Like many others, my first experience with this book was during secondary school English lessons. Also like many others, I hated it on the principle t...moreLike many others, my first experience with this book was during secondary school English lessons. Also like many others, I hated it on the principle that books read in school (pre-GCSE) were old, boring, dull and too much like work. We never actually studied this book at the time either, since it was not part of any end-of-year exam; presumably my teacher at the time was committing the unspeakable sin of trying to enlighten us and broaden our minds without completely zoning in on exam preparation. Having picked up the book again not too long ago and trying again with a much more accepting attitude, I believe that this is one of those books that must be studied in order to extract maximum understanding and enjoyment. That's not to say that the book can't ever be enjoyed as a mere story, nor do I presume that a solo-reader will never grasp its meanings, but I do think that it just won't have the desired impact without some proper discussion of the underlying themes.
The book is set during a war (exactly what war is unspecified), and begins with the aftermath of an evacuation plane crashing on an island. We are introduced to Ralph, the natural leader and protagonist, and the intelligent but overweight "Piggy". The boys find a conch, and use it as a horn to attract other survivors. As more boys gather, Ralph begins a meeting in order to establish a Chief and decide what they should do. More personalities arise in the meeting, in particular Jack, the other leader-type who seems to exert a more dominating personality. After Ralph is elected leader, he decides that the boys should enjoy themselves, gather food and water, and most importantly build and maintain a fire, with the intention of using the smoke to attract any passing ships to rescue them. Jack takes up the responsibility of hunting, and leads his fellow choir-boys in searching for meat. As time passes, the structure of this new mini-civilisation starts to deteriorate, and despite repeated efforts to maintain order, the attitude of the boys becomes more savage. The presence of a mysterious beast on the island further drives the boys to more rash and primitive actions, and the original remnants of order are eventually lost.
While the progression of the story and descent into savagery may be predictable (not least because it says that's what happens in the blurb), the social and psychological analyses are still credible, and serve to add depth to the story. A large number of themes are developed, the key theme being humanity's primal nature, and the corresponding evolution of the characters is both intriguing and believable (to an extent). The parallels drawn to current societies are vivid, as is the imagery. However, I think that in a way, the book is biting off more than it can chew, and trying to deal with a few too many issues in one go. I mentioned first that this is one of those books that should be studied, and the reason for that is that there are so many elements to the plot that it's possible to miss some, or think of some as less important than others, before being rudely corrected a chapter later. I found myself having to reread a couple of pages because I'd missed the crucial points hidden under layers of imagery (view spoiler)[, a key example being Simon with his epileptic fit, his neutral perspective on events, and even his discovery of the dead parachutist and revelations about the "beast" (hide spoiler)]. Another question is that of how realistic the behaviour of the boys is. While I suppose this is the whole point of the book, it's unclear whether the boys are merely representing the depths of primal savagery in humans, or whether we are supposed to believe children of such a young age are actually capable of constructing societies and simultaneously descending into (view spoiler)[murderous (hide spoiler)] madness in the absence of authority. Such a question is, of course, best discussed, but it left me with a certain sense of hollowness rather than the intended wonder.
So, while enjoyable enough to read through, I feel the full complexities of the book can't be appreciated without serious discussion, and to me this is more of a hindrance. I believe that a book should be able to present a story, deliver its desired effect, and raise subsequent questions, rather than rely on these questions to provide the book's substance. Perhaps I'm just missing something from the book, and the substance was there all along, in which case the book probably deserves a higher rating, but I appear to have failed to find it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I must say, I had never heard of Ayn Rand or her Objectivist philosophy until I played the incredible Bioshock, the setting for which is an underwater...moreI must say, I had never heard of Ayn Rand or her Objectivist philosophy until I played the incredible Bioshock, the setting for which is an underwater city, built by Andrew Ryan (see what they did there?) in order to escape the influences of state, religion and society, and focus on unrestricted scientific and industrial progress. This, along with Rand's belief that man should live with his own interests as his guiding principle and foregoing emotion in favour of purely rational decision-making, form the core of the philosophical background to the novel. I don't intend to focus any more than this on the philosophy, but given that Rand wrote the novel in order to give context to her thoughts and champion her views, it's impossible to completely separate the two.
The book begins with Dagny Taggart, Operating VP of a transcontinental railroad, who is struggling to keep the company going while the country's economy is faltering. The US is no longer a democratically-ruled union of states, rather it is being transformed into a single People's State, governed by a somewhat communist regime. As a result, the people in power are holding to the Marxist ideas of working according to one's ability and supporting people according to their need (damn it, talking about philosophy again already). It seems those in power are rather flimsy with their definition of "need", however, and most decisions are made with a lot of arm-waving and roundabout discussions, avoiding the actual problems. To make things worse, the big industrialists and innovators are vanishing without a trace, further destabilising the country as technological progress becomes stagnant and systems become unreliable. While this is going on, Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, has just developed a new type of metal, both lighter and stronger than steel. Refusing to hand over his research and method of creating the metal, his competitors are furious. The level of corruption becomes apparent as the government starts issuing suggestive warnings that the metal is unsafe, in an attempt to drive Rearden out of business. Dagny, being of a more rational mind and desperate to keep the company in the black, decides to build a new transcontinental railway using this new metal to prove its effectiveness. The story continues to develop, introducing the enigmatic John Galt as the supposed driving force behind the disappearing tycoons, and revealing the depths to which the current government is going in order to oppress the ideas of a free market and competition, as well as their continuing desire to avoid responsibility, blaming the country's troubles on "greedy, selfish industrialists" not sharing their wealth.
The story progresses a good deal, depicting the mindset of Dagny and Rearden as in line with Rand's Objectivist beliefs, as well as highlighting what Rand sees as the dangers of too much government influence in the economic development of the country (made apparent as the book describes all other countries in the world now being run as similar People's States and suffering a similar collapse of progress). It also reveals the identity of John Galt, and explains the origin of the often-repeated phrase "Who is John Galt?", which is supposed to express the futility of trying to understand a deep matter.
At this point, you are probably thinking "what's so interesting about a bloody railroad?", and that is a question I admit to asking myself when I began reading. Strangely, I found myself drawn into the plot rather quickly, as a growing sense of injustice built throughout the first of the three parts, and the book continued providing situations that demanded a rational explanation, especially the question of what those in power hoped to achieve with their underhanded methods of policymaking. The introduction of the motor that Dagny and Rearden find (which I initially expected to be an unexplained MacGuffin) appealed to the Science-Fiction fan in me when its purpose was revealed, and I genuinely felt a sense of dread whenever a victory was claimed by the remaining industrialists, as it was sure to be followed by a collapse of their achievement and their subsequent disappearance.
I fully expect that many people will not like the book, not least due to its sheer length but due to its seemingly bland (if not outright boring) setting of corporation offices and steel furnaces. However, the important aspect is the sense of injustice that occurs whenever a new achievement is destroyed, or another supposedly rich company goes bust and its owner commits suicide because its "wealth" is being redirected to those who "need" it (usually those who, coincidentally, have friends in Washington). Like a lot of dystopian novels, the setting is obviously unrealistic, and the reason people read the book is for the thoughts behind the image: the warnings to society, the sense of "thank god that's not real", etc. Of course, the whole novel is not purely based on who next disappears; considerable time is spent developing the lives of the main characters, and there is a hefty amount of backstabbing, love affairs, blackmail, dramatic revelations and clever plot twists as the forces behind the disappearances exact their revenge on the corrupt government.
Another problem people will have with the book is the constant reassertion of the plot in terms of Objectivist viewpoints. I admit that I was pushed to my limit when it came to the incredibly long monologue near the end of the book (view spoiler)[given by John Galt (hide spoiler)], which is supposed to be the revelation where the public becomes aware of the government's monumental cock-up over the economy, but is little more than a restatement of every philosophical point Rand has made in the book up until that point. There was almost no context or involvement with the other characters in the scene, and neither were picked up on again until after nearly 70 pages of constant size 8 blocks of text. The monologue aside, the book makes no attempt at establishing Objectivism against any other schools of thought; everything else is assumed to be fundamentally flawed. Since I am a firm believer in pushing one's ability to its limit and an admirer of those who do, I felt I could draw some (particular emphasis on some) comparisons to the philosophy and its principles, which probably helped me empathise with the characters deprived of their achievements. However, since the enemies of Objectivism seem to be "everyone who is not an Objectivist", I can completely understand the irritance others may feel as they read about the sheer indifference Dagny, Rearden and the others show towards the rest of humanity.
The question of who is right is not for a book review (and the detractors of Objectivism say that it's not even something that should be described as philosophy), so I will conclude by saying: I enjoyed the novel, it did its job of presenting another world where things are definitely going the wrong way, and to anyone who hasn't yet played Bioshock, give it a go :P["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Before I begin the review proper, I'd like to say that this book is damn heavy. My arms ached for a week after finishing it. If you're considering rea...moreBefore I begin the review proper, I'd like to say that this book is damn heavy. My arms ached for a week after finishing it. If you're considering reading it, hire a servant to hold it open and turn the pages.
Now, on with the actual review. Let me begin by saying that the 3-star rating would have been 4, if not for one or two... letdowns. That's not to say that I'm knocking arbitrary points off because it didn't live up to unreasonably high expectations; on the contrary, it lived up to perfectly reasonable expectations. The reason I'm knocking points off is because these letdowns were predictable, and any regular Stephen King readers probably know what they are already.
Split into three sections, the story begins on a military base with faeces hitting the proverbial fan: an incredibly deadly flu-like virus has accidentally been released, and the base is going into lockdown to contain it. However, a security malfunction allows a guard to escape with his family before they are trapped inside. Unfortunately, they're already infected, and so the story continues, detailing the rapid spread of this flu and subsequent death of most of the human race. King left out no small details in his rather chilling description of humanity's near-extinction, as well as the catastrophic breakdown of society as people become aware of how deadly the virus is, try to escape crowded cities, and are stopped by armed forces in a futile quarantine attempt. A large ensemble of characters is introduced, who seem to be immune to the flu, and chapters switch between the points of view of these characters as they come across each other, trying to survive. I would say that this opening section is my favourite part of the whole book, thanks to the carefully crafted mayhem and believable depiction of humanity faced with its own rapidly approaching end.
No Stephen King novel would be complete without mystical powers being introduced at some point, and The Stand delivers with some characters sharing dreams of an old woman, Mother Abigail, who appears to be some sort of embodiment of light and good. Other characters start to share dreams of a darker nature, involving the evil and rather demented (yet morbidly amusing) Randall Flagg, and the story progresses, detailing the journeys each side undertakes before things start leading to an inevitable climax. Along the way, there are more than enough twists, turns, betrayals, revelations, and "oh, you poor bugger" moments to keep the story moving, and suspense builds to quite astronomical levels (more on this later).
Here, however, is my first problem: in the final section, the story expands so much and shifts focus so dramatically from the original setting that it's hard to believe it is all one novel. After a lengthy and engrossing period of establishing how life carries on post-flu (foregoing suggestions of how the dark side is gathering for some impending battle of good vs evil), the story takes a turn into rather bland "let's go kill the bad guy because only we can!" territory. Every horrifying scenario presented in the post-apocalyptic world, every heart-wrenching discovery of loss and betrayal, is somewhat countered by the dullness of individuals/small groups going for a bloody long walk across America to see what Flagg is up to. Rather than the forces of light and dark gathering for a cataclysmic battle to the death, the final part seems to forego its huge potential to instead talk about four blokes who think they can stop a whole city of evil people and their magic-wielding leader (view spoiler)[and thanks to King's determination to forget about the other several hundred good guys, they do (hide spoiler)]. This is one of those letdowns I mentioned at the beginning, and one that most regular King readers are aware of: he can't write a decent ending. As if the wet fish of a climax weren't enough, it's combined with one of the most disgusting examples of Deus-Ex-Machina I've ever read (view spoiler)[I mean, come on, a nuke? AMAGAD THEY ALL DIE THE END LOL. Surely King could have done better (hide spoiler)].
My second problem is that certain characters seem to have only been introduced in order to drive the plot without properly integrating them to the plot. I say properly here, by which I mean doing more than just describing their one defining feature in different settings. I find the Trashcan Man to be a prime example of this. Sure, he likes to set things on fire, but that's almost all you can say about him. His presence to me seems like a cardboard cutout, placed in the scene with more prominent things going on, until it's time for him to blow something else up.
That being said, I still found the story enjoyable; even the concept of Stu, Glen, Ralph and Larry going off on their billy-tod wasn't so off-putting that I couldn't enjoy their particular journey (view spoiler)[ignoring another Deus-Ex, this time with a dog (hide spoiler)]. The sociological perspective applied in the first two sections was a very good angle, giving the story its initial realism, and the continual build-up of suspense towards the inevitable showdown (regardless of the "showdown" itself) was as well-crafted as the best of King's work. So, The Stand is a good novel, worth reading if the concept is something you find as exciting and interesting as I do. The pros outweigh the cons, but the cons are pretty much the same as most other King books, which unfortunately seem to be the exact cons that put people off.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)