Best Novel finalist review: Karl K. Gallagher’s Swim Among the People dramatizes heroic planetary resistance to an insidious totalitarian interstellar empire

By William H. Stoddard

Swim among the People, a 2024 Prometheus Best Novel finalist, is the fifth of six (so far) volumes in Karl K. Gallagher’s science fiction series The Fall of the Censorate.

The series as a whole begins when a merchant starship from a long isolated cluster of solar systems discovers a new route through hyperspace that leads to a much larger interstellar human civilization.

AN INSIDIIOUS FORM OF TOTALITARIANISM

The new society, the Censorate, practices a form of totalitarianism: not communism or fascism, but a system based on the forcible suppression of all records of the past, in which any document that mentions a person no longer living is destroyed, and its owner put to death. (This is rather like the regime of Qin Shihuangdi, founder of China’s Qin dynasty, of whom it was said “He burned the books and buried the scholars”—but with the suppression happening not just once, but over and over.)

The only historical memory that seems to be preserved is that some time in the past, the Censorate destroyed Earth.

The two societies inevitably clash, and soon are at war. Ironically, one thing that evens the chances is the Censorate’s lack of historical records of past military strategies and their outcomes; every new commanding officer has to reinvent the wheel.

Nonetheless, the Censorate has massive resources, and in Swim among the People we see them reconquer Corwynt, a planet that had thrown off its rule and begun to develop autonomous government.

A CLASSIC STRUGGLE IN LIBERTARIAN FICTION

Gallagher’s resulting story is an excellent example of dramatic unity: all of the viewpoint characters are involved in the conflict between the Censorate, which seeks to stabilize its rule of Corwynt and extract revenues from it, and the Corwynti, who want to survive the Censorate’s rule and hope to throw it off a second time, with the aid of their Fieran allies.

Robert Heinlein, a drawing (Creative Commons license)

This kind of struggle is a classic one for libertarian fiction; for example, it’s the focus of Robert Heinlein’s classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, an early Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee for Best Classic Fiction.

An authoritarian government imposed by military force goes against libertarian principles, and both ways of surviving under such a government and ways of throwing it off and instituting new government on better principles are central problems for libertarian theory.

SEEKING VOLUNTARY SUPPORT

Karl K. Gallagher (2024 photo courtesy of Gallagher)

The title of Gallagher’s novel emphasizes a key element in such efforts: the need for would-be liberators to seek the voluntary support of the people they want to set free, both as a necessity of survival and as a basis for the freer society they hope to establish.

Swim among the People shows both a variety of ingenious methods for covert operations and a series of hard choices that have to be made if the underground, and Corwynt itself, are to survive. Gallagher does an excellent job of building up tension until the final struggle.

One of the keys to the underground’s survival is a newly introduced element in Corwynti society: the shoalers, people who raise plants in the planet’s oceans and provide much of its food supply.

They appear to be poor and low-tech and are essentially invisible to the Censorate. They turn out to be more advanced than they show, and use their technology to maintain underwater settlements linked by submarines and cables. And those settlements enable them to preserve their own religious and cultural traditions, which are a form of Judaism. Their traditions and their way of life are ingeniously worked out.

INNOVATIVE WAYS OF A NEWLY FREE SOCIETY

As a newly free society, Corwynt had invented some distinctive ways of doing things, growing out of customs the Corwynti had developed to make their society work under Censorate rule.

A particularly significant one is “liquid democracy,” under which representatives are not elected by geographic districts, but qualified by holding proxies from a sufficient number of people.

This is a point that particularly recalls The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, in which a very similar system was proposed by Bernardo de la Paz, though apparently never implemented. We also see some aspects of law enforcement and the judicial system, such as the institution of “death creditors,” though those were more fully developed earlier in the series.

Gallagher’s central characters are Marcus Landry, originally a crew member on the Fieran merchant ship that found Corwynt, then the commander of one of its space forces, and in this novel a hidden revolutionary leader; and his wife Wynny, a death creditor who provides vital support for his efforts.

HEROIC RESISTERS OF GREAT CHARACTER

Several other characters play continuing roles in the resistance. But for me, the most striking figures are two who don’t survive the Corwynti presence: a former actor who successfully ran for president of Corwynt, and then faces his executioners in a spirit of defiance, and a Fieran Christian bishop martyred while protecting Corwynti children from Censorate soldiers.

Their recognition as heroes (and in the bishop’s case, as a saint) elegantly illustrates why the preservation of historical memory is so vital to a free society.

 

I read Swim among the People after reading all the earlier novels in the series. But I didn’t have any trouble picking it up, without going back and rereading them, though it had been a while. I think it will be accessible to readers new to the series — and it may tempt them to read the rest of it.

Karl Gallagher, trying to write despite distractions from one of his cats. Photo credit: Laura Gallagher

Biographical note: Karl K. Gallagher, nominated six times for the Prometheus Award for Best Nove, launched his projected nine-novel Fall of the Censorate series with Storm Between the Stars, which became a 2021 Prometheus Best Novel finalist.

Between Home and Ruin (Book 2) and Seize What’s Held Dear (Book 3) were 2022 Best Novel finalists. Check out the combined Prometheus Blog review of both 2022 finalists.

Captain Trader Helmsman Spy (Book 4) was a 2023 Best Novel finalist and Swim Among the People (Book 5), a 2024 Best Novel finalist.

Book 6, published in November 2023, is Trouble in My Day.

Next up in the series, perhaps to be published by late 2024 or early 2025, is Book 7: War by Other Means.

READ REVIEWS OF ALL THE 2024 BEST NOVEL FINALISTS

Three Best Novel finalists have previously been reviewed here on the Prometheus blog: Critical Mass, Theft of Fire and Lord of a Shattered Land.

Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Best Novel finalist God’s Girlfriend.

Capsule descriptions of all five 2024 Best Novel finalists are included in the LFS press release announcing this year’s finalists.

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 on both quality and liberty.

* 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 comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Prometheus, the light bringer (Creative Commons license)

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction, join the 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.

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, end slavery, reduce the threat of war, repeal or constrain other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps ultimately, worlds) for all.

 

 

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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