A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 2
Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.
This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.
So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.
If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT
I had intended to write the second installment of this series about whether Atlas Shrugged is, or has become, a historical novel. But before I get to that question, I want to take a look in the other direction: to what extent is it a futuristic novel, a work of science fiction?
My reason for doing this has less to do with the Atlas Shrugged end of the question than with the science fiction end. A comparison of Ayn Rand’s novel to other works of science fiction—and to the current state of science fiction, particularly at the movies—will give us an interesting perspective on what is important about science fiction as a genre and can help us address what I see as a contemporary crisis of science fiction.
The crisis is summed up in a recent article which notes the growing prevalence in science fiction of a pessimistic view of the future. You can see this right now at your local movie theater, where the latest film in the “rebooted” Star Trek franchise is called “Star Trek into Darkness”—a straightforward indication that the franchise is abandoning its famously optimistic view of the future. As we shall see, Star Trek’s malevolent turn is a particularly sharp betrayal.
But the trend is much wider. According to today’s science fiction, we’re going to reach a super-high-tech tomorrow, but in the process we will have rendered the Earth uninhabitable. Or it will be full of high-tech monsters. Sometimes that means alien monsters, and sometimes genetically engineered killers or zombies, but the current favorite seems to be killer robots (Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, and on and on). Whatever its form, the future is almost always bad. As the article linked to above concludes, “science fiction films have essentially become horror movies.”
How did our projections of the future become so bleak, how does Atlas compare to this tradition, and what does Ayn Rand have to offer to the genre?
First we have to ask: is Atlas Shrugged really a work of science fiction? On the one hand, much of the novel is set in what would have been recognizable as the contemporary world circa 1957, with the science and technology available at the time—railroads, automobiles, airplanes, telephones—and perhaps a little less, since the economy is collapsing and moving backwards. But of course there is one very big exception. Toward the end of the first part of the novel, our heroine, Dagny Taggart, discovers the ruined model of a motor that represents a futuristic technological breakthrough: it draws an unlimited supply of power from ambient electricity in the atmosphere.
The motor has all the basic criteria of a science fiction plot device: it is based on new, as-yet-undiscovered science, what Dr. Stadler describes as a “new concept of energy.” Because it is based on a fundamental scientific breakthrough, it also spawns a whole series of other new technologies that are shown (or hinted at) later in the book: the mirage-inducing “ray screen” that hides Galt’s Gulch, the radio broadcast technology that allows Galt to take over the airwaves across the entire world in order to give his speech, and even weapons. (There is some indication that Ragnar Danneskjold has unusual weapons, and I assume that his ship has its own “ray screen” that serves as a cloaking device. We also see the discoveries of Dr. Stadler weaponized with Project X.)
By necessity, Galt’s new concept of energy isn’t specified—after all, it hasn’t been discovered yet—so the workings of the motor are rather vague. A few bits of scientific terminology, like the “ray screen,” don’t hold up well after 50 years because science marches on, as does technology. But the most important thing about the new science and technology in Atlas Shrugged is that it is not just part of the background for the action. It is integral to the plot. In fact, it drives the plot.
You can see this with another invention in the novel, Rearden Metal. Ayn Rand doesn’t just say: I need to establish that Rearden is an innovator, so I’ll attribute some new invention to him. She makes Rearden Metal into an important part of the plot: the public controversy over Rearden Metal, for example, is what causes her to seek out Dr. Stadler, who is important to the story in many other ways; it’s what drives her to strike out on her own and rename the Rio Norte Line the John Galt Line; and the government’s attempt to control Rearden Metal becomes the key battleground in Rearden’s relationship with his power-hungry wife.
Galt’s motor is even more essential to the plot. When Dagny finds it, she starts an investigation that leads her to discover important facts about the mystery man she is chasing and eventually causes her to follow him and meet him. Remember that she crash-lands in the valley because she is chasing after Quentin Daniels, the scientist she hired to discover the secret of the motor. But it’s deeper than that. By the time we get to the valley, we realize that it was Galt’s invention of the motor twelve years earlier that led him to go on strike and “stop the motor of the world.” So a futuristic science-fiction invention is what sets the entire plot in motion.
This is the most important way in which Atlas Shrugged fits into the literary tradition of science fiction. In the best, most profound science fiction, the futuristic science-fiction scenario is used as a literary device to pose a philosophical question. Science fiction has been described, accurately, as the “last great literature of ideas.” Today’s “serious” literary fiction has been suffocated by a myopic Naturalism that is obsessed with the everyday lives of ordinary middle-class and upper-middle-class neurotics—i.e., people just like the authors—which is a subject matter so shallow it provides little scope for any serious questions about human life. The result is that “big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.”
Atlas Shrugged, too, is a novel that has been disparaged by the “serious” literary establishment but is, in fact, much more dedicated to exploring big ideas, and it does so by means of its science-fiction premise. In this case, the philosophical question is: what if a man developed a new energy source so powerful it would transform the world—but in doing so, it would give more power to an evil and destructive social system?
Science fiction is a genre that is uniquely and inherently philosophical, because in projecting a future world transformed by new science and technology, it invites the author to alter the way the world works, challenging our assumptions about what is unchanging human nature and what is mere social convention. It prompts him to take an expansive view of what might be possible to man. And there is one central philosophical issue that science fiction particularly compels the author to address. In projecting a scientific and technological future, it requires him to think about the preconditions and consequences of such a future. Science fiction invites us to think about what kind of people we will become when we adopt new scientific and technological advances—but it also requires us to ask what kind of people we will already have to be in order to achieve those advances.
Ayn Rand’s fiction is clearly focused on the question about the preconditions. Atlas Shrugged is not really about the marvelous technological possibilities opened up by Galt’s discoveries. It’s about the character and premises he had to have in order to make those discoveries, and it’s about the kind of society that will welcome him, as opposed to the kind of society that would sacrifice him.
I said earlier that it is Galt’s invention of the motor that sets the events of the novel in motion, but that’s not the whole truth. What sets everything in motion is his invention combined with one other event: the adoption by the 20th Century Motor Company of the Starnes heirs’ socialist scheme. In Atlas Shrugged, the real source of conflict is not the realm of science or technology, which represents progress and achievement. Instead, the arena in which the novel’s battles are fought is the moral, social, and political realm, which is regressing.
Thus, while Atlas Shrugged makes use of science-fiction plot devices, its plot is not about the fictional science. The novel is not about engaging in scientific exploration, discovery, and problem-solving but about questioning our moral premises and reforming the realm of culture and ideas.
This is true even of Ayn Rand’s short novel Anthem, which is her purest work of science fiction. Anthem is set in an unrecognizable future society and it has a theme that revolves around scientific discovery. But it is actually a low-tech future that comes after a collectivist collapse into pre-industrial civilization. As with Atlas, the novel’s focus is not on the technology itself (which is merely an electric light) but on the individual thinking required to create it.
Something that Ayn Rand wrote in response to a real-life technological achievement, the Apollo 11 moon launch, sheds a lot of light on her approach to science in fiction: “it is not of enormous importance to most people that man lands on the moon, but that man can do it, is.” For the pure science fiction writer, it is important than man lands on the moon, and it is vitally interesting to speculate about exactly how he might get there—or to Jupiter, or to the other side of the galaxy. This may be why Atlas Shrugged doesn’t really have the “look and feel” of a science fiction novel, and why it is not generally classified as science fiction.
But in addressing the preconditions of scientific and technological achievement and projecting the kind of people who would populate such a technological utopia, Ayn Rand is part of an important science fiction tradition, one that is all the more important because it places her among those who project an optimistic vision of the technological future.
There is one, very famous science-fiction franchise that shares this optimism. I’ve heard some confirmation that fans of Ayn Rand’s novels also tend to be fans of Star Trek, which might seem unlikely when you consider that Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry was an old-fashioned mid-20th-century “liberal” and that the series occasionally refers to a vague, implicit economic socialism, as when we are told that they no longer use money. Then again, Objectivists also tend to be fans of Victor Hugo, a Christian who described himself as a socialist. As with Hugo, the connection is much deeper than any political differences.
What attracts us to the universe of the Star Trek films and television series is their sense of optimism about a scientific and technological future—and beneath that, what attracts us is the underlying reason for the optimism.
Prompted by the new Star Trek film, which falls short in this regard, Virginia Postrel shares the results of her informal survey about the appeal of the Star Trek universe.
“It wasn’t surprising, for instance, to find that fans often used words such as ‘optimism,’ ‘hopeful,’ and ‘positive’ to describe why they like Star Trek, that they praised the franchise’s celebration of science and technology, or that they enjoyed the idea of a society without poverty or racial tension. Many invoked the famously inclusive vision of ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations’ or cited story lines that engaged social issues or probed philosophical questions.
“One common refrain was less obvious. For many viewers, it turns out, Star Trek represents the ideal workplace. ‘I was most attracted to the competence of the characters,’ said a Tennessee businessman. ‘It would be nice to live in a world or even work in an office where everyone was dedicated to their jobs and to each other and good at their work.’
“In retrospect, this escapist appeal makes sense. In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard-working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make…. Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It’s the workplace as we wish it were—and as it too rarely is.”
Describing the future world of Star Trek as an “ideal workplace” is too narrow. It is a projection of an ideal society. Notice the characteristics of this ideal society: a focus on work, competence, intelligence, productivity, and rationality. This is what I mean about projecting what kind of people we will have to be to reach a super-technological future. Star Trek presents a world dominated by science and technology—and also dominated by rationality in dealing with others, which is the primary reason for its sense of a benevolent and optimistic future.
I think you can see the connection to Atlas Shrugged. Galt’s Gulch is Ayn Rand’s equivalent of Star Fleet. So yes, of course Objectivists like Star Trek. We want to live in a capitalist version of it.
It is true that Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian novel in one respect, because it shows America going through a period of social and economic collapse first. But it is optimistic about the long run, and much of part 3 is about portraying the ideal society on which the future is going to be modeled. The same is also true for Star Trek. Gene Rodenberry always projected a future history in which the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century are filled with war and devastation—a timeline the keeps needing to be altered because the devastating wars didn’t arrive—after which the world unites and humans put their bloody past behind them, moving into the benevolent future portrayed in the films and television shows.
This helps us to understand the specific way in which the recent Star Trek “reboot” reflects science fiction’s turn toward pessimism. I am going to have to repeat my spoiler alert, though in this case it is a spoiler from the new Star Trek film. I have not seen the film yet, and my interest in doing so was drastically reduced when I found out this plot spoiler: we are the bad guys. The real villain of the film turns out to be a militaristic Star Fleet admiral. You know how in most of our modern spy movies, the real bad guys turn out to be our very own CIA? The new Star Trek film seems to be veering into that well-worn territory. It’s not exactly where no screenwriter has gone before.
This is a real betrayal of the Star Trek universe. While the later Star Trek spin-offs, such as “Deep Space Nine,” dabbled in darker themes, there was never any real question that our future selves, as represented by Star Fleet and the Federation, are the good guys. There are plenty of problems for our heroes to solve and conflicts for them to confront, but the big problem isn’t us. We have solved our big problems—war, racism, and poverty have all been vanquished—and the only problems come from the fact that we are going so far out into the galaxy that we are encountering the new and unknown, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and all that sort of thing.
In Star Trek, the technological future isn’t malevolent, because we aren’t malevolent—which gets to the crux of the issue. The Star Trek universe is benevolent, not just because we’ve solved all of our technological problems, but because we have solved our cultural and philosophical problems. We haven’t just learned how to travel faster than the speed of light or teleport ourselves across space. We have learned how to think and act and cooperate with one another and solve our conflicts peacefully.
Or to put the issue differently, what makes the Star Trek universe benevolent is not the progress it projects in the sciences. It is the progress it projects in the humanities.
This sheds light on why we’re getting so many malevolent science-fiction visions today. It also indicates what Ayn Rand has to offer.
History has been described as a war between Plato and Aristotle—that is, a more otherworldly and mystical view of the universe, versus a worldview shaped by reason and observation. Since the rise of modern science, this conflict tends to manifest itself as a war between science and the humanities. The sciences are more dominated by the methods and assumptions of Aristotle, the humanities by a kind of neo-Platonism.
Science fiction is a genre in which these two fields and their contrasting philosophical influences intersect, so it has always been a battleground for mysticism versus reason—and science fiction hasn’t always been on the side of science. One of the first science fiction novels was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The neo-mysticism of the English Romantics led the circle around Lord Byron to dabble in medieval German ghost stories, which provided the inspiration for Shelley’s tale of how science would produce monsters—an undead idea that has haunted the culture ever since. Even in the mid-20th-century Golden Age of science fiction, authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein—who generally presented a more pro-science view of the future—occasionally used science fiction to put a kind of pseudo-scientific facade on stories about collective consciousness (Clarke’s Childhood’s End), telepathic powers (Asimov’s Second Foundation), and weird hippie-ish cults (Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land).
So this strain of science fiction has always been with us, and it provides an explanation for the usual pattern of pessimistic science fiction: it imputes onto science the failings of the humanities. The scourges of the real world are runaway mysticism and collectivism; the scourge of the fictional world presented in pessimistic science fiction is usually some kind of runaway science. Pessimistic science fiction tells us that our problem is going to be killer robots built in laboratories by scientists—instead of killer ideas taught in classrooms by philosophers.
You can see how Ayn Rand offers the exact opposite of this, which is why it is significant that her fiction focuses on the humanities rather than on science. In her novels, philosophical speeches take the place where a work of pure science fiction might have long dissertations on Treknology. One of the purposes of her speeches is to shift the blame for a malevolent future—the temporary collapse of civilization portrayed in the novel—back onto the humanities, while reconnecting science and technology to the rational, benevolent world view that actually makes it possible. It is curious that in Atlas Shrugged, it is Galt’s scientific mentor who betrays him, but not his philosophical mentor. Yet it is not because Dr. Stadler is a scientist, but because he disparages philosophy and the realm of ideas. With the rhetorical question, “What can you do when you deal with people?” he forfeits the realm of the humanities to the irrational. He does not bring to philosophy the same rational spirit he brings to science.
That is the most important thing Ayn Rand has to offer: restoring a true scientific spirit to the humanities. In much of 20th-century science fiction (as in 20th-century politics), a “scientific” approach to the humanities meant some kind of centrally controlled manipulation of society. (This kind of deterministic “social science” is one of the premises of Asimov’s Foundation novels.) Yet the actual spirit of science is not “technocratic” but anti-authoritarian. A scientific understanding of man includes his nature as a rational animal—and respect for reason must include respect for the individual mind and its need for intellectual and political freedom.
This is the nature of the ideal society Ayn Rand projects in Galt’s Gulch. But in her science fiction, a utopian world of reason and science is the product, not just of futuristic technology, but of futuristic philosophy.
Now that is boldly going where no man has gone before.