Atlas Shrugged as an alternate reality tale

Some readers new to Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged find the setting to be disconcerting. The novel purposely does not name the years in which it takes place, but there’s more to it than that.

Certain cultural references seem to be from the late 1920s or the 1930s American pop culture, throw-away details like a tagline on a movie poster, or the smallness of the society of the literary and cultural elite.

Others come from later, like the fact that television is common.

And others clearly indicate, from the viewpoint of the year the book was published, that it was meant to be in the future.

This was all by design.

While she was writing The Fountainhead, which is set in a very specific timeframe (1921-1940, give or take), Rand’s friend and fellow writer Isabel Paterson insisted that she cut out all references to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, and not to include any references to the European situation sliding toward war. The purpose was to let the novel be seen more clearly for what it is: a timeless story, rather than a critique bound to a contemporary conversation. There are many cultural details that are spot-on for the time period, but nothing that acts as an anchor on the book’s themes, nothing to let the snide dismiss it as “simply an anti-FDR book”.

When she set out to write Atlas Shrugged, Rand explicitly decided to set the story in her own universe, a world over which she had total control, not bound by a time or set of fashions in even the slightest detail. So she took Paterson’s suggested technique that much further.

(I find it fascinating that Rand, so devoted to reality, was so disdainful of realism in fiction. Yes, she had her reasons, which she explained a number of places, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she kept pulling her fiction into an ideal world, away from the dirty “naturalistic” one. But that’s a post for another time, perhaps.)

So Atlas’s background is intentionally left to the reader’s imagination except insofar as it is important to the plot.

I submit, however, that these choices place the novel pretty clearly in a fascinating alternate history.

(Rand would detest the term, especially as it is associated with science fiction, a genre she disdained. And yet two of her four novels are clearly science fiction, even if she would have been indignant at the label. But I digress.)

Look at what is missing. None of the characters makes any reference to a great war of any kind. World War II impacted everyone in the nation in ways that are almost impossible to comprehend today. There was nationwide rationing of food and fuel, to begin with. A striking percentage of men served in the military. The economy, in awful shape during the Great Depression (due in large part to FDR’s many attempts to “fix” it, in fact), got even worse during the war, of necessity. (If you’re shipping tons of food off to the boys overseas, those are tons that are not getting eaten at home. Hence the rationing.)

The US culture for at least fifteen years was utterly shaped by everybody’s experience of WWII.

Such a culture-shaping event is totally absent from the lives and histories of the characters in Atlas.

There also seems to have been no Great Depression. The world is experiencing one at the time of the story, but before that there was prosperity, and no mention of having been in a similar downturn before.

In fact, there was not even a World War I. I’m on shakier ground here, but I believe this is a solid inference from the textual evidence.

The world situation is largely ignored in the novel, outside of Francisco d’Anconia’s Argentinian background, and his San Sebastian Mines project in Mexico. The relatively rare references to the world outside the USA make clear that all other countries are “People’s States”, variations on communist totalitarianism. And while no sense of a timeline for this happening is given, it appears to have been the situation for at least the adult lifetimes of the characters in the book. Any revolutions have been over and done with long enough that they don’t get commented upon.

Given that the nations of the world all seem to have fallen from within (again, no reference to war is made that I can recall), and that it seems to have been the case for some time, it seems reasonable to infer that, instead of a “war to end all wars”, something else happened between the turn of the Twentieth Century and the 1930s. A wave of revolutions, ending in People’s States, perhaps most happening within the same year, as with 1848.

In any case, if such revolutions took place across the globe, rather than the Great War, then the proximate causes of WWII are removed from history, and the energy spent in destroying other nations and peoples seems to have been turned into a series of self-destructions.

This also goes to explain the most glaring absence in the book. You see, for a book that was begun in the autumn of 1946, one that was intended to change the world, it is distinctly odd that there is no atomic bomb, nor nuclear energy.

It’s not like Rand was ignorant of it. Who, in 1946 America, could be? But more than that, Rand spent considerable time researching and outlining a screenplay for Hal Wallis on the Manhattan Project, the secret effort that led to the atom bomb. She certainly could have included it in some fashion in the book, but chose not to.

It’s a bit of a shame that the Ayn Rand estate is so harsh about fan fiction, because there would seem to be a myriad of stories one could write against this alternate history. Citizens on vacation abroad when revolution cascades across the globe is just the first thing to come to mind. I’m sure much, much more could be mined from it, as well.