Friday, 13 October 2000

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shruged (1957)

Edition: Signet, 1982

Like much of the more literate end of the science fiction genre, Ayn Rand's novels were inspired by a social theme that she wanted to discuss, her philosophic viewpoint known as objectivism. It is completely inseparable from Atlas Shrugged, much more obviously than in the two greatest novels which do something similar, Brave New World and 1984.

Essentially a hymn to libertarian capitalism, Atlas Shrugged is the story of a competition between a group of people who really produce something and others who think that they are owed a living. The latter are turning the US into a planned economy, effectively ruining the country's industrialists one by one. Then the men who do the work - innovators, scientists, engineers - begin disappearing rather than see their efforts enriching others; it is as though Atlas, holding the world on his shoulders, shrugs. The heart of the book is the description of the chaos that takes hold as the industrial base of the nation crumbles, as those who do not feel that they can abandon the world struggle to keep things going.

As a portrayal of the future, it is not a particularly imaginative piece of science fiction, being basically a caricature of the effect socialist ideas would have overlaid on forties technology. It is rather strange to read a science fiction novel in which railways play such a huge part. This is one of the reasons why the novel is not a big classic of the genre, as it does not contain many ideas of interest to devotees.

The characterisation is quite well done for at least the central few characters on the side to which Rand is sympathetic; Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia are believable. Their enemies are generally one dimensional, with the occasional attempts to make them more real actually having the opposite effect; Dagny's brother Jim is one of the worst in this respect, because he is quite an important character.

I find several aspects of Rand's right wing philosophy distasteful, and her method of argument in this novel is one of them. She exaggerates and distorts the positions that she attacks, making them so ludicrous that her self-imposed task of demolishing them is easy. She polarises the possible economic views very strongly and puts all the decent characters on her side, and all the profiteers, scoundrels, weaklings and spongers on the other. If the argument were this easy, we'd all be libertarians. Naturally, in a novel as opposed to a philosophical treatise, the reader expects some simplification; but subtlety is also welcome. This is one reason why Gide and Sartre are far better novelists than Rand could aspire to be, and their novels make their philosophical points more strongly. The other thing that Rand does not do with her characters, which is almost effortless in Gide and done best by Sartre in his trilogy, it to develop the argument, to have the characters change over time as their understanding grows and circumstances move on. Rand's argument is merely repeated over and over, at what feels like louder and louder volume (as the situation deteriorates). Here, the choice of the science fiction genre is partly to blame, because by using the background to make her case for her, Rand makes it more difficult for herself to use character development to do so. The novel also includes about twenty pages of undiluted philosophical sermonising, in the form of a radio address; this is extremely dull and much better skipped.

It would be really easy to criticise Rand's philosophy as developed in Atlas Shrugged, but most arguments against it would really be a criticism of the novel. One which occurs to me however as a consequence of her oversimplified characters, which means that she equates capitalists with good men, socialists with bad. It is all too easy to see that good capitalists would help the world more than evil socialists, but it is hardly something with any relevance to the real world, where people are not so black and white. It should be remembered that unrestricted capitalism has fairly consistently led to exploitation of the work force, with slum accommodation and abuses like truck shops and child labour. (Even though these things have been eradicated from much of the West for most of the twentieth century, this has actually meant that manufacturing has largely moved elsewhere, in search of cheaper, exploitable labour.) Evil men are evil, whether capitalist or socialist, and the philosophy presented in Atlas Shrugged in no way takes account of this.

Criticisms like these do not prevent Atlas Shrugged from being a fascinating and thought provoking novel. The use of this edition to promote objectivism means that the novel over-sells itself; it is not as great a classic as the cover and introductory material make out. I don't really approve of the novel being so obviously used as a marketing device; it has forewords, afterwords, summaries of objectivism and even a response card. It does have a marvellous cover illustration, but I prefer literature to be literature and not a sales pitch.

1 comment:

may huang said...

I, too, write book reviews on my blog (although my repertoire is nowhere near as extensive as yours) and I've read most of Ayn Rand's fiction and non-fiction works. I can understand your point about literature "being literature and not a sales pitch" but I think she is admirable for translating her philosophy into fictional works; she makes it more accessible to readers! Anyway, drop by my blog!