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Atlas Shrugged

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Atlas Shrugged cover

Atlas Shrugged is a novel by Ayn Rand, first published in 1957 in the USA. There are currently plans to make a movie version.

Contents

Philosophy and writing

The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in life and society. Rand argues that independent thinking, and the creativity and inventiveness that comes from this, is the motor that runs the world. In Atlas Shrugged she shows what would happen to the world if the "men of the mind" went on strike: the motor of the world would shut down and civilization would fall apart. The book has its roots entirely in Objectivism, the philosophical system popularized by Rand.

Rand suggests that a society will stagnate to the extent that independence and individual achievement are discouraged or demonized. Inversely, a society will become more prosperous as it allows, encourages, and rewards independence and individual achievement. Rand believed that independence flourishes to the extent that people are free, and that achievement is most fairly rewarded when private property is strictly observed. She advocated laissez-faire capitalism as the political system that is most consistent with these beliefs. These considerations make Atlas Shrugged a highly political book, especially in its portrayal of socialism and communism as fundamentally flawed.

Rand also argues that traits like independence and individual achievement, which currently drive the world, are actually virtues, and in her worldview are central to a "rational" moral code. She disputes the notion that self-sacrifice is a virtue, and is similarly dismissive of human faith in a god or higher being. The book positions itself against Christianity specifically, often directly within the characters' dialogue.

Setting

Exactly when Atlas Shrugged is meant to take place is kept deliberately vague. In section 152, the population of New York is given as 7 million. The historical New York City reached 7 million people in the 1930s, placing the novel sometime after that. There are numerous early 20th century technologies available, but the political situation is clearly different from actual history. It is as if history had changed around 1900, and the world went unimpeded down a gradual path towards socialism for perhaps 40 years, with no World War or Great Depression. Another interpretation is that the novel takes place a hundred (or perhaps hundreds) of years in the future, implying that since the world lapsed into its socialistic morass, a global-wide stagnation has occurred in technological growth, population growth, and indeed growth of any kind; the wars, economic depressions, and other events of the 20th century would be a distant memory to all but scholars and academicians. This latter interpretation falls in line with Rand's own ideas and commentary on other novels depicting utopian and dystopian societies. Indeed, she criticized the combination of societal regimentation, collectivist values, and advanced technology in other authors' works as unrealistic in light of her philosophic connection between freedom, individualism, and progress. The concept of societal stagnation in the wake of collectivist systems is central to the plot of another of Rand's works, Anthem.

All countries outside the US have become, or become during the novel, "People's States." There are many examples of early 20th century technology in Atlas Shrugged, but no post-war technologies such as jet planes, nuclear weapons, helicopters, or computers; television is a novelty that has yet to assume any cultural significance, while radio broadcasts are prominent. Despite this, many of the same concepts discussed concerning the World Wars and weapons of war are addressed, as weapons of mass destruction in different forms exist in the book.

Most of the action in Atlas Shrugged takes place in the United States. There are, however, events occurring in countries around the world that affect the plot, such as those in the People's States of Mexico, Chile, and Argentina or those involving piracy on the world's oceans.

Plot

A section by section analysis of Atlas Shrugged is available on Wikibooks.


Influence and criticism

According to a 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club (and published via the Library of Congress's Center for the Book), book-club readers recognize Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible [1] (http://www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/booklists.html). In addition, the Boston Public Library has named Atlas Shrugged as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. [2] (http://www.bpl.org/research/AdultBooklists/influential.htm)

Though impressive at first glance, these poll results should be taken skeptically. Considering the former survey, the Library of Congress web site reports a wide gap between the first and second-place entries. Beyond this, they give no indication of the spacing between any books' standings, only their ordinal ranking. Furthermore, the response bias of this survey must be examined; as with all "opportunity sampling", the results cannot be statistically guaranteed to reflect the preferences of the general population [3] (http://www.violetbooks.com/aynrand.html). The second survey, apparently compiled by a single individual, includes no indication of its selection criteria of the books' relative rankings (they are sorted alphabetically).

Part of the significance of Rand's work can be judged by the breadth of allusions later writers have made to her writings. Atlas Shrugged is a central example of the libertarian science fiction sub-genre; on the other hand, Eric S. Raymond detects a libertarian ideology in science fiction—particularly "hard SF"—as early as the 1930s [4] (http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/sf-history.html).

In recent years, sources have reported executives of American companies turning to Atlas Shrugged for moral support.

CEOs put the book down knowing in their hearts that they are not the greedy crooks they are portrayed to be in today's business headlines but are heroes like the characters in Rand's novel. They strive to be real-life achievers who do far more to lift the world's standard of living, cure disease and end starvation than Mother Teresa and altruists who believe a full life requires self-sacrifice and serving the needs of others. [5] (http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2002-09-23-ayn-rand_x.htm)

However, widespread name recognition does not equate to widespread adulation. "There are more Rand critics than followers," writes noted skeptic Michael Shermer, who is himself partial to Rand's philosophy (save the portions which, he claims, actually lead to irrational and cultish behavior) Template:Ref. The following is a summary, representative but not exhaustive, of reasons readers have reacted in this negative, critical fashion.

First, Atlas Shrugged is above all an ideological novel, whose raison d'tre begins and ends in Objectivism. Readers who follow Nabokov in holding "a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss [...] All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster"—such readers likely find precious little of value in Atlas Shrugged Template:Ref. Those who believe "allegory is an aesthetic mistake" are not certain to find this book appealing Template:Ref.

Criticisms of Objectivism are necessarily criticisms of Atlas Shrugged, though the converse need not be true. For example, the novel's morality appears rooted in pre-Nash, pre-Keynes economics and willfully ignores evidence that unfettered self-interest can harm the individual as well as the group—e.g., the tragedy of the commons. Indeed, in Rand's world nature exists only as a font of raw materials, with no thought given to sustainability, let alone ecological balance Template:Ref. In earlier years, Thomas Carlyle's wishes for leadership by "strong silent men", his characterization of democracy as "chaos equipped with ballot urns", were taken as precursors to Fascism. They may also serve as epigrams for Atlas Shrugged's heroes, and indeed several reviewers have commented on the book's Fascist tones Template:Ref. Whittaker Chambers, one of the first reviewers to examine the book, commented "We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship" Template:Ref.

(One might remark here that Godwin's Law indicates future debate will be pointless.)

One may also charge that the fans' claim of the novel refuting Christianity is overblown or pretentious. To a Humanist eye Template:Ref, Atlas Shrugged is only a sequence of words arranged on paper, stemming from one imagination, and as such, it has the same weight refuting Christianity as the Bible has supporting it. In this view, a persuasive rebuke of Christian belief must indicate that the predictions of Christian theology do not match observations. This critique could take several forms: scientific discoveries disproving the cosmology implied by doctrinare Christianity Template:Ref, or that nations embracing Christianity have in fact deteriorated Template:Ref. (The beliefs, in other words, must be measured against life and not against fiction. Here, these points are raised to indicate alternatives that Altas Shrugged does not explore, not to debate theology, a topic which lies outside this article's scope.) Indeed, though the notion of probing religious belief via empirical observation dates back at least to Maimonides and Aquinas Template:Ref, Objectivism appears to bypass the concept. For all its emphasis on reason, the ideology—and this novel which is its bastion—lacks the concept of reformulating hypothesis in accord with changing and uncertain information Template:Ref.

Focusing on this novel in particular, its view of science, technology and innovation has been called simplstic and unrealistic Template:Ref. Atlas Shrugged stays firmly within the mythos of the hero-inventor Template:Ref, "Bell and his telephone, Edison and his light bulb, Tom Swift and his this or that" Template:Ref. (In fact, John Galt can be read as an aged Tom Swift character, whose teenage charm has grown into adult sex appeal, and whose technical brilliance remains unflagging.) A more realistic model of innovation, which hews closer to historical actuality, includes the effect of accidental discoveries, surprise use of one tool in another field, and above all the interaction among inventors. The steam engine did not begin with James Watt, nor electric light with Edison Template:Ref. Or, to balance one SF novel with another,

The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it's something that makes everything else possible. [...] The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals. [...] Without the interplay of human against human, the chief interest in life is gone; most of the intellectual values are gone; most of the reason for living is gone. Template:Ref

In a related vein, the novel fails to address the way scientists' minds seem to lose flexibility over time, becoming less and less able to produce worthwhile ideas as they age. This is certainly not a hard-and-fast rule, but it has been witnessed enough times that scientists half-jokingly expect it. A popular quatrain, sometimes attributed to Paul Dirac, runs as follows:

Age is, of course, a fever chill
That every physicist must fear.
He's better dead than living still
When once he's past his thirtieth year. Template:Ref

With this effect at work, one could expect Galt's Gulch to become an intolerably sterile community—particularly since Rand steers far away from the issue of children (see Template:Ref, Template:Ref).

Reviewers have also noted that the specific technologies Rand posits in her fictional world are frequently implausible. Impossibly strong alloys are made from improbably soft metals, and Galt's static-electricity motor seems to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics Template:Ref. (Compare the rationale the Wachowski Brothers give for building the Matrix.)

One reason cited for Atlas Shrugged's attraction is the same invoked to explain the enduring popularity of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series: nerd appeal [6] (http://homepage.mac.com/jhjenkins/Asimov/NonAsimov/Aldiss.html). (The irony here is that in the Foundation universe, no political system or ideology can be perfect, and every solution becomes the next generation's problem—the antithesis of Objectivism. Asimov, it happens, patterned his fictional history upon Edward Gibbon's account of Rome's decay.) In one reviewer's words, "The book not only preaches that creating new things is an automatic path to riches, but that all other human activities are inessential. This relegates to trivia such considerations as social skills, etiquette, other people's feelings, any exertion outside of your own narrow focus, and possibly even personal hygiene" Template:Ref.

Since so many of these issues hinge upon the novel's ideology, those readers who are already committed Objectivists are likely to overlook what detractors contend are serious flaws. Likewise, to others these flaws appear so inescapable and overwhelming that even applying the word novel to the book devalues the word itself. Whittaker Chambers summarized his feelings in 1957, saying "Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained" Template:Ref.

More humorously, satirists have turned their attention to Atlas Shrugged many times, critiquing its style, its didactic message or both. One episode of Matt Groening's television series Futurama features the cast of heroes exploring a subterranean civilization in the sewers beneath 30th century New York City. All the sewer-dwellers' possessions are items flushed from the world above. For example, the public library contains only "used porno and Ayn Rand". Template:Ref On the converse, in an episode of the television series South Park the character of Officer Barbrady decides to give up reading forever after he is displeased by Atlas Shrugged.

References and further reading

Publications

  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand; Signet; (September 1996) ISBN 0451191145
  • Atlas Shrugged (Cliffs Notes), Andrew Bernstein; Cliffs Notes; (June 5, 2000) ISBN 0764585568
  • The World of Atlas Shrugged, Robert Bidinotto/The Objectivist Center; HighBridge Company; (April 19, 2001) ISBN 156511471X
  • Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind (Twayne's Masterwork Studies, No. 174) Mimi Reisel Gladstein; Twayne Pub; (June 2000) ISBN 0805716386
  • The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged, Nathaniel Branden; The Objectivist Center; (July 1999) ISBN 1577240332
  • Odysseus, Jesus, and Dagny, Susan McCloskey; The Objectivist Center; (August 1, 1998) ISBN 1577240251

Foreign translations

Reviews

  • Template:Note Review (http://www.cix.co.uk/~morven/atlas.html) from a self-proclaimed non-Libertarian
  • Template:Note Review (http://www.strangewords.com/archive/ayn.html) from the Weird Bookshelf ("fine science fiction books").
  • Template:Note Slade, Robert M. Review (http://victoria.tc.ca/int-grps/books/techrev/bkatshrg.rvw) from the Internet Review Project (1998).
  • Template:Note A review (http://www.pierssen.com/cfile/objectivist.htm) which, while attempting to address the environmentalist issues, claims that Atlas Shrugged is a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Satires and parodies

Other works cited

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