Back in the late seventies when I read this, I was pretty new to SciFi and this still seemed like a pretty radical book. I would have given it four stars then. Today: I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but those willing to work through the SciFi "classics" despite their myriad anachronisms. If its "classic" status isn't considered, it struggles to retain the two stars I gave it.
It has been a long time since SiaSL was written, and time has not treated this novel well. In 1961, Heinlein had two things working against him.
First, he had been so successful in the previous decades that he apparently thought he could do no wrong. As Alexei Panshin noted in his late-60s Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis, Heinlein was heavily ramping up the didacticism at the expense of character development and plot coherency.
Second, he saw the emerging cultural revelation and misunderstood it to mean he could give free rein to all his strangest fantasies. Perhaps if his fantasies had been prescient of ensuing cultural trends he might have gotten away with this, but they weren't. He played around with the counter-cultural vibe that was already in the air, and caught that wave well enough that "grok" was as popular as "Spock" for a time. But, to extend the comparison, this book is as painful to recall now as the worst Star Trek ever had to offer (well, I was referring to The Way to Eden; even Heinlein wasn't as bad as The Empath). He may have caught the let-your-freak-flag-fly wave, but he drowned when that wave soon crashed.
When you dress as a hippie for Hallowe'en some day, you can carry a copy of this, bookmarked to the last supper/cannibalism scene. But you probably don't want to read it.
(Updates appended to the bottom, including a pointer to the best review ever of this book.)
OK, I’ve got to explain this four-star rating, because I do...more(Updates appended to the bottom, including a pointer to the best review ever of this book.)
OK, I’ve got to explain this four-star rating, because I don’t want anyone to think I’d actually recommend this book...
It has been many years since I’ve read either of Ayn Rand’s two doorstop books, and I can’t really recall the details of either. I’m pretty sure this is the one with John Galt had the absurdly long speech near the end, and all the cool kids smoked special cigarettes, and was mostly about railroads. This is that one, right? The other one has the architect?
Anyway, I think folks should need permission to read this. Frankly, I think teenage experimentation with pot is trivial in terms of risk to a kid’s soul compared to experimentation with Ayn Rand. Her books can much more easily destroy a life.
Let me explain. Rand’s philosophy, as near as I can tell, is that great people shouldn’t be encumbered by the not-so-great. Taxes, regulations, all that stuff: just the shackles the large number of mediocre folks force onto their betters: pure parasitism. Morality comes down to letting the best do what they want, and letting the rest starve. These books are her ideas about how that should work out, and as such are suffused with incredibly juvenile wish-fulfillment. The powerful are tormented by the weak, but through force of will rise above it all.
I might not be remembering all this quite right — after all, it has been a long time. The above description is what my initial impression has distilled down to; your mileage may vary.
So where’s the danger, and why the relatively high rating? Well, many teenagers look out at their world and feel victimized by the completely lame and restrictive world that adults impose upon them. It is clear to them that they are as smart and able as these authorities, yet those adults are so... clueless. Obviously, adult life somehow has turned them into a lesser breed of humanity, with all the vitality sucked out. Add Ayn Rand to this and you suddenly have the ingredients for a self-perpetuating sense of victimhood and entitlement.
I think it is possible that too much Ayn Rand is to blame for the Tea Party movement. The circular logic that these poor folks are victims of the evil American system, while simultaneously the vanguard and representative of the noble American system.
Most people have overcome their teenage angst and fantasies by, say, twenty-eight or so. At that point, Rand will have lost her magic and her books should be freely available. But between twelve and twenty-seven, a committee of wise elders should decide whether that kid is mature enough not to get sucked into it.
Sounds unlikely? Yeah, well so does Rand’s puerile philosophy, but somehow we have self-righteous imbeciles getting elected left and right. Well, not so much “left” — mostly “right”.
But then, why the good rating? Because Rand provided a window into the strange logic of the extremist libertarian. We might have seen Hitler’s deeds and learned of Nietzsche’s diktats, but we never saw the fantasies that drove them. I think most folks that believe along Rand’s lines are either too dumb to put pen to paper, or too smart to let the world see what sociopaths they really are.
So: four stars for the opportunity to watch the slow-motion train wreck of Rand’s political philosophy in action, warning us of where we’re heading.
• • • • • • •
Update, August 2012— Romney's selection of Ryan as his running mate has got folks chatting about Ryan's on-and-off obsession with Ayn Rand. Not having made a study of Rand's life, I was pleased to learn that while her extremely anti-collectivist views are still antithetical to civilization (which is definitionally a collectivist enterprise) she was actually quite the social liberal. Not sure that makes her any more pleasant — ideologues of any stripe are quite annoying, even those that suddenly appear more complex and harder to pigeon-hole — but nice to know. A few more details? Check out the NY Times op-ed piece, Atlas Spurned.
Another Update, still August 2012— Everyone's talking about Ayn Rand, still. But one pointed to something especially juicy: the original 1957 review in the then-newish National Review by one of the world's most notorious flip-floppers, Whittaker Chambers himself! Scathing:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.
Of course, although it wasn't what he ended up being famous for, he was a tremendously talented writer and editor. Click over and read it: Big Sister Is Watching You. (less)
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth and...moreThe Black Count is an incredible history book.
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth and depth.
The précis can be grasped from the blurb, so I won’t bore you with that.
This staggeringly interesting yet hitherto under-appreciated man is obviously the nominal focus of the story, but that focus drifts quite widely. The racial politics of the era and of revolutionary France is a central theme, but the major villain, Napoleon, really only shows up in the second half of the story and quite often takes center stage. When appropriate, interesting lessons on international political economy are handed out — do you have any idea how important sugar was at the time?
The author also uses juicy digressions to spice things up. At one point Napoleon is under examination, and we get the background on his reasons for his Egyptian campaign, which then ties to a short story about an Indian sultan, which then gets a footnote about how that sultan aggressively used primitive rockets against the British, who then stole his techniques in time to use them in the War of 1812 with the young U.S.A., where they used them and left us with the line about “rockets red glare” in our Star-Spangled Banner. A few pages later, we get a fun little digression on the Maltese Falcon. Other footnotes deal with the history of the enema and the Mameluke sword.
If you don’t like this sort of thing, the author shows good discipline: once the digression isn’t related significantly to the story, it is relegated to a footnote. Personally, as long as the factoids are interesting, I love this kinda stuff. But they are certainly signs of how deeply the author dove into the subject matter, and how much passion he has for what he learned.
One of the reasons I read the excellent Strangers to Ourselves was to examine this assertion. Enough folks have reviewed Blink that I'm not going to repeat that effort.
The text from Burton's book that hit closest to this is on page 171:
It is important to distinguish between informed and uninformed gut feelings. We should gather as much information as possible, to allow our adaptive unconscious to make a stable, informed evaluation rather than an ill-informed one. Most of us would agree that it would not be wise to marry the first person we are attracted to. If we spend a lot of time with someone and get to know him or her very well, and still have a very positive gut feeling, that is a good sign.
It has been several years since I've read Blink, but I believe the essence of the complaint is that Gladwell didn't adequately clarify this distinction between "informed" and "uninformed" gut feelings. Specifically, given the foregoing quote, even an expert might not make a proper snap judgment in new circumstances (such as evaluating suspect antiques), although after enough examination and familiarization the expert should be uncomfortable deciding "positive" if their "gut" reaction is negative. That's far more subtle than "go with your gut instinct", since both exposure time and expertise are required.
I'll leave it to fresh readers to decide whether Gladwell seriously erred — or not — in his transmission of Burton's lesson. (less)
Very fun, albeit a bit too imaginative. The concept is worth five stars, but there's a central aspect to the execution that drops that down to three s...moreVery fun, albeit a bit too imaginative. The concept is worth five stars, but there's a central aspect to the execution that drops that down to three stars, and is what causes the dog here to frown: (less)