Many people have viewed science fiction as all about futuristic technology – starships, robots, interstellar travel, space habitats, vast mega-engineering feats, etc.
Yet, some of the best so-called “sf” of the past century has been what is sometimes called “social science fiction.”
Such works may incorporate various speculative forms of advanced technology, especially to work out how such technology affects people and changes culture.
Yet the most interesting aspects of such “social sf” is how it illuminates the various socio-political, economic and cultural implications of new ideas, different attitudes or fundamental changes in how a society’s norms, laws and system of government work.
In the rare and exemplary case of Barry Longyear’s The Hook, the 2021 Prometheus Best Novel winner, the dramatic and fascinating focus is on what happens to a society when its government is abolished – but other governments continue to threaten its freedom and independence.
How can we fight tyranny without losing our liberty?
Even for some of the most brilliant libertarian and classical liberal philosophers** of recent centuries, this is the classic Gordian Knot that has tied up and impeded both theory and practice.
Because of the failure to satisfactorily untie that knot, as Longyear argues provocatively, the spread of classical liberal and libertarian movements has been hampered – despite such historic long-term advances as the nearly worldwide abolition of slavery, the end of many specific tyrannies (from the USSR to Nazi Germany) and the more gradual modern trend documented by Steven Pinker in reducing violence and total war.
How can a society that refuses to use coercion against its own people – even opposing any degree of taxation to finance armies – defend itself against military invasion?
Without a government or tax-supported military, who will protect the people from the perennial threats of violence, tyranny and war?
And how can aggressive tyrants and dangerous demagogues be neutralized effectively while still upholding a libertarian philosophy of universal respect for individual rights?
If the non-initiation of force and fraud remains the first moral-legal principle of any libertarian society worth its salt, then how can force be used legitimately and narrowly to keep the peace, protect rights and uphold justice?
Truly tough questions – ones that leading libertarian thinkers have grappled with for generations – but Longyear has clearly thought long and hard about them, too, and offers several fresh insights.
What makes The Hook of special interest to libertarians and other freedom lovers is the intriguing and plausible answers that Longyear offers – and dramatizes with some tantalizing initial mystery and thrilling suspense.
In one of the rare novels to realistically imagine a fully libertarian society, Longyear imagines a near future in which the Mexican government’s bungled response to a devastating Category 5 hurricane prompts the people of the border state of Tamaulipas to secede, declaring themselves an anarcho-libertarian freeland.
The result is tremendous growth in economic activity, prosperity and innovation combined with a drastic reduction in corruption and crime.
Yet not all is well in this libertarian paradise.
The free country is threatened on all sides by neighboring governments and political leaders – especially in Mexico and the United States – who seem hell-bent on doing everything they can do, legally and illegally, to undermine Tamaulipas’ libertarian success.
Why? Because that success threatens their power and could upset the status quo – by inspiring similar movements to “smash the state.”
JEROME TRACK: A LIBERTARIAN HERO
The protagonist, Jerome Track, must first decide whether their freeland is worth committing himself to, and then develop an innovative strategy for its defense.
Actually, in some ways close to a mega-novel, The War Whisperer centers on Track’s coming of age, exploits and adventures and ultimate intellectual evolution into a heartfelt lover of liberty who nevertheless sees the world clearly – perhaps even a bit cynically.
Trained to be a fighter and soldier in the dark arts of war, espionage and government intelligence agencies, Track now sees through the illusions of statism because he’s seen their horrific consequences up close – so he wants to find a practical way to prevent invasion and protect Tamaulipas’ independence.
Track – a true hero, admirable yet fully human – ranks as one of the great libertarian characters in fiction.
Those who read this thought-provoking novel may well want to read the other books in Longyear’s War Whisperer series and get to know more of Track.
Yet The Hook stands on its own as a gripping and satisfying novel that addresses basic and timeless questions about freedom, tyranny, war and the prospects for sustaining civilization itself.
Among the other Prometheus-winning examples of social sf are Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (a cautionary fable about how radical and coercive egalitarianism could create a dystopian future in which individual merit is severely penalized) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (in which the repressive goal of future fireman is not to put out or prevent fires but to burn books.)
Longyear’s The Hook deserves to rank high among such libertarian classics.
** Central to the foundations of both modern libertarianism and its roots in classical liberalism are the nascent or explicit thinking of such libertarian or protolibertarian thinkers as Voltaire, Spinoza, John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Wilhelm von Humboldt, David Ricardo, Frederic Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Lloyd Garrison, John Stuart Mill, Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Matt Ridley and many more.
Biographical note: Barry B. Longyear was the first writer to win the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in the same year.
Perhaps best known for his acclaimed Enemy Mine series, which inspired a feature film, Longyear also wrote the classic Sea of Glass and Infinity Hold series, SF & fantasy novels, recovery and writing instruction works, and numerous short stories.
His Circus World, a collection of linked stories about a libertarian society on a planet colonized by circus people, was a 2022 Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist.
* Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* Prometheus winners: For the list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – 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 the full set of 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.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.
Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.