But Is It Science Fiction? Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

[Originally published in May 2000 at SciFiDimensions.com.]

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged turns 50 this month. Objectivists are celebrating, and CSPAN 2 recently devoted several hours of programming to discussions about the late Rand and her literary/philosophical influence. Nearly a quarter century after her death, Rand is still stirring up controversy, and despite her staunch atheism, she is generally unpopular amongst modern-day freethinkers because of her cult-like aura and unflinchingly pro-capitalist stance. I add to the celebration in reprinting two articles I’ve written over the years that touch on the Randian legacy: this essay, titled “But Is It Science Fiction? Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged,” originally published in May 2000 at SciFiDimensions.com; and an interview I conducted with one-time Rand confidante Nathaniel Branden, originally published in the April 2005 issue of a local (metro Atlanta) freethought newsletter.

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world.”

In the final pages of Ayn Rand’s first major novel The Fountainhead, embattled architect Howard Roark closes his own trial defense with the above pronouncement. Several years later, Rand took this idea a step further in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. What would happen if all the premier scientists, the most creative artists, the most brilliant businessmen, simply… disappeared? What if these “men of the mind” went on a sit-down strike of the intellect until those who would abuse them and their creations were no longer able to exploit them? Can society begrudgingly accept the advances of science and business while simultaneously rejecting the scientist as an amoral freethinker and the businessman as a greedy moneygrubber?

In Atlas Shrugged, a metallurgist creates an alloy that will render steel and aluminum obsolete, but his competitors try to beat him down through every means except competition. An engineer creates an automobile engine that will convert atmospheric static electricity into motor power, but his invention lies buried in rubble because of the incompetence of the factory’s owners. One by one, the greatest thinkers and most ingenious engineers disappear, and little by little, America collapses as the exploiters and the incompetent fall upon one another like starving wolves as they lose control of the technological infrastructure that makes modern living possible. Meanwhile, the “men of the mind” live hidden away in a valley protected by a mirage-generating optical array, waiting until society is ready to accept them as free, productive and honorable citizens.

Rand was the mother of the philosophy Objectivism; her teachings are a major influence in the Libertarian political movement. In brief, Objectivism sees reason and practical thought as mankind’s sole means of survival and progress. It upholds individual rights over any form of social or political collectivism. It supports laissez faire capitalism over any other economic system. Human beings should interact voluntarily with one other in free exchange (of ideas or goods). The highest goal in life is one’s own productive achievement, so long as it is attained without the use of physical force or fraud (except in self-defense). These ideas are dramatized in Rand’s fiction (We the LivingAnthemThe Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged) and expounded in several nonfiction books.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was born in Russia and saw first-hand the intellectual, social, and economic destruction caused by the rise of Communism. Fleeing the Soviet Union as a young woman, she settled in America, working in Hollywood at a variety of jobs before making a successful career as a screenwriter, playwright, and author. She spent the latter half of her life lecturing and writing about Objectivism. She was disturbed by what she perceived as creeping socialism in American politics, and was vehemently outspoken (in print and on the airwaves) in her defense of capitalism and individual freedom.

Now… back to our original question. Is Atlas Shrugged science fiction?  Webster’s defines science fiction as “dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.” Science fiction has always shown how new technology could affect people; how new inventions might change humanity. In this sense, Atlas Shrugged is certainly science fiction. It is impossible to imagine how this book could work without including the inventions discussed above. Nonetheless, the major theme of the novel is not technology per se. Technology is symbolic of the mind as man’s primary means of survival. Rand herself described the central theme of the book as “the role of the mind in man’s existence.”

Ayn Rand actually had a few things to say about science fiction (which she lumped into the broader category of fantasy). In her lectures on The Art of Fiction (originally a series of audio recordings, recently edited and released in book form) she discusses what she calls “special forms of literature.” Rand saw literature as valid only if it served to communicate something of the author’s values; by extension, every aspect of literature (plot, theme, characterization and style) must serve to further the author’s message. Therefore, science fiction is valid only if the scientific aspect is integral and necessary to tell the story. She freely admitted that Atlas Shrugged was purposefully set in the near-future (of the 1950s); thus, the technological advances are integral to the story. Which makes Atlas Shrugged valid as science fiction.

Atlas Shrugged can be an intimidating project for many readers, due to its impressive size – well over 1,000 pages and around 645,000 words! Regardless, it’s an intriguing book, full of new ideas and sometimes puzzling characters. If you don’t think you can tackle it in printed form (although I encourage you to try), it’s available in audio in abridged form.

Turner Network Television (TNT) aborted an attempt to developing the novel as a miniseries in 2001. The internet is currently atwitter with rumors that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are set to star in a feature film adaptation. Don’t hold your breath.

Interesting footnote: In 1983, Atlas Shrugged was given the “Hall of Fame Award” for classic libertarian fiction by the Libertarian Futurist Society (which also presents the annual Prometheus Award for best SF novel with a libertarian theme). Her novel Anthem (which deals with the individual versus the state, much along the same lines as George Orwell’s 1984) was also granted this award. Rand’s influence lives on in the works of such science fiction writers as Terry Goodkind, Victor Koman, Brad Linaweaver, J. Neil Schulman and L. Neil Smith.

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