Tor, 1980 (1996 rewrite), 305 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-53875-7
Reviewing The Probability Broach is going to be impossible to do without talking politics. (Some readers may wish to leave at this point)
The reason is simple: L. Neil Smith has been a Libertarian for (says the blurb) more than thirty years and this novel espouses his chosen political views perfectly. The Probability Broach is one of the purest, hardest political propaganda SF I’ve read in a long while.
Which does not mean that the novel sucks. I know, I know: You would expect novels-with-a-message to be stuffy, boring and insufferably didactical. While The Probability Broach does have its slow moments, it usually charges ahead with the readability usually associated with Heinlein. Edward Bear is a policeman in an alternate America where economic decline is so evident that private corporations are slowly being annexed by the government, cities are in full-scale decay, corruption is omnipresent and air-conditioning equipment is illegal. Your basic dystopian scenario.
Through a freak series of circumstances following his investigation of a strange murder, Bear finds himself transported in another dimension where everyone wears weaponry, but also where the standard of living is immeasurably higher than even our own Earth. What’s more, this is a completely libertarian America: There isn’t much of a central authority but everyone seems to get along quite well.
A fertile ground for political propaganda? Of course. Smith spends most of The Probability Broach explaining how (well) his anarcho-capitalist system works. All his characters are unusually well-articulated, and like the best Heinleinian characters, they speak as if any other opinion is obviously, laughably wrong.
From the above, I wouldn’t expect a good novel and yet, I was fascinated by Smith’s utopia. Despite thinking that Libertarianism is really inappropriate, I felt that Smith’s world was an interesting place.
Up to a certain point, then, The Probability Broach is convincing. But even if it would not have been, the truckloads of ideas brought forward by the novel are enough to make this a must-read for anyone even remotely concerned with innovation. (The Libertarian Congress session, in particular, is a hoot.) In a sense, I’m grateful that Smith vulgarized the ideals of the Libertarian movements to make them accessible to a wider readership. Mixing gritty murder mystery with a classic science-fiction approach to exhibit political ideas is a great idea. The characters are fun, again in a Heinleinian everyone-is-ultra-competent way. Female characters are well-handled, even though they too suffer -benefit?- from the Heinleinian beautiful-and-smart-and-tough stereotype. Despite the original publication date (1983), the novel doesn’t feel dated, though some seventies-era gadgets (talking chimps and dolphins, environmental concerns) add a charming eeriness to the whole.
I had fun going through The Probability Broach. Few novels read recently even approach it in term of pure readability. There might not be much of a plot, but the whole book is pure delight anyway. Of course, people with low tolerance for sermonning might disagree, but they’re probably not the kind of people who enjoyed Heinlein’s novels either.
Even if you do not consider yourself a political theorist, a libertarian or an anarcho-capitalist, I’d recommend The Probability Broach. I found in it most of what initially attracted me to SF: Strange, new ideas worth evaluating, crystal-clear prose, strong readability and a happy ending. Preachy, sure, but that’s part of the fun.
(For the record, I consider myself a complete centrist in political terms. This, of course, is easier to achieve in Canada than in the USA. Even though I tend to consider politics as a spectator sport, I respect the idea of democracy too much not to vote, but am too cynical to vote for any of the major parties. While writing the above review, it dawned on me that I had voted Libertarian during the last federal election!)