In the wake of the “Objectivist Jerky” crack I made earlier in the week, I was asked by a friend of mine to share my thoughts on Atlas Shrugged with the general public. I suspect this friend then went off to make herself some popcorn in preparation for the presumed inevitable mind-losing that will occur in the comments. That’s what I am to you people: cheap entertainment. Well, fine.
I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but I’ll go a little more in detail about it now. I enjoy Atlas Shrugged quite a bit, and will re-read it every couple of years when I feel in the mood. It has a propulsively potboilery pace so long as Ayn Rand’s not having one of her characters gout forth screeds in a sock-puppety fashion. Even when she does, after the first reading of the book, you can go, “oh, yeah, screed,” and then just sort of skim forward and get to the parts with the train rides and motor boats and the rough sex and the collapse of civilization as Ayn Rand imagines it, which is all good clean fun. Her characters are cardboard but they’re consistent — the good guys are really good in the way Rand defines “good,” and everyone else save Eddie Willers and the picturesquely doomed Cherryl Brooks are obnoxious shitheels, so you don’t really have to worry about ambiguity getting in the way of your zooming through the pages.
Rand is an efficient storyteller that way: You know early on what the rules of her world are, she sticks with those rules, and you as the reader are on a rail all the way through the story. It’s not storytelling that works for everyone, and it doesn’t work for me with every book I read. But if you’re in the mood not to work too much, it’s fine to have an author who points dramatically at the things she wants you to look at, and keeps the lights off the things she doesn’t. Basically, I find her storytelling restful, which I suppose isn’t a word used much to describe her technique, but which fits for how it works for me.
A good way for me to describe how I relate to Atlas Shrugged is to note that one time when I was in college in Chicago, the only way for me to get back home to California for the Christmas holidays was to take a Greyhound bus. This meant a 53-hour-long bus ride in the company of felons (no joke; the bus stopped at Joliet and some rather skeevy-looking parolees from the prison got on. One of them decided to sit by me and I was treated to delightful stories of prison rape all the way through Iowa). The way I handled the trip was to take Atlas Shrugged along for the ride, and when I was bored, to crack open the book and start reading. The book would put me in a fugue state and when I looked up again from the pages, an entire state would have gone by. It’s no exaggeration when I say that Atlas Shrugged probably saved my sanity on that bus trip. So well done, Ms. Rand, and thanks.
That said, it’s a totally ridiculous book which can be summed up as Sociopathic idealized nerds collapse society because they don’t get enough hugs. (This is, incidentally, where you can start your popcorn munching.) Indeed, the enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged lies in the fact that it is nerd revenge porn — if you’re an nerd of an engineering-ish stripe who remembers all too well being slammed into your locker by a bunch of football dickheads, then the idea that people like you could make all those dickheads suffer by “going Galt” has a direct line to the pleasure centers of your brain. I’ll show you! the nerds imagine themselves crying. I’ll show you all! And then they disappear into a crevasse that Google Maps will not show because the Google people are our kind of people, and a year later they come out and everyone who was ever mean to them will have starved. Then these nerds can begin again, presumably with the help of robots, because any child in the post-Atlas Shrugged world who can’t figure out how to run a smelter within ten minutes of being pushed through the birth canal will be left out for the coyotes. Which if nothing else solves the problem of day care.
All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt. This is most obviously revealed by the fact that in Ayn Rand’s world, a man who self-righteously instigates the collapse of society, thereby inevitably killing millions if not billions of people, is portrayed as a messiah figure rather than as a genocidal prick, which is what he’d be anywhere else. Yes, he’s a genocidal prick with excellent engineering skills. Good for him. He’s still a genocidal prick. Indeed, if John Galt were portrayed as an intelligent cup of yogurt rather than poured into human form, this would be obvious. Oh my god, that cup of yogurt wants to kill most of humanity to make a philosophical point! Somebody eat him quick! And that would be that.
The fact that apparently a very large number of people don’t recognize Galt as the genocidal prick he is suggests a) Rand’s skill at stacking the story-telling deck is not to be discounted, and b) as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the social ineptness continuum that they don’t recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalist superheroes on one side and craven socialist losers on the other, or that Rand’s neatly-stacked deck doesn’t mirror the world as it is, or (if one gives it any sort of genuine reflection) model it as it should be.
To be fair to Rand, she’s certainly not the only science fiction/fantasy author who has lashed together a universe out of twine and novel but shallow philosophical meanderings (Objectivism: the spongy white bread at the Great Buffet of Human Ideas), and then populated it with characters tuned to exist in that universe and that universe only. She’s not even the only author to have enthusiastic nerds confuse that Potemkin universe with a possible one, who then go about annoying the rest of us, who have no desire to be characters in that sort of universe, thank you kindly. But on the other hand, Rand did spend a lot of time getting high on her own supply, which most pushers are smart enough not to do, and at the moment, her claque of enthusiastic nerds certainly seems to be the most energetic, which doesn’t really please me. I wish they could be more like Heinlein nerds, who keep to their own freeholds.
So that’s how it susses out for me. As a pulpy, fun read about an unrealistic world that could never happen, I give Atlas Shrugged a thumbs up. As a foundational document for a philosophy for living in reality with other actual live human beings, I rank it below Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Secret, both of which also have the added value of being shorter.
Update, 12:24pm 10/2: Speaking of stories in which intelligent yogurt rules humanity, I just wrote one. And it is startlingly realistic.