By Ashby 3 Comments
I'll start with this: Bioshock is a fantastic game. Great story, great atmosphere, just great in general. But this blog is not about the game, and more about the, frankly, quite formidable novel that inspired its edgy, "virtue of selfishness" themes: Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. (WARNING: If you have any interest at all in this book and haven't read it, don't continue, as I spoil much of the "mystery" that the book spends about 2/3 of its length setting up.)
Last semester, I took two different American Lit courses to finish out my English degree. Interestingly enough, they both focused on early 20th century socialist/communist literature. Some great reads in there (The Jungle, Jews Without Money, In Dubious Battle, etc), but what struck me was the huge contextual difference between these novels, which obviously are Left-leaning and clearly vie for distribution of wealth to the masses, and the message of Bioshock, which I played on and off throughout the semester whenever I could squeeze a spare moment in. After a friend of mine told me the controversy that inevitably follows you when carrying around a copy of this book, I immediately, being the lover of controversy that I am, had to read it and see what all the fuss was about.
I ordered it cheap from Amazon, and as soon as I was finished with the semester and the dozens of novels I read for my classes, I eagerly cracked it open one day during a slow shift at work.
This novel ain't fuckin' around, folks. It's a cool 1100 pages of tiny text, unabashed philosophy, and numerous hard-to-keep-track-of characters, with a keen eye for detail - Rand relishes in spending pages describing every minute aspect of the scene presented to the reader - and an apocalyptic storyline that only someone pushing a point would envision. The general premise is that the great minds of the world, the thinkers who come up with the inventions that keep technology fresh and innovations common, go on a "mental strike" of sorts. The men who the novel considers geniuses of their fields - an oil tycoon, for instance, or a skilled metal-worker who has revolutionized the metal industry - are suddenly disappearing without a trace, leaving no affairs in order and causing mass panic. The government, meanwhile, is constantly creating new laws that make these entrepreneurs' lives more difficult - they obliterate free market and constantly cite Socialist European countries as their models. (Rand didn't make a secret about her hatred of Communism, and it especially shows in this novel.) All in all, the remaining thinkers have a tougher and tougher time of things throughout, having to face the double betrayal of their own friends' desertions and the government's sabotages of their businesses.
Atlas Shrugged gets dark. I constantly found myself marveling that Rand, a woman, dared write this in the 50's - this book was first published in 1957. She describes with relish an extramarital affair that occurs between the main characters Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, clearly siding with their sexual joys rather than the loveless marriage that Hank Rearden is caught up in. A little over halfway through the novel, an entire trainful of (mostly) innocent people are brutally killed when a tunnel collapses around them due to governmental incompetence. From this point on, as the government collapses, people starve from lack of food and supplies (the plot is complicated, folks), and riots break out around the country, deaths become more and more commonplace. When the ringleader of the "thinker's strike" is captured by the government, he is brutally tortured and almost murdered by them because he refuses to "think for them" and tell them how to get themselves out of the mess they've created. Rand is deadly serious about the consequences of government control over business (she was fervently pro-laissez-faire economy), and her descriptions get morbid enough that I had to stop reading at a few key sequences, sickened at all the innocent deaths that happen throughout. (A good example: a young, poor girl, who marries one of the government higher-ups and is completely naive to his wrongdoings, is driven to suicide by him a year or so after the marriage. Rand makes sure to establish her innocence and the man's guilt, but he shrugs it off and realizes that he only is happy when he is hurting others, and she is promptly forgotten. Whoa?)
Another thing that I had to keep reminding myself of is that, even though Rand clearly and triumphantly states that the strikers are morally correct (and at the end of the novel, once the riots are over and the country has completely collapsed, it is hinted that they will come out of hiding and start a completely new government and economy again), they are, in a way, responsible for all these deaths. Yes, I understand the saying that you need to break some eggs to make an omelet, but damn, upwards of millions sure seems like a lot of eggs.
Obviously, my meagre summary really doesn't do justice to the sprawling plot we've got going on in this novel. I found myself checking Sparknotes after every single chapter I finished, making sure I truly understood the heavy technical business and government terms (the plot mostly revolves around Dagny Taggart, who is the vice-president of a railroad company, so lots of odd vocabulary terms) and I knew which character was which. There are at least twenty main characters in this, with first and last names, who are interchangeably referred to by one, or both.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Atlas Shrugged is quite an undertaking. It's long, frankly quite boring at parts, and has a somewhat ridiculous love triangle pervading it. I won't get into details, but after almost 600 pages of a perfect love affair with Hank, Dagny sees the ringleader of the thinker's strike and immediately forgets about Hank, falling in love with the ringleader instead and realizing it after she (groan) becomes a sort of housewife to him for a month. Well, I guess it is apparent at times that this was written in the fifties. There are some truly beautiful descriptions, especially in the first 500 pages or so, great characterizations - Hank Rearden is one of my favorite literay characters - and a huge chunk of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, is fully realized in this novel, so if you're interested in Objectivism but don't want to slog through her actual philosophy novels, this one is pretty solid. It is still a slog, though, and probably 300 pages could easily have been cut out were it not for Rand's penchant for overly long descriptions. (One passage spends over 20 pages describing how Dagny feels standing at the head of a train, while the ringleader's philosophical speech near the end of the novel, containing all the core elements of Objectivism, runs over 40 pages.)
It's easy to feel some interest towards Atlas Shrugged upon finishing Bioshock, and why not? The game takes all the best parts of the novel - the mystery of John Galt (Who is Atlas?), the core philosophy of the thinker's strike, and the idea of a utopia from a gathering of the greatest minds of America. That's cool, right? But what the game does that's so great is subvert this idea by depicting the utopia as a dystopia, therefore throwing all the philosophy from the novel on its head. If you're a Lit nerd like me, you might enjoy the novel for what it is - an epic, sweeping plot with some beautiful moments that unfortunately was written solely to push a philosophy and has a lot of innocent people dying pretty gruesome deaths throughout. However, I think I'm safe in saying that most of us should probably stay away from this one and enjoy the game instead.