11 December 2010


Locus Focus: Take Thirty-One!

A good setting is more than just a backdrop!
Join us every Saturday as we write about our favourite settings
and the books that make them come alive!

In case you haven't already noticed the change in the sidebar, Wild Card Month is going to get a little wilder. Join our reprise of Narnia Day on 25 December. (I'll be doing it properly this time, with invitations!) And if you like planning ahead, note that 8 January is for our "Worlds of Tomorrow" challenge. We'll be looking at time settings then: how writers through the years have imagined the future.

But now let's get back to the present . . . via the very recent past.

When I ended last week's Locus Focus post (See Take Thirty) with a reflection that one cannot expect to see the mind of man reflected in a cityscape, I knew that was someone who would disagree entirely. And so, within an hour of finishing my draft, I rescued my copy of her most lauded novel from ignominious storage and started skimming through it again for a setting that would let me fit this week's locus into the jigsaw puzzle piece of last week's post . . . because I like connections and continuity like that.

New York City
Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand

There were not many lights on the earth below. The countryside was an empty black sheet with a few occasional flickers in the windows of some government structures, and the trembling glow of candles in the windows of thriftless homes . . . The towns were like scattered puddles, left behind by a receding tide, still holding some precious drops of electricity, but drying out in a desert of rations, quotas, controls and power-conservation rules.

But when the place that had once been the source of the tide--New York City--rose in the distance before them, it was still extending its lights to the sky, still defying the primordial darkness, almost as if, in an ultimate effort, in a final appeal for help, it were now stretching its arms to the plane that was crossing the sky.

My first thought was that nobody reads Ayn Rand for setting. We crack open her novels for the philosophy, whether we agree with it or not, because she herself wrote them for the philosophy. But then I remembered "Galt's Gulch"--the Heaven Atlantis founded by her demi-god characters--and her own startlingly naked desire to follow them into it and live there forever . . . And I realised that her settings were worth another look.

It would be too poetic--and entirely inaccurate--to say that Rand considered New York City to be the heart of America. But she certainly saw it as the motor of America, a centre of ambition, production, achievement, and success, as emblematised by its defiant skyscrapers. So it makes sense that in her epic novel about a man determined to "stop the motor of the world," all roads would lead to New York City, which is also the capital of her universe.

This universe contains three classes of people: the great men who build things, the evil men who try to tear them down, and the little men who go with the flow, not comprehending the incredible struggle waged about them. Theoretically, Rand could have set Atlas Shrugged anywhere . . . but of course she wanted the skyscrapers, which are proof that her great men are in residence. The great men inevitably attract the evil men (who pour in from Washington D.C.--LOL!), while the economic opportunities draw the little men as well. Note that Rand is adamant that this final group is not a serf class . . . but of course it is.

For what are her great men of industry, if not a new brand of fuedal lord? (I don't say that to be insulting. I'm rather fond of feudal lords.) They don't attach their names just to their factories and products, but also to the whole towns which spring up around those factories when they begin production. (More settings!) And Rand makes it clear that every great brand and whatever has made it possible come together in one great man--just as whole houses, offices and regions of Europe used to come together under great names that a different man would have to live up to in each generation. Quibble about the niceties all you want: capitalist lords mean capitalist serfs.

Indeed, the most lordly response to New York City that I could find comes from the character who singlehandedly resurrects a dead steel plant and gives new hope to the dying community surrounding it: a man who puts his name--the equivalent of a standard or coat of arms--on everything he touches. A capitalist king.

It seemed to him that the skyline of New York, when it rose before him, had a strangely luminous quality, though its shapes were veiled by distance, a clarity that did not seem to rest in the object, but felt as if the illumination came from him. He looked at the great city with no tie to any view or usage others had made of it, it was not a city of gangsters or panhandlers or derelicts or whores, it was the greatest industrial achievement in the history of man, its only meaning was that which it meant to him, there was a personal quality in his sight of it, a quality of possessiveness and of unhesitant perception, as if he were seeing it for the first time . . .

I'm almost sorry to be quoting that here, as it's some of Rand's worst prose--and I'm looking beyond the run-on sentence as I say that. But it's also useful for illustrating her idea of lordship. A great man looks at a great city he did not build and concludes that it is he who is to give it its meaning--if not its name. Never mind that it already has a name--and forget about the meek inheriting the earth. In this world, the cities have always belonged to the great.

But how do our great lords deal with a once-great, now-beaten city that is making "a final appeal for help . . . stretching its arms to the plane that was crossing its sky"?

Looking down, they could see the last convulsions: the lights of the cars were darting through the streets, like animals trapped in a maze, frantically seeking an exit, the bridges were jammed with cars, the approaches to the bridges were veins of massed headlights, glittering bottlenecks stopping all motion, and the desperate screaming of sirens reached faintly to the height of the plane. The news of the continent's severed artery had now engulfed the city, men were deserting their posts, trying, in panic, to abandon New York, seeking escape where all roads were cut off and escape was no longer possible.

The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realise that the panic had reached the power stations--and that the lights of New York had gone out.

And if you want to know how New York City goes from that "strangely luminous quality" to utter darkness . . . you can either read the book or ask me. =) I won't stop you from reading it if you want to, but neither will I torture you if you'd rather not.

Now it's your turn!
Leave the link to your Locus Focus post in the linky
and take some time to check out and comment on those of others.
I can't wait to read what everyone has to say! =D

This Week's Other Locus Focus:

William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County @ Birdie's Nest

Image Source: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand


Birdie said...

VERY interesting.
Atlas Shrugged is one of those I've been *meaning* to get to for AGES. I now have a stronger incentive! Thanks.

Oh, sorry my LF this week is such a downer--I seem to be in the middle of a rather melancholy fit

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't put Atlas Shrugged back in storage when I was done skimming through it, and now I reread a little more every night. =P It's not an easy or leisurely reread by any means, but it's interesting to approach it again after over ten years. Ayn Rand was a very intelligent woman (which, tragically enough, didn't keep her from being mistaken); but when she wrote this last novel, she was running on the fumes of her own passion.

If you do get around to it, please let me know what you think!

Lesa said...

I've not read any Ayn Rand but that sounds interesting and a bit scary with the city going dark. The few times I've seen Rand mentioned and praised on blogs, the bloggers seemed to be extreme in their political views-- didn't know if Rand would be my cup of tea.

Enbrethiliel said...


Lesa: Ayn Rand is very extreme. If you really want to check her out, I suggest her earlier novel The Fountainhead. By the time she started writing Atlas Shrugged, she was already a little crazy with her own self-importance. The book was not submitted to an editor at all (because Rand thought she was too good for editing)--and if you've read both the official release and the unedited version of The Stand by Stephen King, you'll know why that kind of hubris on the part of a writer can really kill a book.

I should have written in my post that Rand is read for the philosophy and the politics. But she makes a pretty awful psychologist, and it shows in her characters. I can't really recommend her, I'm afraid. =S