A couple of months ago I finally finished reading Atlas Shrugged. While I’ve attempted to read this book a few times before I could never get very far. Needless to say I decided to give it one last try because as a libertarian I’m expected to not only read this book but to memorized it and express my undying devotion of its author, Ayn Rand.
Apparently I’m not a very good libertarian because on an arbitrary scale from 0 to 1 I give Atlas Shrugged a 0.5. Some libertarians are likely to ask how I could avoid giving this tome any rating besides 1. Answering that question and others is fairly easy and if you want a more detailed review please read on.
First let me start by fully admitting my reason for not finishing the book on my previous attempts. The style of writing used by Ayn Rand falls squarely into the category of romanticism. Romanticism is a style of writing that became popular during the Age of Enlightenment and has several defining features, one of which is verbose scene descriptions. I’m not a fan of this type of writing because I have a functioning imagination and therefore don’t need fine details describing a scene. Personally I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov’s writing style, which can be best described as very clear and to the point with little ancillary detail given. Atlas Shrugged is hard for me to read because I find the writing style extremely boring.
Of course that’s not my only criticism of the book. Before delving farthing into the aspects I dislike about the title though I feel it best to explain what I did like (this part will contain spoilers, if you haven’t read the book and don’t want any parts spoiled just stop reading now). The core story of Atlas Shrugged is very good and does a great job of explaining the dangers of government regulations and collectivism. In the story we’re introduced to several extremely successful producers including the main star Dagny Taggart and her male counterpart Hank Rearden. Both Taggart and Rearden are the best in their field (railroad management and metallurgy respectively). Unfortunately the government in Atlas Shrugged mirrors our government today; it’s comprised almost entirely of dick bags.
The United States remains the last major state in the world that hasn’t turned entirely to socialism although it’s speeding down that highway. Members of the government and private industry have become infected with the ideas of the greater good, fairness, and other general collectivist ideals. Dagny’s brother, Jim, is the owner of Taggart Transcontinental, the company Dagney also works for. Unlike Dagney who is a capable and productive individual Jim is a complete putz who concerns himself with altruism (collectivist altruism, not true selflessness). While Dangy keeps trying to run the railroad Jim keeps making backdoor deals with government officials.
Throughout the story Taggart Transcontinental goes from the most successful railroad in the world to a failing company. Taggart Transcontinental isn’t the only failing company of course, every company is slowly dying due to ever increasing government regulation. Atlas Shrugged does a very good job of describing how government regulations can slowly pile up and start decimating private industry. Another thing this novel does well is celebrate the producer of goods and services.
Eventually the super hero of the story, John Galt, is introduced. Being the most intelligent man ever to walk on this planet Galt has come up with a plan to fight back; by going on strike. Throughout the story the most productive people in the United States disappear and it’s later revealed that Galt has been whisking them away to a secret location so their productive ability isn’t assisting the state. All the productive persons whisked away by Galt are hiding in a valley where they practice anarcho-capitalism (even though this is never stated but i’ll expand on that later). The people in the valley are actively practising agorism (once again this is never stated) as they have created a counter-economy separate from state influence.
The core story is the main attraction of this book and it is very good. Unfortunately this core story is buried under a pile of failure. This is the part of my review where I expect to hear calls for my crucifixion by other libertarians. Thankfully as a libertarian I’m well armed and therefore anybody coming to nail me to a cross is going to have a fight on their hands.
I mentioned that the people hiding in the valley were practicing anarcho-capitalism. The valley has no actual government although one former judge has been assigned the task to conflict resolution should the need ever arise. Since everybody in the valley has voluntarily agreed to the judge’s arbitration it can’t be said he is a state in any capacity. So we have a valley full of successful individuals who are practicing capitalism without any state involved.
This leads us to a logical fallacy that exists within Atlas Shrugged. It is stated that government is necessary to protect the people of a country yet the people in the valley prove otherwise. They exist under constant threat of state thugs marching in and arresting the lot of them but they managed to avoid this outcome by concealing their presence (they have a device that creates the illusion of the valley being empty). Likewise Rand explained the necessity of government in her essay The Nature of Government but wrote a story where her main characters, the heroes, demonstrated no such necessity exists. Were this merely a work of fiction I’d pay little attention to such a failure of logic but as this is a work of philosophy it needs to be brought to light, and that brings us to my next major criticism.
While Atlas Shrugged is written as fiction is it obvious Rand meant it to be a philosophical work. Rand wanted to write a hand guide to her philosophy of objectivism but must have believed wrapping it in the thin veil of a fictional universe would make it more approachable. Whatever her reason great lengths of the novel are dedicated to explaining objectivism without actually using the term. In fact John Galt spews out an insanely long monolog (I read the book on my Kindle so I lacked page numbers but I heard the number of pages to be roughly 75, which seems reasonable) that explains the finer details of objectivism. This monolog is legendary and for good reason as it’s basically the worst part about this book. Atlas Shrugged would have been greatly improved had Galt’s monolog been remove, placed into a separate paper about philosophy, and a brief summary had been given in place of the monolog.
Let’s talk about the characters. The characters in Atlas Shrugged would be more property placed in early Superman comics. What I mean by this is every character is one dimensional to a degree that’s impossible to overlook. Each good guy is wholly perfect while each bad guy is entirely disgusting. I’m not just talking about actions but even physically; the good guys are all described as representations of perfect human beauty while the bad guys are all beady eyed, fat, or otherwise physical unappealing. Every action taken by the good guys is met with success while the actions of the bad guys are always met with utter failure. I’m a fan of antiheroes like Spider Jerusalem, Marv from Sin City, Dirty Harry, and Snake Plissken because antiheroes are interesting as they have depth. While Snake Plissken is an ass who cares for little besides himself he still ends up saving the day in his own way. On the other hand I never enjoyed Superman because he was boring, he always did the morally correct thing. Unlike the good guys in Atlas Shrugged Superman actually fails from time to time, which creates some interest as you try to guess whether or not his current action will be successful or not.
There are also a concepts in Atlas Shrugged that were introduced and either forgotten or barely expanded upon. At one point the government develops a new super weapon, which I believe was meant to be a criticism of government’s general willingness to spend money on destructive means instead of productive means. With the introduction of this new weapon you would think it would eventually be used against the valley but the good guys residing there are too awesome to be located so that never happens. It was disappointing to read a great deal of buildup regarding this secret weapon only to have it play no significant importance to the greater story. Several other instances of this happen throughout the story.
Atlas Shrugged is my definition of mediocrity. Parts of the book are real page turners while other parts are difficult to get through. Galt’s monolog, by far the worst part of the book, took me a solid two weeks to get through because I could only tackle a page or two at a time before almost falling asleep. I honestly don’t think it’s a good novel and am confused why so many libertarians feel it is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned by human hands. If you want a fiction book that covers philosophy I’d recommend some Heinlein. Not only could the man write but his novels were interesting, his characters had depth, and his philosophy was secondary to the story as works of fiction should be.