Tag Archives: L. Neil Smith

The American Zone, L. Neil Smith

<em class="BookTitle">The American Zone</em>, L. Neil Smith

Tor, 2001, 350 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87369-7

Complaining that L. Neil Smith uses his novels to indulge in libertarian propaganda is a bit like commenting upon the kinkiness, depravity and foul language in Chuck Palahniuk’s work: While true, it’s not exactly a new or enlightening observation.  Smith has long been a writer of explicitly-libertarian fiction, and if the result can be unreadable or silly, he can occasionally manage entertaining novels whenever he soft-pedals the rhetoric.

Perhaps his best novel to date remains The Probability Broach (1980), an action/adventure tale in which private eye William “Win” Bear discovered a gateway to another dimension where libertarian ideals had triumphed.  My fond memories suggest that the book managed an ideal balance between robust ideology and non-partisan entertainment: It was obviously a libertarian novel, but one that didn’t actively work to annoy whoever wasn’t in complete agreement with core libertarian principles.

The American Zone may be a direct sequel to The Probability Broach, but the years in-between the two books haven’t improved or softened Smith’s tendencies to discuss libertarianism in the middle, the side, the top and the bottom of his fiction.  It features Win Bear a few years after the events of his previous adventure, now solidly established in his new community.  Not that everything is utopian in Bear’s new world: The opening of the dimensional gates has created a new type of immigration, and not everyone can cope well with the freedoms of the “Gallatin Universe”: The titular American Zone is a Colorado urban ghetto where refugees from Bear’s United States tend to congregate when they can’t cope with the rest of the world.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of differences between Bear’s new and old worlds.  In the Gallatin Universe, the “North American Confederacy” is loosely presided over by an ape (uplifting being common, there are also a few dolphin characters), all levels of government are ineffectual by design and (this being an American libertarian utopia) there are guns, big guns, and beautiful guns everywhere for everyone.

But whereas The Probability Broach was a fun romp for all, with concepts that you didn’t necessarily had to buy into in order to enjoy the rest of the tale, The American Zone is a lot more shrill and dismissive of alternate viewpoints.  If you think that putting guns in the hands of everyone may not be a perfect idea, then you’re fit to be laughed at and dismissed.  One of the lasting impressions left by The American Zone is how angry Smith seems to be at whoever disagrees with him.  Grudges about Geraldo Riviera, Ralph Nader, the Clintons, Nixon all lead to so-called amusing passages in which analogues of those characters are ridiculed –which seems particularly curious in the case of the Clintons, since they only came to prominence years after the narrator left their universe.  (Not to mention the improbability of finding such characters in a parallel reality in which, say, Denver doesn’t exist.)  Even Canadians are targeted twice in similes, first as the narrator eats breakfast and feels “as contented as a Canadian” [P.64] and then later as a villain acts “complacent as a Canadian”. [P.136]

(This would be an ideal place in which to re-establish that as a French-Canadian working for the government, I consider Libertarianism to be a philosophy by aliens, for aliens.  Our world, simply put, doesn’t work like that, and no amount of folksy narration of a utopia whose rules have been stacked in favour of libertarianism can convince me otherwise.)

If you do manage to put ideology aside to look at the actual narrative workings of The American Zone, well, there isn’t much to gnaw upon.  The best SF ideas are carried over from the previous book, although there’s a little bit of interest in the description of how parallel universes travel is disrupting the way the citizen of the Confederacy live.  A novel on this topic would have been interesting, but The American Zone is really more interested in letting a feisty grandma explain why she should have energy handguns in her personal arsenal.

That’s not necessarily awful (despite my political objections to Smith’s novel, it’s not exactly difficult or unpleasant to read), but it leads nowhere, and that’s where The American Zone falters: Despite a gorgeous Martiniere cover, it feels hollow the moment you’re not already a libertarian.  It preaches to the choir, leaving the rest of the SF congregation looking bored.

Pallas, L. Neil Smith

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.

The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith

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!)