Yesterday I had to write a bio for myself to go with my story “Preacher at the end of the world” due out in January from
Absent Willow Review. Before I did so I contacted my dear friend Jeff Menne for advice. His feeling were that most short bios by authors fail when they try to get witty or cute. I think we agreed that its okay to list honors, memberships and sales, but to stay lean. A bio is really just a short introduction and a way to connect the reader to other stuff you do (this blog for instance). If you try to do anything other than that you come off as a bit silly. The story will do most of your talking. The reader will establish their own relationship with you. It helps to have friends you trust with questions like what to include in your bio. I am very fortunate to have a resource like Jeff at my beck and call. For one thing, Jeff is the type of person that would know the etymological roots of a phrase like “beck and call,” and secondly he is the persons that convinced me to go into writing science fiction. As I’ve said before, I once fancied myself a poet. I took all the courses I could in poetry but as the course numbers grew into upper divisions I began to realize that my poetry, despite some occasional lyrical power, was maintaining a very pronounced ‘averageness.’ At that point I was in senior level writing classes that did not specify form. I had read a comment from an essay by “Lord of the Flies” author William Golding that he had once fancied himself a poet and thankfully had seen the error of his ways. I started writing short fiction and was immediately congratulated by my perennial writing teacher, the poet and chain smoker Jeffery Skinner. Even in a more comfortable form I was still struggling with subject. Years of poetry had created an intensity of phrase and economy that made for good reading, but in the long of it my stories seemed to flounder. I remember one happy and lonesome success that was about a woman that hits a homeless man with her car and then begins to think she could predict the future in the patterns of traffic. I was returning to the urban fortress that Jeff Menne and I shared just off the Ohio River one day and I ran into him leaving. We chatted for a moment and I expressed a lack of inspiration and that I was choking on the “write what you know” adage. I said that I wish I could write science fiction. He said the three most important words in my writing career- “Why can’t you?” over a decade and hundreds of space ships, self aware AI, dimensional rifts and elder gods later and I think the answer is decidedly, “I can.” Now I want to talk about my other favorite person. By favorite I mean ‘least favorite,’ and by person I mean…
I recently read “atlas shrugged,” (I can’t say reread because the first time I read it I kept falling asleep so I read it in two page chunks for a year and a half). I put myself through this torture because a few months ago a friend of mine cued me in on the fact that he was a fan o’ Rand. He boiled it down to, “I think that governmental control stops innovation.” I must admit that I couldn’t argue with him. How could I? A statement like that has no counterpoint because it sets no parameters. What is control? What is innovation? What is government!? It is the type of easy belief block that brooks no argument because in order to proceed you would need to spend six hours defining terms. We weren’t in some liberal arts college auditorium, we were in a bar, and I dismissed him as a “dabbler” in the realm of economic philosophy. Yet I felt that I needed to at least think about these things a bit more, to refresh them in my mind. I remember once telling a libertarian friend that Ayn Rand was “trailer park” Nietzsche, and backing it up, but I don’t remember how or why. So during my recent sabbatical I refreshed myself. I am assuming that you have some familiarity with the novel so I will not create a synopsis. You can find one HERE if you need it. Here are a few brief thoughts.
In the novel the notion is put forth that all inclination to innovate, to create art and technology, decays when it is seized for social use by government (that being a sort of American/Soviet hybrid in the book along the lines of a modern Scandinavian liberal market economy as it might be seen through the eyes of Rand Paul) I call bullshit. First, Ayn is assuming a definition of “art” and “technology” which puts them in the same category, i.e. as commodity. It is the only way she can understand value. We need go only so far as our bookshelf to read what Aristotle thought art ‘should’ be to know that just because a book’s sales are quantifiable, the creation of art is perfectly subjective and open to debate. Hell, the debate itself is part of the creation and appreciation of ‘art.’ Technology is the real “art” for Ayn. The “static engine” is a plot device, but also the epitome of the highest morality. Spoiler- all the big industrialist geniuses are disappearing because they are going on strike to show the leftist morons that run the country that “we aren’t going to take this abuse any more.” Little bitches. This is desert island philosophy writ large. By positing that only the drive to profit initiates creativity and innovation and that when that drive is handicapped creativity is dulled, Ayn takes out so many vital factors that it renders the idea a dead fish. First, violence is absent as a condition. Force is real and you cannot make large ideas stand without considering the outcome of force. That “atlas shrugged” was written after two world wars makes such an omission seem like the worst sort of armchair philosophizing. Rand’s supposed American “Golden Era” of the late nineteenth century takes no account of the private armies the the “creative elite” marshaled to stymie competition during those years of Robber Barons and strike busting. Force is only held in check by force and that countering force must be held by a government if there is not to be endless and endemic corporate warfare (just look at the fourth crusade to see what corporate owned militia can do). Secondly, Ayn seems to think that innovation is inherently a good thing. I need look no further than the invention of tetra ethyl lead and its brain devastating effects or the Anglo-Chinese opium trade to say that sometimes innovation is its own form of violence, despite profitability. Innovation also comes from places that have nothing to do with the “industrial elite.” GPS is an outgrowth of purely national interests, in this case spying on the Soviets. Every time you move through a checkout line and have items scanned you can thank a huge social bureaucracy called NASA. The type of society that a purely profit driven culture would create is one that cannot have the vision and happy accidents of a society that benefits from inspired leadership or even totalitarian rule.
I could go on, but I think I’ve beaten this horse enough and I feel a little better. Next time some jackass tries to spew Ayn Rand in my face I am ready to counter with real criticism. I think Ayn Rand gives smart people that don’t feel appreciated by society a way to blame others for their failure, which is ironic as Ayn Rand never forgave failure.
Just a note, the novel “Starship Troopers,” by Bobby Heinlein is the symmetrical opposite of “atlas shrugged.” Read it and see.
The Science of Fiction
Andrew Clark Porter