Ayn Rand was right. There’s a type of person who is an Atlas upon whom the world rests. This sort of person is usually ignored or made fun of. In high school he is likely to get stuffed in his locker by the jocks. And yet our “new economy” is carried on his skinny shoulders.
I am referring, of course, to the math/logic/science geek. Now I don’t like terms such as “geek,” “dork,” and “nerd,” and I hope you don’t either, but we all must admit that we know exactly who I mean when I use the word.
We know that I mean Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking and a lot of other programmers, engineers and physicists. These guys — and they are usually guys — are talented, ingenuous, naïve, playful and usually manage not to become resentful of less intellectual people despite the way they have been treated by them.
This is why it is all the more extraordinary to see this type as the hero of a recent literary novel, The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville. The title character is Daniel Rooke, a lieutenant in the British Royal Marines in the Eighteenth Century. We follow his life, with one long gap, from childhood to death.
As a seven-year old, we see Daniel discover prime numbers and seek a pattern in them. This is noticed by his teacher and he gets sent off to the junior naval academy, where he is trained as a navigator and an astronomer. The two went hand-in-hand since, in those days, ships were steered by the stars.
He is abused by the other boys because of his middle-class background and, presumably, because he is shy and intellectual. He trains himself to make eye-contact and carry on with his peers, but he is more comfortable on his own. In a sort of Newtonian metaphor, he comes to see languages — at which he is also good — and the cosmos as types of “machines.”
When he is grown, Daniel is made a lieutenant and is sent on the original prisoner-transport colonization of Sydney, Australia. Discipline is strict, not only for the prisoners, but for the officers. Once in his career already he has seen an officer hanged for merely discussing the possibility of disobeying an order.
Daniel is the expedition’s astronomer, and he is allowed to set up a small observatory with living quarters up on a cliff. Here he meets an aboriginal family and establishes a friendship with their ten-year-old daughter.
It is vitally important to the survival of the colony that the British learn to communicate with the aborigines, lest they starve from not knowing how to find food in a strange land. Daniel takes it upon himself to learn the aboriginal language from the sociable girl.
Daniel doesn’t, however, see her or the other aborigines as most of the British do — as little more than animals. He sees their humanity. The girl reminds him of his sister, the only person in the world he can be himself with.
This difference between himself and the British commanders will bring him to a terrible, possibly life-or-death, disagreement with his superiors, and how he handles it forms the climax of the novel.
I won’t lie and say this is a great novel. It’s quite good, but it is not driven enough by action and conflict. The climactic clash is worthy, but could have been given more weight and drama.
The real joy of the novel, however, is the character of Daniel Rooke. It is eerie how much he echoes Rand’s description of the reason-versus-people dichotomy from her essay “The Comprachicos” in The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, and it is very gratifying to see this type of person treated with respect and sympathy, and without an ounce of condescension.
Daniel definitely grows over the course of the story and that growth is tied to the plot and the theme, which is reason and openness versus conformity and prejudice. This would be a good novel for Objectivists and for math gods.
Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher who has been published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and Philosophy Now magazine. He is currently working on a book about mind-body wholism. He lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife, author Stephanie Allen.