Just how important are the engineers in Atlas Shrugged?
According to a well-researched essay published online in The Savvy Street, Rand’s bestselling magnum opus is in many ways a “literary celebration” of engineering.
Writer Peter Saint-Andre argues persuasively that virtually every significant character is an engineer of some kind in Rand’s epic novel about the role of the mind and the importance of rationality and liberty in sustaining human civilization.
Even those who believe they are fully familiar with Atlas Shrugged – inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in the very first year of that award category in 1983 – are likely to find the essay both surprising and compelling in adding a crucial dimension of understanding about Rand’s classic work.
“A core premise of the novel is that all segments of society have at one point or another gone on strike and refused to return to work until their demands have been met. All segments but one: the “men of the mind,” who are the Atlases holding up the world,” Saint-Andre writes.
“Yet who are these “men of the mind” in Atlas Shrugged? With a few token exceptions, they are not intellectuals, novelists, philosophers, artists, or even scientists—the professions usually associated with “the mind” in Western civilization. Instead, they are almost exclusively engineers.
“Consider the main characters: John Galt is an electrical and mechanical engineer who invents a revolutionary motor powered by static electricity; Francisco D’Anconia is a mining engineer who owns and runs the world’s most important copper mining company; Hank Rearden is a metallurgical engineer who owns and runs America’s most important steel mill and who invents a revolutionary metal that is stronger and lighter than steel; Dagny Taggart is a civil engineer who runs America’s most important railroad.
“Yet it doesn’t stop there. Most of the other strikers are engineers, too (or, to be precise, engineer-entrepreneurs)…”
The essay goes on to document how Rand’s other fiction – from her first novel We the Living to her dystopian-sf cautionary tale Anthem (inducted in 1987 into the Prometheus Hall Fame) and The Fountainhead – also make the “ideology of the engineer” central to her heroic and romantic portraits of individual achievement and human potential.
Saint-Andre asks: “Why was Rand drawn to portraying and celebrating engineers more than any other profession?
The beginning of his careful and nuanced answer:
“It is clear that the act of creating machines, buildings, mines, metals, engines, bridges, railroads, airplanes, and other industrial artifacts appealed to Rand not only philosophically but also aesthetically: the products of the engineering mind prove the practical importance of independent thinking, but according to her quasi-modernistic perspective they are also radiantly beautiful in and of themselves,” he writes.
Saint-Andre’s article, published online on The Savvy Street website, makes its powerful case in part by offering fresh and highly relevant details from Rand’s coming-of-age in Russia in the early 20th century and how her views about engineers evolved within the cultural and scientific developments of that time and place.
Although his nuanced and critical essay draws important distinctions, for example finding some meaningful differences between the realities of engineering as it’s actually practiced and Rand’s fictional portraits of engineers, its overall thrust also celebrates the key role of engineers and other innovators in human progress.
“Rand’s novels (and especially Atlas Shrugged) provide probably the most sustained celebration of engineers and engineering in serious literature, which may in part explain why they are perennial favorites among geeky adolescents and would-be entrepreneurs. If only more of those who admire her novels were the kind of radical innovators she portrays, the world would be a much richer place,” Saint-Andre writes.
A SURPRISING NEW PERSPECTIVE
Personally, even though I’ve read Rand’s complete works as well as about half a dozen biographies of the Russian-American novelist-philosopher over the decades, I found the essay revelatory – and utterly convincing.
I expect that other Libertarian Futurist Society members, even those very familiar with Rand’s works and thinking well, will find it fascinating, too.
Two different essays about Atlas Shrugged have been published on the Prometheus blog as part of the LFS’ recently completed Appreciation series, with review-essays of each of 100 past Prometheus winners explaining why LFS members bestowed our award on that work, how it fits the award’s distinctive libertarian and anti-authoritarian focus and why that work should not be forgotten.
Personally, as an admirer of the first appreciation (by William H. Stoddard) and the author of the second one, I had assumed that, together, these two Prometheus-blog essay-reviews had covered virtually all the relevant bases in how to better understand Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other fiction.
But I have to admit now that I was wrong.
Saint-Andre’s essay fills an important gap in our understanding of Rand and her fiction – and for any of Rand’s fans and any LFS members who wish to expand their appreciation, it’s must-reading.
Note: The Savvy Street, an online magazine of international writers (many of whom write both fiction and non-fiction), has an avowed focus on “translating deep thinking into common sense.”
Its wide range of contributors, several of who have a long association with the ideas of Rand, include libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy (a past Prometheus-Award-ceremony presenter), Mark Tier (editor of two Prometheus Special Award-winning anthologies of libertarian sf), Robert Bidinotto, philosophers Douglas Den Uhl and Douglas Rasmussen, economists Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and libertarians James Bovard, Richard M. Ebeling and Jeffrey Tucker, among many others.
Among other Savvy Street articles related to Rand: The Innovative Symbolism of Ayn Rand’s Literary Style, Ayn Rand’s Intriguing Intellectual History and We the Living Revisited.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:
* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
* Watch videos of the 2022 Prometheus ceremony with Wil McCarthy, and past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.
Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.