Atlas Shrugged as Science Fiction
Two Reviews in Astounding, 1958
  

Illuminant by
Robert Wilfred Franson

  

April 2009

  
Atlas Shrugged and Astounding Science Fiction

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand (3d)

Ayn Rand's great novel Atlas Shrugged was published in December 1957 by Random House. It's a hefty book, 1168 pages, and the big hardcover was priced at $6.95. The story is a near-future dystopia, a negative hypothetical or warning prophecy, and therefore at least arguably a kind of science fiction which has been recognized since well before the field was given a name of its own in 1926.

So it's not unusual that such a book should be reviewed in the leading science fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction — which in a couple of years would be retitled Analog with a less prominent but more pointed subtitle: Science Fiction —> Science Fact.

What is very unusual for literary history is that Atlas Shrugged receives two reviews in Astounding. This is not difficult to arrange at a flexible website like Troynovant where space is easily extensible, and in fact we have here some doubled reviews. But in a rigidly scheduled, exactly 162 pages-per-month digest-sized magazine, they simply dare not pay for the luxury of doubled reviews to provide contrasting views. I cannot think of another example, although I suppose I could turn up a few. The standard exceptions are short notices of reprinted books, usually for the first appearance in paperback.
  

The regular reviewer, and the editor

The first review is by P. Schuyler Miller, about 1200 words in Astounding for April 1958. Miller is an old-time minor science fiction author, active as principal reviewer in his monthly column, "The Reference Library": a long-running feature in Astounding.

The second review is by John W. Campbell, Jr., about 700 words in Astounding for July 1958; clearly an answer to Miller's. Campbell is an old-time major science fiction author, of virtually two SF-writing careers: super-science under his own name, and a more subtly emotional style as by Don A. Stuart. He became editor of Astounding in 1938, and is one of the indispensable figures in the development of science fiction.

Campbell occasionally reviews books himself, usually on science or technology. Miller now and then includes in his column guest reviews by well-known figures in science fiction or science.
  

P. Schuyler Miller reviews Atlas Shrugged

P. Schuyler Miller's review of Atlas Shrugged is hostile from the first sentence, and since he considers the novel a rant (a word he uses more than once), he apparently feels entitled to review in a ranting tone. Fundamentally, he considers Ayn Rand a science-fictional outsider: in his own phrase, not one of us:

Since we're one big happy family, we've evolved rules of our own for our kind of society, and the fans don't really raise hell in the mail or at meetings unless someone steps outside and pretends fiction is fact. Because our "world" is farther removed from reality than, say, the world of the mystery reader/writers, our house rules may be a little more artificial and arbitrary. We understand them, and work with them, but it's rare for a rank outsider to blunder in and use a SF theme without showing himself up as a rank greenhorn ...

But they keep on trying, because we have a richly rewarding field here, and now and then there's an Aldous Huxley, a George Orwell, or Olaf Stapledon, or Pat Frank. More often there are Ayn Rands.

There is an error in every single sentence quoted. To refute just the first, Miller's hindsight must have been wearing deeply rose-tinted glasses to forget all the internal conflicts as to what science fiction and its fandom are all about. See Sam Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm and so on.
  

Miller ladles in a number of major plot spoilers, which I won't do here. But his spoiler-free general description is accurate enough:

We're shown a society to which Gresham's law has been applied, so that there is an accelerated down-grading of everything good to the level of the mediocre. Laws are made and rewards allotted on the basis of need, not of worth and performance: the businessman who succeeds because of his own brains and hard work — his competence — must turn over his inventions and most of his business to competitors who can't get it through their heads that bolts need nuts.

Business is corrupt; labor is corrupt; education is corrupt; government compounds the corruption of them all, since it is jockeyed and swayed by them all.

Okay, sure, but kind of extreme, don't you think? Lucky we don't live in a society anything like that.
  

Moving right along, we have the only unqualified praise Miller gives for any aspect of Atlas Shrugged:

... Dagny Taggart, the young woman who singlehanded is holding together the nation's greatest railroad network. Here is the really good part of the book, for Miss Rand has worked hard on getting the "feel" of running a railroad, as she did in getting the architectural background for her earlier, much acclaimed novel, The Fountainhead.

As for pro-capitalism, Miller concedes that Rand has the skill to "meet the special demands of this kind of story", but her prejudices ("blinded by her own bile") won't let it happen. More usefully, he says the novel is overlong: a reasonable complaint, most readers are short-winded; and preachy: very likely for readers who don't wish to engage with ideas. But at the same time he says Rand should have covered more, explained more: the situation outside America, for example, which a number of other readers have felt under-detailed.

A technical point of plotting which a reviewer should appreciate is that of limit. A fiction, like a history, must be limited in scope to be properly imagined and managed. The author selects what is important to her theme; Rand discusses this in various places, including her The Art of Fiction. Jane Austen with her handful of locales in Pride and Prejudice, or Leo Tolstoy in the sweep of War and Peace, might have discussed the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleon as a premonition of the unification of Germany and thus a potential threat to England and Russia; but I'm glad they didn't.

Miller wraps up with a prediction and a put-down, demonstrating that unlike Tiresias, a reviewer blind to what is in front of him is not thereby gifted with prophecy:

... As it is, I doubt that you'll even want the remainders, at the price they'll have to charge. Watch the secondhand stores for a mint copy, with jacket, that someone just could not get through. I rented mine.
  
John W. Campbell reviews Atlas Shrugged

Astounding's editor John W. Campbell, Jr., must have felt compelled to write a more discerning review than had appeared three months before. It's also in "The Reference Library", but sub-headed "Special Review" and signed "JWC, Jr."

Campbell's review is more general than Miller's; he probably figures rightly that most of his readers will have seen the earlier review. He starts off on an entirely different note:

This work is science fiction in the same sense George Orwell's 1984 was. It's about equally bleak, in many respects. But it is, I think, more important; Orwell described what tended to happen. Ayn Rand describes, with powerful accuracy, some of the forces that make disaster happen ... and what the methods used by the destroyers are. The psychological tricks that permit a weak, snide, useless, incompetent to bind the strong and constructive by means of that strength. The story is apparently — at first glance — a study of sociological forces. But unlike any professional sociologists' works, it recognizes that sociology starts at home — with the individual-individual relationship patterns.
  

Thus even a dystopia is made up of individuals. Campbell understands that Rand's vision of American society and its threatened future is embodied in the psychology of her characters, the creative personalities of constructive people but also the destructive and negative qualities of the destroyers. He is impressed by the portrayal of the latter's methods:

The magnificent contribution of Ayn Rand's book is that she has described in unparalleled brilliance of clear detail, exactly what many of those methods are.

She hasn't solved the problem of what to do about those methods; true. But she has done a better job of pointing out, with perfect clarity, the techniques that will drive men into suicidal insanity, than any psychological treatise I've ever seen.

Campbell is clear that the sinews of Atlas Shrugged are psychology, sociology, philosophy. And, hearkening back to his first sentence, he's perfectly willing to call it science fiction and not worry any more about that. His major criticism is really a philosophical disagreement, prompted by his editor's eye for Rand's plot, as to how well the methods of incompetents and moochers actually work, and can those methods be definitively blocked and defeated. That's an issue that's still debated today by those interested in Rand.
  

This is a review that some psychologist or philosopher or old philologist looking down from Olympus — Friedrich Nietzsche, say — would recognize as being about Atlas Shrugged. Campbell doesn't go on about the steel mill and the railroad; Dagny and the bridge; sex, love, and resolution. Of course anyone could have said vastly more about the huge novel; but obviously, Campbell gets it.

Campbell wraps up his review with a little humorous prediction of his own, demonstrating in miniature the great editor's prophetic insight that allowed him to shape science fiction probably more than anyone else, ever:

By the way — this is a book to start on Friday evening. You won't be much good to anyone else until you've been allowed to finish it. It's quite a yarn, as well as a philosophical work.

  

© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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Note, May 2014

Perhaps following the time-tarnished critical tradition that if it's science fiction, it can't be good; and if it's good, it can't be science fiction, Michael S. Berliner's essay "The Atlas Shrugged Reviews" includes no mention in its dozen pages of the above-discussed contemporary reviews in the leading science fiction magazine. Most of his space reasonably is devoted to ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers' infamous, thoughtfully vicious review.

Berliner's essay is included in Essays on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew (2009); I had not seen it when I wrote the discussion above.  — RWF
  


  

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