This summer I played BioShock for the first time. I liked it. A lot. I liked it so much I wrote three stories about it (my first impressions, a mid-to-late game summary and my final thoughts). Beyond the compelling gameplay, BioShock also delivered an interesting story set in an underwater city created by genius/madman Andrew Ryan who believed in the greatness of man above all else. His philosophy was not created for this game, however. It was inspired by the works of Ayn Rand (note the name similarity), particularly her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. With BioShock 2 coming out next year and a gap in my current reading schedule, I decided to pick up the first novel to learn more about her ideas.
Spoiler warning: I do mention the end of the book, although I don’t think that necessarily ruins the experience of reading the entire tale. I have purposely avoided identifying other, more significant plot developments to preserve the story.
The Fountainhead is a novel that I’ve heard great things about for my entire life without ever learning what the book was actually about. Had I not suffered an academic meltdown in high school I’m sure it would have been assigned reading, which means this might be the very first good thing to come out of that whole crisis. If I had read this book when I was seventeen I would have thrown it across the room out of frustration. I can just picture my miserable teenage self asking aloud: What do I know about architecture? Why should I care?
Let’s face it, The Fountainhead looks dreadful when summarized in any fashion and to a suburban kid with no interest in books that asked him to think about the world, the opening chapters about two architects engaging in a sort of professional rivalry just isn’t compelling unto itself. Of course I’m being unfair here. The Fountainhead is no more about architecture than Fight Club is about fighting. Just because something is there doesn’t make it central to the message of the story.
The real story is about man’s greatness, at least as perceived by author Ayn Rand. All of the protagonists share key philosophical ideals and habits that make them stand out above the rest of the characters, some of whom are actively portrayed as villains while others are merely weak and mediocre in the face of real, creative people. I found it kind of amazing that the characters the reader is supposed to care about all completely agree with each other throughout the book. Even when certain folks get divorced, there’s an amicability that is hard to believe.
More disturbingly, there’s a rape and the only consequence is that the victim falls completely and totally in love with her rapist. I guess I’m supposed to write this off as the product of another era where people had very different views of sexuality and women’s rights, but as a reader in 2009 it was a little hard for me to gloss over. At first I thought it was just rough consensual sex (she was certainly giving him looks before he made his move) but she later speaks of it as a rape. Again, maybe this is just semantics and in the 1930s “rape” simply didn’t carry the weight it does today. At that point women hadn’t even been voting for twenty years.
Aside from that unpleasantness, I found the story to be quite compelling. The story covers more than a decade of these characters’ lives yet Howard Roark, the central figure, remains virtually unchanged throughout. He’s introduced as a brilliant architectural student whose talents are dwarfed only by his stubbornness and the knowledge that he is right. His refusal to compromise or accept anyone else’s terms gets him thrown out of college and loses him countless jobs as an architect. As the book progresses, his fortunes rise and sink but he never does anything different. This impressed me immensely and kept me reading to see whether he would ever be accepted as a genius.
I don’t know a thing about buildings or construction but I got a strong impression of greatness from the descriptions of his work and I understood his disdain for paying homage to styles of the past simply because they are revered. I suppose this is an area where my philosophy and Ayn Rand’s converge. I’ve never been one to accept tradition alone as a valid reason to do something. It’s probably the single most irritating thing about living in Japan. All day long I am bombarded with empty words and habits that are tied to Japanese tradition. Most days I tune it out, but sometimes I wish I could just make them stop.
Other things that rang true to me was the notion that people surround themselves with “mirrors” with which they can reflect their own opinions rather than discussing things honestly and the idea of the press controlling public discourse rather than reporting it. Some of the concepts in the book were ones I never considered but found curiously appealing, such as Wynand’s remarks about the magnificence of nature reminding him of man’s achievements. Rather than feel overwhelmed by the sea or the vastness of space, he thinks of the men who built ships to cross the ocean or found ways to dig through the mountains.
On the other hand, some of Ayn Rand’s ideas felt very, very wrong to me. Late in the book there is a collective dismissal of the idea of public housing because it somehow punishes those who are not poor enough to benefit from welfare. I can see the reasoning behind her argument but I feel it’s entirely built on the faulty premise that poverty is a personal failing that can simply be overcome with a little hard work. I also don’t understand the notion that beauty or magnificence can be lessened by allowing others to experience it. Does great art become tarnished because it is shown in a museum? I don’t think my untrained eyes damage a Jackson Pollock even if I am incapable of appreciating it.
Most of these concepts had clear parallels to those at work in BioShock. While there were no literal discussions of “are you a man or a slave?” the ideas in the book no doubt shaped that particular question. The protagonists share Andrew Ryan’s vision of a world driven by creative people unbound by the pettiness of those who cannot understand their genius. There is some discussion late in the story of “parasites” which will be familiar to fans of the game.
Also, while I cannot claim to understand it, Ryan’s decision to destroy the things he created and loved rather than let others taint it with their unwanted presence makes a little more sense to me, as does his death. Much like Howard Roark, Andrew Ryan refused to compromise and let himself die rather than suffer the indignity of fighting with Jack.
I was very surprised that the book ended as it did with Roark being vilified rather than condemned simply because he gave an impassioned speech in court. I know the author wrote in her introduction that the book is not meant to be realistic, instead presenting the world as it “could or ought to be,” but given the savagery of the criticism that the public lays upon Roark throughout the story I was scratching my head when they suddenly embraced him. Of course I wanted him to succeed but I never expected him to wave his magic genius wand and walk out of that courtroom a free man.
Reading The Fountainhead was quite thrilling at times and I occasionally struggled to put the book down. Even when I disagreed with the philosophy or felt the language was a little self-indulgent, I wanted to press on and hear more about the world the book contained. I can’t say this novel has sold me on objectivism as a concept but I am certain I want to continue reading Ayn Rand. I’ve already purchased Atlas Shrugged and will crack it open in the near future. I’ll probably read something else first though, because at over 1000 pages it looks to be a another marathon read and I’d prefer not to run two marathons in a row.
Obviously, there’s very little BioShock in the plot of The Fountainhead. There is no underwater dystopia, no plasmids, no Big Daddies or Little Sisters, and nobody shoots anyone. Having read this book, however, I feel more in touch with the ideas that inspired the game makers to create that wonderful science-fiction experience. You couldn’t make The Fountainhead into an interesting video game but they found a way to develop some of Ayn Rand’s ideas into a new and exciting story unto itself. I’ll take that kind of adaptation over a quickie movie license any day.
Daniel Feit was born in New York but now lives in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @feitclub or visit his blog, feitclub.com
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