So I finally got round to reading Atlas Shrugged, and now the blood has stopped flowing from my eyes I wanted to share a few impressions. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
To start with, the positives. I thought the plot was very good, indeed it could almost be the novelisation of the Road to Serfdom. It is also kind of ironic that action that kicks off the chain of events is orchestrated by a non-governmental, industry group (of which type Adam Smith famously warned about) to squash an upstart rival. The actions then taken by government officials interfering in the economy were also beautifully described, as were their consequences I thought the best parts of the book were the faster paced descriptions of the knock on effect of each moronic laws and it consequences.
I also rather liked the characters, which are often accused of being flat and stereotyped. This is true of the lesser villains (and indeed some of the hero’s, who are readily interchangeable), but the main characters did develop and have satisfying arcs. I liked how Jim Taggart and Hank Rearden mirror each other, at the start both are unhappy because they do not understand their true nature, which by the end they have accepted leading to their breakdown and blossoming, respectively. I do wonder also if Taggert had some kind of bipolar disorder? I also though Cheryl Brooks subplot was one of the books highlights, as she (and Eddie Willers) were pretty much the only ‘average’ characters, and I was hoping she would have a happier fate. I liked Dagny Tagget best for refusing to go along with Galt’s strike (more on that below)
Now for negatives!
The first was its length, it is simply too damn long. If every sentence over 5 words was cut by a third it would be more manageable. Alternatively as a trilogy it would work well. Now that is not to suggest I have a problem with long books, far from it. But a story has a natural length and if was stretched out too far in this case, mainly due to too many similes and metaphors in every sentence.
This leads into the second problem with the book, and that will take some explaining. The point of a novel is to tell a story. A polemic exists to make a point. Atlas Shrugged tries to combine the two, and doesn’t really pull this off. It is possible to make a pont through a story, and there are many successful examples 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta and so on. However the message shouldn’t distract from the story telling, and this is where Rand fails. The narrative comes screeching to a halt whenever one of the hero’s start pontificating. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I found myself losing the will to live during Galt’s 60 page speech.
Despite what Mr Thompson though, this wasn’t a great piece of rhetoric it was rambling, repetitive and I find it hard to believe people would have sat through 3 hours of it. There was no narrative structure to it, swing from one subject to another then back to the first. D’Anconia’s speech on money has this problem too, repeating many of the same points. If it was 2-3 paragraphs long it would be great, and likewise Galt’s speech could have been reduced significantly ironically the ending of the novel felt rushed after the speech had taken up so much of the book (one of my pet peeve’s is when getting near to the end of the book and feeling that there is no way the plot can be wrapped up in the remaining pages in a satisfactory manner.)
So given the impact of the philosophy on the plot, did the book succeed as a philosophical treatise? Well it gets the point of Rand’s philosophy across, but I’m not sold on it. I respect the attempt made to prove that the statists don’t have a monopoly on morality, but don’t agree with her that the problem is altruism, coercion in the name of it is the problem (a specific examples the woman who made her child give away his best toy is not clearly in the wrong. However if the child did so voluntarily I don’t see that this is a problem. Likewise with the oath of the strikers and this was even contradicted in book when the inhabitants of the valley set off to rescue Galt (the ‘we don’t give’ bit is also contradicted when it is mentioned that the giant gold dollar sign was a gift!)
Then there is the whole ‘leaving millions to die in the collapse of civilisation’ stuff…. As the old saying goes. ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing’ Yet this is exactly what happens here, and the throwaway comments about the victims of this plan (the guy who killed himself after the research centres are closed, the shop owner who gassed himself and his family, etc) Partly why I liked Dagny best is that she refused to go along with this until the strikers had won. SO nope, this novel alone hasn’t swayed me to the objectivist camp.
Other minor quibbles were the dialogue was clunky in places, and that certain revelations such as the identity of Eddie’s dinner buddy where too predictable.
So in the end, did I enjoy it? ‘somewhat’, my enjoyment was mainly hampered by pacing problems caused by the speeches, it was not in my opinion the life changing masterpiece it is made out to me. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is a better libertarian sci-fi novel, and I would recommend that over Atlas Shrugged to a friend.
Oh, and the best way to make a pile of cash in Mulligan’s Valley? Start selling blow up dolls and mansize tissues!