Review: Unusual aliens, libertarian ethics accent L. Neil Smith’s Blade of p’Na

By Tom Jackson

book coverI’ll start my review with a confession. Even though I honor L. Neil Smith for creating the Prometheus Award, and I devote a great deal of time and energy trying to help the award continue, I don’t always love his work.

I enjoyed The Forge of the Elders (the 2011 Prometheus Award-winner for Best Novel) but I didn’t care for Pallas or Ceres very much. Smith the angry libertarian polemicist does little for me, either in the Ngu Family Saga or on Facebook.

Blade of p’Na, though, is the more genial Smith — it even shares the two main characters of The Sword of the Elders, Eichra Oren and Sam. If I read it correctly, p’Na is a prequel to The Sword of the Elders, although both books read fine as stand-alone books. There’s plenty of libertarianism of course — it wouldn’t be a Smith novel if there wasn’t — but I find Smith speaking in a calm, rational tone much more persuasive than Smith the shouter. And Blade of p’Na is one of five novels published last year that’s a finalist for this year’s Prometheus Award.

Eichra Oren is a “p’Nan ethical debt assessor” whose job it is to adjudicate cases in which force that violates libertarian principles allegedly has been used. He carries around a big, sharp sword, the “Blade of p’Na” referred to in the title, so he can kill people when he’s forced to carry out an act of capital punishment. (p’Na is essentially the alternate world’s name for libertarianism. Under doctrine of p’Na, “It is considered an axiom that nobody has a right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason,” as Chapter Four of the book explains.)

Sam Otusam is his dog sidekick, although he’s been altered to be intelligent and capable of speech. He still has a dog body, though, according to the text, so it seems a little creepy that he is sexually attracted to women and even has sex with them.

At the beginning of the novel, set on an alternate Earth, a big female spider comes in, seeking help in finding her runaway bridegroom, who apparently is afraid that she will eat him. This plotline eventually is mostly superseded by a threat from one of the other alternate Earths, an invasion of creatures descended from flatworms.

The alternate Earth Blade of p’Na is set in is dominated by the Elders, the creatures who featured also in The Forge of the Elders. Although they are Lovecraftian creatures in some respects, they also are essentially benign libertarians. The main Elder character in it is named Misterthoggosh.

The world is filled with a variety of intelligent creatures that the Elders have brought in from many other alternate Earths. Many of these creatures are very unusual, and Smith has a lot of fun with Jack Vance style exoticism, as we’re introduced to one improbable sentient creature after another.

The Illuminatus! trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson was a big influence on Smith, and as in many of his other novels, he slips in references to the work.  In Chapter 21, Oren and Sam visit the estate of an Elder named Semlohcolresh, and Sam notices columns “with a carved stone ball at the top, sitting on a pyramid. For some reason, they looked a bit like eyeballs.”

This eye and pyramid motif references the title of the first book of the Illuminatus! trilogy, The Eye in the Pyramid.

But in a way, the whole novel shows the influence of Illuminatus! on Smith. Both works are essentially alternate Earth novels, featuring a purported detective story with fantastic elements. Both make use of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, although Smith’s Elders are rather nice and like to drink beer. Both are loaded with libertarian philosophy. Both works have an underwater confrontation with the enemy toward the end.

I’m pleased that Arc Manor’s Phoenix Pick, one of my favorite SF publishers, has taken up Smith as one of its authors.

L. Neil Smith (Creative Commons photo)

Smith has won the Prometheus Award for four works. Three are novels: The Probability Broach, Pallas,  and The Forge of the Elders. He received a special award for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, and received a special Prometheus for lifetime achievement last year. 

I enjoyed Blade of p’Na  from beginning to end. Smith writes like a man who enjoys life and having the opportunity to share his outlook with readers.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at


* Prometheus winners: For the full 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 all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series of more than 100 past winners since 1979.

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.

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One thought on “Review: Unusual aliens, libertarian ethics accent L. Neil Smith’s Blade of p’Na”

  1. The thing I found most interesting about Blade of p’Na was the immense diversity of sapient races it portrayed. Smith really was quite imaginative about this. It reminded me at times of Olaf Stapledon’s varied races in Star Maker, including walking trees, echinoderms, nautiloids with living sails, crustaceans in symbiosis with fish, and flocks of telepathic birds. This is the kind of imaginative exercise that makes SF fun, and certainly Smith’s vision of these diverse races managing to live in harmony was an attractive one.

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