Atlas Shrugged Redux – FIRESTAR

(I wrote this blog post in August of 2006 and am reposting here.)

Over two decades ago I read a thought-provoking book – ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand. It’s a book which often seems to elicit passionate responses. If you agree with the points Rand makes, you love it, and probably most of her other stuff (though I haven’t read much else by her myself). If you disagree, well, you find tons of areas to pick away at it, some of it against the author herself, from what I’ve read.

I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the book before I read it. I had heard OF it, of course, but didn’t really know what it was about. What I read was a book about producers and consumers. People who create wealth and people who live off that wealth. I thought it had applications to the time frame in which I read it (early or mid 1990’s) and all the discussion about welfare reform, and also discussion about the tax code. Ronald Reagan and his guard going out, Bill Clinton coming in.

I found myself skimming the book, because of the bad prose and preachiness of parts of it, but I remember thinking that the first chapters set up an intriguing situation with the disappearance of certain influential and intelligent, productive members of society. But I read it to the end, and I still recall what I took away from the story back then. Mostly it said (to me) that a nation shouldn’t penalize its producers for producing. That makes a certain amount of sense on the face of it. There was also an element of what if large amounts of people “took their balls and went home?” In the book there is a backlash to having the fruits of their labor taken from them to support those who won’t (not can’t, but WON’T) work to produce fruits of their own. So those producers get mad and take their balls and leave. Thought provoking concept, if nothing else.

In FIRESTAR, Michael Flynn approaches the near future (the book was written in 1996, so most of this book’s future is already here) with optimism and pessimism. One rich woman, Mariesa Van Huyten (shades of John Galt, perhaps?) is attempting to save the world from itself. She is doing this by contracting, through her corporation’s Mentor subsidiary, to educate the youth of America in select school districts, with the goal of producing quality individuals for tomorrow’s work force. She is also doing it by starting her own space program in Brazil and attempting to develop a space vehicle which can launch itself like an airplane and return to Earth. This in the name of profits, but also because Van Huyten believes that dangers are coming from outer space, likely in the form of some asteroid or another.

In Flynn’s vision, there is no lack of competence on the part of the youth, only a lack of motivation, enthusiasm, and anticipation of a good future for themselves and the world. They are too cynical, too self-absorbed, and too understimulated. All that they need, in this world, is better schools and better teachers. Oh, there is a nod to their social situation with the subplot about a young gang member who can’t break out of his culture, and a nod to their home situations with a subplot about a budding poet who must overcome her mother’s attitudes about school and successful people. But mostly it’s about putting the kids in an environment where they CAN succeed. And of course, most of them do.

As far as the space program goes, there is the expected resistance from other corporations, the general public, and our own government and the tons of regulations they put upon up and coming businesses and ideas, aimed at stifling them and bogging them down and putting them out of business. In one part, Flynn details an account of a landfill which by law must be capped and sealed, but now has become home to ducks and geese and as such is now designated a wetlands. So the corporation, which is ready to cap and seal it, is prevented from doing so by one arm of government while another fines them for not doing it. Overstatement of stupidity, perhaps, but we’ve all heard these types of stories.

It wasn’t such a well-told story, with characters that took a while to really care about and get to know, and plots that seem to take forever to come to fruition, lots of loose ends left hanging, and some odd finishes to others storylines. But it had a very broad scope, taking in years, multiple settings, several plotlines, and a myriad of ideas. This makes it harder, in my opinion, to tell such a story with the same panache as a more focused tale.

The idea that one person can make such a huge difference is intriguing but not terribly believable in today’s society, a decade after Flynn wrote the book. Like John Galt, Mariesa Van Huyten is a mover and a shaker, but its hard to accept that all of her premises would come off so smoothly and be so correct. Only a few miscalculations make it into the story and they end up not being terribly important. Unlike John Galt, however, Mariesa is human enough that her work DOES affect her personal life and something suffers.

I could go on picking away similarities and differences between the characters and their motivations, but I’ll just say that while this was a hard book to finish, it was worth reading in the end, and I sort of wish I hadn’t left it sitting unattended on my shelf for so many years since I bought it off the bargain shelves.