The technology of Atlas Shrugged: 1950s techno-futurism in a mishmash of capitalism.
Ayn Rand’s dystopian epic Atlas Shrugged is a controversial novel known for its espousing of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, an interpretation of radical capitalism. One of the main themes of Atlas Shrugged is that without the freedom of science and technology development, capitalism cannot function. In the plot of Atlas Shrugged, the ubermenschen industrialists who run the world are discouraged by crony socialism to the point of refusing to give up their fantastical technologies to the public sector, and going on strike.
While disorganized at first, striking magnates eventually begin withdrawing from society altogether, fleeing to a utopian hamlet known as Galt’s Gulch. In Galt’s Gulch, we see a wide variety of advanced technologies that are unknown to the outside world. Given that Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957 and referred to a very near future, how much of the technology of Atlas Shrugged could exist today?
Rearden Metal is Probably Not Necessary
To set the stage for the novel’s discussion of novel technologies, a quick summary of what the novel considers as modern is in order. The characters of Atlas Shrugged haven’t yet gotten the memo that cigarettes cause cancer, and smoke like chimneys amidst swanky leather chairs in a fashion deeply reminiscent of the Rat Pack. From this, we can infer that medical technology is from roughly around the era of the book’s publication. If anything, the world of Atlas Shrugged seems to be a hybrid of the 1930s and the 1960s. Television exists, but has not overtaken radio as the dominant mass media, nor has radio overtaken newspapers. The economic environment is dreary, and shows little sign of improvement.
As far as travel goes, the America of Atlas Shrugged loves taking the train. Trains and the metal of train tracks are the focus of much of the novel’s conflict, and it seems as though the US has trains from any two destinations. Private cars and jet planes also exist, but neither are as ubiquitous as in our reality. Two of the protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are deeply involved in the train system. Dagny is an executive at one of the dominant railroad companies, whereas Rearden is a steel magnate responsible for the creation of a novel alloy named Rearden Metal.
Rearden Metal is the first example of advanced technology in Atlas Shrugged. Rearden Metal is lighter and stronger than normal steel. Though it is more expensive when first invented, its price is driven down until it is cheaper than normal steel. The price and quality of Rearden Metal eventually disrupts the market for steel, causing Dagny’s railroad company to buy tracks of superior quality from Rearden. Eventually, the socialist American government insists on knowing the recipe for Rearden Metal, causing a major conflict.
Rearden Metal isn’t so fantastical. It’s entirely possible to create metals that are lighter and stronger than steel. Where Rearden Metal is a bit of a stretch is in its cheapness. It’s highly unlikely that a more sophisticated alloy would also be cheaper than a less sophisticated one like steel. This is one of the many reasons that in the present day, our railroad tracks are still made of regular steel. No need to over-engineer a problem that has already been solved.
Galt’s Unlikely Gulch
When the industrialists go on strike against the socialistic government, they flee society and go to Galt’s Gulch, named after its founder, John Galt. Anyone familiar with Atlas Shrugged will know the ubiquitous phrase spoken by the characters, “Who is John Galt?”. John Galt is another of Ayn Rand’s ubermenschen. A philosopher-physicist, John Galt has a variety of inventions which make his small settlement self-sufficient. The most ridiculous of these inventions is also his greatest: a device which harvests ambient static electricity and converts it to useable power.
Aside from no air possibly having enough static electricity to provide a stable current for household purposes, Galt’s static electricity harvester seems to be created with the humblest of materials which would be available in a rural mountain area. I rate it completely implausible.
Galt’s lab, biometrics, and Refractor Rays
Instrumental to Galt’s Gulch remaining hidden from pesky socialists is the settlement’s cloaking device, which is referred to as its “refractor rays”. The main purpose of the device is to hide the settlement from airplanes which fly overhead. It’s unclear exactly how it works, but it’s effective enough that it causes Dagny to crash her airplane while attempting to land. It’s highly likely that the cloaking device is merely a sophisticated optical illusion made more believable by the settlement itself being obscured by tall trees and brush. As such, it could probably exist, although in the present day it wouldn’t prevent detection by a sophisticated searcher equipped with infrared cameras, as are common in law enforcement aircraft. Perhaps John Galt would have to engineer an infrared cloaking device as well.
Far from being addicted to large projects alone, John Galt is also notable for designing voice recognition and handprint readers, both of which he uses to control access to important areas, particularly his laboratory. Remarkably, Galt manages to do these feats without computers, although with a charitable interpretation of the book we can conclude that he would probably have invented the necessary electronics as well. Of course, we are well-acquainted with biometric systems and voice identification in our reality.
What is less familiar is the self-destruct mechanism that Galt invented for his laboratory.
When one of the biometric locks for Galt’s laboratory is forced open or broken, the contents of the laboratory instantly turn to dust. My first suspicion is that it works via explosives, but there is no mention of a violent disintegration in the book. Instead, it’s possible that Galt designed a system of chemical sprinklers which cause chemical reactions with the lab components. Once again, this seems like over-engineering of a problem that is solved by explosives in our reality.
Phillip K. Dick’s novel The Man In The High Castle depicts a dark alternative future in which the Axis powers beat the Allies in World War 2. In the history of The Man In The High Castle, the United States of America as we know it has been disbanded and split into three occupied territories: the Pacific States of America, occupied by Imperial Japan, the United States of America, occupied by Nazi Germany, and the Rocky Mountains buffer zone, with sparse shared occupation. [Click here to read more…]
The Ferris Persuader and Project X
While most of the novel’s technological ingenuity is the result of John Galt or Rearden, there are a couple exceptions. The government of Atlas Shrugged’s America is socialist, and quite evil. As a result of being evil, they have developed a device that they fall the Ferris Persuader, which seems to be a machine that tortures people via electrical shocks as they are strapped into its chair. Thankfully, the Persuader breaks down during its first attempted use. I rate this technology as completely realistic, considering that electroshock is a torture technique currently.
Aside from the Ferris Persuader, the government also attempts to develop a sonic weapon under the heading of Project X. The weapon is clearly meant to approximate a weapon of mass destruction. The novel is unclear about exactly how Project X works, but the weapon is never used. It’s difficult to say whether Project X is plausible or not, but I think it’s quite likely another over-engineered solution. Nuclear weapons are the de-facto weapons of mass destruction in our time, and are unlikely to be supplanted.
Big imagination meet small reality
On the whole, Ayn Rand seems to have been very high minded as far as technology of Atlas Shrugged goes. Rand trusted that humanity would be able to come up with technologies which were superior to the standards of her day, but neglected to consider the potential that would speak even higher of humanity: in the 1950s, humanity had already invented many of the “best solutions” to the problems she considered. The result of her miscalculation is an account of technologies which are either irrelevant, banal to us, or completely fantastical. With that being said, it’s clear that realism wasn’t Rand’s strong point.
Featured Images: Atlas Shrugged Movie / Rocky Mountain Pictures