Atlas Shrugged: Does Not Compute

Atlas Shrugged: Does Not Compute April 1, 2016

Computer

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter IX

As we’ve seen previously, the villains of Atlas Shrugged are strangely reluctant to actually do anything evil. But now that they’ve run out of options, they’ve finally decided to act like villains by torturing John Galt. (Insert “Muahahaha!” laughter here.) It’s all part of their evil master plan to force him to give in to their nefarious demands that he, um, save the world.

OK, look, they’re pretty new at this villainy thing. Maybe they’re still a little unclear on the concept.

They’ve taken him to their base, which sadly isn’t a volcano lair or some sort of skull-themed island, but a subterranean compound beneath the State Science Institute in New Hampshire:

In the cellar room, under the ground, Dr. Ferris, Wesley Mouch and James Taggart sat in armchairs lined up against one wall. A machine that looked like a small cabinet of irregular shape stood in a corner across from them. Its face bore rows of glass dials, each dial marked by a segment of red, a square screen that looked like an amplifier, rows of numbers, rows of wooden knobs and plastic buttons, a single lever controlling a switch at one side and a single red glass button at the other. The face of the machine seemed to have more expression than the face of the mechanic in charge of it; he was a husky young man in a sweat-stained shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbows; his pale blue eyes were glazed by an enormously conscientious concentration on his task; he moved his lips once in a while, as if reciting a memorized lesson.

John Galt is strapped down and connected to the machine by a tangled web of wires and electrodes. Without preamble, Dr. Ferris tells him: “We want you to take full power over the economy of the country. We want you to become a dictator. We want you to rule. Understand? We want you to give orders and to figure out the right orders to give.”

Galt doesn’t answer, so Dr. Ferris gives the order, the mechanic pushes a button, and Galt’s body convulses with an electric shock.

“I understand you’re some sort of electrical expert,” said Ferris, and chuckled. “So are we — don’t you think so?”

…The shocks now came at irregular, unpredictable intervals, one after another or minutes apart. Only the shuddering convulsions of Galt’s legs, arms, torso or entire body showed whether the current was racing between two particular electrodes or through all of them at once. The needles on the dials kept coming close to the red marks, then receding: the machine was calculated to inflict the maximum intensity of pain without damaging the body of the victim.

Galt’s heart is pounding, his body convulsing and drenched in sweat, but he endures the pain in stoic silence, without a scream or even a gasp. The bad guys get increasingly frustrated and keep ordering more and worse shocks (echoing pretty much the exact exchange in TV Tropes about this), until they start fearing that he’ll die before he gives in:

Wesley Mouch was first to break. “Oh God, Floyd!” he screamed. “Don’t kill him! Don’t dare kill him! If he dies, we die!”

“He won’t,” snarled Ferris. “He’ll wish he did, but he won’t! The machine won’t let him! It’s mathematically computed! It’s safe!”

“Oh, isn’t it enough? He’ll obey us now! I’m sure he’ll obey!”

“No! It’s not enough! I don’t want him to obey! I want him to believe! To accept! To want to accept! We’ve got to have him work for us voluntarily!”

“Go ahead!” cried Taggart. “What are you waiting for? Can’t you make the current stronger? He hasn’t even screamed yet!”

This scene buys into the belief that a dedicated-enough person can endure torture indefinitely by sheer strength of will. While this makes for dramatic scenes in fiction, it turns out not to be true at all. Willpower has nothing to do with it; the human mind simply isn’t capable of withstanding certain kinds of compulsion. It’s not difficult for a sufficiently ruthless torturer to break anyone, even though all they’re likely to achieve is making the victim say whatever they believe will make the pain stop.

I wrote about this a few years ago in reference to the Left Behind series, which displays the same erroneous belief. Both that work of fiction and this one use this fallacy for the same reason: as a way to show off their heroes’ more-than-merely-human strength of character, and more importantly, to show the supremacy of their respective ideologies in the face of opposition and oppression. But outside the pages of fiction, there aren’t any superhumans in the real world – neither the Christian version with miraculous fortitude to resist evil, nor the Objectivist version with infinite willpower to shrug off the demands of looters. There’s just us normal humans, and no philosophy or belief system we can adopt will make our fallible psychology infallible.

But before the bad guys can boost the current to life-threatening levels, the torture device suddenly stops working:

Then they realized that the drone of the motor had ceased, too, and that the red light had gone out on the control panel: the current had stopped; the generator was dead.

The mechanic was jabbing his finger at the button, to no avail. He yanked the lever of the switch again and again. He kicked the side of the machine. The red light would not go on; the sound did not return.

“Well?” snapped Ferris. “Well? What’s the matter?”

“The generator’s on the blink,” said the mechanic helplessly.

…The three men were on their feet, crowding behind the machine to stare at its recalcitrant organs. They were acting merely by reflex: they knew that they did not know.

This is another example of how the looters’ competence swings up and down depending on the moment-to-moment needs of the plot. Although it’s not explicit, we’re apparently meant to believe that Dr. Ferris invented this torture device – he calls it a “private research project of mine”, and the text refers to it as the “Ferris Persuader” – and knows how it works. And yet when it breaks down, he seems to have no idea what might be wrong with it. Nor is there anyone else in the entire State Science Institute he could call in to ask. But if they’re all this incompetent, then who built the damn thing?

This is even more inexplicable when you remember that this same State Science Institute, full of mindless drones and ignorant bureaucrats, was somehow able to build the devastating mad-science weapon Project X. Ferris even told Robert Stadler that the energy-transmission formula derived from his work was the crucial step, and once that was discovered, there was “very little difficulty” in doing the rest, and even “a few third-raters” could build the entire installation. But now, given what you’d have to assume is a much simpler device, they’re all clueless.

Admittedly, their plot-driven incompetence allows for this moment:

“Do something!” Ferris was crying to the mechanic. “Don’t just stand there! Do something! Fix it! I order you to fix it!”

… “But I don’t know what’s wrong with it.” The man sighed, bewildered. “I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s the vibrator that’s out of order,” said a voice behind them; they whirled around; Galt was struggling for breath, but he was speaking in the brusque, competent tone of an engineer. “Take it out and pry off the aluminum cover. You’ll find a pair of contacts fused together. Force them apart, take a small file and clean up the pitted surfaces. Then replace the cover, plug it back into the machine — and your generator will work.”

There was a long moment of total silence.

The mechanic was staring at Galt; he was holding Galt’s glance — and even he was able to recognize the nature of the sparkle in the dark green eyes; it was a sparkle of contemptuous mockery.

OK, even I have to grant that’s pretty badass.

It’s a shame that Rand let her philosophy and politics snowball to the point of overwhelming the rest of the book. At her best, when she wasn’t pontificating, she was capable of cool moments like this. One good scene doesn’t redeem the whole rest of this aggressively turgid lecture of a book, but hey, when you’ve been reviewing Atlas Shrugged for three years, you take your pleasures where you can.

Anyway, as if to balance the scales, something truly ridiculous is about to happen. When Galt tells them how to fix the machine, even the dull mechanic (in “the incoherent dimness of his consciousness”) grasps what’s happening, drops his tools and flees the cellar. But James Taggart, furious, lunges for the machine and tries to follow Galt’s directions:

“Jim, hasn’t he had enough? Don’t forget, we have to be careful.”

“No! He hasn’t had enough! He hasn’t even screamed yet!”

“Jim!” cried Mouch suddenly, terrified by something in Taggart’s face. “We can’t afford to kill him! You know it!”

“I don’t care! I want to break him! I want to hear him scream! I want—”

And then it was Taggart who screamed. It was a long, sudden, piercing scream, as if at some sudden sight, though his eyes were staring at space and seemed blankly sightless. The sight he was confronting was within him. The protective walls of emotion, of evasion, of pretense, of semi-thinking and pseudo-words, built up by him through all of his years, had crashed in the span of one moment — the moment when he knew that he wanted Galt to die, knowing fully that his own death would follow.

You’ve got to give Ayn Rand credit: this is the deadliest case of cognitive dissonance in literary history.

When a normal person realizes they’ve said something self-contradictory, they just feel foolish. They may blush with embarrassment, or laugh at themselves, or hastily come up with some self-serving rationalization, or, wonder of wonders, they may even change their mind. But when a Randian character does it, they have a total mental breakdown, like the clunky robots in classic sci-fi that erupt in sparks and keel over when asked to process a logical paradox:

This was the stamp James Taggart had dreaded, from which there was no escape: the stamp and proof of objectivity. “No…” he said feebly once more, but it was no longer the voice of a living consciousness.

He stood for a moment, staring blindly at space, then his legs gave way, folding limply, and he sat on the floor, still staring, unaware of his action or surroundings… It was he who had reached the state to which he had wanted Galt to be reduced.

All that’s missing is the phrase, “Does not compute.”

Stunned and horrified by James’ collapse into catatonia, Dr. Ferris and Wesley Mouch carry him from the room – supposedly to find him a doctor, although the text says that they know instinctively what’s happened to him and have to avoid thinking about it “under peril of sharing his fate”.

Ayn Rand never did grasp that ordinary people don’t base their lives on the strict application of philosophical principles. Even she didn’t do that. As we’ve seen several times in the course of this book, some of her “logical” choices – like smoking, or the affair with a follower – were demonstrably after-the-fact rationalizations of things she wanted to do for non-rational, emotional reasons. Because our rational faculties don’t govern our minds the way an operating system controls a computer, we don’t suffer a mental crash if two of our beliefs are found to contradict each other. If that happens, we can just muddle through until we can come up with something better.

The one other thing to notice about this section is that, conveniently, Rand chooses a torture method that causes no physical damage. The bad guys don’t stretch John Galt on a rack, brand him with hot irons, break his fingers one at a time, or anything else that would leave him scarred or crippled after his rescue. Partly this is because he has to remain angularly handsome so we know he’s the good guy, but more importantly, it’s in line with Rand’s tacit rule that no serious harm can never come to any of her protagonists. If it did, she’d have to confront the question of who would support them, and that’s a dilemma she habitually avoids thinking about. It would be massively ironic if a disabled-and-unable-to-work John Galt was left to slowly starve in the libertarian utopia that he created!

Image credit: Bjarni Juliusson

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