Ayn Rand on Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

On learning that the four thousand illustrations from Jules Verne's "54-volume masterpiece" are now hosted online, I became curious. Why hadn't I ever heard of this huge "masterpiece?" Also, since I sometimes enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I was curious about reading at least some of Verne. I had also recently reviewed some of Ayn Rand's work on writing, and knew she might have said something about Verne, so I looked, and found a couple of passages. The first, from The Art of Fiction, considers science fiction as fantasy, and really just uses Verne to make a point:

Most of Jules Verne's science fiction presented extensions of the discoveries of his time; for instance, he wrote stories about dirigibles and submarines before these were actually invented. This was merely a literary exaggeration of an existing fact. Since inventions exist, it is legitimate for a writer to project new and greater ones. (p. 169)
The second doesn't offer particulars, but I take it as a hint at possible reason(s) (apart from the need for translation) that Verne's work is not widely-known as a whole, despite that whole containing several renowned works. This comes from "What Is Romanticism?" the sixth chapter of The Romantic Manifesto:
With its emphasis on sheer physical action and neglect of human psychology, this class of novels stands on the borderline between serious and popular literature. No top-rank novelists belong to this category; the better-known ones are writers of science fiction, such as H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. (Occasionally, a good writer of the Naturalistic school, with a repressed element of Romanticism, attempts a novel on an abstract theme that requires a Romantic approach; the result falls into this category. For example, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here.) It is obvious why the novels of this category are enormously unconvincing. And, no matter how skillfully or suspensefully their action is presented, they always have an unsatisfying, uninspiring quality.(p. 109)
I haven't read any of Verne, so I can't offer thoughts one way or the other, but this is highly suggestive of a couple of possible answers to my first, broad question: lack of integration or a failure to move beyond suspense or rich description seem plausible enough to me. It's an interesting question.

That said, I looked a bit more into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and I suspect I'll eventually read it. It sounds interesting enough on its own, and now I'm curious to see what Rand might have had in mind when she mentioned Verne in that second passage.

Coincidentally, in The Art of Fiction, Rand soon after mentions a book I did read recently, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of which she has a higher opinion:
Image by Henry Van der Weyde, via Wikipedia, public domain.
The best example of this kind of fantasy is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The literal subject of the story -- a man who changes himself physically into a monster -- is impossible, but this is only a symbolic device to convey a psychological truth. The story is a study of a man with contradictory premises. By drinking a special medicine, Dr. Jekyll indulges in the fun of turning himself into a monster. At first he is able to control the process, but then he reaches a stage where he cannot control it anymore, where he turns into the monster whether he wants to or not. This is what in fact happens to bad premises: at first they might be hidden or controlled, but if unchecked, they take control of a personality. (pp. 169-170)
To that I would add that, despite the fact that the general idea behind the story is very well known, I still found suspense in the way Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story, and highly recommend it. That the general idea of the story is so commonplace caused me to hesitate about reading it, and I am glad I got past that.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

The problem with "20,000 Leagues" (which I've read twice) is that it was written for a different audience. The audience at the time wanted details which, to the modern reader, seem superfluous and, frankly, excruciatingly dull. But Vern was writing for an educated class (in a time where literacy was rather limited by our standards) and in a time where wonders were being routinely discovered; to his audience, the detailed descriptions of which fish the characters saw were part of the appeal.

I can hardly complain on that count; I read "Jurassic Park" as much to learn about different dinosaurs as I did for the story.

I would say that science fiction and fantasy (the overlap is significant) offer a unique way to address themes: by showing us wild and weird and abnormal contexts, they highlight universal themes. The familiar stands out better against a background of unfamiliar. "Dune", for example (mild spoilers) explores the dangers of charismatic leaders; the protagonist is NOT the hero. (Rand would hate the book because there are NO heroes, not after a certain character dies.) "The Lord of the Rings" offers us an exploration of heroism, by showing us a wide variety of noble and ignoble people, often within the same character. It does require suspension of disbelief, but so long as the author creates an internally consistent universe (or justification for major inconsistencies) that's not a heavy price to pay. It's not substantially different from, say, accepting an alternate history of the United States in "Atlas Shrugged".

Unfortunately fantasy in particular seems to have been hit by the "gritty realism" virus, where folks confuse bleakness and cruelty with realism.

Gus Van Horn said...


Your last sentence is right on the money. I've also found it being infected with outright leftism on top of that, as when I read Perdido Street Station, by China Mielville.


Snedcat said...

Verne is a fun writer, though the comments you quoted are pretty much on the money about the psychology of his characters. (He is also widely translated, since in earlier decades he was considered a good author for children; I've read him in at least four languages as reading practice. The oddest was perhaps the Mongolian translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as Mongolian is not renowned for the richness of its marine vocabulary.) The shallowness of the characters means that his novels that were not science adventure tales are disappointing--The Green Ray, for example, which inspired in an indirect way a charming movie by a director I'm very fond of, Eric Rohmer. In any case, you can sate yourself very easily with Kindle. Or, if that's not enough, you can learn French and get this gargantuan edition like I did. In fact, for a fun book that displays his strengths and weaknesses without overstaying its welcome, I'd say Around the World in 80 Days is a great candidate. I loved it when I was about 10 and found it still very enjoyable when I reread it at age 30.

Wells is renowned, and deservedly so, for the incisiveness of his scientific romances, as he called them; he could take a scientific idea and craft a good tale around it that went far beyond Verne in working out its ramifications. On the other hand, his characters are no better than Verne's, and his view of things was pessimistic and molded by his socialist ideals, which he was happy enough to go into when he (though not necessarily the reader) thought it necessary.

It is true that you don't get that much psychological sophistication in a lot of SF, and when you do get it it's too often the same sort of thing you get in mainstream literature (pronounce litracha, of course). I like much of it a lot anyway, but I maintain a fairly objective opinion of its merits. I grew up reading lots of SF and fantasy (and mysteries), though I didn't get into the fanaticisms a lot of young SF fans do. Then around age 20 older great literature clicked for me, especially poetry and then branching out from that, and I don't think I picked up a single SF novel again for another 15 years. Then I got back into it when I was a clerk in a used bookstore in a college town, and since I read very quickly, I got quite the remedial education, filling in gaps from before and revisiting old favorites, many of which still held up for what they were. It's good stuff to read after editing or translating work (if I don't read something else for 15 minutes at least before going to sleep, I continue working in my sleep translating or editing nonexistent documents) when I'm too tired to do research or, say, read Old English or such, or history (the academic sort with dense source criticism, ideally) when I have longer stretches of spare time. For myself, my favorite SF writers are probably Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, and James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon, so I'm definitely a modernist type with a taste and strong tolerance for very very dark stuff (and more so in music than literature). Which kind of wanders away from the point I was working up to.

Snedcat said...

And as for what I was working up to...a couple of recommendations (not of those dark guys and gals!). Another good (more explicitly religious) story by Robert Louis Stevenson is "Markheim," which can be found here. You might think of it as Stevenson trying to write something like Crime and Punishment. It has some of the same issues addressed along the lines of his religious sensibilities and with more (as in any) fantastical elements than Dostoevsky, and it's short enough not to make the comparison too unfortunate on Stevenson's side of the ledger.

A novella that made a great impression on me in high school and held up even better than I remembered it when I remembered it after decades and sought it out is Fritz Leiber's "You're All Alone." It was in some ways The Matrix decades before the movie was conceived of, but in a way even darker (no powers that be behind the scenes, perhaps, just the blind workings of iron necessity...perhaps...) but also more optimistic at the end. It is only available here electronically; it was an ill-fated work publication-wise and never got the readership it should have. Leiber was a very fine author, cultured and talented, and probably the best of the writers who corresponded with and was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. (Robert Bloch of Psycho fame might be the most famous; Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, who married after Lovecraft introduced them, are the other really fine ones in science fiction.)

Another novella that made a great impression on me in high school and that I enjoyed just as much when I remembered it and sought it out decades later was Ted Reynold's "Can These Bones Live?" It's basically a wry fairy tale that somehow ends up quite a bit more emotionally affecting than you'd expect, or at least that was the case for me. There's a good e-book containing it and three other stories, two of them quite good, published by the author.

And finally, since both Rand and Peikoff have praised Frederic Brown (and quite rightly), she for his mysteries and he for his science fiction, you might try one of his more famous and less malevolent SF stories here. Dunno if any of them will interest you, but they seem a good mix to point you to.

Gus Van Horn said...

Snedcat and Dinwar,

Thank you both for weighing in about Verne. I especially appreciate the specific recommendation for Around the World in 80 Days.

Having played D&D a lot back in the day, I recalled references to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser the most recent time I was hunting for recreational reading, and am now making my way through Swords and Deviltry. So far, so good.

And thanks for the other recommendations, Snedcat.


Anonymous said...

Hi Y'all,

As a young adolescent, I also ran into Verne's "The Mysterious Island" which starts with a balloon used to escape a siege during the American Civil War and ends...

No Spoilers.

But I thought it was well done and intriguing and comparable to the Heinlein juveniles I was reading at the same time. I have not revisited it, so I can't say whether it has held up to my passage of time or not.

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the recommendation, qualified as it is.