Action, passion, humor, mystery, sf, good, evil, collectivism, individualism, civilization, apocalypse and the liberating power of ideas: Another Appreciation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society began publishing in 2019 a weekly series of Appreciations of each winner for Best Novel, the initial annual Prometheus category launched in 1979  – and is now focusing on the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction, the second annual awards category launched in 1983.
Following last week’s Appreciation by William H. Stoddard, here’s a second Appreciation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the first two 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame winners:

By Michael Grossberg
Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, a millions-selling bestseller that has remained in print since its original 1957 publication, offers the combined satisfactions of mystery, science fiction, romance and suspense thriller.

Yet Atlas Shrugged, in setting up and solving its intricate and interrelated mysteries, also resonates as an innovative, unconventional and philosophical novel about the power of ideas, for good and bad. Its fierce and noble focus is on the distinctive role played by free minds, free markets and free women and men in sustaining society and genuine life-affirming progress based on cooperation, not coercion.

Rand herself described it as a mystery novel, “not about the murder of man’s body, but about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit.”

Set in a futuristic but almost alternate-reality version blending aspects of 1930s-1940s America (railroad- and radio-dominated but TV-free) where collectivist and statist policies are running amok and threatening an inexorable and apocalyptic collapse of civilization, the novel incorporates several sci-fi elements – most notably,  force fields, a new and stronger super-metal alloy, a mysterious and powerful rumored new motor and a hidden “Atlantis” of prime movers.

Although epic in scope, with dozens of characters, Rand’s wide-ranging story revolves in its heart around Dagny Taggart, a resourceful female business executive struggling to run and save her railroad company; her soul-conflicted and maritally unfulfilled steel-magnate lover; her corrupt businessman brother who uses political pull to gain special privileges;  a flamboyant Latin American copper-magnate playboy; and a modern-day pirate almost as mythic as a comic-book hero.

Plus, introduced slyly in the opening line of the novel that’s since become a cultural catch-phrase (“Who is John Galt?), there’s the mysterious missing title character, a genius and individualist who invented then abandoned a disruptive new power technology that might have benefited all of humanity. Why didn’t it? And where did John Galt go?

Rand’s fourth and final novel (after We the Living, Anthem and The Fountainhead) fuses action, intellect and passion in surprising ways and culminates with a speech (by guess who?) outlining Rand’s Objectivist insights about reason, ethics, human nature, business, money, and the mortal threat to civilization itself from unreason and coercion – especially government tyranny.

For example, in upholding the peaceful social cooperation of free men and women in personal and economic relationships, John Galt states: “The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.”

Many themes and insights are dramatized in this wide-ranging work, but libertarians have embraced this one in particular: a moral and legal prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud as a fundamental principle of civilized society.

Others have summed it up more loosely as “live and let live,” or as allowing “anything that’s peaceful,” or as “laissez faire, laissez passer” – but whatever the formulation, it recognizes that the free and voluntary cooperation of individuals in society is the opposite of the institutionalized coercion at the very foundation of all government. (If that seems unclear or arguable, recall that the German sociologist-economist Max Weber, noted for his studies of the modern state, is widely credited as the first person to accurately define the nature of government as the only human institution that successfully claims a legitimized and legal monopoly over violence and the use of force within a geographical area – a definition still widely acknowledged and not seriously challenged today.)

SERIOUS, BUT ALSO SATIRICAL
Revealingly, when Rand’s biggest and most ambitious novel initially was published, some reviewers dismissed it as “humorless.” In fact, the novel packs in a good deal of humor, some satirical and some ironic and intellectual – but the humor is intentionally restricted to her portraits of the villains. (Rand later explained, in an essay in her book The Romantic Manifesto, that spiritually, the best within us should never be made fun of – and that humor should be focused only on our flaws.)

Consider the names, oafish behavior, and thug-like belligerence of Rand’s villains. Her gallery of grotesques comprise a motley crew of petty bureaucrats, egotistical aspiring dictators, guilt-wielding family relatives, and moralistic “do-gooders” upholding coercive and Prohibitionist “there ought to be a law” rhetoric.

Some of the villain’ names alone – such as back-stabbing big-government lobbyist Wesley Mouch, pseudo-intellectual Claude Slagenhop, “looter” Tinky Holloway (“hollow,” get it?) and sneering editorial writer Bertram Scudder – evoke comparisons to classic social comedies on the Western stage.  Think, for example, of the aptly named weaker characters in The School for Scandal, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic 1777 comedy of manners, from Lady Sneerwell and her hireling Snake to Sir Benjamin Backbite.

Humorless?

Really, that’s an absurd charge. (Don’t make me laugh further.)

This might fall into psychologizing, but perhaps at least a few of Rand’s worst critics might have identified a bit too closely with the statist, collectivist and technocratic ideology that animates her villains, and thus took her satirical stabs too personally. (After all, it’s harder to get the joke when it’s directed at you.)

Overall, of course, and even through its humor, Atlas Shrugged is a serious novel that aims to uphold rationality and individual liberty as the highest standard, source and sustenance of civilization.

What makes this enduring bestseller of continued intellectual interest as well is the way the plot and characters illuminate and introduce several new ideas, including a systematic re-envisioning of the values and virtues of life.  With this epic and epochal novel, Rand began to present her mature world view of her philosophy of Objectivism, in which facing reality is the very foundation of morality, while evading reality (such as by indulging in wishful thinking or self-deception) is the pathway to disaster – even if the intricate causality of that path is often indirect and unseen, and ultimately harms the innocent, tragically, as well.

To clarify but also contrast with her vision of the good in one of the most vivid stories ever spun about heroes and villains, Rand also necessarily probes the philosophical and spiritual depths and varieties of evil. This, the novel reveals in a remarkable range – from pettiness and grandiosity to extremes of reality-denying nihilism, and on a level reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiots), one of the 19th-century great novelists (along with Victor Hugo) whom Rand most admired and praised in The Romantic Manifesto, her maverick book of essays on aesthetics, art and culture.

THE CONTEXT OF HISTORY AND THE RISE OF COLLECTIVISM
Often, the clichéd statist rhetoric of Rand’s villains is just one or two subtly parodic steps beyond what actual fascists, socialists and “progressive” (actually, reactionary) leftists were saying and writing from the 1920s to the 1950s.

By no coincidence, that was the era of rising collectivism of the Left and Right – initially embraced in its moralistic but flawed idealism, rather indiscriminately in the early 1900s, by Western intellectuals and artists from playwright George Bernard Shaw to utopian socialist H.G. Wells. (The latter, as Jonah Goldberg has noted in his book, admiringly coined the term “liberal fascism” to reflect the then-conventional wisdom that all forms of collectivism and statism were inevitable and positive steps up from liberalism, then understood more like classical liberalism, a close cousin to today’s libertarianism) toward an allegedly inevitable Hegelian future.

Rand recognized the warning signs in such intellectual errors. She knew what she was talking about, in part because she had seen up close the horrors of the Russian Revolution and its murderous communist dictatorship. To her further horror, after escaping from the Soviet Union to the United States, she discovered that the free-er West (and especially its intellectuals, academics and journalists) seemed largely oblivious to the evils of authoritarian collectivism in all its variants – from Lenin/Stalin’s murderous communism  to Hitler’s similarly murderous national socialism. (A revealing but largely unrecalled fact: “Nazi” Party is an English abbreviation of Hitler’s German National Socialist Workers’ Party).

A PROPHETIC NOVEL, AND THE NEW ABOLITIONISM
Although most major 20th century experiments in dictatorship have since largely collapsed, new utopian and covert variants and related threats recur, with horrific consequences that continue to threaten and destroy the lives of millions of innocent people – especially the oppressed, the poor, minorities and the individual.

That’s also why Atlas Shrugged continues to resonate, decade by decade and perhaps century by century. Rand’s magnum opus is a remarkably audacious stunt novel that, for instance, predicted many aspects of the wage-and-price-control-created “energy crisis” of the 1970s as well as the government-induced mortgage-bank bubble and the economic panic/recession of 2007-2009, among other disturbing events and negative trends.

Sadly, Rand’s final novel – now translated into 25 languages – continues to feel prescient and all too relevant today.

Just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling 1860s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped pave the way for an end to slavery, partly because of its villainous caricatures and virtuous characters in a powerful moral drama and melodrama of good versus evil, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has served as a catalyst for the emergence of the modern libertarian movement, itself broadly Abolitionist regarding a fierce and principled opposition to slavery, tyranny and all forms of institutionalized coercion, no matter whether Left or Right.

Just as the great abomination of slavery was finally abolished, specifically through the success of the loosely libertarian Abolitionist movement but more broadly by the long advance of ideals and labor-saving inventions of Western civilization after being a nearly universal reality oppressing any and all races, religions and nations for thousands of years back to ancient Greece and Rome and beyond to the Jews in ancient Egypt, let us hope that some day the twin evils of tyranny and authoritarianism in all of its forms is finally buried and laid to rest by the New Abolitionists.

Note: In addition to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1905-1982)  was recognized by the Prometheus Awards in 1987, when her first novel Anthem, a poetic and concise classic of dystopian fiction about the rediscovery of the self in a primitive dictatorship, was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Rand also wrote two individualist and anti-authoritarian novels that do not fall within the sf genre – We the Living and The Fountainhead – along with many short stories and screenplays (later collected and published posthumously in the book The Early Ayn Rand).

Her non-fiction essays and columns were later published in more than half a dozen books, with Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution among the books of greatest interest to libertarians, classical liberals (for Rand was more truly a liberal than an “arch-conservative”) and other freedom-lovers.


For an overlapping but somewhat different perspective on Atlas Shrugged, read William H. Stoddard’s Appreciation, published recently on the Prometheus Blog and focusing more on the novel’s science fiction elements.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation, by William H. Stoddard, of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the other 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

* See the related  introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Action, passion, humor, mystery, sf, good, evil, collectivism, individualism, civilization, apocalypse and the liberating power of ideas: Another Appreciation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner”

  1. I just had to write to thank you, Michael, for one of the best appreciations of Atlas Shrugged that I have ever read. I especially appreciated your acknowledging the novel as part of serious science fiction and noting correctly that Rand was not a conservative but in fact a classical liberal.
    Reading Atlas Shrugged in 1964 (while working as a Students for Goldwater volunteer) made me realize that I was not a conservative. It also turned out to be the spark that got me interested enough in libertarianism to rescue a failing Reason magazine from going under in 1970 and creating Reason Foundation as a think tank to advance liberty in 1978.
    –Bob Poole

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