First, a confession: I have not read (much of) Atlas Shrugged. The damn thing is nigh unreadable. But this minor obstacle should not deter me from talking about it, right?
TL;DR: Musk is a modern-day John Galt without the worst of Rand’s literary theatrics (but, of course, with plenty of his own), and Musk’s perspective Mars colony is closer to the Utopian Galt’s Gulch than to most other visions of extraterrestrial human colonies, save maybe for the lunar colony in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Now, the comparisons. Galt’s Gulch is a remote isolated Utopia where John Galt assembled the best and the brightest and it runs on “enlightened self-interest” that just happens to allow everyone to coexist in peaceful harmony, isolated from the petty politics and failed “public good”-based government intervention in the rest of the world.
Musk’s terms and conditions are quoted as
For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.
Basically, the two near-universal Utopian principles,
a) freedom from a generally malevolent/misguided/corrupt external authority and
b) the enlightened citizens resolve all the conflicts peacefully and “in good faith”, are prominently on display in both. I don’t know how much, if any, influence Atlas Shrugged had on Elon Musk, maybe it’s just all Utopias converge to the same set of rules, but the similarities are pretty striking, once you remove the artsy fluff like the struggle for the heart and soul of Dagny Taggart.
As Utopias go, neither looks overly jarring, but both are obviously unworkable. While starting a settlement far away from established power structures is not unusual and done quite often, building a successful lasting society is extremely rare. Amish have managed to do it, even without being remote, but it’s mostly because they don’t have anything the outsiders want. In the Heinlein’s Luna one could be hard-pressed to recognize a Utopia, given the rather harsh living conditions, but the mostly libertarian self-government and the freedom from the oppressive establishment are clearly present. Luna “exports” wheat, something that Earth needs badly, and so this colonial quasi-Utopia is on the collision course with the metropole in a way that repeats throughout human history countless times. And it is likely that whatever form Musk’s Gulch takes on Mars, the moment it tries to break away from the laws on Earth (presumably the US laws), there would be a swift attempt at retaliation. Swifter if there is anything on Mars that the Earthlings want. We should see how this pattern plays out in the next few decades.
One would be remiss without noticing one more parallel between these stories, fictional and potentially real: the benevolent superhero who keeps the underdog from being consumed or destroyed by the Goliath. In Atlas Shrugged it was John Galt himself, in Heinlein’s story it is Mike the sentient computer, and in the Musk’s future Martian colony it is Elon Musk… just kidding, that won’t work. Odds are, it will not happen at all, and the Terran laws will be extended to Mars, or it will be some version of Mike-like AI that can stay one step ahead of the inept humans.
Conveniently, in the Heinlein’s story, once Luna was free, Mike got damaged and his self-awareness disappeared. A real Martian AI would probably stay ahead of the game, and, if the worst fears of the singulatarians come true, take over Mars first, and then over the rest of humanity, turning a Utopia into a dystopia. And, knowing how bad humans can be at averting even the very predictable disasters, like the 2020 pandemic or the 2021 cold spell in Texas, this outcome is not at all unlikely.
Here is to hoping that Musk’s Martian Gulch turns out more Randian than real.