Rationality, a mysterious new motor and civilization collapse: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the first co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1983

The Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing review-essays to make clear why each Prometheus Award winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy. Here is our appreciation of the first Hall of Fame co-winner: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, inducted in 1983 along with Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

By William H. Stoddard

If any novelist was central to the emergence of the libertarian movement, it was Ayn Rand.

She wasn’t simply an adherent of ideas such as strict adherence to the Constitution or economic freedom, which were common among adherents of the “old right” at the time. She was also the source of such distinctive formulations as the concept of being a “radical for capitalism” (rather than a conservative) and the principle of noninitiation of force, which have been defining elements in libertarianism for half a century. And those ideas first came to widespread attention in her last and largest novel, Atlas Shrugged.

Was Atlas Shrugged “science fiction”? It certainly was received as such; it was reviewed in Astounding Science Fiction not once, but twice, by P. Schuyler Miller (who saw little value in it) and by John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding (who praised it—particularly for its insight into the cultural and psychological mechanisms that make political repression work).

It influenced some science fiction writers; in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for example, the self-aware computer Mycroft is described as the “John Galt”of the Lunar revolution. It’s filled with marvelous inventions; not just the central ones, Rearden Metal and John Galt’s motor, but half a dozen ingenious minor devices, any one of which might have been the basis for a story in Astounding – and the Xylophone, a weapon of mass destruction based on new principles of energy transmission that plays a crucial role at the novel’s climax. And if Rand doesn’t go into detail on the scientific principles behind these inventions, or into the unexpected side effects of their use, a lot of science fiction doesn’t either.

Not all science fiction is about gadgets; as Isaac Asimov pointed out, it also includes adventure stories and stories about social change.

Rand’s inventions at least play the part of letting her heroes have adventures; an important thread in her story is her protagonists’ quest for the inventor of a mysterious motor found abandoned in a failed factory (this is, in fact, John Galt’s motor, but they have no way of knowing that). And if they don’t transform society, the mystery of why they haven’t done so is central to the plot—and its answer is a very different way of transforming society.

In fact, what Ayn Rand wrote was a pulp novel, if on an extraordinary scale—arguably the greatest pulp novel ever written.

It doesn’t just have an armoury of marvelous inventions worthy of Jules Verne or E.E. Smith (and incidentally, Rand alludes to Verne in her heroine’s discussion of what to name her new railroad line). It also has a mystery that her heroes have to resolve, and a series of obscure clues that point them to the answer. It has a mastermind seeking to transform the world from his hidden base of operations —and eventually making a speech to the world that reveals his plan and his goals.
And it ends in a dramatic clash where her characters have to choose their true loyalties.

In fact, this is a novel of marvelous inventions in more ways than one: its author may have a serious ideological purpose, but she also is having fun coming up with unexpected plot twists. Beyond those who found Rand’s ideas persuasive, there were many readers who skimmed through the speeches but lingered over the dramatic confrontations.

But her writing does offer substantial ideas and themes as well.

With her emphasis on thinking in principles, she arrived at an unusually consistent advocacy of liberty, which helped to inspire many libertarians during the formation of the movement. And her political ideas were only part of a larger perspective.

Her attempt to ground her political ideas in a view of the nature of reality and of humanity gave many of her readers the idea that philosophy was important and worth learning about. Her emphasis on rationality as the fundamental human virtue harmonizes well with science fiction, as does her admiration for science, technology, and the space program as human achievements.

In the end, Atlas Shrugged is noteworthy as a story about what makes such achievements possible – and what threatens them.

* Also read Michael Grossberg’s complementary Appreciation of Atlas Shrugged from several other perspectives, including Rand’s distinctive and unusual use of humor.

Note: In addition to her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1905-1982)  was recognized by the Prometheus Awards in 1987, when her first novel Anthem, a poetic and concise classic of dystopian fiction about the rediscovery of the self in a primitive dictatorship, was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Ayn Rand in 1943 (Creative Commons license)

Rand also wrote two individualist and anti-authoritarian novels that do not fall within the sf genre – We the Living and The Fountainhead – along with many short stories and screenplays (later collected and published posthumously in the book The Early Ayn Rand).

Her non-fiction essays and columns were later published in more than half a dozen books, with Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution among the books of greatest interest to libertarians, classical liberals (for Rand was more truly a liberal than an “arch-conservative”) and other freedom-lovers.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Another Appreciation, by  a different writer with a somewhat different perspective, on Atlas Shrugged, one of two 1983 Hall of Fame winners – and after that, an Appreciation of the other winner, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.



Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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