I feel like there are two types of people in the world: people who have read Atlas Shrugged, and people who would rather be eaten alive by maggots than read Atlas Shrugged. I’m joking, slightly, of course, but I was possibly the last indifferent person on earth to read it.
To be clear, upfront: I have neither the intention, nor the energy, to pick apart and debate Rand’s actual objectivist philosophy within the scope of this review. (To poke the bear slightly, Mallory Ortberg sums up my feelings nicely: “It is 30% very good advice, 50% unnecessary yelling, and 20% nonsense.”) And I know Rand is probably spitting blood in her grave at the notion that someone would take the lazy shortcut of separating the fiction from philosophy in Atlas Shrugged, as I am going to do. I just want to discuss the merits of the book as a novel.
To that end, it’s not a complete failure, but it’s damned tedious and a remarkably amateur construction of a suspenseful story. Each of the characters are talking heads capable of repeating only one mantra that has been assigned to them. The progression of the plot depends entirely on each of these characters behaving exactly as expected, in an extreme of a fashion as possible. The protagonists and antagonists play tug-of-war for some 900 pages, with both sides doing little other than lamely tugging, momentarily gaining the advantage, then losing it, all completely predictably, because these are not people, but robots programmed with one function apiece.
If you are Henry Rearden or Dagny Taggart (the “heroes”), you are a beleaguered industrialist, and your arsenal includes your cleverness and your work ethic. You fight tirelessly toward innovations that will increase efficiency and productivity, and produce a superior product. As a measure of your success, you earn profit and become wealthy, which you see as a good thing, because it means you’re doing your job well. Any emotion you feel, such as “love”, is not anything other than the entirely rational recognition of your values being shared by your counterpart. Your enemies are the government “looters,” who see your wealth as immoral, and who feel that your success comes at the expense of others. They will constantly try to take you and your business down by passing increasingly ludicrous regulatory measures. You will be powerless to stop them, because you have no advocates in government. So you will work harder. And they will suppress harder. Ad infinitum.
There are occasional bright moments. Somewhat predictably, because these are the types of things that Rand values, the sections that describe the technological achievements of the industrialists are exciting. The products and systems created are very fun and worthy inventions indeed. It’s these forward-thinking descriptions that earn the novel the “science fiction” label it occasionally boasts. Additionally, the characters do often make salient points, but since Ayn Rand apparently believes everyone other than herself is a fucking idiot, that point is then expanded to such a dense and everlasting collection of words that one could 3D print a revolver from them to shoot oneself with.
In conclusion, as a fictional story, Atlas Shrugged is not very good. It’s way too long, way too repetitive and predictable. The characters are artlessly sketched, and every theme and message is wielded like a bludgeon. But, of course, no one is reading this just for the story, so I know this conclusion (and review) is somewhat disingenuous. Look: I know my audience. If you’re a Pajiban, you know what Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand are all about. So, go on your merry way with whatever feeling you have toward her. Like I suggested at the beginning, you’ve either already read it or you won’t. And that’s probably just as it should be. If you’re not for her philosophy, there’s nothing else here for you.