I blogged a while back that Atlas Shrugged was a sci-fi novel, but I didn’t give it a real review. I needed something long and distracting to read over my recent Weekend of Kitsch, and now the novel has gotten me thinking about several topics: the decay of civilization, the difficulty of writing a convincing bad guy, the similar but less-known difficulty of writing a convincing good guy, showing and telling, and the eternal question, But is it sci-fi? It may take me a few entries to cover it all.
Last things first: Atlas Shrugged is science fiction with a vengeance. The plot is an extreme version of the hard-sf standard in which the insightful inventor/scientist goes up against the ignorance of the bureaucrats and wins. Our Hero has invented a mysterious new motor, and Our Other Hero has invented a new metal that’s stronger and lighter than steel. It has been noted that Atlas Shrugged is a kind of [alternate] history, being set in a subtly different U.S. somewhere around the 1930’s. Most of the rest of the world has already succumbed to socialism or communism.
Atlas Shrugged is also a disaster novel. I enjoyed watching the U.S. fall apart piece by piece - not because I have anything against my country but because it was done so well. Like most genre fiction, the novel has a complex plot in which all the little accidents add up to one very big one, whereas in real life, all the little things falling apart never seem to lead anywhere. The Concorde flew its last flight for Air France today (British Airways will stop flying them in October), NASA’s solar airfoil crashed in the Pacific yesterday, and the escalator at my T station was broken for half the week. Although it’s shocking to see Ayn Rand ravage the U.S. with a plague of fictionalized MBTA bureaucrats, at least she puts the poor country out of its misery by the end of the novel. I’ll be stuck with the MBTA forever.