It's not the heroes of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957), nor its peculiar human simulacra, nor its polemical message that make it such an influential book, still a perennial best seller after 60 years (800,000 copies/year). According to a Library of Congress poll, Atlas Shrugged is the second most influential book after the Bible, at least in America.
It's the villains.
Like many others, I came across the book at the perfect age and in perfect circumstances — I was 13, working summers in my father's company, just like Dagny Taggart. I had no notion of political flavors, had never heard the term “libertarian” (much less “objectivism”), and was as stunned by the length of John Galt's speech as anyone would be, but I still found the book absolutely fascinating.
At the same time I was well down the road of total immersion into what science-fiction and fantasy was available in the mid-1960s. I read it all, and when I say that, I really mean that I bought everything in the genres that was available in paperback. Everything. Thus began a habit that has run to hundreds of books per year for five decades (somewhat fewer during the dark days of New Age…).
I recently participated in a Facebook discussion where people were asked to name the most influential SFF book they read, and I suggested Atlas Shrugged. It's nominally set in the future (from 1957) even though it's not a standard genre specimen. While some agreed, others spouted the usual objections: paper characters, flawed plot, debatable ethics, and so forth.
I've never understood the visceral hatred for the book from some people. Sure, it has plenty of flaws, and it's message fiction which is generally objectionable. But no one has ever suggested it was a perfect book — why does it bear some special burden for perfection as compared to, say, Frank Herbert's Dune, or Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan?
What the detractors don't care for, I've come to believe, is Rand's depiction of the villains, the various wreckers of civilization. They are many and various, and they range from journalists, scientists, industrialists, bureaucrats, and politicians to ordinary people — wives, parents, strangers.
We see these same villains every day in the news. They couldn't be more familiar to us, now.
That must be unbearable to some people. Some scene will feature one or more of the these villains mouthing the same pious elite words that seek approval today, and Rand makes it perfectly obvious just how little good faith is involved and how clearly and comprehensively these policies lead to disaster. As a bonus, she illustrates the resentment that is the underlying motive for many of them.
Other SFF authors (Mil SciFi comes to mind) have dwelt upon a limited subset of these people, in the context of a (military) bureaucracy gone mad, but no one has been so thorough and wide-ranging and… accurate as Rand.
I reread the book every few years, and the villains become ever more non-fictional. The heroes may not be 100% convincing, but the villains certainly are. I'd be delighted if I could make my own villains half as compelling.