Rambunctious adventure, Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian conflicts in a multiverse: An Appreciation of L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, the 1982 Best Novel winner

The Libertarian Futurist Society’s ongoing Appreciation series strives to make clear what libertarian futurists see in each of our past winners and how each fits the Prometheus award’s distinctive focus on Liberty vs. Power. Here’s our appreciation for L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, the 1982 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel:

By Michael Grossberg

Rollicking and fun-loving, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach was one of the most influential books of the Libertarian movement as its ideas were spreading in the early 1980s.

Smith’s imaginative sci-fi multiverse adventure imagines alternate time lines accessible through the probability broach, a portal to many worlds.

In her introduction to the 2001 Orb Books reprint edition of the seminal novel, veteran libertarian activist and long-time LFS member Andrea Millen Rich (former proprietor of Laissez Faire Books, a key mail-order bookstore for freedom-lovers in the pre-Amazon era) described the novel as “a hard-boiled, chatty, slam-bang philosophical adventure that looks and feels like a fusion of Raymond Chandler, Robert Heinlein, and Ayn Rand  (That’s President Ayn Rand, this side of the Broach).”

“But Smith’s voice is fresh, no mere expression of influences. The rambunctiousness that makes this transdimensional trek so charming and fun is his alone… Unlike some libertarian bards, Smith knows how to make his plot depend on ideological conflict, and he keeps the pace chugging and the reader’s interest engaged.”

Set in a near-future United States where the economy and technology have stagnated and society has decayed because of increasing government control by an arrogant federal bureaucracy and the intrusive Federal Security Police, the story kicks into gear when middle-aged Denver detective Win Bear, investigating the murder of a University physicist, accidentally discovers the alternate-worlds portal.

The detective accidentally is sent into the alternative world, while chased by murderous criminals and Federalists who aim to rule.

In that other world, the detective discovers that American history developed in a drastically different and more libertarian direction: Public services are run (and run far better) by private businesses, “tax” and “draft” are curse words, poverty is virtually abolished and government barely exists, everyone is armed with a gun (while the rate of violence and crime remains amazingly low), and sapient gorillas have rights and are among the elected Senators of a Colorado-based Congress.

In that world’s alternate American history, President George Washington was shot as a traitor after the successful Whiskey Rebellion.

While our own Earth includes a fringe political party led by freedom-loving Propertarians that politically stand “somewhere between H.L. Mencken and Alpha Centauri,” that same ideological movement (read “Libertarians”) sparked the amazing progress that Win Bear discovers on the other side of the portal.

“Propertarians believe that all human rights are property rights, beginning with absolute ownership of your own life,” a woman explains to Win when he visits the Propertarian Party headquarters.

“…You’d be amazed how many people feel they belong to someone or something else: their families, jobs, God, the government. Anyway, every other individual right comes from that fundamental one: to own your own life. Since no one is entitled to interfere with it, just as you may not interfere with others’, some Propertarians want a government whose only function is protecting everybody’s rights – ”

“I thought that’s what we have now.”

She laughed a little bitterly. “If that were only true!”

Amusingly but also revealingly and quite seriously, the words considered curse words in Smith’s anarcho-capitalist alternate reality include “tax” and “draft” – because they’re considered virtually obscene by Propertarians (and tantamount to slavery, the extreme evil on the involuntary-servitude spectrum.

Yet, sexuality is viewed quite positively.

As another character explains their thinking in The Nagasaki Vector, Smith’s sequel:

“But most disturbin’, somehow, was that Confederate swear-words are as different as everything else. They don’t refer t’sex, an’ they don’t refer t’God. Pie-in-the-sky just don’t mix too well with folks usta runnin’ their own lives, thanks. Instead, they swear by their heroes, like Lysander Spooner an’ Albert Gallatin; they swear by baddies like Washington an’ Hamilton.

“Condemnation!” Li-Li’d exclaimed when pressed t’some kinda limit, referrin’ more t’govemment’s way with other folks’ real estate, than the state of anybody’s soul. An’ they swear by excretion, just like everybody else in the known universe.”

“But if somebody here’d said “Get fucked!” the ad-dressee’d likely look at him a bit funny, shake his head, an’ answer, “Why thanks, pilgrim—you have a nice day, too!”

With eye-opening wonder, a strong sense of humor, unabashed philosophical insights that don’t slow the action and a Heinlein-esque Wild-West spirit, Smith dramatizes a clash of civilizations – one ultra anarcho-libertarian and the other a strangely but sadly familiar bureaucratic and statist alternate reality where Americans are oppressed by a fascist-socialist dictatorship in which anything pleasurable is either illegal or taxed punitively.

The novel – the first book of Smith’s North American Confederacy series (which includes The Venus Belt, The Nagasaki Vector, Tom Paine Maru, The Gallatin Divergence and The American Zone, a direct sequel to The Probability Broach) – challenged conventional thinking on the socialist Left and conservative Right.

More important, especially to libertarians and other freedom lovers, The Probability Broach galvanized readers to imagine a better and much more libertarian future, full of greater technical progress and broad prosperity benefiting all of humanity.

Imagine the possibilities, given a world in which individual rights and liberties are fully recognized and respected!

L. Neil Smith (Creative Commons photo)

Biographical note: This was the first Prometheus Award for L. Neil Smith, who later won the Best Novel award twice more, for Pallas in 1994 and for The Forge of the Elders in 2001.

Smith also won a Special Award in 2005, shared with illustrator Scott Bieser for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, and received a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2016.

Historical note: No Prometheus Awards were presented in 1980 or 1981, after the first Prometheus award presented in 1979. The Libertarian Futurist Society was founded in 1981-1982 to take over and sustain the awards, which resumed in 1982.

* See related recent LFS interview with L. Neil Smith on his work, the Prometheus Award, and his influences.


* See related introductory essay about this 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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