BOOK REVIEWS: “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (1957)

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Since this is a very long book and a very long review, I'm going to split it over two days.

As I’ve said elsewhere on the site, I’ve spent more than half my life avoiding this book. Back in high school, it was the one the pretentious kids on the newspaper staff always raved about. They strongly proselytized it, in hopes that I’d rave about it too. I just sat there reading my Heinlein and Niven, thank you very much. “Why do you want to rot your brain reading that Science Fiction Crap?” They’d ask. “Why do you want to rot your brain reading stuff that *Isn’t* Science fiction, I’d reply. Time passed. In college, a whole new set of pretentious people - most of whom smoked Cloves cigarettes and voted Yellow Dog Democrat - raved about the book. “You should read it. It’ll change your whole view on the world,” they’d say, “Much better than wasting your time with that science fiction crap you’re reading.” I’d just sit there with my Niven and my Philip K. Dick - I was done with Heinlein by then - thank you very much, and ignore them and their pretentious ways. (I should mention that while I myself am about as anti-pretentious as you can get, I have usually hung out on the fringes of the same circles as pretentious folk because traditionally, they don’t want to talk sports, and generally speaking it was easier to make out with pretentious chicks than with good, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type women who were actually interested in learning something. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, a year or two ago, our own Doubting Thomas - an occasional commentator on our site - told me that he’d read “Voyage” by Stephen Baxter if I’d read “Atlas Shrugged.” He described it as his Bible, so I couldn’t really say ‘no,’ now could I?

So here’s the funny thing: I’d been avoiding this novel for twenty odd years because pretentious people raved about and, in their pretentious way, they always managed to disparage what I liked in the process. They’d go on about how meaningful and life changing it is, how it would challenge my beliefs, how it would expand my mind, all that kind of stuff. Never once did they say “It’s a science fiction novel. It’s got ray guns and everything.” If they’d said that, I would have jumped right in to it instantly.

Of course they may not have *known* it was a Science Fiction novel themselves. It’s been my experience that pretentious folk will go way the hell out of their way to avoid saying something is science fiction. Thus, my high school lit teacher denied to his dying breath that 1984 and Brave New World were SF, though they very clearly were. (Future Dystopias are the mother’s milk of the genre, after all.) My high school English professor and I got in to a strong argument about whether or not “Lord of the Flies” was SF. It was, since it was a post apocalyptic tale of survival after a nuclear war, as, for that matter, was “Alas, Babylon.” I’d assumed this problem would evaporate when I got in to college, but, no. If anything it got worse. People who staunchly refused to admit that Vonnegut wrote a bunch of SF novels, or that Philip K. Dick’s later novels counted. “He’s just using the aliens as a metaphor, it’s not like he’s actually saying they exist.” Well, duh, Clementine, what exactly do you think SF authors do? Lathe of Heaven, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Time Machine, Ada, From the Earth to the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey for gosh sakes - all of these were repeated, ridiculously said to be straight literary fiction by people who were very well educated, very full of themselves, and who should have known better.

But apparently they didn’t.

To be honest, I think they really didn’t know what Science Fiction was. They’d seen Star Wars, of course, and heard of Trek, but for whatever reason it didn’t pop their cork, or maybe they’d simply outgrown the cork popping and looked upon it now as an embarrassing youthful waste of time. Though I’d always assumed it was a total refusal to admit that the lowbrow stuff that I liked could in any way be mistaken for the exalted glories of the stuff they liked, but now that I think about it, they may simply not have realized that not all SF is stupid. Maybe they really didn’t know. Not everyone grew up watching crappy Roger Corman and William Castle movies like I did.

But the fact of the matter is that Atlas Shrugged is unquestionably a science fiction novel. Let’s look at the tropes, shall we?
1) It’s set in the “Not Too Distant Future,” probably in the mid-to-late 1960s, as seen from the mid-1950s.
2) It’s a dystopia, or more properly an emerging dystopia.
3) The plot revolves around two massive and competing social engineering programs
4) Much of the story is driven by the invention of new advanced technologies and materials that could revolutionize life,
5) There really are ray guns, holograms, force fields, and a few instances of Flash Gordony Super Science

In fact, if we want, we can further narrow down this novel to a specific subset of American SF common in the fifties: The Libertarian type. (Yes, I know Ms. Rand wasn’t a libertarian. This just falls in to that genus. I’ll allow as how she’s got her own species thereof, however). Examples of the Libertarian school of SF in this novel:

4a) The new inventions are squelched by those in power because it would change the status quo
6) Pretty much only an elite corps of engineers have a clue as to how the world should be run, yet have no voice
7) Those In Charge are invariably, irretrievably fools. It’s got a delicate relationship with the concept of American-style democracy (To put it politely)
8) It’s didactic as hell.

So now that we’ve determined exactly what manner of fish we’re dealing with here, let’s dissect it further, shall we?

PLAY BY PLAY

Taggart Transcontinental is the largest, most successful, and best railroad in the United States. Formed in the 19th century by a man who was apparently an unrepentant robber baron, and family owned, the company is headed by James Taggart, but his sister Dagny is the obvious real power that keeps the company going. Jim is just a big overeducated idiot, a popinjay who likes to be looked at and admired at parties, and Dagny lets the baby have his bottle, so to speak, so she can remain undistracted enough to run the company. This is all she really wants out of life. She relies heavily on her male assistant, who’s pretty obviously in love with her. We quickly discover that the world is not exactly in its glory days: Most of the countries in the world have become “People’s States,“ that is communist or socialist countries. Those nations that haven’t converted yet are well on their way to doing so. As the last mostly-functioning free market in the world, and with its massive in industrial and agricultural capacity, the United States is basically supporting the rest of the world, either through normal trade or, increasingly, by handouts.

The railroad itself is facing some problems, however, mostly from without: the economy in the US is sluggish, and the rest of the world appears to be in a deep recession of indeterminate length. Such leaders as we meet seem to be fond of a static economy in which the same amounts of the same things are produced year after year, with no concern for changing needs; and also of various collectivist/communist economic schemes. All this is, of course, repeatedly portrayed as a bad thing. Meanwhile, Dagny’s childhood friend and occasional lover, Francisco “Frisco” d’Anconia, continues to disappoint her. He’s the scion of a 400-year-lineage of shrewd businessmen, heir to the largest fortune in South America, and owner of the largest copper mines in the world, and yet he pisses money away and acts like a spoiled billionaire playboy, wasting his time with models and actresses and women of ill repute in crazy parties.

Of course this can only mean one thing: Frisco is Batman. I’m being facetious, of course, but Rand spends so much time describing Dagny’s disappointment with Frisco that you know *Something* has to be up. She spends too much time pointing out the gun on the mantlepiece not to have it pay off later. Another thing that’s too obvious not to pay off later is that whenever confronted with something inscrutable or unanswerable, the slang of the day is to answer with the question “Who is John Galt?” Nobody seems to know how this phrase got started, nor who John Galt is, but many seem to have crazy, mutually contradictory theories about it. Meanwhile, sometimes Dagny’s assistant will go to the commissary and have lunch with a nameless railway worker to whom he invariably reveals too much information about the company and Ms. Taggart.

Frisco has blown an inordinate amount of money developing copper mines in Mexico, and Jim Taggart has insisted the railroad blow an inordinate amount of money connecting said mines to the US, when the Mexican People’s State nationalizes the mines and that section of the railroad. This causes Frisco to loose hundreds of millions - which he seems oddly unconcerned about - and of course the railroad is partially crippled, too. The joke is on the Mexicans, however: The mines were worthless anyway, almost as if Frisco were deliberately trying to stick it to them by tricking them in to seizing a worthless hunk of land. Now why would Batman do that? In any event, a stock market crash ensues.

Dagny meets Hank Rearden, a self-made man who’s built his own massively successful steel corporation, and he’s invented a new alloy called “Rearden Metal,” which is much lighter and stronger than steel, and will last vastly longer. Out in Colorado, Ellis Wyatt’s oil company has discovered a massive new oil reserve, large enough that it seems it could single-handedly spark an industrial renaissance out west. Against Jim’s wishes, Hank and Dagny work together to build a Rearden Metal railway, which everyone says will fail. Of course it doesn’t fail, so everyone claims they supported it all along. It’s just that kind of book. Rearden and Dagny fall in lust, then in bed, then in love, in that order.

The State Science Institute, headed by Dr. Robert Stadler, the most brilliant scientist of his age, insists on separating science from capitalism, so that it can do pure research, which this book regards as a bad thing. The government starts demanding control of Rearden Metal, which Hank refuses to give them. The government more-or-less manages to destroy Wyatt, who evidently kills himself (Though no body is ever found) and destroys his oil refineries and sets fire to his own oilfields, rather than let the government have them. The renaissance is stillborn, failing before it can really get started.

Dagny and Hank continue their affair on the sly, as Hank is in a loveless sham of a marriage to a high-class socialite. Hank has some weird issues with sex, too. I think we’re supposed to believe this is virtuous, or at more likely what Hank perceives as virtuous, but the fact is he’s just a bit bent, and it’s kind of offputting. In fact, though Hank is the unquestioned male romantic lead of the first half of the book, everything about him is rather bent and slightly wrong. I don’t think we’re supposed to notice that. I think he’s supposed to seem a paragon of virtue, but in fact he just seems like some people I know who have Aspergers. Meanwhile, the nation’s actual movers and shakers are all disappearing. Are they dead? Kidnapped? Sleepy? No one knows, but whenever one disappears that leaves only the worthless people like Jim Taggart to keep things going, which of course they can’t do, and so the economic situation gets worse and worse.

With both their corporations buckling under ridiculous government rules, Dagny and Hank go on a road trip to get a bit of lovin’, a change of scenery, and a look at some old abandoned factories they may be able to buy and salvage equipment from. In one they find an engine that uses nothing to run, it simply operates off of static electricity in the air. It’s been partially destroyed, but Dagny realizes it for the game changer that it is, and takes it. She hires an engineer to try and figure it out, and launches a fruitless search for its inventor. She also tries to find “The Destroyer,” a man she suspects is causing the disappearances of all the movers and shakers of industry. Dagny and Hank are both confused by the fact that they’re trying to save society, and yet society reviles them for it.

Eventually, Dagny discovers that The Destroyer is nosing around her engineer working on the Static engine. She tries to dissuade the man from leaving, but gets there too late. She does, however, see the Destroyer and the engineer leaving in a private plane, so she grabs a plane herself and gives chase. Eventually the Distroyer’s plane disappears in the mountains, and while searching for it, her engine abruptly cuts out and she finds herself crashing on the inside of a mountain she mistakes for a volcano or something. Awaking on the ground, she finds herself in a hidden town in the Rocky mountains, covered by a holographic projector/force field which knocked out her engine.

It turns out Destroyerville (My name, not theirs) is populated entirely by engineers, businessmen, and artists who actually create, the movers and shakers, the tiny percentage of the world who make life possible for the rest of the people in the world who simply consume. Dagny meets up with John Galt, who explains his plan: In essence, those who produce and think are treated like crap by those who don’t. They’re used and abused while others grow fat on their efforts, then kicked to the curb when the users feel like it. This has gone on since time immemorial, and so John Galt and his college friends Frisco, and Dagmar Hammarskjold, a Norwegian pirate who’s been flitting about the edges of the story, decided to change the system once and for all, so those with the brains and the ability will run stuff, and the stupid people will not. Galt has, for a decade or more now, been talking ‘his’ kind of people in to going on strike, as he calls this retreat. Society can not function without them, and once they’re all gone, society will collapse. Then the engineers, corporate raiders, dignified childless actresses who know the classics, and avante garde musicians will step in an re-establish order, ensuring utopia for everyone forever.

Really.

Dagny’s sojourn in Destroyerville goes on for a while, but eventually she tells Galt that she has to go back out and try to hold the world together, even though she thinks his cause is just, his actions are right, and she’ll be fighting against him. Also, of course, she loves him and he loves her, and has stalked her (quite literally) for years - he‘s the nameless guy that‘s been pumping her assistant for information in the commissary - but of course he says, “Sure thing, baby, if that’s what turns you on,” and off she goes. She lies about where she’s been, and Hank Rearden immediately realizes that she’s found someone new, so he just walks away with unexpected understanding. Meanwhile, Jim Taggart has met a shopgirl who’s impressed with him - she’s really the only person who is - and marries her, despite the fact that she’s beneath his station. He puts her through a finishing school of sorts, turning her in to a lady of quality, and then begins to hate her, so he embarks on an affair with Rearden’s soon-to-be-ex-wife. Eventually, Jim’s wife realizes what kind of person he is, and goes to talk to Dagny. Dagny isn’t able to help much, and so her sister in law kills herself.

While Dagny was in Destroyerville, the situation got immeasurably worse. Rearden’s factory has been beplagued with government stooges trying to take control, Taggart Transcontinental is falling apart, and the government has imposed wage and hiring controls. No one can quit their jobs, which is of course resulting in people just walking off and disappearing, rather than work pointless jobs they hate. The government has built a great big ray gun cannon in the upper Midwest, a prototype to defend the entire country with far fewer people. Theaters have been closed down. California has fallen victim to some kind of state-sponsored form of Buddhism which completely mismanaged the state, resulting in nearly immediate famines. A riot is staged at the Rearden factory so the government can kill Hank and assume command of his company as a government monopoly, but his workers - and one government goon - are fiercely loyal to him, and they fight back.

Dagny eventually realizes that Galt has been stalking her as an unskilled worker on the train yards. They hook up during a train-scheduling emergency.

Just at it’s darkest ebb, when everything is falling apart, and the entire economy has ground to a halt, Galt comes on all the radio stations in all the US and gives a verrrrrrrrrrrrry lonnnnnnnnnnng speech (70 pages in my copy) that outlines Rand’s philosophy in the form of a long list of the crimes the “Moochers and Looters” in government and society at large are guilty of.

The government freaks out, and tries to find Galt. They offer a huge reward, but can’t find him. They lie and say he’s working with them to fix the situation, but no one believes it, and the situation gets worse. Overcome by love and overwhelmed by the collapse of civilization, Dagny goes to see Galt at his house in New York, and of course she’s followed. Therefore, to protect her, Galt makes her turn him in for the reward, which she reluctantly does. He’s arrested and questioned, but will not really collaborate or tell them anything they want to hear. These sessions are kind of long and I think they’re supposed to evoke a sort of “Jesus before His accusers” kind of feel, but they run rather long and the arguments are leading in such a way as to get across the idea that his interlocutors couldn’t really understand the answers anyway.

They try to force him to speak on their behalf publicly, but that goes horribly wrong, and finally they decide to torture Galt in to working with them. They take him away to a new “Torture Machine” for that purpose, while Professor Stadler has had enough, and drives out west to take control of the Super Ray Gun Cannon (Again, that’s my name, not theirs) and declare everything within it’s range his own personal feifdom. Once there, he’s shocked to discover that another of the government stooges has already taken it over with the same intent, and the fool manages to blow the thing up while trying to turn it on, destroying the installation and everything within the state. The final bridge across the Mississippi River collapses, and the East Coast is now completely cut off from the west. New York City immediately strangles and dies.

Dagny, Frisco, and Rearden launch a rescue mission for Galt, and once that’s accomplished, they fly back to Destroyerville, passing over NYC as they go. While flying over the city, they see its lights finally falter and go out for all - the city is dead, American civilization is all-but dead. Out west, Dagny’s assistant is riding the Taggart Comet, which breaks down somewhere in the desert, and they can’t get it fixed again, nor can they contact New York or anyone else to ask for help. Eventually, they’re rescued by a passing horse-drawn wagon train of refugees from the Imperial Valley in California, who are heading east, looking for a place to live. Modern, mechanized society is dead.

In the Denouement, we see brief literally cameo appearances of Dagny, Galt, Rearden, Frisco, and the other people of worth as seen through lit windows in the dark of night, as they plan their reemergence from Destroyerville, and the utopian society they’ll build.

THE END

Tomorrow we'll get to the observations, which are legion.

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