To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.
Here is a review essay about F. Paul Wilson’s story “Lipidleggin’,” the 2021 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction. With this appreciation for this year’s winner, our Appreciation series for the Hall of Fame category of the Prometheus Awards is now complete.
Once you taste freedom, it’s harder to live your life without it.
Once you learn to enjoy the taste of something good, you naturally tend to want more of it.
(Also, wouldn’t it be nice if petty bureaucrats and aspiring tyrants could be seduced by the mere taste of freedom?)
Such are my immediate thoughts after rereading “Lipidleggin’,” the 2021 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
F. Paul Wilson’s sly and smart short story, first published in 1978 in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, falls into the fertile category of speculative fiction that imagines: What if this goes on?
In such “what if?” scenarios, the “this” can refer to a dangerous trend, a seemingly positive development, a change in social attitudes or government laws, or pretty much any change or human development.
In the case of “Lipidleggin’,” Wilson imagines a future United States where saturated fats have become controlled substances.
Real eggs and real butter are banned, prohibited by the government “giraffes” through Lipid Laws.
In this future, frying eggs in butter, with perhaps some bacon on the side, becomes an illegal act – of rebellion, resistance and pure secret pleasure for those willing to risk the wrath of the State.
The story is told from the point of view of a down-to-earth guy who strives to avoid attention from an increasingly intrusive State but who also refuses to give up his everyday pleasures – like frying eggs in butter.
Nor is this independent-minded man averse to selling some choice goods carefully on the black market to customers he trusts in his small-town hideaway.
Wilson’s set up for his ingenious scenario may have appeared a bit fanciful to some in the 1970s, but his story is actually rather plausible to modern eyes:
“… the giraffes who were running the National Health Insurance program found out that they were spending way too much money taking care of people with diseases nobody was likely to cure for some time. The stroke and heart patients were the worst. With the presses at the Treasury working overtime and inflation getting wild, it got to the point where they either had to admit they’d made a mistake or do something drastic. Naturally, they got drastic.
“The president declared a health emergency and Congress passed something called the National Health Maintenance Act which said that since certain citizens were behaving irresponsibly by abusing their bodies and thereby giving rise to chronic diseases which resulted in consumption of more that their fair share of medical care at public expense, it was resolved that, in the public interest and for the public good, certain commodities would henceforth and hereafter be either prescribed or strictly rationed.”
Among the prohibited high-fat-and-cholesterol commodities: butter and eggs.
The deft story comes alive with just a few plausible details, all told in a brisk style reminiscent of the first-person crime-detective novels of the 1940s. Wilson takes just the right tone in his concise story: down-to-earth and realistic, shading towards cynicism and sly humor. The overall effect is to ground what might seem theoretical social-sci-fi in mundane plausibility that gradually grabs you.
But the spirit of his tale is also subtly satirical, with welcome flashes of lighthearted humor that remind us, after all, that an integral part of what Wilson is sharing is a love story about good food, part of what gives life its spice and flavor.
Wilson’s tale – reprinted in a recent edition of his novel An Enemy of the State – can be appreciated as an early chapter in his future-history LaNague Federation series (most notably, including the Prometheus-winning trilogy Healer, Wheels within Wheels, and An Enemy of the State.) But it easily works and makes complete sense as a stand-alone story, too.
Concise and amusing, “Lipidleggin’” seems surprisingly timely today – especially during a pandemic in which state and federal authorities have imposed unprecedented lockdowns sacrificing freedom of movement and other personal liberties that everyone took for granted not so many months ago.
For widely read libertarians, this story also speaks directly in response to advocates for government paternalism. Over the decades, many have scoffed repeatedly at libertarians and freedom-loving skeptics who predict the logical next steps “if this goes on.” Such libertarians warn that the State rarely ever stops at its current level of command and control, because they understand history and human nature.
We know that the logic of power and the perverse dynamics of outlawing free markets often push past the status quo of custom and law to impose new forms of tyranny. Thus, what seems far-fetched today likely won’t seem at all far-fetched the day after tomorrow.
Wilson understands the logic of power and the dynamics of bureaucracy, which informs his story as a predictable extrapolation of common collectivist arguments based on the paternalistic authoritarianism of government treating citizens like children and forcing them to do – or not do – something “for their own good.” (I might add the ratcheting effect of Power, capably described in Robert Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan. War isn’t the only “health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne warned, either. Health issues can be the health of the state, too, as both Wilson’s story and recent events make clear.)
But back to the story’s title, which I love, because “Lipidleggin’” resonates with actual American history.
In Wilson’s inventive scenario of a new type of Prohibition, those who smuggle, produce or trade butter, eggs and other high-fat, high-cholesterol products become “lipidleggers.”
If that clever coined word doesn’t ring any bells to millennials or the younger generation born in the 21st century, they might find it illuminating to study bootlegging, part of a particularly sad and brutal episode of the history of what I call the “Prohibitionist Mentality” – the commonplace but misguided notion that “There Out to Be a Law” to solve any real or perceived problem. (That particular pernicious belief seems to me to pave the way towards an even worse form of authoritarian extremism: the so-called totalitarian principle that “anything not forbidden is compulsory.”)
The country seemed headed that way during the Progressive era of the early 1900s, in which progressives and populists combined to support a variety of illiberal and collectivist programs – including state-enforced eugenics, establishment of the federal income tax, and crusading military interventionism to make the world “safe for democracy” by the U.S. entering World War I.
All of that had horrific, tragic and lingering consequences, to put it mildly.
But Prohibition was one of the worst consequences of the Progressive movement, which allied with the so-called temperance movement to impose via a constitutional amendment, ratified in 1919, a new Prohibition of liquor, beer and alcohol.
That “Noble Experiment,” finally repealed in 1933, did enormous damage to the country by outlawing a free market and creating distorted black markets of bootlegged liquor that favored the rise of criminal gangs like the Mafia, led to massive corruption of the police and courts and caused the deaths of thousands who unknowingly drank and overdosed on black-market liquor poisoned by methyl alcohol.
Wilson’s story is satirical, and rightly so, because it deals with foods we all know and love – which is why, by the way, his delightful reference to Bugs Bunny is so apt in reflecting the American spirit of rebellious, anti-State individualism.
But “Lipidleggin’” deserves recognition as a serious cautionary tale, too, well-grounded in the realities of Prohibition and the horrors of history.
Note: F. Paul Wilson is a best-selling author, well known for his Repairman Jack series of novels about an individualist hero.
His Prometheus-winning LaNague Federation series can be read in any order, and includes the sf-mystery Wheels within Wheels (the first Prometheus winner in 1979), Healer (the 1990 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner); An Enemy of the State (the 1991 Hall of Fame winner); Dydeetown World; and several related stories.
Wilson also won a Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Sims in 2004 and a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2015.
* 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.
* 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 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 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 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.