Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged (Book Review)

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Reasons for reading: I've heard that it's a good post-apocalyptic book.

Dagny is a confident young executive of Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company which is but a shade of its former glory due to difficult economic situation and incompetent leadership. While Dagny is determined not to let her company sink, other successful bussinessmen crumble under the pressure of the government and unfair competition. To save her company, Dagny has to take a leap of faith - she enters a bussiness partnership with Hank Rearden, the inventor of the supposedly brilliant, but as of yet untested new alloy, Rearden Metal.

As soon as I've read the first few chapters, I realised that Atlas Shrugged is definitely not a post-apocalyptic book. I was nevertheless captivated by Rand's prose, the plot was interesting and protagonist likeable, if a bit of an implausible character. It seemed to me that Atlas Shrugged will probably be a very good read – until I began reading the second part of the book.

While the first part is more plot-oriented, Rand uses the second part of Atlas Shrugged to present her dystopian future to the reader. As promised in the blurbs and various reviews, her ideas and world-views are unusual, sometimes even radical, but what bothered me most were the inconsistencies and improbabilities.

In Rand's dystopian world, law works in weird ways. There seems to be no constitution that would interfere with the new laws that are constantly being passed; the latter just spring into being with incredible ease that doesn't seem very realistic. The book is set in a time of changes, yet there is no explanation whatsoever of how the present situation came to be. That, too, nagged at me while I was reading, especially as the situation mentioned is very unlikely by itself – in every single major industry, there is but one competent person on whom absolutely everyone relies. Of course, this makes for a very nice setting for the point Rand wants to prove (remove the competent people and the economy collapses), but it still looks like a very implausible background to build your story on, not to mention that the lack of explanation is somewhat surprising, since Rand obviously did lot of research on various subjects such as the organisation and operation of railway system and various economical situations.

The society depicted in Atlas Shrugged is no less strange. The politicians, as far as I've managed to gather, don't have an agenda; their only goal seems to be gathering as many votes as they can, but it seems as they only want to get elected for the power the position would bring them. They let various committees, cobbled together from random wealthy businessmen, decide on matters such as radical changes in the country's economy; at least the politicians still have some power over deciding who gets what materials and, sometimes, which laws will be passed. I couldn't help but wonder – how come? Why is quality of service of no concern to anyone and what happened to consulting with professionals when deciding on important matters?

The general public doesn't seem to matter in Atlas Shrugged; even though they're the ones voting, the big fish rarely think about them. There's no mention of the role they play in supporting the economy or how important they are when it comes to selling non-essential products like cosmetics, toys … – the businessmen in Atlas Shrugged deal mostly in steel, transport, oil..., things that always sell and rarely get out of fashion, but what about the industries that depend on the fickle customers? The workers in various plants are pretty much the only mention of 'the people' and they are mostly referred to as if they were simply living, breathing tools without personality. The curious thing is that Rand's main characters never think of exploiting the workers, even though they're all about profit; despite the desperate situation, no-one seems to think of employing the minimum number of workers for a minimum wage or moving the industry to other countries, where the price of labour would be lower. In fact, other countries are mentioned only once or twice in the whole book (there's a mention of a trade with Germany and a Danish pirate); import and export seem to be unimportant or non-existent.

The capitalists, who are the true protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, are the most curious lot in the book. Rayn distinguishes two kinds of capitalists, successful and unsuccessful ones. The former are smart, fair and honourable, while the latter are spoiled, corrupt and college-educated (despite being college-educated herself, Rayn presents it as a bad thing). They are also running the business only because they've inherited it, or because everyone else is doing it, whereas the 'good guys' do it because they love their work. What struck me as really odd was that those capitalists, competent and incompetent alike, have no power whatsoever. Of course, the 'bad guys' all have friends in high places (what kind of bad guys would they be if they didn't have any?) but still, I'd really like to know how it is possible to run a very successful business and at the same time have no power at all.

What seems perhaps most implausible is how the 'good guys' all agree in their world-views, beliefs and virtues, so they can relate perfectly to each other and are as unified as they can be. I don't think such a thing would be possible in the real world – real people are too different to each other, they have different upbringings and convictions, so this Rand's clique of competent businessmen is yet another implausibility for the list. It is same with the immense success they have all achieved through hard work and use of wits and therefore proved that they are able businessmen. Ironically, it is Rand herself who mentions other people rising through incompetence and timid personality, so it's all a bit of a mess – success proves that someone is competent, but not when incompetent people are successful? This and other, similar contradictions, leave the reader confused and hardly add to the reading experience.

In general, it's clear that Rand sees her version of capitalism (not the dystopian one the book is set in but the one her protagonists keep talking about) as the ultimate world order and tries to prove that by presenting us with a dystopia where the last of the 'good guys' try to succeed against the prevailing incompetence. The problem, though, is that it's very hard for a reader to distinguish between the good and the bad without Rand explaining which is which. Judging a character's competence by success is no good, as I've mentioned before, and it's the same with their ability to keep the company up and running (in fact, the 'bad guys' are even better at this than the 'good guys'). So, a 'good guy' must be both successful and able to prevent his company from collapse while not pulling any strings, being a fair boss and not selling products by deceiving people. It sure sounds nice, but not very profitable – and Rand's capitalists, logically, value profit above all else, not to mention that no profits probably means no success.

Then, in the third part of the book, Rand depicts the 'good guys' not only as good businessmen but also as brilliant at anything they decide to do, from fishing and farming to sewing and building motors, when they decide to form a self-sustaining community away from civilisation. Again, Rand doesn't explain how a handful of people manages to produce their own paper, wine, cigarettes, ceramics, paints and all kinds of cloth (all high-quality products, of course) and mine gold and iron, neither we get to see how can all those natural resources be available in such a small area. I know that Rand's idyllic valley was meant to depict an idyllic capitalist society, but yet again, the sheer implausibility of it ruined most of it for me.

There were some other convictions presented in Atlas Shrugged that bothered me, such as that the poor are poor because they are either stupid or not trying hard enough (I wonder whether they knew the term 'cultural deprivation' in 50's?) and a fervent rant about how communism is the greatest evil possible. As for Rand's style – her prose is wonderful but most of the dialogues are very long-winded, repetitive and incredibly boring, with Jon Galt's 60-page monologue taking the prize (it is not only long and boring but also tells the reader nothing that hasn't been said or thought at some previous point in the book).

So, what can I say? Atlas Shrugged starts off nicely, but is sadly reduced to beautifully written propaganda after the first part of the book – and as much as I enjoyed Rand's prose, I really dislike reading propaganda. My initial excitement about Rand not being afraid to write about economy and its mechanisms gave way to disappointment as I saw that she doesn't really provide any plausible explanation of her imaginary society's foundations, probably because there are none. Atlas Shrugged did give me some food for thought, if mostly in form of me spotting the implausibilities, but as far as works of speculative fiction go, I wouldn't call it one of the more enjoyable ones.


N/A (I'd give it a 5 for prose, a 2,5 for plot and a 0 for the dialogues)

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The longest review I've ever written! :) Also, sorry for not updating in quite a while, I was re-reading ASOIAF and not writing any new reviews.

8 Comments:

Mark said...

I think that you have grossly mis-characterized Atlas Shrugged and its entire purpose. Ayn Rand had really one philosophy in the entire book and that was that there are two types of people in the world: Those who earn what they have HONESTLY through means of their own creation and abilities; and those that do not earn but TAKE what they have from those that have rightfully earned it. "Successful" in this sense is not measured by one's wealth, but by how one got one's wealth. If you read the book again, you will see that the "bad guys" are the ones who take from the producers productivity; i.e., James Taggart from Dagny Taggart. The railroad would collapse if it wasn't for her running the show and keeping it going. You don't think that this is plausible? Look at how many CEOs have kept companies running or turned companies completely around and out of bankruptcy.

You also assert that these government agencies are not bound by any constitution. You are correct, they are not because they have nullified it.

John Galt's speech boring? I see now why you missed the mark on the philosophy. His speech summarized the entire point of the whole book, followed only by Anconio's speech on money. Think about it again, because what happened in Atlas Shrugged is almost complete verbatim of what happened in Communist Russia. Which she ought to know considering she came from there.

You seem to agree with this guy: http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2007/05/shorter-archn-introduction.html

I'd think about it realistically and take away your artificial security this country gives you. What if, what if she was right?

Trin said...

I was aiming to present the implausibilities in the novel, not to discredit (or in any way judge) objectivism, so it seems that you've missed the point of my review a bit. Also, I really don't much care about objectivism one way or another, so no, I do not agree or disagree with the link you posted - I just have no opinion on it. If Atlas Shrugged was an essay instead of a novel, I would not even try to review it, but as it is, I treat it as a work of speculative fiction.

As far as implausibility goes, I've never said that CEOs who run the companies while the directors slack off don't exist. I simply think that there are yet more options that Rand never mentions - e.g., dishonest (or dishonorable) CEOs successfully running the company, honest and smart CEOs failing, etc. For all her talk of reason and objectivity, Rand presents a very black-and-white picture of those that create and those that steal (as you said) - but I think you agree with me that in real life, you rarely get such ideal types. I find it curious, however, that you did not comment on other implausibilities that seemed to me much greater than this one.

Thanks for clarifying that bit about the constitution. :) Yet this adds a whole lot of other questions - how did that come to be? Why was it allowed to happen?

As for Communist Russia: first, I don't know much about Russian history, but after the October Revolution, afaik, monarchy was replaced with socialism mainly because under the Tsar, the economy has collapsed (partly due to the WWI); people were desperate for stability, workers went on strike and were forming an active opposition. There was a civil war and a famine. This all seems to me mostly opposite of what's happening in Atlas Shrugged, or at least very unrelated to it. The only relation I could find is that socialism brought nationalisation, of which Rand and her family were victims, but that is still very much different from the unfair competition and governmental regulation that is described in Atlas Shrugged. Rand doesn't simply want capitalism; she wants laissez-faire.
Second: sorry, but 'she ought to know because she was born there' is not really much of an argument. Being born somewhere does not make you an expert on the country's history, even if you experienced it first-hand.
And third: even if something is true, it can still be boring ;) As you said - it summarised the point, but I don't think the point needed summarising, as it was constantly present throughout the novel.

redhead said...

I've never really thought of Atlas Shrugged as a peice of speculative fiction. I've never viewed it as dystopian or post-apocalytpic. I've always just seen it as a novelization of Rand's real life philosophy on free-market capitalism.

and now i kinda have the urge to read it again.

Mark Anthony said...

Thanks Trin. Perhaps someday (and I would truly love) to sit and have a long conversation about the philosophies of life and how Rand tried to bring hers out through her book. I respect your opinion and shall abstain from further disagreement on your blog. Thank you for a respectful reply.

Trin said...

Seriously, I don't mind if you disagree with me :) My review is just one point of view and I love hearing others (as long as the conversation stays polite). I do, however, think that we will just have to agree to disagree on this matter - for you, the main aspect of Atlas Shrugged is its philosophy whereas I pay by far most attention to its storytelling aspects. We're basically talking about (and evaluating) two different things :)

Walter Rhein said...

Great review. I'm a little skeptical about Ayn Rand, and the comments of of the people that disagreed with you only reinforced that opinion. My impression is that Rand spouts a lot of dogma, but didn't even make an effort to practice what she preached. One of these days I'll probably get around to reading it...but it's not high on my list.
Thanks!

Teja said...

I thought there were some books which go beyond a book-review...
Anyway, quite a balanced review.

Mark Lawrence said...

A good review. I've read the book and felt it to be interesting in the main and entertaining on several levels. It is, however, one of those books (like the Bible perhaps) that if discussed in an open forum will often lead to extreme reactions &/or conflict as too many of those participating will be politically wed to the underlying philosophy or set against it for the same reason. Difficult in that environment to discuss whether it has literary merit, the power of the story/characters, the strangeness of the world.

 

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