My agonies are done. I have finished reading Atlas Shrugged. I will have to go back to it, time and again in the coming months for research, but the worst is over. I no longer have to engage in the novel as a novel, but merely as a resource to drive my parody.
In this review, I’m going to talk about Atlas Shrugged as art. It is a book that is both philosophical and political, but I’m going to leave that for another review. This one is just about Ayn Rand’s art.
I can say with absolute certainty and clarity that this is the worst novel I’ve ever finished reading in terms of artistry. Atlas Shrugged is not I novel I dislike, it is a novel that is as close to objectively bad as can be written. I am going to write a numbered list – who on the Internet doesn’t like numbered lists? – that outline just some of the absurdities, bad research, and contradictions of Atlas Shrugged. Some will be general, others quite specific. Their sheer number is so breath-taking, so overwhelming as to remove all doubt about the quality of this novel: it is garbage. No, no, it is objectively and uncategorically garbage.
There are sixty-eight items on my list. It’s a long list because it’s a terrible book. But I did not get them all. There were more that were sufficiently hard to explain (generally because they were philosophical or economic critiques that require additional knowledge that couldn’t be imparted briefly), and I’m sure there are some I just plain ol’ missed. Did I miss your worst bit? Feel free to tell me.
Someone might go, “But what about the good parts, Kit?” To be honest, there are a few. So what? The book is literally 1168 pages long. Three or four – maybe, and this is really stretching it, maybe as many as half a dozen – short passages that rise to the level of competence are irrelevant because of the large number of parts that are unbearably bad writing. And, remember, these sixty-seven bad parts are only the worst ones that I caught while writing this review – and a few of them permeate everything about the book. Reading Atlas Shrugged creates quite intense cognitive dissonance due to the large number of truly awful bits. that not all parts of the book are equally bad, and that a few parts actually raise their heads above the filth that covers everything in this book? That’s irrelevant. That’s like saying your pile of dog poop tastes horrible except for the undigested bits of corn in it.
To me, the real question is why does anyone like this book? While no novel of any length is likely to be perfect, pretty consistently – literally dozens of times – Rand can’t keep the facts of the novel straight, much less the plot or characterization. Time and again, she says one thing and does another. It happens with such frequency, how can anyone read this book and say it’s a well-written book? As I said, a few clever passages and memorable lines cannot make up for Rand’s inability to keep things straight, often even on the same damn page!
Anyway, here’s the list. Hold on, folks. It’s a doozy.
1. Let’s just get it out in the open. The book is about railroads. Why rail technology? Why is a book written in the 50s acting like railroads are some kind of high tech thing? As society around her was embracing both the Interstates as the primary means of cargo transportation and airplanes as the primary means of human transportation, why would anyone think that railroads were the wave of the future?
2. One of the heroes invents a magical metal known as Rearden Metal. It is supposed to be both much lighter and stronger than steel – and even cheaper. One of it’s key components, though, is copper. The cheapest form of copper is about 200 times more expensive than iron (and that’s the cheapest form of copper, it can easily run as high as a thousand times as expensive) – so unless the copper content is less than one-half of one percent, Rearden Metal can’t be made of copper. It also requires furnaces to run at around 4000 degrees, instead of 2000 degrees as they do for steel – since about half the cost of steel is energy, and energy costs mount the higher you go algorithmically, it is again impossible for Rearden Metal to be cheaper than iron.
3. The book is filled with straw men. So, for instance, the philosophers in her book are “anti-reason”. I’m wondering what philosophers or philosophies they’re supposed to represent. Rand does not say, their philosophy is called “anti-reason” but is not otherwise described. From outside reading, I know that the probable target was Emmanuel Kant, but it is actually mighty hard to call Kant “anti-reason”. He’s the guy who gave us synthetic logic, which is highly influential in the philosophies of logical positivism and analytical philosophy. Is she really calling Bertrand Russell “anti-reason”? I can’t tell, because Rand does not say, other than to say they’re “anti-reason”. Rand uses this technique constantly. None of her antagonists rise above the level of broad parody.
4. Rand is incredibly non-specific in her attacks. She creates stand-ins for whatever bee is in her bonnet, but doesn’t tell us enough to identify who or what has made her so angry. This lack of specificity – which is a near constant feature in Atlas Shrugged – synergizes with all her straw men, so are all of her attacks against those nonspecific ideas. Everything “bad” in Atlas Shrugged is totally undifferentiated: communism and Keynesian economics, Unitarian Universalists and fundamentalist terrorists, they’re all the same to Rand. By lumping Buddhists together with communists, and having all of her bugbears mouth the same platitudes, and having all of her heroes respond without respect to the differences in the ideas of these different kinds of beliefs, Rand says nothing about anything.
5. One of the book’s heroes, Hank Rearden. Oh, Hank. Anyway, Hank is supposed to be a good guy, a hero, but he’s introduced having ignored a party that his wife is throwing. Hank knew about the event and just “forgot it”, even though he had agreed to appear. Apparently he didn’t even think to tell his secretary about it. He hasn’t seen his family in months. He is, however, furious that his wife is making demands on his time. He is furious that his mother is upset that Hank missed one of the guests invited to the party. They, in turn, are upset that Hank ignores them, and the book is clear that he does ignore them. He doesn’t keep track of their lives or interests at all. Somehow, though, despite this being a guy who ignores and abandons his family for months at a time, and doesn’t even keep simple promises (such as to attend a dinner meeting), he’s nevertheless a good guy. You’re supposed to feel sympathy for Hank for ignoring his basic familial obligations and loathe his family for wanting to be part of his life.
6. One of the “moochers” is literally named Wesley Mouch. Ugh.
7. We meet Dagny Taggart, another “hero” of Atlas Shrugged. She is the second-in-charge at her family’s railway, cleverly named Taggart Transcontinental. She is admiring a statue of her ancestor who started the line, Nat Taggart. One of the things she admires about him is that he was able to build this giant railroad company without using any violence. Then, on literally the same page, Rand says how Nat Taggart murdered a politician to intimidate the House of Representatives, and threw a businessman down a flight of stairs for suggesting that Nat take some government money in building his line. Literally on the same page. Ayn Rand can’t keep her thoughts collected for one damn page.
8. Another hero, Francisco d’Anaconia, re-invents calculus at the age of twelve. We are expected to believe that he’s that much more brilliant than Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebnitz.
9. Francisco d’Anaconia is also an economic terrorist. He intentionally sabotages a copper mine in Mexico, taking money from investors and failing to do any work, in order to destroy billions of dollars of income. One of Rand’s key proclamations is that extreme laissez-faire capitalism is the best system of not only economic but political government there is – but then puts an economic terrorist who actively seeks to destroy the global economy through economic sabotage. He will continue to sabotage the global economy throughout the novel. How can he be a hero if your basic philosophy, which plays a crucial role in the novel, says that contracts between businessmen are the basic morality of your system?
10. Related to number eight is that no-one – not the good guys or bad guys – links the terrorism of people like Francisco to the economic troubles that the US is experiencing. We are expected to believe that Francisco and his allies have ruined the US economy, intentionally, but that only the bad guy “moochers” and “collectivists” are the only ones responsible. At no point do any of the antagonists say something like, “Our system would have worked if not for your sabotage, John Galt.”
11. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are rarely upset that their “friends”, like Francisco, are ruining their businesses. In the end, they blame it solely on the “moochers” and “collectivists”. This despite the novel being about the importance of free economic activity. The “heroes” of this book and destroy economic activity on a vast and the other protagonists praise them for the destruction.
12. Francisco d’Anaconia is never arrested for his crimes. In the matter of the San Sebastian mines, he takes stockholder’s money to build a mine and mining town – but he never does any mining, and the mining town is a facade. Rand never recognizes what Francisco did is fraud, and both the US and Mexican governments would want him arrested for his crimes. Later on, Francisco will further sabotage mines and, again, no-one ever seeks his arrest for his fraud.
13. Hank Rearden, one of the heroes, thinks that “the most feminine thing is a woman chained.” Later, Hank says that the reason he’s not interested in sex is because, previously, women only had sex with him for “casual pleasure” while he wanted to “dominate them”. He goes on to say that the only reason he wanted to have sex with his wife is because he wanted to sexually dominate a rich woman, and when she failed to be sexually dominated that he lost interest in her.
14. Go get back to Francisco d’Anaconia (who I consider to be the least likable character in the book), he’s supposed to be undercover as a playboy. Well, he’s at a party and breaks out into a multi-page speech about how money is great. In what kind of universe is it where anyone thinks that the guy who gives long, boring political and philosophical speeches at parties is a playboy? Bruce Wayne is a more convincing playboy than Francisco!
15. Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart are working to complete a rail line, and because they can’t find people to make the various items necessary, they bribe and coerce people into opening closed factories. Again, this is a book that says that the rights of private property are unassailable and the only reason governments should exist is to defend the property rights Hank and Dagny ignore.
16. Dagny Taggart asserts that Rearden Metal is suitable for industrial uses. When her brother complains that it is an untested material, and the tests that have been done are inconclusive, somehow the novel attempts to paint Dagny’s brother as the problem. Ayn Rand is clear that reality must be respected. When Dagny just “knows” without any tests at all that Rearden Metal is suitable for long-span bridges and rails, it flies in the face of Rand’s supposed respect for empirical reality, which is one of the core tenets of Rand’s thought.
17. When Dagny Taggart’s new rail line is complete, Dagny bribes officials along the route so her train can break the speed limit through cities, allowing the train to travel at a hundred miles an hour. Through heavily populated areas. Rand insists that businessmen, in a system free of government regulation, would not do anything to harm consumers. Such as run their trains through town at a hundred miles an hour on untested rails.
18. When Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart have sex, Dagny muses that the only reason why women are strong so only a stronger man can conquer her. Remember, Hank only likes having sex with women he can sexually dominate, too. Lastly, it is not a rape scene only because Dagny happens to consent. The text is clear that Hank Rearden – one of our heroes – was not seeking consent.
19. The morning after, Hank slut shames Dagny, calling her a whore amidst other verbal savagery, then she continues their relationship despite his vicious verbal attack against her because she sees the good (meaning selfishness) in him.
20. Later, Hank and Dagny come across an abandoned factory. They enter it without permission, and steal a nonfunctional prototype engine and some notes. This is not only absolutely illegal, making them literal looters, it again violates the Randian principle that property rights are absolute. Never does anyone criticize them for their various thefts and trespasses, even other people who are supposedly equally obsessed with the absolute character of property rights.
21. The protagonists in the book create inventions that go from idea to working model in one step. This includes Hank Rearden with his Rearden Metal and a new, experimental bridge, but it especially true of John Galt who makes a perpetual motion machine, a holographic generator capable of hiding a valley in the Rockies, and a machine capable of taking over every radio and TV in the world, no matter what frequency they’re on, without any technical glitches or setbacks.
22. The perpetual motion machine runs on a “new type of energy”. This is science-fiction mumbo-jumbo at its worst. Later in the book, Rand will conflate the difference between sound and cosmic rays, which is embarrassingly dumb.
23. The general lack of opposition. I probably should have put this near the top, but such is life. The book’s antagonists are almost never active characters, and do not really do anything to stop the protagonists. While I’ll get to several instances over the course of this review that are particularly galling, it is actually epidemic in Atlas Shrugged, and makes the book boring when it is not frustrating. Time and time again, Rand refuses for there to be meaningful conflict – the heroes get what they want without real opposition. Gunfights end in a whimper of surrender, bad guys back down at the least sign of resistance, etc., etc.
24. For instance, an evil government guy comes into Hank Rearden’s shop to get an order of Rearden Metal. He is willing to pay a fair price for it. Hank does not sell and . . . That’s it. The government official does nothing to force Hank to sell, even though this is literally a tyrannical semi-communist government. Even Hank wonders why the bureaucrat doesn’t arrest him!
25. Rand’s insistence that all ideologies that are not her brand of laissez-faire capitalism are identical in act and motive. Rand lumps every “collectivist” ideology under various rubrics, primarily “collectivists”, “looters and moochers”, and “mystics”. They’re all the same to her, be the pacifist Buddhists or communist murderers. And they are all, every one of them, hypocrites who all want to destroy people better than they are to make themselves feel better, and they all secretly long for death. It is intensely lazy writing, as well as profoundly creepy.
26. Francisco d’Anaconia comes to another party and gives another long-winded speech about the glories of capitalism. This one is twenty minutes long. He’s supposed to be a playboy. Really.
27. During this speech, Francisco d’Anaconia actually says this, I swear, I’m not making this up, that the United States was the only nation not built on slavery and conquest.
28. When another evil government bureaucrat comes around to get some metal from Hank Rearden, Hank again just sends him on his way. He dares them to just come and take it. They don’t. The supposedly tyrannical government is very good about respecting Hank’s property rights. Indeed, the tyrannical government is better about respecting property rights than Hank, himself.
29. The same bureaucrat drops hints about “Project X”. This is extremely heavy-handed and unbelievable foreshadowing.
30. There is an accident at Hank Rearden’s factory, caused because an untrained and inexperienced worker was put on a dangerous piece of equipment. Despite the fact that Hank hired the kid, and put him on the machine, Hank blames society.
31. When Hank Rearden is arrested for illegally selling Rearden Metal to a business friend, at the trial he offers no plea. The judges at the trial are astonished at this, like it’s never happened before. They say if Hank doesn’t offer a plea, they can’t try him. This is both ridiculous and untrue, of course, else every defendant in the world would simply refuse to offer a plea. (The specific defense that Hank uses is called the sovereign citizen defense, and it is so common in the US that they have pamphlets for incoming defense attorneys to learn how to deal with it. At least that’s true here in Ohio.)
32. Rather than defending himself at his trial, Hank gives a speech. The court clears him of wrongdoing and frees him on the strength of this speech.
33. When discussing his sexual philosophy, Francisco says the role of a woman is to “surrender”. Francisco also says that a man’s character can be determined by the quality of the women he conquers, and men who sleep with women “beneath them” are “sluts”. It is extremely rape-y.
34. When Hank’s wife learns that Hank is sleeping with Dagny, Hank insists that he’ll remain married because he made a vow to his wife. He also says that he’ll also keep sleeping with Dagny. Neither character sees the hypocrisy of saying you’ll keep your marriage vow while also breaking it in the same breath.
35. One of the characters, Eddie Villers, is constantly spilling the personal details of Dagny Taggart’s life and sensitive business matters to total strangers. When this is discovered, Dagny isn’t upset by it, despite the fact Viller’s lack of discipline has destroyed her company.
36. Ragnar Danneskjold is a hero, who is also a pirate. He says his motivation is to destroy the legend of Robin Hood, so he’ll steal from the poor and give to the rich. This is not satire. There’s a fair bit more about Ragnar that needs unpacking, and it’s all awful.
37. The capitalist heroes of Atlas Shrugged, and Rand herself, are aggressively against any form of redistribution of wealth. Ragnar Danneskjold steals medical and food supplies bound for troubled areas (!) and sells them for as much profit as he can get on the black market. He then takes some of the money he’s made and puts it into an account to reimburse the taxes imposed on rich people, saying that he’s returning the wealth to its owners. He is, of course, not. If he was doing that, he would be returning the stolen goods (or the money proceeding from their sales) to the people who produced those goods. This is clearly redistribution of wealth, from whoever made the goods Ragnar steals to those people Ragnar things deserve them.
38. Ragnar also says that this is not charity. But it is charity because Ragnar isn’t the one responsible for the theft (by which he means “taxation”). Ragnar is as much a charity as someone giving blankets to victims of an terrorist’s attack (though, morally, much different in the sense that he thinks that it’s the rich who need charity) – he didn’t steal the money, so how can he give it back to the owners? He’s taking something of his (well, something belonging to a third party) and giving it to another person because he feels guilty about how rich Americans are treated. This is precisely the “collectivism” that Rand hates when the antagonists do it.
39. Due to the treachery of the villains and the corruption inside the system, a train gets caught in a tunnel and everyone is asphyxiated. The intent of the scene was to hammer home that the corruption and cronyism of the antagonists has real consequences. Then Rand goes on to describe how the various people on board the train deserve to die, including a mother and her children (for the Randian sins of teaching generosity), which robs the scene of its power because there are no real victims in the tragedy.
40. The book continues to assert that the antagonists are brutal and violent, but it is the protagonists who are the economic terrorists and pirates, literally destroying factories, sinking ships and stealing goods.
41. When Wyatt Ellis – a protagonist – flees to the capitalist utopia of John Galt, he sets his oil fields ablaze, with a note saying that he’s “leaving it as he found it”. Y’know, on fire.
42. When Hank Rearden signs over the rights of Rearden Metal to the evil commie government figures, they say they’re going to call it “Miracle Metal”. No one ever does.
43. The universally rich and powerful capitalist protagonists of Atlas Shrugged say that taxes are literally torture to them, again and again.
44. After Hank learns that Francisco d’Anaconia had a sexual relationship with Dagny years earlier, the two of them have a verbal (and almost physical) fight in which they literally ignore Dagny who is present.
45. After Francisco leaves, Dagny is terrified that Hank is going to kill her. Instead, he hate-fucks her, and she is happy to be reduced to the sexual conquest of the stronger capitalist. Again, it avoids being a rape scene only because Dagny gives silent consent. Hank was going to fuck her if she wanted it or not.
46. When going to Utah, Dagny’s train breaks down. She ends up at an airfield where she bribes the person there to let her take an airplane without the consent of the owner. Again, property rights don’t meant much to these people, even though their ideology says that property rights are unequivocal.
47. In capitalist paradise, which is located in the Colorado Rockies, one of the protagonists grows tobacco in a field. Tobacco does not grow in Colorado.
48. Neither do oranges.
49. In capitalist paradise, there are 26 men and 4 women. There are also no people of color.
50. In this supposed super-competitive capitalist paradise, there is no competition. Everyone automatically defers to the superior capitalist, and also says they’d be glad to take menial positions for anyone who does outcompete them. This is farcical, words said by no kill-or-be-killed capitalist ever.
51. When Dagny is in capitalist paradise, John Galt says that she has to pay for her room and board. He says wives there earn their keep in “the traditional way”. The traditional way quite explicitly does not include housekeeping, cooking, or rearing children, by the way. The married women in Galt’s Gulch are kept as sex slaves.
52. Galt and his people insist that they’re strikers, even though they destroy factories, set fire to oil fields, bomb refineries, and engage in massive piracy.
53. Because Dagny has fallen in love with John Galt, she dumps Hank. Whereas, before, Hank was driven to near murderous violence by the suggestion that Dagny might love Francisco, he is now absolutely calm, indeed happy for her, when being dumped in favor of a man Dagny barely knows.
54. Rand is really, really racist. She uses terms like “unhygienic rajahs”, calls Asian cities “pest holes”, says that Asian societies have never produced anything useful, says they go around barefoot and live in caves.
55. Taggart Transcontinental can’t meet its payroll. In the same scene, Dagny Taggart starts a large reconstruction program, ordering people to hire people at two or three times the normal rate. Literally after the book just said that Taggart Transcontinental has no money.
56. John Galt has been talking Dagny Taggart for twelve years. Dagny does not find this creepy.
57. Hank Taggart, one of our “heroes”, kicks out his family to die of starvation in an increasingly apocalyptic wasteland that America has become.
58. Whenever minor characters discover a love of capitalism, they are killed. Cherryl Taggart, when she learns her husband is a fraud who leeches off of others, kills herself. When Hank Rearden’s government-appointed assistant learns the values of capitalism, he is killed in a riot. Normal humans are not welcome in capitalist paradise.
59. Hank’s government-appointed assistant takes six pages to die, so he can give a long speech about the glories of capitalism. It is comically long.
60. A person fires a gun an inch from Hank’s ear, but Hank’s ear is undamaged, and he has no burns.
61. There is a sixty-five page monologue. SIXTY-FIVE PAGES. THIRTY-SIX THOUSAND WORDS. In addition to being incredibly long, it is also brutally stupid, but since I’ve critiqued it elsewhere, I’m not getting into it again.
62. The government officials stand there silently doing nothing during Galt’s four and a half hour speech.
63. John Galt is registered under his own name, and stays in New York after his speech, knowing the government is looking for him.
64. When Dagny goes to Galt, he says that the government will arrive in half an hour because they fol lowered her. He is not upset by her trailing the government to his door, even though they had an alternate system for getting in contact with each other. They spend this half-hour canoodling, not running.
65. In custody, the evil bureaucrats try to bribe John Galt to serve them. He says they have nothing to offer him. They offer him gold, which Galt says has objective value. Which means they do have something to offer him which he values. Which is it, John?
66. When the evil bureaucrat (who isn’t actually very evil, I should point out, since he offers to bring Galt into the government and give him sweeping powers over the economy to prevent global misery) says that children will starve to death if Galt doesn’t help them, Galt compares the deaths of large numbers of starving children to the government’s treatment of Hank Rearden. Because there’s a moral equivalence between a very little humiliation and the mass starvation of children.
67. Eventually, after Galt humiliates the government yet again, he is given over to torture. His friends – Dagny, Hank, Francisco, and Ragnar – come to save him. I know this is gonna sound kind of weird, because normal human beings would think this is laudable, but it’s against Rand’s morals, where value is traded for value, and everyone tries to get the best value. You see, Galt is there because of his own actions. He could have stayed in capitalist paradise. He could have left after his speech. He could have run when Dagny arrived at his apartment, before the government agents got there. He did none of these things and brought his capture on himself. Nevertheless, people who adamantly swear that doing good for its own sake is the worst kind of evil risk their lives to save John Galt, and ask nothing of him in return.
68. After flying away into the sunset, the last scene of the book is the capitalists in their capitalist paradise planning to rebuild the world they destroyed, not even thinking of the many millions who are going to die of starvation and violence due to their sabotage of the economy.
That’s it. There are other things I could have mentioned, like the stilted dialogue and unbelievable characterizations, but those aren’t objective enough to merit discussion. The kinds of things that I would say about other books I don’t need to say, because this one is so objectively, over-the-top awful. Discussing the bad plotting or ridiculous names or vapid action scenes would be like discussing the acne on a cancer patient, so I won’t bother to do it. Atlas Shrugged isn’t like other books. It’s objectively bad.