Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

I’m settled in with my brother, and watching. Much of this is going to be quasi-stream of consciousness, occasionally typed while pausing. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie before, so there’s probably a lot I’m going to miss.

It takes place in 2016, and given the modern look I’m seeing now, it’s looking like an adaptation. Oil dries up, economic crisis everywhere, and railroad is left as the only viable long distance travel. It moves into an interview about derailments. So, all in all, the world has gone to crap. A brief scene shows a banker and a date of his disappearance.

The focus moves to James Taggart’s railroad company which is losing its supporters as the derailments continue. His sister Dagny comes in to tell him about his incompetence, changing steel providers to replace the old rails. My brother pauses the video, saying it’s being made into a drama about inter-office politics. He’s getting the feeling there are contrivances in this, and I’m not surprised at this point. She apparently found out about someone providing superior alloys, and she knows it because she took engineering courses in college. I think we have a Mary Sue in the making.

We meet Hank Rearden, who’s introduced by firing union workers. Dagny meets with him to discuss the deal with his metal: He needs to debut the metal, and she needs reliable rails. He goes home and gives his wife a bracelet she doesn’t like it. The sarcasm she gives out is way too thick. A friend of his asks for some money to give to a progressive group, but the group wouldn’t want it directly because they wouldn’t appreciate his name on it. Shortly after, by brother pauses the video, “Oh, it’s so hard being in the 1%. The trials they must go through. Upty-doo, you’re not popular. You’ve still got a nice house.” In a discussion about his public image, Hank explicitly says his only goal is to make money. Move to a business discussion over dinner with a skeptic who thinks the new metal is risky to use because it’s untested. A law is mentioned limiting business ownership to one company per person. Like that wouldn’t be easy to circumvent.

Back to Dagny. She’s reworking the business, cutting off rural Mexico down to one passenger train a day because it’s not profitable. Gee, I can’t see any long-term downside to that mentality. She ends up trying to talk a guy out of quitting, offering him more until she asks him to name his price. He avoids answering questions about why he wants to quit, and instead asks the magic words, “Who is John Galt?” and his disappearance date shows up on screen. The plot moves to covering the premise, complete with shadowy figure (John Galt, of course) speaking cryptically: “Exceptional” people are disappearing to some hidden place for them to build some utopia or something. I spend a bit of time thinking about Bioshock and Rapture.

My brother pauses. “This is about the romanticizing of the 1%, depicting as people who got to their position because they’re hard working. People who bootstrap themselves up because they’re so bootstrappy!” Of course, I imagine those individuals are extraordinarily rare. We pause to cover some of the absurdities and trade humor. Apparently there are people on Fark who post pictures of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle whenever Randian economics come up. I bring up Bioshock. One comment I make: This is essentially trying to base society on Mary Sueism.

Boredom sets in. Dagny deals with a spazzy Wyatt complaining about being forced to rely on Taggart. Some concern expressed toward friends about the disappearing Mary Sues. At a party, the “new metal” bracelet comes up in conversation. It’s mildly annoying as a plot device. My generous side wants to interpret it as some new alloy, a way to make “metal glass,” or something like that, but my cynical side wants to interpret it as a chemistry-ignorant writer’s view of science. There are only so many non-radioactive metals out there.

We get to talking timeline. The book was written in 1957. The movie takes place in the far-off year of 2016. We don’t find any specific date for the book’s setting in a quick search, aside from a note about the anachronisms: Business structure of late 1800′s, tone of the Depression Era, and modern-for-then social customs. The fact that the book was written in the 50′s is a bit jarring to think about, since the Depression seems like an indictment of the Randian view. Upton Sinclair, in trying to win the heart of the nation, hit its stomach by revealing what went into sausage back then. I don’t know about his brand of socialist ideals, but I can thank him for inadvertently triggering the formation of the FDA.

“It’s fucking trains!” is how my brother expresses some credulity, but I think it makes some level of sense, if they’re coal-powered. The middle east probably doesn’t have a monopoly on that. — Plot point!: Dagny trades her diamond necklace for the “new metal” bracelet. Once again, I’m seeing a bit of the science-ignorant myopia in that she’s effectively “stealing” technology. Now she abandons a meeting to defend the safety of the new rails she’s laying down, saying she shouldn’t need to defend her decision. Yay, negligence! Confrontation between Rearden and, of all people, Quark! Apparently he’s the straw critic, declaring the safety irrelevant: If it’s unsafe, it’ll harm people. If it’s safe, it’s a “social” danger. This hostility towards safety-related oversight really stupifies the whole thing. Public opinion is brought up, because, apparently, science is determined by public opinion, not objective test results.

At this point, my brother’s spending most of his time outside the room, but he brings up something about Ayn Rand: Everything’s black and white to her. I definitely get the same feeling from watching this segment. Safety is a big issue with me because it’s one of problems that comes with a lot of trollish libertarians: They keep wanting to have everyone with equal rights, but quite often, they also want businesses to have the right to do risky or dangerous things that will negatively impact others. And somehow, they think the little people will somehow be able to successfully sue for harm after it’s caused. Of course, safety regulations and such exist to prevent the harm in the first place, and do it for everyone’s sake, not just who can pay lawyers. It’s relatively automatic in mindset instead of letting bean counters take control to maximize profits at cost to other people.

Oh, and it’s been confirmed by magazine covers that it’s a new blend of steel, so that’s one annoyance out of the way. Scientists have denounced the steel, causing stock troubles for Dagny. She’s going to start her own business to save the family one. The John Galt Line. She hasn’t even met the guy. Wonder what’d our magic man in the shadows would do if she did something she didn’t like… And she says she named it that because she’s tired of hearing the name and associating it with quitting? Wut?

Meeting with Rearden. Brings up a 20th century engine design that’s probably a new MacGuffin. My brother pauses at the mention of an “equalization of opportunity” bill to point out the contradiction: The premise of this Mary Sueism is that everyone already has equality of opportunity, but somehow equality of opportunity is bad. The strangeness of Rand’s world gets to my brother again. It’s Rand’s fantasy of how business works. There’s no shady back room deals. No mighty lobbyists bending congressmen.

The train starts running. It’s absurd that this would be the test of the train. Competent businessmen would test the rails long before this. The engineers would have done the math on the bridge. This is not how things are done. We both expressed a desire for the train to crash to make an example of their apparent negligence. The lack of real conflict is getting us ranty. The government opposition is a paper tiger. John Galt shows up to be cryptic after some Randian majesty of sex. They decide to go see the MacGuffin engine the next day, and secret passage in the factory site. Apparently they left the magic engine just sitting in the abandoned factory and no one came along to sell it for scrap. They try to dig up the name of the inventor, apparently some brilliant Marty Stu assistant to the head engineer. It’s like some fantasy story where they dig up some artifact from a dungeon instead of the real world. Why are they bothering looking for the inventor if the engine’s so magical? Why aren’t they reverse engineering it? Why do they even assume it works? Test it, already!

Political trouble brews. It’s really getting annoying that they’re being blindsided by new laws and such. If they were a modern corporation, they’d be on top of everything, instead of talking about laws with deer-in-the-headlights look. “It’s like she assumes corporations don’t meddle with the government at all.”

Long straw liberal speech about equalizing steel output and giving services according to state needs as if the latter was inherently wrong while Ellis Wyatt’s house burns down from his oil fields. Voice over from John Galt talking about “Atlantis,” so now I know why Rapture was built underwater in Bioshock. Apparently he blew up his own oil fields before he disappeared. Frankly, I would have expected them to blow up from corner cutting. Wyatt voices over his declaration that he’s on strike. So, apparently the 1% is privileged enough to be able to go on strike to make a statement, but union workers can’t do the same.

All this time, Dagny was driving to Wyatt’s house as dramatic music played, but it just fell so flat. We’re left with a limp cliffhanger. We just couldn’t identify with any of the characters. They live lives of privilege and run on self-righteousness. I’m sympathetic to talented people wanting to prosper, but Randtopia would cost society to prop up Mary Sue egos. Of course, I also have a hard time imagining the scientists and engineers getting ahead like they do in Rand’s fantasy. We’re closer than most people realize, and the economy’s in trouble because a lot of the rich got rich by shuffling stocks and money in “creative,” non-regulated fashions. There is a need for people to put up capital and create jobs, but those people aren’t going to vanish from safety regulations and such.

6 responses to “Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

    • I suspect I’d need a strong motivation to slog through it. My experiences with Rand may be limited and indirect, but I’d need to know there’s something really big that I’m missing out on.

      • Yeah, I absolutely loved the book. The movie can’t begin to capture the character development.

        I can tell you’re not a Rand fan, nor a conservative, so you may not like it as much. But it is still very interesting to see her philosophy. I don’t completely agree either with the extremity, but it’s a brilliant story that frames Objectivism. Better than most philosophy books. Apparently it’s also the “2nd most influential book” (after the Bible). Although that was in 1991, but still…

    • Reading the first link right now, Z. It really gives me a feel for just how bad the writing is on the sentence and paragraph level, so far. If there actually was something good buried in there, it’d be hard to focus on. I’m no literary expert, but if I were an editor who liked the “core” of the story, I’d ask for a rewrite in simpler language. If I were a Rand fan, I’d probably push for a streamlined edition to cut out all those excesses and make the book more accessible.

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