Rationality, a mysterious new motor and civilization collapse: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the first co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1983

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 is publishing Appreciations of past award-winners. Here is our first Hall of Fame appreciation, by William H. Stoddard, of the first Hall of Fame co-winner: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, inducted in 1983 along with Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

By William H. Stoddard

If any novelist was central to the emergence of the libertarian movement, it was Ayn Rand.

She wasn’t simply an adherent of ideas such as strict adherence to the Constitution or economic freedom, which were common among adherents of the “old right” at the time. She was also the source of such distinctive formulations as the concept of being a “radical for capitalism” (rather than a conservative) and the principle of noninitiation of force, which have been defining elements in libertarianism for half a century. And those ideas first came to widespread attention in her last and largest novel, Atlas Shrugged.

Was Atlas Shrugged “science fiction”? It certainly was received as such; it was reviewed in Astounding Science Fiction not once, but twice, by P. Schuyler Miller (who saw little value in it) and by John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding (who praised it—particularly for its insight into the cultural and psychological mechanisms that make political repression work).

It influenced some science fiction writers; in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for example, the self-aware computer Mycroft is described as the “John Galt”of the Lunar revolution. It’s filled with marvelous inventions; not just the central ones, Rearden Metal and John Galt’s motor, but half a dozen ingenious minor devices, any one of which might have been the basis for a story in Astounding – and the Xylophone, a weapon of mass destruction based on new principles of energy transmission that plays a crucial role at the novel’s climax. And if Rand doesn’t go into detail on the scientific principles behind these inventions, or into the unexpected side effects of their use, a lot of science fiction doesn’t either.

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