And yet, with the nomination of Paul Ryan, self-professed Ayn Rand buff, for Vice-President of the United States, Rand's Objectivism is back in the news. What no one seems to have noticed is that the VP pick is a big boost for the producers of Atlas Shrugged, Part II, scheduled for release this October. Anyone can read between the lines and see that the Atlas Shrugged series was in trouble: the sequel will have (with the exception of the producers who hold the rights) a completely new cast and crew. Good luck with that.
But instead of beating up on Atlas Shrugged (aspects of which you can read about here, here, and here), I want to consider why the novel's worldview is so seductive to young, naive minds in the same way that LOTR often is. If you don't know the old joke already, it goes something like this:
"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, concerns hobbits."
No, at fourteen I was heavily into Robert A. Heinlein. Even after you start spotting the same crypto-fascist, authorial projection in all of Heinlein's protagonists, and the shameless way that all his villains are invariably straw men easily dispatched by Marcus Brutus Smith or whoever, Heinlein's books were still vastly superior, and, even now, still a great read.
This is because a) Heinlein had a winning style, and b) Heinlein wrote real sci-fi (or at least space opera), instead of paranoid industrialist train fantasies (Rand) or parochial, racialized Little-Englandist fantasies (Tolkien). And c) Heinlein, like Gene Roddenberry, was a total pervert, so a lot of that authorial projection resulted in the hero having sex with as many women as possible. This is also important for securing the fourteen-year-old audience.
What's funny is that Heinlein's fictional ethos was a heavily individualistic one, but much more realistic than Rand's: instead of bloodless industrialists, his heroes are interstellar homesteaders and rogues with just as much distain for corporations as for government bureaucracies (since these are at a certain organizational level the same thing).
Heinlein has more in common with libertarian thought than modern conservatism. Here is just a sample of some of the pithy aphorisms attributed to Lazarus Long, hero of Heinlein's magnum opus Time Enough for Love (I leave it to you, reader, to consider whether these gel with current "conservative" orthodoxy):
"When a place gets crowded enough to require ID's, social collapse is not far away."
"A woman is not property, and husbands who think otherwise are living in a dreamworld."
"God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent -- it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills."
"Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house."
I think the reason that Atlas Shrugged has more influence (aside from its uncritical pro-capitalism and Randian proselytizing) is because it better speaks to the sexual repression you find in a certain strain of conservatism, and to the implicit flattery of those who embrace its premises. If you "get" Objectivism, surely you are made of the same exceptional stuff as John Galt! This is paralleled in pretty much every established religion: if you believe, you are better than the non-believers, and you will be saved, etc.
Heinlein was not one to tolerate cultish nonsense. As Lazarus Long put it: "One man's theology is another man's belly laugh."