"Who is John Galt?"
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still -- as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him. (p. 3)
Summary: The Taggart Transcontinental railroad system spans the continent, from ocean to ocean, serving as a major artery system for American industry. It is kept running by Dagny Taggart, the vice president in charge of operations, a forceful and dynamic woman with a brilliant organizing mind who has succeeded in the railroad business despite the common view -- still clearly held by many of her supposed colleagues -- that a woman cannot run a railroad. The CEO of Taggart Transcontinental is her brother, Jim Taggart, who knows relatively little about railroads himself, but who knows how to play the political game with people in Washington. Taggart Transcontinental, while a still major powerhouse, begins having some difficulties when Jim Taggart, alerted to opportunities by his friends in Washington, diverts funds and resources from the development of the industry-crucial Rio Norte Line in Colorado to a southern line toward the San Sebastian mines in Mexico, run by the d'Anconia Copper Company, one of the oldest and wealthiest mining companies in the world. The investment goes very badly, however, when the government of the People's State of Mexico nationalizes the mines, but discovers that they have seized a mirage; the mines are spending a truly extraordinary amount of money on payroll, but there is no copper in the mines at all. Scrambling to fix his mistake, Jim Taggart pulls strings in Washington to regulate out all competitors in Colorado. This is the fundamental way Jim Taggart, and indeed most of corporate America in the novel, works: rather than do quality work, they use government levers to harm their competitors and benefit themselves in the name of 'the People'.
Dagny Taggart, however, is running a railroad, and she strikes a deal with Hank Rearden, who has invented a new metal alloy that is cheaper and stronger than steel, which he calls Rearden Metal. With Rearden Metal, she can lay even better tracks on the Rio Norte Line while reducing the cost of the overall project. However, they are hampered by Rearden's competitors who, making their profits as much by manipulating laws and regulations as producing steel, stir up opposition, both popular and political, against the use of the new metal.
This is the recurring pattern of the story as things spiral downward. Rand does not have a particularly high opinion of corporations as such; every corporate firm in the novel is in a state of corruption, including Taggart Transcontinental, in which shirking responsibility is the order of the day and doing political favors is rewarded more than actually producing anything. The result is that the whole system of industry is in a state of slow collapse as an ever larger number of people attempt to use law and politics to dip into the few remaining springs that are actually producing wealth. All of this is done in altruistic terms, in the name of 'the People', but it is impossible not to notice that things done in the name of 'the People' keep benefiting the same responsibility-shirking individuals, and that they don't even go that far except by cannibalizing the work of others.
Throughout the story, people keep shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Who is John Galt?", a saying that has sprung up and that is used to indicate that some questions have no answer. Dagny takes over the Rio Norte Line as a temporary spin-off company (to get around the continual political obstacles created by opposition to Rearden's highly proprietary attitude toward Rearden Metal), who hates this kind of shoulder-shrugging, names her spin-off company, The John Galt Line, as an act of defiance. In the course of making the company successful, she and Rearden come across an abandoned factory of the failed Twentieth Century Motor Company, where they find the remnants of a motor, along with partial plans and some of the inventor's notes for it. The notes indicate, and the remnants and the plans seem to confirm, that the motor's inventor had come up with a way to harness atmospheric static electricity. There is not enough left, however, to reconstruct the working version of the motor, particularly as the motor seems to depend on a theory of electromagnetism more sophisticated than that which is usually accepted. Recognizing that such a motor would revolutionize transportation, she sets out to try to find the inventor. This will lead her down a trail like nothing she ever expected, but she will eventually learn the name of the inventor: John Galt. Meanwhile, great minds and successful entrepreneurs around the country are slowly vanishing without a trace, the government is creating economic planning boards that essentially function as monopolies, and the ever-increasing difficulty of finding quality components is sending warning-tremors throughout the whole economic system.
One thing I think Rand is not given sufficient credit for is the excellence of her characterization. She is deliberately exaggerating features, in a way much like Victor Hugo does, and the satire is often scathing and ruthless (Rand is not an author who has any sympathy for her villains), but even secondary characters are often quite multi-layered in their motivations, and however hyperbolic or satirical she gets, the outlines are still recognizable as patterns you find in the real world. I was particularly struck this reading with the characterization of Lee Hunsacker, the former president of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. He tries to portray himself as selfless, but repeatedly makes everything about himself and in fact, despite having no accomplishments of importance, is writing his autobiography; he tries to justify his actions as having been for the workers, but never bothered to learn their names; he is only kept off the street by the generosity of some friends, but whines behind their backs about how selfish they are in expecting him occasionally to do chores in return; when he describes his tenure as president, he talks about not having had the money to spend on research and supplies for improving motor production, after having done essential things like redecorate his office and put in a new cafeteria; and, most notably, he keeps blaming everyone else for his failures, despite the fact that he shows in the brief time Dagny meets him that he can't even be trusted to keep a pot of soup from burning. None of this is subtle, but it's beautifully woven together, and it's not actually difficult all to find people who are like Lee Hunsacker in one way or another.
Rand gets a lot of criticism for John Galt's speech, which is indeed an endurance run, but in artistic terms I think she is right that something like it is in fact necessary for the resolution of the novel: we need a way of conveying the fundamental climactic event, the strike of the producers, whose visible impact is necessarily diffuse and therefore needs specific highlighting; we need something to show that "Who is John Galt?" is in fact an answerable question; and we need the thought of this very thought-driven narrative to be tied together in a way that fits with the plot. (I also think the idea that a man capable of seizing and using the entire broadcasting capability of the United States would use it to deliver a manifesto is perhaps one of the most prescient elements of this science fiction story, and has only grown more plausible with the rise of social media.) And, of course, this is a novel of ideas, and Rand's refusal to run away from that or try to camouflage it is part of what has made the work stand out as memorable.
The novel is explicitly and even aggressively Aristotelian in many of its themes, although with occasional important deviations from Aristotle himself. The conflict is a struggle between the magnanimous -- the great-souled men and women -- and the pusillanimous. Like Aristotle, Rand puts skill, justice, and friendship as central components of a healthy society. Unlike the aristocratic Aristotle, Rand regards the highest expression of justice as the trader, but the trader in turn is understood in a very Aristotelian way as someone who (like Aristotle's magnanimous man) has a profound self-respect and does not live at the expense of others or allow others to live at his own expense, but instead insists on giving, in all things, value for value, for the equal benefit of those involved in the trade. The structure of the novel is based on the traditional three Laws of Thought: the principle of noncontradiction (something cannot be both true and not true of the same subject in the same way), the principle of the excluded middle (everything is either true or not true), and the principle of identity (everything is what it is). The collapse of system and culture and the problems faced by the protagonists are tied to the attempt to shirk the implications of these principles: to pretend that contradictory plans can be implemented, to ignore the actual stark choices with which one is faced, to treat reality as if it were not what it is. Reason, which is based on the three Laws of Thought, is the only thing that does not lead to collapse and death. And all of this is tied to the most striking adaptation of Aristotle in the work. A social and economic system requires motive power. This motive power cannot be manufactured out of nothing, any more than you can move train cars without an engine. It must be traced back to the only thing that can give it, to the socioeconomic prime mover: the human mind.
Favorite Passage: Rand's description of the first crack in a cascade of cracks that will ultimately undermine Taggart Transcontinental:
On the morning of September 2, a copper wire broke in California, between two telephone poles by the track of the Pacific branch line of Taggart Transcontinental.
A slow, thin rain had been falling since midnight, and there had been no sunrise, only a gray light seeping through a soggy sky -- and the brilliant raindrops hanging on the telephone wires had been the only sparks glittering against the chalk of the clouds, the lead of the ocean and the the steel of the oil derricks descending as lone bristles down a desolate hillside. The wires had been worn by more rains and years than they had been intended to carry; one of them had kept sagging through the hours of that morning, under the fragile load of raindrops; then its one last drop had grown on the wire's curve and had hung like a crystal bead, gathering the weight of many seconds; the bead and the wire had given up together and, as soundless as the fall of tears, the wire had broken and fallen with the fall of the bead. (p. 909)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, although you have to be in the mood for a work whose author doesn't mind speechifying.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Random House (New York: 1957).