"I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I shall never live my life for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live his life for mine."
Undoubtedly one of the most controversial, hated, and loved figures of the 20th century, Ayn Rand dedicated her work to promotion of individual rights and rationality over group rights and emotion. The particular way in which she approached this conflict was, itself, a deeply personal and emotional one: her family had suffered considerably during the conversion of Russia to the USSR, and she came to harbor a long, deep resentment against anything that in any way touched upon the "Communism" (I use quotes because what the USSR, or other countries, called Communism wasn't really communism at all, or not for long) that had destroyed her family's livelihood and security.
I first encountered Rand's work through my mother, who was quite a fan for many years, even exchanging letters with Rand and some others in her circle. Because of her enthusiasm, I read several of the novels: Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. I didn't go for We The Living, being forewarned that Things Would Not End Well.
Anthem is by far the punchiest and most compact thing Rand ever wrote, a postapocalyptic tale of collectivism versus individuality that moves quickly to its final conclusion. In many ways, she makes all her key statements in Anthem and someone who doesn't want to wade through the larger novels but does want to actually read something she wrote could read Anthem easily in an afternoon. It's also a very pure SF story of the classic Golden Age in several ways, and was of course the inspiration for Rush's classic rock concept album 2112.
The Fountainhead was Rand's "breakout" novel, and somewhat interesting simply for the fact that it chooses to paint a conflict of high ideals in the area of architectural design, not a common arena for dramatic confrontation in literature. I didn't like The Fountainhead as much as the other two, though, because it lacks the compact directness of Anthem or the more interesting world and sometimes characters of Atlas Shrugged. What The Fountainhead did offer was one of the most creepy and chilling villains ever written, the apparently-harmless Ellsworth Toohey, one of the most diabolically understated depictions of an arrogant sociopath I've ever seen. None of the characters in The Fountainhead are entirely sympathetic, unfortunately, and the best of them is probably the flawed businessman Gail Wynand, but Toohey shows so much darkness – in a completely urbane, quiet, and subtle manner – that he allows the others significant contrast.
It was Atlas Shrugged, however, that was to be Rand's magnum opus, and it worked for me. It's hard to escape being bombarded with the flaws of the work these days, especially since those who react against it aren't interested in being even-handed, and thus select and depict elements of it in the worst possible light.
Atlas Shrugged is not, however, just a political polemic or a paen to unbridled selfishness – though they're certainly part and parcel of the whole. Atlas Shrugged is an alternate-history pulp adventure novel on a grand scale, a tale of a world in which things are falling apart even as they seemed poised for greatness. It's a Golden-Age tale of the collapse of civilization and the search for a rational answer to seemingly irrational in the world, a quest tale to find the hidden secrets behind disaster, and a celebration of the power of the human intellect – and the dangers that intellect, and its emotions, can create.
Atlas Shrugged is at its heart an adventure tale with its roots in the early part of the 20th century; Rand's personal history, her fascination with adventure tales from her youth, and her devoted, focused desire to force sense onto the world combined to allow her to tell a tale of two forces in collision: the indomitable inventiveness of the human mind, and the relentless forces of control and oppression. It is interrupted occasionally by polemic, yet if you ignore the more egregious interruptions, it flows fast. It is a massive book, but I read it in only a couple of days because the pace is maintained throughout, from the opening "Who is John Galt?" to the ending of the novel.
The appeal of Rand's philosophy is, to me, trivially obvious, though not quite the same as the parody that usually gets repeated. Her basic belief is that individuals have every right to choose all aspects of their behavior, and the responsibility for them. The logic then continues that rationally-acting people will rationally work with each other on an equal-exchange basis.
Rand did not, contrary to many statements, say there was anything wrong with supporting others – only that there was something wrong with being FORCED to do so, or being made to feel OBLIGATED to do so when those being helped evinced no appreciation for, or return for, that help. Hank Rearden was not shown as being wrong for supporting his family; his family was wrong in that they showed no gratitude or support for the efforts he made. In a Randian sense, I go to work and produce value, for which I am paid, and I support my wife, who doesn't make money, because she gives me emotional support, comfort, and physically maintains my house and the rest of the family. There is an equal exchange between us that makes this a cooperative venture, even if only one of us "works" in the conventional sense.
For many years, I believed in Rand's ideals. There is something extremely powerful about the idea of living one's life in a world where everyone uses long-term rational self-interest to make decisions, and it's a sensible idea, especially for the young. It makes perfect sense that if you want a civilized, functional world, you just have to THINK straight, and everyone who THINKS about stuff will naturally come to the same conclusion, right?
As an antidote and reaction to the Communist takeover she experienced, and the extreme socialist/communist movements she saw elsewhere, Ayn Rand's philosophy also makes sense. It does, however, fail miserably in the real world, for the exact same reasons that most one-size-fits-all philosophies or belief systems fall apart: it doesn't actually allow for people to behave like, well, real people.
Where communist and socialist approaches have the problem that real people don't like to do more or better work, in general, without getting more or better rewards, Rand's individualism collapses because real human beings are equally emotional as rational beings, and because for her envisioned society of rationality to work, people have to be near-100% informed about all the consequences of their actions, and there have to be no questions about those consequences. If there are questions – uncertainties – suddenly there is no one correct answer, which means that even your perfectly rational actors will come into conflict when one decides the likely answer to the problem is X and another decides the likely answer is Y.
Human beings are, of course, far from 100% informed; even the best-educated people in the world can't know enough about ALL branches of human endeavor to make decisions that have no uncertainties. More importantly, people don't, and often cannot, recognize the emotional components in many of their decisions; often, even if they do recognize how their emotions affect their decisions, they still don't find it practical to change their decisionmaking.
We are also, as Robert Heinlein observed, "… not a rational animal, but a rationalizing animal." It is all too easy for any of us to think of reasons that justify our behavior and decisions, usually for emotional or short-term purposes, and our subconscious is even better at this than most of us realize. Ayn Rand herself was a mass of contradictions in her behavior; she could not live her life entirely according to her beliefs, yet to fail to do so would have wounded her deeply… so she became an absolute master of denial in crucial areas. Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand depicts this powerfully flawed personality clearly and reasonably sympathetically.
I still have a strong bias towards the ideal of Rand's philosophy. It would be nice to believe that everyone could just sit down, think reasonably, and come to the right conclusions and resolve all world problems through our rational self-interest… but it's not happening.
The novel Atlas Shrugged itself, though, is still a hell of a read for me. You don't have to agree with Rand to enjoy the book, any more than I have to agree with having faith in the divine powers of providence in order to enjoy Lord of the Rings. For the purposes of a science-fiction novel – and Atlas Shrugged is very much a pulp-SF novel in many ways – all you need do is allow her premises for the purposes of the story. It's very much a Van Vogtian story, complete with a philosophy of thought and action that makes the user a superior being, with a powerful, overarching adversary whose individuals are inferior but whose numbers are beyond count, with strange super-science gadgets and mysterious figures whose motivations are not clear until the mystery is ready to be revealed, chase scenes and disasters and heroic rescues.
Give it a try sometime. You have permission to skip the long speeches, really; if you're used to reading fiction, you'll pick up all the points in them along the way anyway!