Sunday, November 20, 2022

Fortnightly Book, November 20

 Sixty-five years ago, in 1957, a science fiction novel was published that had as its theme the role and power of the human mind. It was an instant bestseller and, despite being famous for certain peculiar literary choices, has remained in print and popular ever since,  and thus has claim to being one of the most successful science fiction novels of all time. It tells the story of a young woman who rises to prominence in a male-dominated and, we find in the course of the novel, passive-aggressively misogynistic industry; she succeeds by brilliance and competence, but finds it an ongoing struggle, because her male colleagues continually dump responsibilities on her, hoping that she will crash and burn, while continually shirking their own responsibilities. Instead of actually doing good work, they prefer to grease palms and trade favors in the good-ol'-boys network, using their connections to get themselves bailed out of the results of their incompetence. In the midst of her struggle, this dynamic young woman connects with a brilliant, hard-working inventor who has discovered a metal stronger and cheaper than steel, and with his help she hopes to be able to save her family's business and pave the path to a new future. Against them, however, is arrayed corporate America, with its long tendrils interlocked with those of parties in the U.S. government, and an endless field of non-governmental organizations willing to lie, cheat, and steal to oppose people who dare not to toe the party line. And on top of it all, the greatest minds of the day are mysteriously vanishing, one by one, as the U.S. economy heads toward collapse.

I am speaking, of course, of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, her fourth and (notoriously) longest novel. It was largely hated by the critics, but has been a popular favorite, continually getting on lists of the best American novels of the twentieth century, whenever those lists are open to popular nomination and vote. Keeping enthusiastic readers for sixty-five years is not a minor accomplishment, and it is likely to be read for some time yet. 

One reason for doing this work now, besides its sixty-fifth anniversary, is the recent FTX scandal. FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange company, built not on actually producing anything but on a lot of promises, bought favors, and glittering appeals to altruism and giving, getting its support not from quality work but from pouring money into faddish progressive causes, relying on political connections rather than actual accountability, the perception of whose success depended not on actual achievement but on favorable press: one could not imagine a more perfect exemplification of what Rand criticizes in this novel. Even Rand would have hesitated, for realism's sake, in putting some of the justifications that were thrown around for FTX's behavior into the mouth of one of her (deliberately) melodramatic villains. Even Taggart Transcontinental and Associated Steel in her novels had to produce physical results sometimes. Truth is more cartoonish than fiction.

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