanks for the comments, guys. Smiling

Landon, well said. Strange phenomenon, isn't it? (Incidentally, that's my problem with the SOUTH PARK reference to ATLAS SHRUGGED. Saw your comments on RoR, I never took their criticism to heart, since it really didn't say anything of substance...but the idea that they're "equal opportunity" satirists starts to be less funny when they make fun of one of the few thinkers that actually have SOLUTIONS to the things they attack.)

Rowlf, I suppose working with Shatner could set anyone over the edge! Thanks for the heads up on the second reference, I'll see if I can track it down.

Ed, thanks for the link to the Cato piece, I look forward to reading it.
I'll admit that I have a sweet tooth for aliens, spaceships, etc. for their own sake...a guilty pleasure, so to speak. But maybe your friend Kerry's talk did rub off on Rand, or maybe she already knew this, but she put forward some good thought on sci-fi and fantasy in THE ART OF FICTION lectures.

Joe -- Very thoughtful

Ed Hudgins's picture

Joe -- Very thoughtful piece. I'll add that many young people -- myself included -- took even from the B-quality sci-fi a sense of wonder and possibilities. It's no secret that a lot of astronomers, space scientists, astronauts and the like had their imaginiations fired by Star Trek or some of the better 1950s-60s sci-fi movies: Destination Moon (a Heinlein, pro-businessman story!); Forbidden Planet (Freudean but good story and effects); It Came from Outer Space (a Bradbury story); The Day the Earth Stood Still (too pro-U.N. but also giving a vision of a peaceful future, the rule of law, and a Galt or Christ-like figure); 2001: A Space Odyessy (I know the criticisms of it in "The Objectivist" but a lot of teenager saw the technology and filter out other parts) and others.

Note that Roddenberry said he was familiar with Rand and not just the fiction (I can't find the quote off-hand but I have it somewhere

Sci-fi certainly offers a lot of possibilites that are exploited more in books and short stories than in the movies.

Note that the original publisher of Starlog magazine, Kerry O'Quinn, was a friend of Rand. He told me he tried to show her the good side of sci-fi but she wasn't all that interested.

By the way, he's doing a movie version of Anthem, which he discussed at last year's TOC/TAS Summer Seminar.

Also, FYI, see my piece for Cato on "Hayek vs. Asimov: Spontaneous ORder of Failed Foundations."

Link: http://www.cato.org/pub_displa...

SF: its Bright Side...and its Dark-Side

Rowlf's picture


~~ Your description of Ellison's public persona is right on. He sees himself as anti-authoritarian (but, I don't think anarchic), and rails almost as much against varied Dems as Reps, and is clearly often looking for a way to poke holes in whatever others say. I think of him in terms of a 'professional complainer' in his self-presentations in interviews and talking-heads discussions. I wouldn't care to have had him as a room-mate.

~~ Your perspective on the orientation of his writings is also the same as mine; ntl, he is one hell of a good writer and his themes are definitely deeper than the likes of King. You start reading  his short stories and you usually have a page-turner unless you find the theme a real turn-off. His stories also were often fairly thought-provoking I thought, akin to the old Twilight Zone done by known 'classic' writers of the time. --- Yet true, he was not 'idealist'-oriented...at all. He not only searched for the muddy shoes but complained about when others saw such as not worth focusing on. He clearly believed that NO ONE was capable of being worth admiring.

~~ You mentioned his noted City On The Edge Of Forever. Talk about a complainer (but, possibly good reason here...to a point.) Yet, in HIS book on that situation (where he lays out his original script AND the various probs he had dealing with TV-people), one section was really funny, especially when you see HE as a posturer: he's discovering something similar about William Shatner in their meeting where Shatner's going over the script and Ellison realizes that Shatner is doing little more than counting the ratio of his lines to those of the others. (But then, apart from Nimoy maybe, no other actors there liked Shatner either, I've gathered.)

~~ I do believe that HE mentioned Rand, almost in passing, in one of his forwards in his old Dangerous Visions series, but can't remember the actual quote. It wasn't exactly denigrating...but not exactly praising either. It seemed at the time ambiguous.

~~ Wonder what his review of the AS movie would (will?) be?

~~ Anyhoo, good article on Rand's relation to, and thoughts on, SF.


Ellison and the common flaw

Landon Erp's picture

Great piece. I think you've hit on something there. Seems like in more than just science fiction you see a lot of people desperately looking for answers and simultaneously denouncing any possible solution


It all basically comes back to fight or flight.

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