Atlas Shrugged was undertaken as an expansion and elaboration on the ideas presented in Ayn Rand's previous best-selling novel, The Fountainhead. The themes of individual freedom and the importance of productive creativity would be further expanded on in this subsequent, much longer novel, but in Atlas Shrugged the focus would be more on the whole system than on individual experiences. It is partially the story of a transcontinental railway, but that business's decline is meant to serve as an illustration of what would happen if America embraced the values of moral relativism and communism.
In Leonard Peikoff's introduction to the novel, quotations from Rand's journal show the intention of the author. The theme of the book was to be "What happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike." (ix) What is meant by this is that primary means of production, namely the leaders of business and industry (and in certain cases, art), would refuse to work under a collectivist system which no longer respected property rights, individual freedom, and had come to value human need rather than human achievement. Rand paints a picture of an America rapidly devolving from capitalism into a very authoritarian kind of communism.
Several characters are swept along in this evolution, most importantly Dagny Taggart, the female Operating Vice President of a transcontinental railroad. She slowly begins to see the hopelessness of working under such a government, and she meets several people who have decided to go on strike from this system. John Galt, a brilliant physicist who has created a motor which runs on static electricity from the atmosphere, has founded a hidden valley community in Colorado of like-minded individuals. Their society is bent on destroying the outside world by removing the productive leaders of industry and letting the world's economy grind to a standstill. They are successful, and in the end of the novel John Galt makes a long radio address explaining the errors of the government policies of collectivism and the welfare state. In the end the looter government falls, and Dagny and the rest emerge from the secret valley to rebuild the world under the principles of objectivism.
The novel takes place over the period of only a few years, but it attempts to encompass an entire society in a peaceful communist revolution. There are a great many characters, from the top of society and industry to the lowest day laborers, and the individual experiences are related in order to explain Rand's opinion of the damage the policies of communist and redistributive government can cause to a culture. The people who are most able to produce goods and services, dedicated scientists, and those who can best manage large business concerns are Rand's heroes, and their freedom to produce and "create happiness" are considered moral imperatives. It is a book less about individuals than about ideas, although the story of Hank Rearden (a steel executive) and Dagny Taggart's struggles to maintain their businesses occupy much of the novel. John Galt, the phsysicist and mastermind behind the strike which stopped the motor of the world, is represented as the objectivist superman, who values fair exchange and individual achievement above all other values. It has not been out of print since its appearance in 1957, and is considered "One of the most influential business books ever written" (NY Times).