If you’ve been following Fantasy Author’s Handbook for any length of time you know how reluctant I am to get into politics—something I avoid not just in my work but in my day-to-day life to the absolute best of my ability. As we all continue to try to pry some lessons out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the endemic weaknesses in American politics, so-called “late capitalism” or unregulated capitalism, the health care industrial complex, “states rights,” and so on are failing us spectacularly. So I’m going to risk dipping a toe in the political waters to at least put a last nail in the coffin of some longstanding incorrect assumptions about me.

Whether or not you’ve read the Watercourse Trilogy, you might have heard that it’s loosely based on/inspired by The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I won’t go back into that, but instead will refer you back to: “I’d Like to Thank my Parents, Ed Greenwood and Ayn Rand” for what I have to say about that. For the sake of clarity, though, if you have to add an -ist to me (which, like most people, I think, I’d prefer you didn’t in any case) I am much, much more a Socialist than an Objectivist, rather lots more a liberal than a conservative, but as long as the wildly off-the-charts far end of those spectrums are kept away from the actual mechanism of government I’m generally happy to live and let live, or as Harlan Ellison once told me: “I’m happy to let people go to hell through whichever door they choose.”

Of course the wildly off-the-charts far end of conservative/Libertarian “thinking” (which manifests, honestly, as a mental illness, but I’ll leave that to others to decide) has indeed taken hold of the mechanism of government. Still, I have been seeing some positive motion—and you really have to believe me that I do not “do politics” so a trend has to be pretty well along for me to notice—that the Libertarian (Objectivist) agenda, grafted onto the Republican agenda in the George W. Bush administration and fully flowering in the Trump disaster, is finally showing signs of collapse as their adherents age, and their kids don’t follow.

If you’re prepared to dismiss the New Republic as “fake news” or “liberal media elites,” go ahead and stop reading now—though I bet they have already. In The Last of the Ayn Rand Acolytes: This year’s Objectivist Conference revealed that her cult of hyper-capitalism has a major recruiting problem: All the young people want to be socialists!” Alexander Sammon wrote:

The romance of the movement has lost a good deal of its cachet in an unequal, austerity-battered America—particularly when it comes to pulling in the young recruits who were once the backbone of the Rand insurgency. All the kids these days are becoming socialists and communists. Only 45 percent of young Americans view capitalism positively, compared with 51 percent who profess a fondness for socialism. They want higher taxes, regulations, a Green New Deal. Their thousand-page tome of choice isn’t Atlas Shrugged; it’s Marx’s Capital (or perhaps Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Good news, though I’d steer young people away from Marx. Changing a bad idea for a different bad idea is not progress.

You’ve probably already asked by now: What does this have to do with writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror? Well, you will see Objectivist concepts plugged into science fiction going back to the 1950s and through the 70s when it was all the rage with the “I’ve got mine, fuck you,” Mad Men generation (including, to some degree or another, my parents). In the rarest of birds, a negative review by me of another author’s book, I wrote on GoodReads of the utter disaster that was Star Trek: Dreadnought! by Diane Carey:

I’ve read a bunch of these Star Trek novels over the years and though they vary in quality they tend at least to be based in the Star Trek universe. Not so with this absolute horror of a book, which is based on such an upside down misrepresentation of the very heart of the Star Trek universe I just don’t understand how it was ever perpetrated. If you think Star Trek would be better if filtered through the baseless rantings of, say, Rand Paul, then this is the Fake Trek book for you. The rest of us will be left to wonder what the precise fuck just happened.

That might be the only Star Trek novel to feature long passages essentially lifted directly out of The Virtue of Selfishness, but trust me, that thinking is still out there, especially in science fiction, and has been for so long that non-Objectivist authors picked up on it and tried to offer a less senselessly bleak, sociologically suicidal vision of the future ages ago. In his classic City, Clifford D. Simak casts the objectivist “hero” as a dangerous mutant:

And the old laughter was back again, the laughter of a man who was sufficient to himself, who saw the whole fabric of the human community of effort as a vast, ironic joke. A man who walked alone and liked it. A man who saw the human race as something that was funny and probably just a little dangerous—but funnier than ever because it was dangerous. A man who felt no need of the brotherhood of man, who rejected that brotherhood as a thing as utterly provincial and pathetic as the twentieth century booster clubs.

Then a page later, the big goal of the future is revealed to be the least Randian of qualities: personal empathy.

The Juwain philosophy provides an ability to sense the viewpoint of another. It won’t necessarily make you agree with that viewpoint, but it does make you recognize it. You not only know what the other fellow is talking about, but how he feels about it. With Juwain’s philosophy you have to accept the validity of another man’s ideas and knowledge, not just the words he says, but the thought back of the words.

If you can read the Watercourse Trilogy and not see that Devorast is actually the villain, driving every normal, decent person who comes in contact with him insane with his inability to connect with anyone on a human level, well… I don’t know. But what we need right now, in the COVID-19 times, is exactly what we needed the day before anyone heard of this disease, and what we’ll continue to need once we’re through this and on to the next crisis, and that’s community, empathy, and compassion. There’s at least one major political party in the United States that, like Ayn Rand, sees these things as personal weaknesses that turn Great Men into sissies.

She was wrong, and so are they.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Joy Pixley says:

    Hear, hear for community, empathy, and compassion!

  2. mjtedin says:

    Right on!

  3. mcc1789 says:

    I’ve read some science fiction from that era, and it did surprise me as well how much was anti-communist, pro-capitalist propaganda, though it shouldn’t have given the Cold War going on I suppose. Regardless it does seem like our politics is always cyclical. If capitalism goes well, then a lot of that comes up (at least in the US). Otherwise, it starts getting less popular. Again, hardly a surprising observation I’m sure. I wonder however if we truly learn from history.

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