Bold imagination, colorful visuals, dystopian tyranny and a libertarian alternate-reality: An appreciation of The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, a 2005 Prometheus Special Awardwinner

The Libertarian Futurist Society’s ongoing Appreciation series of Prometheus winners continues in 2022 with review-essays about the fiction recognized with Special Awards.

By Michael Grossberg

Adaptations of classic or popular literature into graphic novels have become increasingly popular. Reflecting this modern trend, the Prometheus Awards recognized its first graphic novel when The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel (published in 2004 by Big Head Press) received a Special Prometheus Award in 2005.

Visually colorful and boldly imaginative, this accessible and fun version of one of the most explicitly libertarian sf novels achieves its distinctive style and stirring impact from the fertile collaboration between libertarian author L. Neil Smith and libertarian artist Scott Bieser.

The deft combination of words and visuals helps bring to life Smith’s zestful and suspenseful sf adventure novel, which imagines alternate time lines accessible through the probability broach, a portal to many worlds.

Bieser’s strong eye and hand lend an enhanced sense of color, movement and character to the alternate Gallatin universe of prosperous, peaceful freedom-lovers imagined with such optimistic, gun-toting, frontier spirit by Smith in his seminal 1980 novel.

Especially in the four opening chapters, Bieser’s art and Smith’s condensed story paint a convincing portrait of despotism, decay and decline that Smith extrapolated from socialist-fascist tendencies already worrisome in this world.

At the stoic but ultimately heroic center of the rambunctious action-adventure-mystery is Win Bear, a middle-aged and corpulent Denver detective (portrayed as African American in the graphic novel, though as I recall the original novel left his race indeterminate. Update: In the novel, he was simply described as having Native American Indian ancestry.) Bear does his duty competently but with visible resignation amid his sad awareness of a fraying, defeatist and increasingly authoritarian America.

Chafing under the oppressive bureaucracy and interference of an oppressive Federal Security Police in this future dystopia as he investigates the murder of a university physicist, the detective accidentally discovers an alternate-worlds portal that leads him into a stranger but much better Colorado culture.

From that fifth chapter on, you might say that “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” – with sentient apes and chimpanzees co-existing and working with humans in equal liberty in a free-market economy and super-accelerated progress achieving both wonders and oddities (at least to our world’s eyes.)

Through his fantastical imagination,  Smith aims to jolt our jaded perceptions amid centuries of mixed-economy statism or much worse – and get his readers excited about the thrilling possibilities and wonders that classic golden-age sf viewed as its stock-in-trade.

Bieser’s imagery here reinforces the fantastical realism and the peace-keeping, gun-toting anarcho-capitalist glories of Smith’s stateless Confederacy, which evolved from a quite different pivot point in early American history.

Because a graphic novel can both show and/or tell, Bieser takes advantage of the opportunity to visually establish the sclerotic and bureaucratic oppressiveness of an authoritarian and stagnant America through telling details, such as defunct buses, prevalent bicycling, official warning posters, building signs, etc. –

With the aid of the visuals, one quickly becomes immersed in an alternate America where the Omnipotent State never developed – but where the Wild West frontier developed its own individualistic yet peaceful and cooperative culture enforced by nearly universal gun ownership. (There’s a reason, Smith might point out, why a revolver was nicknamed an “Equalizer.” What did it equalize? Liberty, by reducing imbalances of power between the State and the People.)

The graphic novel’s dramatic and visual contrast between the two alternate-reality universes, and the statist conspiracy that threatens the freedom of both worlds, is effective. Bolstering Smith’s words, Bieser’s drawings and art highlights and contrasts their differences and makes even more concrete the philosophical and political alternatives that Smith explores.

Adapting a novel into a graphic novel requires feats of compression that must be difficult for the original author to make. Yet, this concise version of The Probability Broach is a quick and enjoyable read.

Admittedly some details are necessarily lost with fewer words, especially some clues to attitudes and relationships better developed in the original novel. But the trade-offs pay off in artistic brevity.

Out of curiosity, I compared the original novel and the graphic novel by rereading the opening chapter of each. Both versions succeed at vividly but efficiently introducing its central character, Denver setting and gory crime scene, albeit in slightly different ways.

With its skillful condensation and visualizations, this graphic novel may be a better introduction to L. Neil Smith than the original in another way. For instance, I discovered that while the opening chapter of the novel took about nine minutes to read comfortably, the opening chapter of the graphic novel only takes about two minutes to convey substantially the same story – or roughly less than one-fourth of the time and effort.

Hence younger readers and teenagers might well enjoy the graphic novel more, find it easier to grasp, and be more willing to take some time to read it through to the end. (They can always read the novel later to enhance their appreciation, while picking up the countless additional details and nuances not practical in any graphic-novel adaptation.)

story pitting aggressive statists against peace-loving “propertarians” who nevertheless know how to use their guns, swords or other weapons, which everyone naturally carries.

Reading the graphic novel has an additional pay-off for Smith fans who may wish to also ead the subsequent novels in Smith’s North American Confederacy series, including the direct sequel The American Zone.

Once you’ve palpably assimilated this alternate-reality through the combination of Smith’s words and Bieser’s images, the reality of his anarcho-capitalist world becomes so concrete and embedded in your imagination that it becomes that much easier to visualize it in later stories in the series.

Read the Appreciation of L. Neil Smith’s original novel The Probability Broach, the 1982 Prometheus Awardwinner for Best Novel.

OTHER GRAPHIC NOVELS OF INTEREST
Did you know that several other Prometheus-winning works have also been adapted into graphic novels?

That includes Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (an authorized adaptation illustrated by Tim Hamilton), a 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner; Ayn Rand’s Anthem (adapted by Charles Santino), a 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner; and multiple episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s TV series The Prisoner, the 2002 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

Quite a few other well-known bestsellers have been adapted into graphic novels, more than one might imagine.

Among the graphic-novel adaptations of perhaps greatest interest to sf/fantasy fans: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (a 1987 Prometheus Best Novel finalist), Slaughterhouse-Five (by Kurt Vonnegut, a 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for his classic short story “Harrison Bergeron”), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Also: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, Tarzan of the Apes, The Wizard of Oz and quite a few works by Edgar Allan Poe.

Many mainstream literary classics have also received the graphic-novel treatment, including Little Women, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Man in the Iron Mask, Murder on the Orient Express, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride & Prejudice and The Great Gatsby,.

Plus, going back even farther over the centuries, Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Julius Caesar. (What? Not Hamlet? Not A Midsummer Night’s Dream?)

The many graphic-novel versions of classic novels makes one wonder: What Prometheus winners might be next? (I’d pay to read graphic novels of Orwell’s classics Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm as well as Ira Levin’s underestimated dystopian novel This Perfect Day.)

Which works would you like to see as graphic novels? And which Prometheus winners might benefit especially from such a treatment?

Note: Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith (1946-2021) was the author of 23 books, including The American ZoneForge of the EldersPallasTom Paine MaruHope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, Lever Action.

L. Neil Smith in the 1980s (Creative Commons license)

Smith won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in 1984 for The Probability Broach, in 1994 for Pallas and in 2001 for The Forge of the Elders.

Smith is one of four authors to win the Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement. He did so in 2016. (Other Lifetime Achievement winners: Poul Anderson, in 2001; Vernor Vinge, in 2014; and F. Paul Wilson, in 2015.

Scott Bieser (1957-  ) is a cartoonist and illustrator who spent more than a decade creating computer game graphics for Interplay Entertainment, then turned his efforts towards graphic novels in 2002.

Among his best-known works: Quantum Vibe(a continuing series of sci-fi comic adventures), Odysseus The Rebel, Phoebus Krumm, Roswell Texas, The Last Sonofabitch of Kleptonand A Drug War Carol(with Susan W. Wells). For more information, visit http://scottbieser.com

* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40thanniversary of the awards and continues today.

* 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 enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the  international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

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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