Rand’s mind was conditioned in pre-revolutionary Russia and honed in the USA. Having been witness to the bloody birth of Communism, then migrating to the most capitalistic country on Earth, it is no great leap to understand how her mind works; in a nutshell – Socialist bad, Capitalist good. She built an empirical philosophy based on this (which even enjoyed some popular support for a time) but the obvious flaw to her idealistic cause was its undemocratic core (it favours Meritocracy). Even in plutocratic America such radical thought finds little long-lasting purchase. With the dilution of Communism that has taken place worldwide since the book was published in 1957 her dogma could be considered simplistic, idealistic and impractical. That said, Rand does successfully draw attention to some of the flaws that persist in liberal and socialistic thinking and her arguments towards the acceptance of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and a high work ethic, are commonly accepted and adopted today.
The setting is a dystopian USA where an undefined event has caused changes that result in a communist-style government. Orwellian pigs govern from Washington and citizens are brainwashed to become almost drone-like. One message is: ‘There’s nothing of any importance except how well you do your work.’ A handful of capitalists resist and continue to think for themselves. Their use of reason (a now archaic concept) is out of step with the system and they are pressured, marginalised, then effectively nationalised by the bureaucracy. They eschew physical resistance, believing that their most effective retaliation is to ‘withdraw their permission to be governed’, a telling trait of elitism but arguably justified by this worthy point – ‘The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it’. So they just shrug, then withdraw from society causing a lack of commercial leadership and creative initiative. The bureaucrats discover afterwards that without the input of the corporate giants, the economy and thus their very system is in danger of collapsing. They try to encourage, even force them to come back but the response (a very intensive oral citation of Rand’s existing philosophy) is that they will not belong to the prevailing political system. These heroes of capitalism then fly off into the sunset (literally) leaving what remains of America to its inevitable demise.
While ordinary citizens live in fear the industrialists are portrayed as extremely hard-working people with highly intelligent minds who are inventive, productive and virtuous – indeed the ongoing reinforcement of their excellence becomes quite pedantic as the story progresses. They live by high principles that they adhere to in spite of all temptation, persuasion, personal sacrifice and ultimately, torture. Even their selfishness is explained as a practical necessity for survival – ‘…man exists for the achievement of his desires…’ They are so perfect that it is almost impossible not to conjure up Hollywood concepts of square jawed men with tanned, chiselled faces, wearing capes, shouting high ideals from storm-blown mountaintops.
For example, in the case of the four principal male characters, one is a strikingly handsome seaborne pirate who has the altruism of Robin Hood; another is an aristocratic Latin Lothario whose playboy lifestyle is supported by his global mining empire; a third is in the mould of the original Henry Ford (albeit with waves of yellow hair, commonly sun-lit) and finally a mysterious man/myth with the main attributes of all of the above plus the eloquence to deliver a thirty-page panegyric on Rand’s brand of philosophy. The principal female is a liberated traditionalist (if such a doublet can humanly exist) with a family empire, who meets these men on such equal terms that she manages to have sex with three of them. She has a Hepburn face atop a Monroe figure, a natural brain for business, and can win a boardroom battle or swing tools beside her employees as she trail-blazes a railroad across America (I am not exaggerating!) For the record, all bad guys are Machiavellian Vincent Price types who either whine a lot or turn to thuggery while rolling their hands together cackling repeatedly and engaging mad scientists to develop fiendish devices for mass annihilation (only slightly exaggerated.)
However, it is praiseworthy of Rand that these characterisations work for the story. A reader is allowed to get into their heads effectively and understands what makes them behave as they do. Their unshakable passions and beliefs are admirably adhered to in the face of death or dishonour. If one can overlook the fact that they each have the tunnel-vision of, say, Michelle Obama voting in the 2012 presidential election, they’re interesting, engaging, believable and very human. They are even loveable in the sense that one loves despite the faults of the other.
Woven in with the main theme is adventure, drama, relationship trauma, political intrigue and many worthy and consummate examinations of human nature. There is a degree of suspense but the narrative is mostly foreshadowed. Deceit and betrayal, lust and torture, add bite to the variety of angles and dimensions. The socio-political issues raised by the opposing parties are revealing and once one can overlook the bias, the book is an enjoyable experiment with an alternative societal model, employing ingenious fiction in an epic that has an exigent voice.