Francisco d'Anconia at one point claims that "There are seven million people in the city of New York, at present." According to Wikipedia, the 1930 population was 6.9 million, the 1940 population was 7.4 million, and the 1950 population was 7.9 million.

Also, traffic lights are still mechanical, as one of them "screeched" while changing. It's seen as very odd - practically unheard-of - for a woman to run a major corporation. These, along with the widespread use of radio and various other facts, seems to suggest the lifestyle of people living in the 1950s (right around the time of the novel's 1957 publication),

That being said, is Atlas Shrugged an "alternative history" of sorts, or is it set in the future (or near future)?

3 Answers 3


Although Rand's writing in Atlas is certainly forward-thinking, I haven't seen much literary evidence of it being set in the future. Everything seems very contemporary 1940s and 1950s. Two exceptions may be futuristic devices such as the Harmonizer (symbolizes a nuclear weapon) and the motor. But everything else seems to be set comfortably in those mid-twentieth-century decades.

Though I do see some evidence of alternative history in that governmental entities are referred to differently, such as "head of state" instead of POTUS, and "the legislature" instead of Congress.


TL;DR: It is meant by author to be set in indeterminable "close future to the reader" time, but can be pegged from textual clues to possibly be set in 1945-1957

As per Objectivism Reference Center's Atlas Shrugged FAQ

4.2 When is the story set in time?

The time setting for Atlas Shrugged is not specified in the novel. It is typically interpreted as being either the near future, or the present in an alternate version of reality. The social mores presented in the story suggest the US in the 1940s and 50s (when Rand was working on the novel), while the economic and political conditions resemble a cross between the early 1900s and a dystopian future.

Rand's own description of the time setting to one fan was as follows:

You ask whether Atlas Shrugged represents the present or the future. The answer is: both. To be exact, the action of Atlas Shrugged takes place in the near future, about ten years from the time when one reads the book. (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 613)

Rand made this comment in 1963, and indicates a shifting timeframe: the novel is always considered to be in the future, regardless of when it is read, and therefore it has no specific time setting other than "near future." Reinforcing this idea of a non-specific time setting, Rand comments on the time setting in The Art of Fiction, saying that "Atlas Shrugged is of no period" (p. 163).

Both the futuristic and alternative history interpretations are discussed by Mimi Reisel Gladstein in her book about the novel, Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind (pp. 40-44), and in Robert Hunt's "Science Fiction for the Age of Inflation: Reading Atlas Shrugged in the 1980s," in the anthology Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy (pp. 85-87).

The FAQ is not official, the ORC is not affiliated with Ayn Rand Institute or any other organization.

However, Conservapedia's Atlas Shrugged Chronology article took the pains to assemble a set of textual clues that place the novel in the years around 1950s.

I won't copy every bullet point of the article (which is worth reading for its painstaking detail), but the reference things such as state of transportation technology (rail vs. air service), telecommunications (phone access vs telegaph, radio vs. TV), cyclotrons, etc...

The most likely span of the years of the great strike is 1945-1957, with the novel's major action taking place in the last three years of this period. This novel, then, qualifies as an alternate history of the United States of America, and of the civilized world. In this version of history, the United States did not intervene in the War of the Reds and the Whites in Russia, and probably did not participate in the First World War. That War probably ended with every country on earth, except America, becoming a Communist state. In addition, prohibition cannot have occurred, because alcoholic drinks flow freely in many settings.

Politically, the United States would have been in the hands of the proponents of Progressivism, which was in fact a potent-enough force in the election of 1912 to field a third party candidate for President (Theodore Roosevelt) who actually out-polled the losing major-party candidate in that race, William Howard Taft.

(they speculate that Mr. Thompson was the anti-Harry-S-Truman based on Rand's own statements).

  • 1
    The movie is apparently set in 2016 but the less is said about the movie, the better.
    – DVK
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 2:17
  • There is a slightly veiled reference to the Soviet Union and to Nazi Germany in the book where a character states that in one major country the state is everything and in another the race is everything, but both are against the individual. It implies that both communism and fascism are known systems of ordering society in the book.
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 4:19

There is no real need to assume an Alternative History. I saw no evidence that Ayn Rand was familiar with this genre or wrote in it. I think that the book represents her perception of the situation of the late 1940s and early 1950s and where she thought it was going. In 1945 the British Labor Party won power and launched the Welfare State, nationalised the Health Service, nationlised coal mines and public transportation - and was heavily supported economically by the United States. Similar things were happening in several other European countries which got American aid under the Marshall Plan.I think that is quite enough to understand where she got the idea of a world of "People's States" getting economic support from the US.

  • 2
    Clearly the book, like many fiction books, is a commentary on real-world society. But it's not literally set in the real world, so this doesn't really answer the question of whether the fictional setting is in the present or the future.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 7:38

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