Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

november, review

60 long days ago, at the suggestion of my good friend Ariel Weingarten, I started reading Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t really know anything about it going in, except that it was the Objectivist manifesto, the Objectivists were pretty similar to the Libertarians, and that nobody seemed capable of reading it without having strong feelings on it. Everyone who made it through either seemed to absolutely love it, or completely hate it coming out. As far as I could tell, there was no middle ground.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Atlas Shrugged during the course of my reading it, so I asked around. Literally everyone I met, whose opinion I thought might be illuminating was asked “have you ever read Atlas Shrugged? What did you think about it?” Reactions were mixed, even between people with relatively similar backgrounds. My mother hated it; her childhood friend, my (paternal) aunt, couldn’t say enough good things about it.

Me, I think I’m in the “liked it” camp. I don’t think I liked it enough to read any other Rand, and I don’t think I liked it enough to read it again, but I’m pretty sure I firmly liked it. But enough about me. Let’s talk about the book. I’m not going to intentionally spoil the book, but I will include any details necessary for the plot. Reader beware.

There are so many things I want to address in this novel, and so in lieu of a better ordering, I will start from the beginning. I read an e-book copy of Atlas Shrugged, and I’m glad it did, because otherwise I might not have started it. Atlas Shrugged is a heaving 1200 page monolith, a fact I was blissfully unaware of until a month in. Physically lugging that thing around would have been lame, and an eternal reminder of how much more Atlas Shrugged I had to read.

What first struck me, as I waded through the initial chapters, was the prose. Rand has a very particular brand of writing; I get the impression that not only would I be able to identify unattributed excerpts to her based on the writing style alone, I would also be able to distinguish it from those attempting to write in her style. Rand unashamedly jumps for both similes that express more the emotional attitude of the situation than anything which might actually describe what is going on, and for similes that aren’t similes but actually just tell you more about what is going on. It’s jarring. Compare:

It was a sense of freedom, as if he stood alone in the midst of an endless sweep of clean air, with only the memory of some weight that had been torn off his shoulders. It was the feeling of an immense deliverance. It was the knowledge that it did not matter to him what Lillian felt, what she suffered or what became of her, and more: not only that it did not matter, but the shining, guiltless knowledge that it did not have to matter.

and

He talked earnestly, but in a casual manner, as if they both understood that this was not the main subject of their interview; yet, oddly, he spoke not in the tone of a foreword, but in the tone of a postscript, as if the main subject had been settled long ago.

As such, I found myself indexing quotes much more frequently than I do for most literature. I would highlight quotes for their sense of poetry, or because they expressed thoughts that I knew I could never experience, or because they were inspiring. My list of quotes for this book is thusly surprisingly long for the actual content that I got out of it.

Let me elaborate on that point. Rand’s skill as a writer is in her world building, and certainly not in her storytelling. The plot can be summarized without fear of spoilers as this:

  • some assholes do bad things to our main characters
  • our main characters overcome it
  • nothing has changed
  • rinse and repeat

There’s no sense of rising stakes, or of dramatic tension, or anything really. The novel is more about the eventual collapse of the system, really due to nobody’s actions but the zeitgeist at large. Interesting world building, certainly, but not much in the way of a story. But then again, it might not be a fair complaint, as the novel doesn’t try very hard to pretend to be anything other than a framework to hang Rand’s philosophy on top of.

In that way, I’d compare it unfavorably to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is also unashamedly little but a clothesline for Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. I say “unfavorably”, because, despite this, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has one of the greatest climaxes of any novel I have ever read. Despite being mostly a interesting-if-wrong treatise into weird philosophy, it still manages to be entertaining as a work of fiction.

I’m not sure I can say that about Atlas Shrugged. I read Atlas Shrugged more as a warning about the future, and a entertaining character study in stoicism. A warning about the future because I think Rand’s forecasting is pretty good, and a entertaining study in that I found myself wanting to be more and more like the protagonists in my everyday life, as they struggle against indifferent oppression.

To that end, I was reminded immensely of H. P. Lovecraft’s work as I made my way through Atlas Shrugged. I would be very surprised to learn if Rand hadn’t been a literary fan of Lovecraft at some point during her life. The reason I say this is that there is no clear overarching antagonist in the novel. There are some agents ostensibly pulling the strings, but they’re ultimately incompetent and really not very good at slowing down the protagonists. What is, however, is this cold, clammy sense of doom that pervades the work, that nothing the protagonists do can possibly change anything; that some blind idiot god, much too big for anyone to even comprehend, let alone stop, is ultimately influencing the world for the worse. As a matter of fact, the end of the novel is more the protagonists winning a war of attrition against society and the powers-that-be than it is about them actually winning. It’s kinda frustrating, honestly.

I liked Atlas Shrugged, I think, because it gave me some clearer means of expressing a lot of the philosophy already in my head. I suspect this is why other people like it, as well. What Atlas Shrugged does not strike me as, is being good at changing people’s philosophy. If you are not already Objectivist/Libertarian-leaning coming into it, I would imagine Atlas Shrugged would push you away in horror. The reason behind this, I expect, is that none of the antagonists (who are ultimately agents of other philosophies) are likable in the least. Let me explain.

If you want to turn people to your side, you need them to identify with you, and then very slowly and very gently show them how your point of view succeeds in places that theirs fails. Atlas Shrugged’s biggest failing point is that there are no sympathetic non-Objectivists. Everyone who is not an Objectivist is painted as undeniably evil, completely incompetent, and has no redeeming features whatsoever. Unfortunately, I didn’t save any quotes along these lines, but every antagonist spouts out lines like “It’s not my fault! It couldn’t be helped! There’s nothing I could have done!” almost as frequently as they get a chance to speak. The bad guys are all straw-men, and so it’s no wonder that so many people can’t stand this book.

If you tell your readers that they are evil and that their entire world-views are wrong, don’t expect them to thank or forgive you.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a book that gets this overwhelmingly right. In Methods of Rationality, you know Quirrell is Voldemort within the first ten chapters, but that doesn’t stop you from spending most of the book thinking “wow, he has a point there.” Yudkowsky has written about how he tried to make all of his bad guys convincing, and I think this is a much stronger way of bringing people into the fold. Find a point of view that your readers can relate to, and slowly subvert it until it’s the viewpoint you want them to take away. Don’t immediate vilify anybody, because that’s just asking to piss people off.

Along those lines, I think Atlas Shrugged would be a better novel if it were written by somebody else. Dagny Taggart is to Ayn Rand as Wesley Crusher is to Gene Rodenberry. That’s not to say that I’m immune to this in my writing, but I will say have significantly more self-control than Rand does. Throughout the course of the novel, no fewer than five major, important characters fall in love with Dagny, including the world’s top three leading industrialist men, and a married, heterosexual woman. It gets particularly icky during some of the sex scenes, which are thankfully not graphic, but certainly consentually uneasy. Dagny is continually being “taken” by “men who know that she is theirs”. This quote is taken out of context, but it is exceptionally similar to ones which are not:

Ownership—she thought, glancing back at him—weren’t there those who knew nothing of its nature and doubted its reality? No, it was not made of papers, seals, grants and permissions. There it was—in his eyes.

Dagny’s body keeps being “owned” by those willing to take it, which, you know, is cool and all if it’s what she’s into. But also I kept being reminded that Dagny Taggart is actually just Ayn Rand, and I was reading all about the sexual fantastics of the author without wanting to. Prudish? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself. Furthermore, this is kind of a weird position for the book to take, whose underlying philosophy is that things belong to those willing to work for them. It’s consistent, yeah, if you squint, but remember that Dagny is the primary protagonist and it is not her who is working for these things. It distracts from Rand’s point, but I don’t know, maybe she’s just old fashioned.

Actually, speaking of which, I was shocked to learn that this novel was published in 1999. It struck me as a very ’50s kind of thing. But then again, never mind. In doing my research for this paragraph actually it was first published in ’57, so there you go.

Along those lines though, the novel is very good about not dating itself. I picked up only on the ’50s thing based on the writing style and general attitudes of the characters. I mean, it doesn’t mention computers or cellphones, but it also barely mentions television. It reads a little like a grimy noir, thus my era guess. The reason I bring this up, is that, like a lot of culture from before my time, I don’t know how to put it into context. When I watched Sunset Boulevard, I wasn’t sure if Norma Desmond was weird as shit, or if that was just a cultural thing of the era. It’s hard to separate fiction from lost culture.

Atlas Shrugged held me in such a state for most of the way through. The philosophical arguments the characters fight against are never named, just described, and their descriptions don’t exactly match any viewpoints I’ve ever encountered. There’s a vague sense of disliking postmodernism, and a huge sense of hating communism, but the two feel entangled and mistaken for one another. Again, I’m not too sure what to take away from this, maybe like Plato, it’s a critique of philosophies that don’t exist anymore. Maybe I’m ignorant of something. Or, maybe Rand just didn’t know what she was talking about.

I’m not sure which, but one of the three seems very likely. Your guess is as good as mine.

So that’s the majority of my review. I just have a few nits to pick because I can’t help myself. It’s probably a good thing that Rand focuses Atlas Shrugged as a philosophical narrative more than, say, a sci-fi. I say this, because it too easily could have been science fiction, and it would have been really poor science fiction. One of the protagonists creates an engine that can pull energy literally out of thin air, and goes on to use it to light his house and, later, power a small village. Yawn. A few chapters later, some guys make a giant sound gun that is capable of destroying anything it shoots. Guess what they use it for? Absolutely nothing interesting. It’s a really cool idea both technically and sociologically, and Rand falls flat on her face in both regards. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Worm which manages the impressive feat of using magic to its full potential, but it’s really frustrating watching all of the in-universe genius characters fail to do anything interesting with an infinite energy source.

While I’m complaining about small things, the twists in this book are… not very good twists. With the exception of one minor one, I saw every one coming at least 300 pages in advance. Where all the capable industrialists were going, what it was called, who invented the infinite energy machine, stuff like that. Maybe it’s through cultural osmosis, but I doubt it.

Before I end this review, I want to discuss some of the reception that I’ve seen to it. Among my friends who didn’t like it, I’ve heard the words “disgusting”, “ruthless” and “dystopian” used. I don’t get it. I would describe the hapless antagonists with those words, but not the novel. My mother described it along the lines of “it makes the case that everything is just about money,” which I don’t think is the point. To me, the idea is more that everything is about accomplishment, and in fact, this strikes me as being the central theme of the book.

A friend and I were recently discussing Elon Musk, and she was of the opinion that maybe investing in Mars wasn’t the best way for him to spend his money. This struck me as a very strange argument: I think what Atlas Shrugged has given me is the opinion that really, it’s his money, and he can spend it however he pleases. Anyone who has a differing idea on what to do with a few billion dollars is welcome to make their own, and then spend it in that way. What I’m trying to say is that this novel has given me a better appreciation for people who put their money where their mouthes are. It’s one thing to be confident about what someone else should do with their fortunes, and a very different beast to have to put your own money on the line. To my friend’s benefit, she took a moment to consider this, and agreed that maybe she should be working towards a few billion, which is a marvelous attitude.

To me, what Atlas Shrugged is saying is not that we should never help anybody, but we should never help those who will never provide us any benefit in return. Any other strategy has an attractive Nash Equilibrium where everybody seeks to receive without returning. The novel is not coy about this point: there’s a sixty page diatribe on the point. Rand understands economics: people respond to incentives. She also seems to understand evolutionary game theory: behaviors that can be systematically selected against will be. To me, Atlas Shrugged is a loud warning that communism isn’t self-reinforcing, that it can’t possibly survive in the long term because it incentivizes communists against communism. And she called it, communism did break down in exactly the ways she predicted. Socialists can hem and haw until the cows come home that maybe communism just wasn’t implemented properly, and that might be true, but Rand has history on her side, and the socialists have squat.

As a consolation prize, Rand also makes the argument that maybe this hyper-capitalist behavior is not as exploitative as it sounds on its surface:

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the ‘competition’ between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.

It’s harsh, yes, but I really appreciate the sentiment behind this quote: “bugger off, stay out of my way, and there will be enough spoils for us both to enjoy.” That pretty much sums up my attitude. There’s more greatness in this world than we humans can ever hope to exhaust, and in the absence of any god, humanity is all that we have, and human values are all that matter. Rand’s argument, and one that I tend to agree with, is that the values we should cherish most are those that bring us collectively as much greatness as possible. She is saying that we must never share our greatness with others, but only that we ask them to share theirs with us in return.

As always, the list of quotes from the book I liked enough to highlight.