Atlas Shrugged: Motor City

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter IX

Up till now, Atlas has positioned itself as a novel set in the real world. Whatever you may think about its author’s opinions on politics, economics or human nature, however implausible you find some of her plot developments, it tells a story that could at least conceivably happen. But that’s about to change in a big way, as our heroes are poised to discover the MacGuffin that’s going to shape the rest of the book.

“Hank,” she said suddenly, “could we go to a place I’d like to see?”

“Sure. Anywhere. Which place?”

“It’s in Wisconsin. There used to be a great motor company there, in my father’s time. We had a branch line serving it, but we closed the line – about seven years ago – when they closed the factory…”

“I’ll find it. What was the name of the factory?”

“The Twentieth Century Motor Company.” [p.264]

After three days of driving through back country, Hank and Dagny find the shell of the factory. It rises like a castle on the crown of a hill in the middle of a derelict, half-wild village. Once, that town was where the factory workers lived; now most of it is abandoned, reverting to forest. The few people who are still there live like medieval peasants among the rusting remains of modern technology, getting around in horse-drawn carts and drawing water by hand from wells.

The inhabited houses were scattered at random among the ruins; the smoke of their chimneys was the only movement visible in town. A shell of concrete, which had been a schoolhouse, stood on its outskirts; it looked like a skull, with the empty sockets of glassless windows, with a few strands of hair still clinging to it, in the shape of broken wires. [p.265]

The road leading to the factory is ruined and impassable, and the people of the town are all dull and incurious and can’t suggest any alternate directions. But after much trial and error, “two miles and two hours later”, they make it to the front door of the factory:

A rusted padlock hung on the door in the main entrance, but the huge windows were shattered and the place was open to anyone, to the woodchucks, the rabbits and the dried leaves that lay in drifts inside…

They stopped in the great hall where a ray of light fell diagonally from a gap in the ceiling, and the echoes of their steps rang around them, dying far away in rows of empty rooms. A bird darted from among the steel rafters and went in a hissing streak of wings out into the sky. [p.268]

If I’m lingering longer than usual on the plot in this post, it’s because I have to admit this section is pretty effective. I’m fascinated by the idea of what would happen to society without human beings to maintain it – how the artifacts of civilization would rust, decay and disappear. (I read The World Without Us and loved it.)

I’ve always thought that pictures of urban decay and ruin have a kind of desolate gorgeousness of their own, and in fairness to Ayn Rand, her description of the abandoned factory and its environs is quite evocative and hauntingly beautiful. Although, also in fairness to Rand, that may not have been the effect she was aiming for – she compares Dagny walking through the factory to “having to perform an autopsy on the body of one’s love”.

It was in a room of what had been the laboratory that she stopped. It was a coil of wire that made her stop. The coil protruded from a pile of junk. She had never seen that particular arrangement of wires, yet it seemed familiar, as if it touched the hint of some memory, faint and very distant…

It was the broken remnant of the model of a motor. Most of its parts were missing, but enough was left to convey some idea of its former shape and purpose. [p.269]

Dagny finds a sheaf of yellowed paper describing the motor, reads it, and screams for Hank. He comes in a hurry, thinking she’s hurt, but it’s a different emotion that’s gotten her so agitated:

“It was the coil that I noticed first – because I had seen drawings like it, not quite, but something like it, years ago, when I was in school – it was in an old book, it was given up as impossible long ago…

“Those men, long ago, tried to invent a motor that would draw static electricity from the atmosphere, convert it and create its own power as it went along. They couldn’t do it. They gave it up.” She pointed at the broken shape. “But there it is.”

Just so we’re clear on this, this motor as Rand describes it is impossible. Notice that Dagny says it can “create its own power”, and calls it “a self-generator… with no limits to its energy” [p.270]. In other words, it’s a perpetual motion machine.

Human beings have been trying for centuries to invent machines that run forever with no external power source, or that produce more energy than they consume. The quest for free energy has produced all kinds of gadgets: unevenly balanced wheels, contraptions with magnets, self-turning waterwheels, cars that run on water, and so on. (Rand’s vague gesture toward “static electricity” makes her motor sound more like another perennial perpetual-motion candidate, the Brownian ratchet.)

But as clever and ingenious as their inventors were, all of these designs failed; every one of them has some ineliminable, fatal flaw. The consensus opinion of physicists is that this isn’t just because we’re not clever enough: it’s because a perpetual motion machine would have to violate one or more fundamental laws that are built into the fabric of the universe. Try as we might, the laws of thermodynamics can’t be cheated. But Ayn Rand seems to disagree. Her belief, apparently, is that the only thing that impeded all those past inventors is that they didn’t love capitalism enough.

Now, I’m not saying that perpetual motion can’t exist in fiction. It’s certainly possible to write a novel where someone invents a machine that produces free energy, and to explore the ramifications of that discovery. But that’s where the purpose of this book starts to blur strangely. Is Atlas Shrugged a political treatise, using allegory to advance the real-world principles that its author advocated, or is it a science fiction story describing how an imaginary innovation would transform human society?

Most of this book leads us to believe the former, but the impossible motor suggests the latter. And that’s cheating.

If a Marxist author wrote a novel about an imaginary communist utopia with no economic competition and no private property, and depicted that society as possessing a perpetual-motion machine that could power all its industry for free, capitalists would say (and rightly) that this was unfair; that the author was pulling magic out of his back pocket to mask the inevitable problems such a society would inevitably have in reality. But later in this book, when we meet the inventor of this motor and his secret capitalist society in the mountains, we’re going to find out that Rand relies on exactly the same sleight of hand to make her imaginary utopia function.

Image: Industrial ruins, via Shutterstock

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The New Feudalism
Atlas Shrugged: L'Etat, C'Est Moi
Atlas Shrugged: The Problem of Original Property
Atlas Shrugged: The Lilies of the Field
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.