Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.


  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

My mention of Ayn Rand in my post about The Jungle and Patrick Prescott’s comment about it set me thinking: what if Ayn Rand’s efforts to ridicule socialism went further than anyone realized?  What if the style of her books, with their interminable preaching and sprawling, momentum-killing speeches detailing various points of philosophy and economics, were meant as a deliberate counterpoint to socialist novels that did the same thing?

Look at some of the covers of Rand’s books, especially this edition of Atlas Shrugged, and notice how much it looks like Soviet propaganda art.  The structure and marketing of these books was ironically basing itself off of socialism’s propaganda.

Even Rand’s “fan club” called itself “the Collective”–again, a joke, since they were a collective of radical individualists.  They were always mocking socialist ideas and terms, so why not in the very style of the books themselves? And, most interesting of all, what if the increasingly totalitarian bent of “The Collective” was just an elaborate satire on how socialism itself went from being a theory-based social movement to a fanatical, quasi-religious cult based on the worship of idols like Marx and Lenin.

Maybe Rand was pretending to be as much of a zealot as the collectivists she hated.  Maybe she was the Sacha Baron Cohen of her time, deliberately playing a certain role to reveal something about her audience.  Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, she was showing how the principles of an idealistic revolution give way to less rational behavior in the end.


Thingy had a great idea on her blog last week. The idea is to take one basic scenario and then write it in the style of different authors. Be sure to read her post first. I loved it, and I just had to try a few of my own. But read Thingy’s original post and get the aforementioned “gist” before you read mine.

H.P. Lovecraft (Cosmic Horror)

Into the blasphemous January gale stepped Jack Wilmarth.  By the banks of the inconceivably ancient Massachusetts river, he surveyed the queerly-shaped yews.  At length, he selected a log and aimed with his axe a blow at it, but the bizarre atmosphere of that eldritch locale distracted him, and he chose an unfortunate angle and wounded his thumb.  As the wound spread onto the snow, he turned to behold a strange motor approaching along the ancient mountain paths trod in antiquity by the native tribes…

P.G. Wodehouse (Humor)

“What ho, what ho—it seems young Jack has made a frightful fool of himself!”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Well, the young buffoon seems to have gone out for a bit of a ramble and thought to himself he’d try his hand at wood-chopping—you know, like those frightful blighters who go about in check shirts and great hats do—but it seems he rather gave the wood a bit of miss and hit his own hand instead.  Caused a bit of a scene on the snow, I mean to say!  Must’ve looked like the first scene of A. Christie’s latest, I should think!”

“Most distressing, sir.”

“Yes, well, if his fiancée hadn’t happened by in her car so they could biff off to hospital, I think we might have found ourselves reading about the poor fish in tomorrow’s obituaries.  Still, all’s well that ends well, what?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivism)

The weak, contemptible looter Jack was far too incompetent when he stepped out of the cabin to chop wood.  He was weak-willed, and incapable of realizing Man’s natural superiority over nature, and so foolishly cut his thumb and bled deservedly in the snow.  For he had failed to comprehend the eternal philosophical truth that…

[5,000 similar words omitted.]

…he raised his head to see a beautifully-made automobile approaching through the wood, demonstrating Man’s mastery of metal to conquer the Earth.

Thomas Hardy (Tragedy)

Jack made his egress from the small-gabled forest cabin of round logs, with a view to perhaps building a fire to warm him and heat his comestibles.  But alas, it is often the case that Fate will frustrate the efforts of mortals endeavoring to improve their situation, and so he was dismayed to injure his thumb on the instrument he used for the task.  He saw the snow around him turn crimson, and glanced up to see a vehicle in the lane beyond the cabin, but it passed him by.  It is ever so that cruel Fortune will present to us the means of salvation, only to just as quickly snatch them away…

(A Role-Playing Video Game)

[Set Player Name.  Player name = “JACK”]

[You see a door inside the cabin. Open it? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Exits to snowy morning scene.  You see an “Axe of Unbeatable Strength” Use? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Damage: self = 10 x 2 CRIT. Damage: Log = 0.  HP – 20]

[Play cinema scene of car pulling up.]

Official Portrait of Congressman Paul Ryan

No doubt you are all reading about the big political announcement of the day. Everyone is talking about it.

I am referring, of course, to William Russell Sype’s announcement of his candidacy for President in 2016.  As long-time friends of my blog, he and his campaign manager P.M. Prescott will have my support.  I will not even expect him to appoint me Chairman of the Federal Reserve in exchange for my endorsement. (hint, hint.)

But there is actually another political announcement in the news today.  Apparently, the candidate the Republican Party Doesn’t Want But Thoroughly Deserves has gone and picked Paul “Andrew” Ryan as his running mate.

Yes, the man who said “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” is now running for Vice-President.  That statement, on the face of it, would probably have made Ayn Rand ill, since saying “public service” to an objectivist is like saying “it” to the Knights Who Say “Ni”.  But, perhaps they would be willing to make an exception for someone willing to attack the irrational values of charity from within, a la Darth Sidious.

In my opinion, this does not really change anything about the campaign, although it does excite the base.  The Democratic base, that is, because I think they dislike Ryan more than the Republicans ever really liked him.

It’s become the style lately to call the Republicans “Social Darwinists”, just as it has for some time been the style for Republicans to call Democrats “socialists”.  I’ve often said in responding to the Republican charge that, by their definitions, virtually everyone is a socialist. And I have to say, from what I read, by any definition, everyone is a “Social Darwinist”.

“Social Darwinism” means using the idea of  “survival of the fittest  to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves”, according to Wikipedia. Whenever I hear it, I think of Mandalore in KotOR II saying “the purpose of the weak is to feed the strong”. That’s what it boils down to: “Go Team Strong! Crush the Weak!”

The thing is, “the Strong” and “the Weak” are rather nebulous concepts. I mean, people are strong in some areas and weak in others.

For instance, here is a list of the most athletic Presidents ever. I bet Rob Gronkowski is a better athlete than any of those guys. Compared to him, they’re weak athletically. Yet, Rob Gronkowski will never be the Commander in Chief of the World’s most powerful military. And that’s because he is probably one of the weakest people in the world when it comes to politicking.  Bill Gates can’t bench as much as Ryan Kennelly, and yet he has done alright for himself in the world. Who is “weak” and who is  “strong” depends on the situation.

“Survival of the fittest” is practically tautological: “Who survives?” “The fittest!” “How do we know they’re the fittest?” “They survive!” (Before anyone gets excited, note that this does not disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, much as some of my religious friends wish it did.)

In the broadest sense, “Social Darwinism” could be said to just mean “the world needs more good people and less bad people”. Everyone agrees with that. The difficulty comes in defining “good” and “‘bad”.

Ayn Rand, as we well know, chose to define good people as “people who had earned a lot of money by selling stuff in the free-market”, and bad people as “people who produce nothing and take government money”. So, the Randian worldview, somebody on welfare is “bad”, but a billionaire author is “good”. I have chosen these examples because I have in mind one person who was both: J.K. Rowling. And she would not have been able to be a billionaire author had she not taken government assistance. This is one of the biggest problems with the Randian worldview.

The Republicans are not “Social Darwinists” as much as they are “Defenders of People with Lots of Money”. Paul Ryan may have repudiated Rand the other day, but let’s face it; he’s just saying that so people don’t start saying he’s an atheist.

“[W]hat I used to respect was not really aristocracy, but a set of personal qualities which aristocracy then developed better than any other system . . . a set of qualities, however, whose merit lay only in a psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, and generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, and assumed position, AND JUST AS ACHIEVABLE THROUGH SOCIALISM AS THROUGH ARISTOCRACY.”–H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to C.L. Moore. (Italics and Capitals his.)

The political journey of H.P. Lovecraft is a fascinating one. He was, as most readers know, a racist, even by the standards of the 1920s and ’30s. His economic views during the Depression were what people call “left-wing”, but which are more accurately described as simply “socialist” or perhaps even better “anti-capitalist”. Joined with his racism, this made his political outlook–and know that I don’t make this comparison lightly–basically fascistic. (You can read about his views in more detail here.)

But the central point here is that Lovecraft believed in replacing the capitalistic, market-driven society with one more like an aristocracy in which–and I’m paraphrasing and condensing a lot here–tended to value aesthetic and intellectual qualities more.

So, as I understand it, his idea was to replace the security an aristocracy provided by means of inheritance with the security socialism provided by means of a social safety net, redistributionary measures and public control of the factors of production.

Compare this with the views of Ayn Rand mentioned in my previous post. She saw control of the material market as being abhorrent, and opposed just as she opposed control of people’s minds. (Judging by the stories of her “Objectivists” group, she waived the latter opposition where she was doing the control.) but Rand favored a competitive market economy in which, she believed, the best would rise to the top.

The flaw in Rand’s concept, as I said, is that in a market economy there is little time for intellectual and artistic endeavors, and what there is, if also subjected to the market, is designed to satisfy the minds and the tastes of the “lowest common denominator”, as they say.

Lovecraft’s idea is much more consistent with the socially engineered Utopianism so popular in his time, but the irony is that, if his feelings on race are any indication, Lovecraft didn’t just want the benefits of  classical aristocracy to be achieved through socialism, he wanted an honest-to-God classical aristocracy back. Since aristocracy is usually a hierarchy based on heredity, and since racism amounts to a system of dividing into hierarchies based on heredity, a racist and socialist society would be, practically, a hereditary aristocracy, only a little more crude and obvious about it.

My point in contrasting these two philosophies is to point out the flaws they suffered from: Rand’s philosophy could not be the basis for an intelligent society because it allows all non-moneymaking pursuits to be subverted to the behavior of capital flows. Lovecraft’s vision could not because it was effectively reinventing
what had already been done, and the flaws of which were already known.

So, why should anyone care? The political ideas of two deceased writers, one of whom wrote mediocre romance novels for millionaires and the other who wrote about flying space octopi don’t seem terribly important.

Well, I care because Rand and Lovecraft–unpleasant, deluded, cruel and arrogant though they may have been–were also very intelligent people, and this is demonstrated by the fact that they successfully articulated philosophies which may be seen in action even today. That these philosophies do not appear to be capable of creating a functional society might be what is most important, but also interesting is that intelligent people thought that they could.


“The conservatives see man as a body freely roaming the earth, building sand piles or factories—with an electronic computer inside his skull, controlled from Washington. The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.”–Ayn Rand

I mock Rand a lot on this blog, but the above claim is almost totally true. (For full credit, she should have said “Republicans” and “Democrats”.) True, she casts their efforts at control in the worst possible light, but still she describes their perception of the trade-off correctly.

Where she went wrong was in assuming that their assessment was wrong. She no doubt saw this as irrational behavior on the part of these parties, but in truth, it’s a necessary trade-off. It’s very hard for people to engage in meaningful artistic and intellectual pursuits if they can’t have a certain level of material well-being. And if they have to spend all their time working to achieve this, they won’t have time to use their minds. So, the “Liberal” concludes it is best to use intervention in the economy to allow people a certain degree of comfort.

I know he did poorly in the debate last night, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Herman Cain were the Republican nominee. His “9-9-9 plan”, based on this Tax Policy Center analysis that Krugman linked to, seems to be the last word in regressive taxation, and his ability to blend nearly Randian contempt for the poor with Christian rhetoric is something to behold.

He seems to me to be the most devout believer in Republican ideology of all the candidates. I hate to quote myself, but I wrote awhile back that “it’s impossible to honestly believe all of the things in the Republican party line without being a rather confused person.” Perhaps “confused” is not quite the right word; but what I mean is that people like Cain, who are capable of fusing the two very contradictory aspects of the party line with total confidence, as if it all makes perfect sense, are unusual and hence, very striking when they show up on the political scene.

So, I’ve been reading some of the works of Albert Jay Nock today. He’s not a very well known writer anymore, but, as Wikipedia puts it:

“Nock was an important influence on the next generation of American thinkers, including libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Frank Chodorov, and Leonard Read, and conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr..”

Given all this, I thought I knew about what to expect from him. But I was, at least partially, wrong. He seems to me a great deal smarter and more thoughtful than Rand or Buckley, and while he certainly does espouse many libertarian ideas, his philosophy seems much more nuanced and carefully thought out than most of what we consider “libertarian” thought today. This passage, from perhaps his most famous book Our Enemy, the State gives you an idea of what I mean:

“The State had by no means always kept its hands off trade, but it had never countenanced the idea that its chief reason for existence was, as we say, “to help business.” The merchants and financiers, however, had precisely this idea in mind. They saw the attractive possibilities of production for profit, with the incidence of exploitation gradually shifting to an industrial proletariat. They saw also, however, that to realize all these possibilities, they must get the State’s mechanism to working as smoothly and powerfully on the side of “business” as it had been working on the side of the monarchy, the Church, and the large-holding landed proprietors.”

It’s difficult to argue, given the title of Nock’s book, that he considers “the merchant-State” as he calls it, a good thing. Yet hardly a day goes by without some Libertarian and/or Republican demanding that our state do precisely what is described above. For example, this Washington Post article quotes Governor Rick Perry as saying on Friday:

“‘I am a pro-business governor and I don’t make any apologies to anybody about it. I’m going to be a pro-business president and I won’t make any apologies about it.'” 

Unless I am badly mis-reading one or the other, I see no way to reconcile those two lines of thinking.

It’s not that I agree with Nock’s philosophy; for he makes what I think are many naive errors. Also, many of his ideas will strike the modern reader as sexist and racist, although what I have read of his so far is no more so than was typical of the prevailing “wisdom” of his day, and at times perhaps even a little less so.

It’s just that, whatever his flaws, it seems to me that Nock put a lot of thought into his worldview, and consequently his work reads more like someone who was honestly trying to figure out how the world worked as opposed to the “I command you to be independent and obey me” attitude of Ayn Rand’s crowd. 

The long and short of it is: I very much doubt if any of the people who profess to admire him today have read his work beyond a few carefully selected quotes.

John Nolte, conservative film critic, decries an article about the new Captain America film:

“This approach to patriotism is all a lie, a ploy from the Left to turn what really is simplistic and lazy (nihilism, angst, irreverence, irony) into “art,” when just the opposite is true. What the Left despises about themes that lift the human spirit is that they’re more often than not, conservative themes — themes of self-sacrifice, selflessness, fidelity, manhood, bravery, and nobility. Whereas darker, simpler themes or a complete lack of theme, appeals to the all-about-me, chaotic narcissism that so defines the Left.” 

I love reading Nolte’s work–it reveals so much about the Conservative understanding of art. First of all, I think it’s quite telling that “manhood” is on that list of “good” themes, but that there is no corresponding female virtue. But secondly, I can almost hear Ayn Rand’s fury at the “self-sacrifice” and “selflessness” portion of the program.

What Nolte is describing here is strangely anti-individualistic in nature–I find that quite interesting. (Another example of this tendency in his artistic taste is his review of The English Patient.)

The truth is, the virtues he alludes to are not the virtues of a libertarian, but of someone who feels an actual sense of, dare I say it, community–specifically, nationalism. I only bring this up to point out that this is one more instance in which the inherent conflict between the Nationalistic and Materialistic sides of the group that calls itself “Conservative” appears.