The Probability Broach is an inventive tale of a Denver police officer who stumbles into an alternate universe while on the trail of a murderer. An accident with a murdered physicist's equipment sends him into a world in which, as Smith puts it, “the good guys won the Whiskey Rebellion,” the revolt of western farmers in 1792-4 over an excise tax on whiskey. The Denver detective suddenly finds himself in the U.S. as it would have evolved had the farmers won their clash with the newly devised federal government of Washington and Hamilton. The year is 211 A.L. (Anno Libertas, our 1987, for the calendar is now dated from the American revolution) and only a crippled, vestigial government incapable of collecting any taxes exists.
“I wanted to write a libertarian version of Looking Backwards, Edward Bellamy's famous utopian socialist novel of the 19th Century,” Smith says.
“Only I wanted The Probability Broach to be interesting; Bellamy's utopia is boring.”
“There's enough sex and violence in it to satisfy the most apolitical reader,” he adds.
The Probability Broach was Smith's first novel. When he finished it, he said to himself, “it's either a terrific book or it's shit.” Apparently the first publisher who read it took the former view. Dell, a division of the prominent publisher Random House, snapped it up.
Quite aside from the merit of his novel, L. Neil Smith was a singularly appropriate choice for the award: he invented it. Smith was the chair of the original “Prometheus Award Committee” created in 1978 to give awards to libertarian fiction. The committee gave its first award to F. Paul Wilson in 1979 for Wheels Within Wheels.
“I was very, very pleased about winning the award” Smith says. He felt “a little strange” about the fact that he originated it, but notes that almost all of the judges are different from the original committee of eleven. “The competition this year was very stiff.” Smith singled out F. Paul Wilson's An Enemy of the State as particularly praiseworthy. “It's a great book, a book I re-read several times a year.”
Exaggeration? Smith has every right to exaggerate. He's embarking on a 30-book science fiction series, of which three have already been published: The Probability Broach, The Venus Belt, and Their Majesty's Bucketeers. In February his fourth, The Nagasaki Vector, will appear, and he's already working on two more. According to Smith Bucketeers is an “anticipatory” book that contains coded secrets that even the story's ace detective doesn't catch. The references contained in the book, Smith says, are all names and places famillar to libertarians.
“I expect to have many more submissible novels,” Smith says. Let the LFS Advisory Board be forewarned.
The Prometheus award is a half ounce privately minted gold coin bearing the likeness of F.A. Hayek, one of the intellectual giants of libertarianism. The award was created to encourage and reward outstanding tibertarian fiction. The award was revived this year after a two-year hiatus dlue to money and organizational problems. Credit for its phoenix- like rise goes to Michael Grossberg, the Austin, Texas libertarian who put together a new set of backers and made the Prometheus Award part of an ambitious new Libertarian Futurist Society. The purpose of LFS, in Grossberg's words, is “to cross-pollinate the worlds of libertarianism and science fiction.”
What do the two have to do with each other? Robert Shea, in his speech presenting the award, eloquently expressed the connection:
“From the days when Sir Thomas Moore wrote Utopia and Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels science fiction has used imaginary societies both to show how our society could be improved and to lampoon what is wrong with it. Libertarians are often asked how their ideas would work in practice, and one of the best ways to answer that question is to present fictional models of libertarian societies. Libertarians need science fiction because the idea of maximizing freedom is still so new and strange in the world that there are few examptes in the real worlds past and present, of how a totally free society would works So libertarians have to turn to the worlds of the future and the imaginations. Libertarian writers also like to use their imagination to demonstrate what is likely to happen to our world if certaln authoritarian trends, some of which may seem harmless or beneficial today, are allowed to develop unchecked. The results of these uses of the imagination to explore libertarian themes have been some classic science fiction novels, such as Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion, C.M. Kornbluth's The Syndic, Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Ayn Rand's Anthem and Atlas Shrugged (which in my opinion is borderline science fiction), and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day.”
This year's Prometheus Award was for the best libertarian novel of 1979-80. Next year's nominee will be drawn from the best works of 1981-2. Once the award has caught up with the rest of the world, in 1983, it will be given annually.
The other finalists for the award were: Tales of Neveryon, by Samuel L. Delany; Alongside Night, by J. Neil Schulman; The Watchers, by Kay Nolte Smith; Songs from the Stars, by Norman Spinrad; and An Enemy of the State, by F. Paul Wilson. Authors Schulman and Spinrad attended the award ceremony at the Chicago Worldcon.
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