Smart self-defense in anarcho-capitalist society: Vernor Vinge’s “The Ungoverned,” the 2004 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here’s the Prometheus Blog appreciation of Vernor Vinge’s story “The Ungoverned,” the 2004 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

“The Ungoverned” is one of the rare sf stories to portray a plausible and fully libertarian society. Moreover, Vernor Vinge does so with intelligence, subtlety, vision and enjoyable narrative twists.

Set in the ungoverned lands of a recovering future Kansas after a social collapse, Vernor Vinge’s 1985 novella focuses on what happens when New Mexico’s statist government tries to invade anarchist-libertarian Kansas with unexpected results.

Vinge, one of the most acclaimed sf writers of the 1980s and 1990s and a multiple Hugo Award-winner for his novels and stories, has developed a track record of bold, ingenious and visionary ideas worked out and explored in plausible future-sf scenarios.

“The Ungoverned” is of special interest to libertarians because of Vinge’s portrayal of a stateless social order roughly along the lines envisioned by economist-historian Murray Rothbard, David Friedman and other anarcho-capitalist thinkers.

The story centers on one free individual’s effort to stop the invasion by the armies of the authoritarian Republic of New Mexico (NMR).


Like many intrusive and oppressive governments, the NMR is blinded by its own ideology and culture and fails to appreciate how different the free society is in its customs and capabilities. Not understanding the threat that a lone Kansas farmer might become, as an empowered individual in a free and innovative society with ample means of self-protection, the NMR military make serious missteps.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the conflict is the way that free and responsible people in an advanced anarcho-capitalist system are able to exert their rights of self-defense while also minimizing violence – anathema to libertarians – to the greatest degree possible while preserving life and liberty.

In a free society, the moral and the practical tend to coincide more easily and more often than in statist systems – as more sophisticated free-market economists like Rothbard (Power and Market), Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom), Ludwig von Mises (Human Action), Friedrich Hayek (The Constitution of Liberty) and Don Lavoie (National Economic Planning: What is Left?) have explained in their books.

Thus, while no surprise to libertarians, the novella’s depiction of an insurance agent’s attempts to communicate and connect culturally with the invaders – as a way to undermine the invasion while also striving to minimize any property damage – might come as an amusing revelation to other readers.

After all, the more the property damage, the more his insurance company might have to pay to reimburse their customers – while the less the damage, the lower the costs to his for-profit company.

The novella, first published in Far Frontiers, Volume III and first collected in Vinge’s collection True Names and Other Dangers, can be read and appreciated independently of any other works.

Yet, the novella can be enjoyed even more as part of Vinge’s fascinating and thought-provoking future history, very much worth reading itself and perhaps in logical order.

“The Ungoverned” takes place after the Peace Authority collapse and other events of Vinge’s novel The Peace War, a 1985 Prometheus Best Novel finalist. So that novel might be best to read first, in order to appreciate “The Ungoverned” even more and in context of Vinge’s larger narrative.

An additional motivation to read The Peace War first comes from the fact that Vinge introduces a character who plays a significant role in the novella.

A final reading suggestion: “The Ungoverned” also should be read before Marooned in Real Time, the 1987 Prometheus Award-winner for Best Novel. The events in that novel take place after the events in “The Ungoverned.”

Note: Vinge, a retired San Diego State University (SDSU) Professor of Mathematics and computer scientist, also won Prometheus Awards for Best Novel in 1987 (Marooned in Real Time) and 2000 (A Deepness in the Sky).

His story “True Names” was inducted in 2007 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Vinge received a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.

Vernor Vinge (Creative Commons license)

According to Wikipedia, he is best known for his Hugo Award-winning novels and novellas A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002), and The Cookie Monster (2004), as well as for his 1984 novel The Peace War and his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity”, in which he argues that the creation of superhuman artificial intelligence will mark the point at which “the human era will be ended”, and that no current models of reality are sufficient to predict beyond it.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An appreciation of A.E. van Vogt’s novel The Weapon Shops of Isher, the 2005 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

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

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 recently enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website, which has added convenient links to all published Appreciations of past winners as they’re published.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

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.

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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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