This review originally appeared in L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise in the summer of 1997. I told him I'd haunt him if he removed the words 'Our Supreme Publisher, El Neil' from the published version. He did. He's in big trouble now. Anyway, this is a good book -- worth buying even in hardbound.
|"Space is a dream, like flight was.
And dreams need dreamers to become real...
people who dance on the cliff for answers
to 'Why?' and 'How'... 'What if?'"|
- Wendy McElroy, How Do You Tell the Dreamer From the Dream?
Science fiction is libertarian. Oh, yes, there's plenty of statist SF, or SF with no overt philosophical bent. But SF is ours in the same way the Internet is ours.
The medium lends itself to individualists and individualism, something that has been true since Eric Frank Russell, A.E. Van Vogt and, most of all, Robert Heinlein. SF is, after all, largely about creating the future, taking risks, discovering new worlds -- notions that don't come naturally to groupthinkers or securitarians, but that do grow healthily in the minds of libertarian neophiles. Furthermore, as Our Supreme Publisher, El Neil, emphasized in his speech before this year's Arizona Libertarian Party convention, the (no)forces of freedom are in a culture war with the forces of statism, and SF is a vivid, important expression of our culture. Given that, it's more than a little mind boggling that the first explicitly libertarian SF anthology has just been introduced, now, in 1997. It's Free Space, a labor of love from editors Brad Linaweaver and Edward E. Kramer and 20 notable authors.
Most of the 20 stories and poems in the collection were written expressly for Free Space. The authors include Prometheus Award winners, Nebula and Hugo winners, famous names and lesser knowns. Not all contributors are libertarian, but the theme of the book most emphatically is.
The editors began by proposing a very loose structure, that of a future human society divided into three major segments. In this galactic society, members of the Federation are planet-bound and government-ridden. (The name is a deliberate dig at Star Trek's insipid overlordship.) Spacers roam the galaxy as anarchistic free traders and adventurers. "Jeffies" operate spaceports and space colonies, serving as a liaison between inimical planet dwellers and space roamers.
That said, the editors turned the authors free to create their own visions. The resulting tales range over 300 years and are as wildly different as their authors.
J. Neil Schulman's contribution, "Day of Atonement," is an intellectually challenging story of Jewish activists battling a biblical-styled Israeli theocracy.
In his exquisite "Kwan Tingui," William Wu uses ancient Chinese techniques of negotiation and indirection to recount the life of a woman exiled from her Singaporian family. The reasons for Tingui's exile are both ancient and painfully contemporary.
"Nerfworld" by Dafydd ab Hugh pulls the reader through frustration after frustration, as bureaucrats attempt to subvert a promising private-enterprise space endeavor.
"Early Bird" by Gregory Benford -- the hardest hard-science story in the collection -- shows a young woman spacer working herself out of debt in a manner possible only in a free society.
"Madame Butterfly" opens as a cleaning woman in Tokyo finds a flower she believes represents one of the gods of her home village. She nurtures the plant, hoping its god will protect her son, engaged in dangerous and prohibited activities in space. How that flower does, in fact, touch the life of far-away Icoro Shimoto is a wonderful tale of science, character and coincidence that only James P. Hogan could relate so well.
L. Neil Smith meets one of SF's most difficult challenges by putting us into the mind of an alien being in "A Matter of Certainty." This warring alien must negotiate with a peace emissary -- a creature more loathsome to him than any bug-eyed monster to thee and me. A Neilism: "You'll have to achieve peace the hard way, with a gun in your hand. Civilizations can't disinvent technology. They either die of it or learn to live with it."
Victor Koman weighs in with the wickedly, wittily satiric "Demokratus," in which a descendent of his greatest fictional hero becomes a statist wannabe. Welder Volnos, a born spacer, exiles himself to a Federation planet, "....where I don't have to be so...responsible for my life." Victor also gives us a useful new epithet (not to be uttered in the presence of ladies): "Taxers!"
William Alan Ritch counters Koman with a Heinleinesque juvenile, "If Pigs Had Wings," in which a young "ground hog" girl dreams and plots to get into space.
In "Planet in the Balance" John DeChancie writes a howlingly funny conclusion to a story of a freelance planetologist forced to land on a planet run by devout preservationists.
Other contributors include William F. Buckley, Jr., Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, Peter Crowther, Wendy McElroy, Arthur Byron Cover, Robert J. Sawyer, Jared Lobdell, John Barnes, Robert Anton Wilson and _Free Space_ co-editor Brad Linaweaver.
SUCCESSES; MINOR MISSES
My standards for libertarian fiction are impossibly high. I want every work in the collection to be as good as The Probability Broach or Kings of the High Frontier -- that is, a perfect blend of storytelling and philosophy, in which the reader vicariously experiences libertarianism in action.
Free Space doesn't meet that expectation. But that may be all for the best, because it also means the book offers a very wide variety of themes and styles for different tastes.
I was enchanted with "Kwan Tingui." "Madame Butterfly" left me breathless. One of the finest "stories" in the collection is Wendy McElroy's profound poem, "How Do You Tell the Dreamer from the Dream?" All are delicate, subtle or lyrical works. For people who prefer other styles, there's plenty to choose from in Free Space.
Peter Crowther's "The Killing of Davis-Davis," for instance, is totally non-linear and a huge challenge to read. As Brad notes in his introduction, it's "An odd one -- a sophisticated meditation about the game of power politics." But Crowther delivers a worthwhile reward for your hard work; the fragmented narrative is the perfect expression for one of the most complex time paradoxes you're likely to encounter.
I read the book twice. On second reading, I found that even stories with little initial appeal contained gems. There is not a single truly weak story in the book, and there are many strong ones.
Am I still going to find something to complain about? Oh, sure. Three or four authors seemed more focused on delivering a philosophy lecture than telling an engaging story. I won't mention any names. You know who you are, guys.
(Well, I will mention one: In an interview with Prometheus, Brad Linaweaver laughingly admitted his own story was, "The best essay in the book.")
Several other stories only peripherally have libertarian themes, and two struck me as being at odds with the very concept of the book. Yet each was enjoyable on its merits.
A MINOR MIRACLE
If it's mind boggling that it took generations for the genre to give birth to its first libertarian anthology, it's also a minor miracle that the book survived to publication.
After a year collecting stories, the editors were forced to spend an additional year battling the publisher to keep their vision intact. TOR wanted to cut the works of some of the most libertarian writers (sometimes in favor of those with more salable names). Promethians L. Neil Smith, Robert Anton Wilson, Victor Koman, and William Alan Ritch were among those who might have hit the proverbial cutting room floor.
It's safe to say that, had TOR had its way, we'd _B>still be waiting for the first thoroughly libertarian SF anthology. Free Space might have been a good anthology without its most hardcore writers, but it wouldn't have been what it is.
Fortunately, Linaweaver and Kramer passionately defended both art and philosophy, and prevailed in all but a few cases. The result is a book they can be proud of, and a book I hope tens of thousands of libertarians will purchase.
I have a selfish motive in urging you to buy it, of course. I want to read Volume II. SOON.
Copyright 1998 Claire Wolfe. This article may be reprinted for non-commercial purposes, as long as it is reprinted in full with no content changes whatsoever, and is accompanied by this credit line. The article may not be re-titled, edited or excerpted (beyond the limits of the fair use doctrine) without the written permission of the author. For-profit publications will be expected to pay a nominal reprint fee.
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