Atlas Shrugged is a hard case. It's not clear how to even start writing about it, given the aura of political weirdness that surrounds it. By almost any standard, it's science fiction. As McGuffins, it includes an engine that runs on extracting static electricity from the air, a variant of ten-point steel (Reardon metal), a cheap process for extracting unlimited oil from oil shale, and a sonic death ray. And if those weren't enough, the book culminates in a 100+ page speech given to the nation on high-jacked airways by a spooky character who has waged an underground movement against the status quo, a character who is named in the first sentence ("Who is John Galt?"), but doesn't actually appear until Part Three of a three part book.Then there's stuff like this:
The clouds and the shafts of the skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire still holding the glow of sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one, which it is too late to stop.
That could easily come from one of the better noir novels of the period. Its roots are clearly in Black Mask pulpitry, the offspring of Chandler and Hammet. Mickey Spillane, whom Rand admired, wrote like that on occasion, and seldom was given due acknowledgment for the craft of it.
Moreover, there was a novelistic purpose to the prose; the mood was deliberately evocative of decay, and a sense of loss. Within the context of the novel and its time, it called forth images of more heroic times, of a lost age of adventure that so appeals to those nostalgic for times from before their own births. In other words, Atlas Shrugged appealed to the dreamer children, and that is also where science fiction finds its grip.
Atlas Shrugged (as well as The Fountainhead) shows up on "The book that changed my life" polls with such regularity that it's a bit embarrassing, though I'm not sure to whom, maybe just me. Still, I'd like to get some sort of handle on it, and I think the pulp/science fiction aspect of it is a major feature of its appeal.
But, just as evolutionary theory is tested by examples where adaptation is imperfect, the appeal of philosophies are best tested by the internal contradictions that its adherents swallow. The internal contradictions of Libertarian/Randian/Objectivism have been remarked upon ad nauseum, but I'm looking to see what sort of novelistic contradictions there exist in the original text. I'm not going to waste time on the obvious gap between reality-as-portrayed and reality-as-it-is. That's too easy and beside the point. Yes, it is, in fact, very rare for the heads of businesses to be the engineering, scientific, and technical brains behind the operation. That's part of the Edison mythology, and ignores the importance of Charlie Steinmetz (even if Edison himself did not). It's also pretty clear from the boardroom scenes in Atlas Shrugged that Rand had never actually been in a boardroom (if I were a certain sort of catty person—which I am not—I would make a similar remark about bedrooms, but all evidence is that Rand knew her way around a bedroom, and furthermore, knew just how important fantasy was in that setting). Still, it's worth noting that, in Atlas Shrugged, when businesspeople make remarks about "helping the underprivileged," they seem to actually mean doing something that might have an adverse impact on their own bottom line, and that is somewhat less believable to this reader than the sonic death ray.
But this is beating around the bush, as it were, and I wish to draw attention to a very important feature of Atlas Shrugged, and that is the failure of its primary sexual narrative.
The point of view character and protagonist of the novel is female, Dagney Taggart, who is, at novel's beginning, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations of Taggart Transcontinental. Dagney is the granddaughter of the founder of the company (more-or-less modeled on Cornelius Vanderbuilt), while her brother, James is the incompetent President, whom she must always work around to make the railroad a success. James is supposedly a good "Washington man," able to get government concessions and favors from the Federal government, and, remember, I'm not going to discuss the unrealistic political economics of the book.
The first section of Atlas Shrugged, from one viewpoint at least, consists of getting Dagney into bed with the first male protagonist, Henry (Hank) Rearden, the head of Rearden Steel, who has just created ten-point steel…I mean, Reardon Metal, an unlikely (from a metallurgical standpoint) alloy of iron and copper. It's a superstrong alloy, and, naturally, everyone in the business and scientific community is against it, apparently because it's so good, and doesn't conform to theory and stuff like that. Dagney and Hank are first business partners, trying to get a railroad line to the previously mentioned shale oil fields, and to do this they have to reinforce a bridge, which is done with Rearden Metal, so there's this fantastic high-speed train ride through Denver, over the bridge, etc., into the Valley of the Oil Shale, or whatever it's called, and at the end of it, Taggart and Rearden have frenzied sex, because, well, come on now, this is Ayn Rand writing here, and both of them are rich, good-looking, talented, and very highly sexed.
Afterwards, Rearden, who is already married, has an attack of conscience and gets all moralistic and self-loathing, but Dagney laughs it off and convinces him that sex is good, which, frankly, isn't that difficult a bit of persuasion, is it? Still, it would never have been necessary with Howard Roark, the previous Randian protagonist with initials HR.
Later, Reardon's wife goes absolutely ballistic when she learns that he's having an affair with Taggart, and not, as she first thought some chorus girl or other cheap tart. Rand gets this bit of psychology almost perfectly correct, including the fact that Rearden is so clueless that he thinks that his wife would be more ready to accept his affair with Taggart, because it's high romance rather than low and tawdry, i.e. when it actually threatens his marriage, rather than being a cheap bit on the side.
Okay, we'll now fast forward over the second part of the book, Either-Or, which has its points, especially the ongoing romance/sexual frenzy between Dagney and Hank, plus the slow deterioration of the country (and our heroes' fortunes) as the evil altruistic philosophies roaming the land devour the wealth of the country's creators, and as those creative sorts slowly disappear, one by one, into some mysterious Void. Even the dull reader will, by the end of Either-Or (probably even earlier) guess that this John Galt fellow has something to do with it, and the brighter readers will have figured out that all the cool people are leaving their posts because John Galt or one of his minions has talked them into it.
Okay, let's leave that odd little point for a bit, though it is odd isn't it, that all these rich and talented folks are walking away from their fortunes and place in society? And it's a lot of them, with nary a one of them blowing the whistle, or blabbing to somebody who might take note of it.
But Part Three, A is A (for all you comic book fans, that's where Ditko's "Mr. A" comes from), finds Dagney Taggart, after crashing her plane in a small Colorado valley at the end of Part Two, waking up in "Galt's Gulch." And who should be her rescuer but the fabled John Galt?
All right, blah, blah, blah, Dagney can't yet bring herself to retire from the world and join the strikers. Yes, that's what they are, strikers. It's "the mind on strike," because, you know, businessmen are such intellectuals. Okay, there's also artists, composers, scientists, engineers, etc. Yeah, yeah, every artist I've even known knew his Schopenhauer. And read Aristotle in the original Greek. Crap, I said I wasn't going to do that.
Anyway, Galt pretty much effortlessly, I mean effortlessly, takes over Taggart's affections. Another of her former lovers, Francisco d'Anconia, is also in Galt's Gulch, but although he is damned dashing and all, he doesn't measure up to Galt. No one does, not really. Not even Hank Rearden, who later in the book, gives up the rights to Rearden Metal to save Taggart the public humiliation (!) of the exposure of their affair. Taggart then exposes the affair herself, on national radio, but Rearden figures out that she's fallen for someone else because she only uses the past tense.
Then, blah, blah, blah, hundred page speech from Galt explaining how the world really works, everyone who isn't a total asshole joins the strike, cut, fade to black and well, who knows what happens afterwards, the dictatorship of the intelligentsia? Some sort of Objectivist paradise perhaps.
Or maybe not.
Consider. You've got these two folks, Taggert and Rearden. They are as individualistic as they come. They come together (so to speak) over shared interests and passions, share triumphs and some defeats. They are star-crossed lovers.
Then this guy Galt waltzes in, Taggert swoons and Rearden lets it happen. And none of these folks, not the industrialists, the heirs of great fortune, the artists, composers, writers, the damn pirate even, none of them go against the class. All these rugged individualists join in a collective action, a strike, for God's sake.
How is this possible? I can come up with only one, plausible within the context of science fiction, answer.
John Galt is a Slan. Maybe he doesn't have tendrils, but slans don't have to have tendrils. But he's super-smart, capable of inventing a fantastic new energy device all by his lonesome. He's super-attractive, because, well, slans are like that. And he obviously has some sort of mind control power, just like Jommy Cross developed in Slan. Galt may not be an exact van Vogtian slan, but he's obviously some sort of telepathic mind-controlling mutant. It's the only reading of Atlas Shrugged that makes any sort of sense.
Because otherwise, all these rugged individualists would have had to have taken up exactly the same political ideology and exactly the same course of collective action in support of that ideology. And that's too implausible to believe. It's just ridiculous.