Tor, 1993, 446 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-50904-8
Libertarian fiction can be very amusing if it’s done right. “Done right”, in this instance, can be as simple as arguing vigorously in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a moron or, maybe more importantly, as if the author himself isn’t a moron —or even worse, a righteous son-of-a-Birch.
It’s a delicate balance. Libertarianism is so orthogonal to the classical false left-right axis that like truly good ideas, it takes a light touch to explain. L. Neil Smith has done so previously with The Probability Broach, a compulsively readable novel in which we were shown the wonders of a Libertarian parallel-universe utopia. Not only was it a heck of a read, but it made a few points about Libertarianism that were worth considering.
Pallas isn’t comparable. Oh, it’s serviceable enough as a story of Emerson Ngu, a young man living on a terraformed asteroid (Pallas) who defects from a socialist enclave and escapes to the larger Libertarian society (Curringer) that surrounds it. Free of restrictions on his personal freedom, he will make friends, meet love, become an entrepreneur and radically alter the future of the human race. No, I’m not really kidding.
At least Pallas makes for decent entertainment: the writing style may not match the one in The Probability Broach for ease of reading, but it’s certainly more accessible that in Smith’s Martyn series. Despite some dangerously boring passages in the first few dozen pages that have almost no relation to the rest of the story, Pallas picks itself up whenever it focuses on Emerson and his perils. As a coming-of-age novel, it’s more than halfway readable.
Where, technically, the book stumbles is when it describes the rest of Emerson’s life. Suddenly, events are telescoped, years are jumped, and the narrative accelerates to an ending that feels a touch too forced through too many coincidences. Along the way, the charm of Emerson’s first discoveries gets lost in the rush to an accelerated second half.
If my problems with the book stopped there, it still wouldn’t that hard to recommend the book. Unfortunately, more serious problems abound with Pallas, some of them intrinsic to the plotting, some of them more closely related to either Smith’s ideology or basic Libertarian principles.
Plotting first (beware slight spoilers): So we are to believe that an entirely libertarian environment would accept a socialist enclave. Okay, sure, I’m game. But then we’re to believe that for the entire decades-long history of Curringer, no one of the die-hard libertarian colonists before Emerson ever though of manufacturing guns or personal transporters? C’mon, Neil: You’re taking your readers for morons.
In fact, that “readers are morons” assumption seems to contaminate more than the plotting. Characterization, for instance: It’s not enough for the lead antagonist to be a socialist (egawd, eek, etc.), but of course he had to be a pedophile and a woman-beater. This, taken to a larger extent, is emblematic of one of the most obnoxious aspects of Libertarian/Objectivist fiction (yes, there is a suspiciously Ayn Rand-like character in Pallas): if you’re not a full-bore militant Libertarian, you have to be not just stupid, but evil too.
For a political ideology that prides itself on considering everyone “as adults”, Libertarianism often feels like a cult that loves to paint everything in black and white, with friend or foes, unable to compromise and find middle ground like, well, true adults. In Pallas, another villain conveniently does something so incredibly stupid that he gets killed as our heroes essentially nod and say “What did you expect? He wasn’t one of us.” Reading the novel, you’d be prone to associate vegetarianism with child-abuse and totalitarianism, whereas the good meat-eating hunters of Pallas’ utopian society are all vigorous, valorous and virtuous.
Marxism, Libertarianism: different ideas, same dogmatism? I actually liked Pallas quite a bit, but it’s broad simplifications like the ones above which make me reluctant to recommend a novel despite whatever sympathies I may have for some of its ideals. If your tolerance for some of these ideas is different than mine, please adjust accordingly.