Author’s update: HarperCollins has published Mania, two-time Best Novel finalist Lionel Shriver’s alternate-history novel critiquing radical egalitarianism

By Michael Grossberg

Maverick bestselling novelist Lionel Shriver is at it again, skewering popular shibboleths of elite culture and critiquing false ideologies through her imaginative and insightful fiction.

Author Lionel Shriver in 2006 Photo: Walnut Whippet, Creative Commons license

Shriver, recognized twice over the past decade as a Prometheus Best Novel finalist, has written Mania, a new 286-page alternate-history novel published April 9 by HarperCollins Publishers.

The publisher’s description highlights a theme that seems promising from the perspective of the Prometheus Awards:

“With echoes of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, told in Lionel Shriver’s inimitable and iconoclastic voice, Mania is a sharp, acerbic, and ruthlessly funny book about the road to a delusional, self-destructive egalitarianism that our society is already on.”

THE EVILS OF RADICAL COERCIVE EGALITARIANISM
Such a theme – critiquing radical egalitarianism and its often coercive and harmful consequences – is one central to modern libertarianism.

From the leading libertarian economist/historian Murray Rothbard to satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut, wiser adults in America have long advocated individual merit and equal liberty as the best way to foster human flourishing for all – rather than the authoritarian, misguided and vain efforts to apply coercive leveling to enforce equal outcomes in life.

Here’s more of how Shriver explores this theme, from the publisher’s description of Mania:

“Set in a parallel yet all too familiar near past, a brilliant subversive novel about a lifelong friendship threatened by culture wars, from the New York Times bestselling author.

“In an alternative 2011, the Mental Parity movement takes hold. Americans now embrace the sacred, universal truth that there is no such thing as variable human intelligence. Because everyone is equally smart, discrimination against purportedly dumb people is “the last great civil rights fight.” Tests, grades, and employment qualifications are all discarded. Children are expelled for saying the S-word (“stupid”) and encouraged to report parents who use it at home.”

VONNEGUT’S SIMILAR THEMES

Fans of Vonnegut’s satirical story “Harrison Bergeron” may find Shriver’s novel a fascinating and fresh take on a familiar but underutilized theme.

Vonnegut’s classic cautionary fable, which won the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction, is set in a dystopian future in the United States in which coercive egalitarianism is taken to radical and inhuman extremes in a perverse authoritarian revolt against personal excellence.

In the sf story, first published in 1961, Vonnegut imagines that the federal government’s new Handicapper General enforces new constitutional amendments mandating that no one can be stupider, uglier, weaker, slower – or in any way better – than anyone else.

To enforce the edicts, perfectly capable people are forced to accept and wear various disabling devices that handicap their capabilities and basic humanity.

LAUGHTER, THE BEST MEDICINE?
Just as Vonnegut chose satire as the most effective approach to his story and its theme, it’s interesting that the publisher describes Shriver’s new novel as “ruthlessly funny.”

Could it be that comedy is the best way to drive the point home in “what if….?” scenarios about the long-term implications of a philosophy that many well-intentioned people support to varying extents, but which can become inhuman and even monstrous if carried to its logical extremes?

Certainly, we can all benefit from some good laughs – and as they say, laughter is the best medicine for various ills, perhaps even false ideologies. (For more opportunities to indulge your sense of humor, check out a Prometheus Blog post about which Best Novel winners have best incorporated comedy.)

Based on her previous novels, Shriver may have the cleverness and wit to pull it off, too.

THE RICH POTENTIAL OF ALTERNATE HISTORIES
And once again, she’s turned to the broad and fantastical genre of speculative fiction to do so.

By my rough count, this is Shriver’s third novel written in the alternate-history subgenre.

In The Post-Birthday World, published in 2007 and a New York Timesbestseller, Shriver adopted an alternate-reality framework to explore the mysteries of free will, love and “chance encounters as a woman explores romantic relationships with two very different men,” according to a book description.

And in her kaleidoscopic Should We Stay or Should We Go, a 2022 Prometheus Best Novel finalist, Shriver deftly conjures 12 parallel post-COVID, post-Brexit universes exploring how government paternalism, welfare-state bureaucracy, involuntary hospitalization, anti-suicide laws, runaway inflation, exploding federal debt, other bad government polices or abuses of power make end-of-life decisions worse.

So Shriver has had ample practice using many of the tropes of science fiction, from alternate histories and parallel dimensions to dystopian futures.

SHRIVER’S FIRST PROMETHEUS-NOMINATED NOVEL

Shriver was first nominated for a Prometheus Award in 2017 for The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.

In The Mandibles, Shriver paints a dystopian portrait of a recognizable modern family on the run and trying to survive the collapse of the U.S. economy from a rapacious federal government and its massive taxation, inflation and debt.

One of the few dystopian novels with a suspenseful and compelling story drawn from an accurate understanding of both economics and the way markets, politics and dysfunctional governments actually work in the real world, The Mandibles went on to become Shriver’s first Prometheus Best Novel finalist.

Shriver, a columnist for The Spectator magazine in Britain who now lives in Portugal, may be best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, an international bestseller adapted for the 2010 film starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller and John C. Reilly.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including 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 essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

* 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.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for periodic updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts, and comments.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, 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 in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by better visions of the future, innovation, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

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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