Volume 16, Number 2, Spring, 1998


Libertarian science fiction & its libertarian critics

By Anders Monsen
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory not defeat.” —Theodore Roosevelt

C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On Science Fiction,” wrote that “[m]any reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs.” In the March, 1998 edition of Liberty, libertarian writer and science fiction fan Martin Morse Wooster ripped and ridiculed the 1997 libertarian sf anthology, Free Space.

Wooster has written elsewhere that he dislikes libertarian sf; he proves it repeatedly in his review. Critics are welcome to their opinions regarding fiction, but they should at least strive for a degree of truth and fairness. Both are absent from Wooster’s review.

Wooster takes issue not only with the contributors and the editors of Free Space, but also the Libertarian Futurist Society, it members, and other libertarian sf fans.

When Wooster exposes the reader to the real libertarians, the “harder core of writers” who apparently unashamedly has declared themselves libertarian, he overreaches his knowledge of the field. His hard-core authors include’ Brad Linaweaver, Victor Koman, J. Neil Shulman, L. Neil Smith, and James P. Hogan. Libertarian sf fans may have embraced the books of James P. Hogan, but he has never called himself a libertarian, let alone a hard core libertarian.

He thinks these writers are “clustered” around the LFS and Samuel E. Konkin III’s various anarcho-capitalist organizations. Konkin apparently is amused enough by Wooster’s comments to give this perspective: “According to Liberty (the magazine, not the concept), I also secretly control science fiction fandom...Consider yourself warned.”

We can laugh with Konkin, but while he certainly knows some of these writers quite well, and has published many of them in his newsletter New Libertarian, none would see themselves as clustering around any organization. L. Neil Smith, for example, is clustered around no one but himself.

So, the truth is we find only four hard-core libertarian writers, none of whom are clustered around any organization.

But it doesn’t stop there. Wooster calmly dismisses the defining writer of libertarian sf, L. Neil Smith , as “little more than a hack.” Smith is the writer who drew praise from fantasy writer Robert Adams, historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Libertarian Party candidate Tonie Nathan, columnist Alan W. Bock, artist Frank Kelley Freas, authors Robert Shea, Vernor Vinge, Melinda Snodgrass, and Poul Anderson, economist Walter Block, and scientist K. Eric Drexler, to name but a few. If any novel defines the libertarian sf genre it is Smith’s The Probability Broach. He has written 19 novels, all published by major science fiction publishers. So much for a “hack.”

Wooster thinks the readers of Prometheus “rate novels based on a perverse sort of political correctness.” Contrast this with the varied list of winners of the Prometheus Award: Vernor Vinge—Hugo Award winner, Poul Anderson—Nebula and Hugo Award winner, Ken MacLeodArthur C. Clarke finalist, and Brad Linaweaver—Nebula Award finalist. The critically acclaimed writers such as Michael Flynn, Victor Koman, Victor Milán, J. Neil Schulman, F. Paul Wilson, and L. Neil Smith are more than mere survivors of the LFS politically correct test.

According to Wooster, Prometheus has never emitted one word of critical writing. On the contrary, its pages have included a lengthy debate about the qualities of Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. Robert Shea wrote a passionate defense of this controversial (among libertarians) novel; other agreed, while many dissented. Readers have criticized L. Neil Smith’s emphasis on guns in imagined libertarian societies, and some have questioned LFS’s honoring a mystical novel, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

If there is one constant in Prometheus reviews, it is the concern that novels be well-written, not just spout libertarian ideals. Science fiction magazines share this concern: it is not enough for a book to contain scientific ideas or gadgets, it must also be well-written. Science fiction is always fighting a poor image.

Perhaps Wooster envisions libertarians as walking in tight formation down a specific path. Free Space Editor Brad Linaweaver instead sees an open book, like the open libertarian society, where the belief of the writer doesn’t matter as much as their ability to speculate about a libertarian future.

Free Space contains 17 short stories and three poems. Wooster examines seven stories, and none of the poems. One story, Robert Sawyer’s “The Hand You’re Dealt,” is a 1998 Hugo Award finalist. The other stories range from well-known writers of the field such as Poul Anderson, Gregory Benford, and Ray Bradbury. The fact is, any book that can also pull together notable items like an sf story by William F. Buckley, Jr., a poem by Robert Anton Wilson, and a poem by Wendy McElroy (more noted for her non-fiction), is one that libertarians should celebrate.

The review in Liberty is clouded by personal prejudice, marred by false statements, and at best myopic when it comes to meaning of its subject. Reviewers more objective than Wooster, such as those in Locus, Kirkus Reviews, Starlog, Fosfax, and others, have pointed out the overall high quality of the stories in this book. Several stories were nominated for the Hugo Award, and I suspect they also will be nominated for the Nebula.

There appears to be a strange sort of double standard applied by some libertarian readers and critics. There is always the concern that the politics not get in the way of the story, as if some apology is necessary. There doesn’t have to be this concern. A book is good or it is not. The libertarian element can be as much as part of a novel as a gay/lesbian theme, or a hard sf aspect, or cyberpunk, or slipstream, or media-related sf.

I firmly believe that Free Space overall is better than most anthologies. It contains stories that rank in the “best of year” category. Just because one individual has an axe to grind against libertarian sf does not invalidate this. When this individual is a libertarian, and the most savage review of Free Space (the first ever libertarian sf anthology) appears in a libertarian newsletter, it is a shame lies and innuendos dominate.

When the other major libertarian magazine out there—Reason—promises a review but nothing surfaces, one has to wonder. If libertarian sf ceases to exist, will it be at the hands of libertarians, not by those who enjoy good fiction where political ideas are part of the plot and background?

There’s tremendous variety in libertarian sf, and Free Space demonstrates this. Whereas shared world anthologies often are limited by their concepts, the concept of liberty is unlimited. Free Space belongs on the shelf of every sf fan. The fact that it exists is a testament to a worthy struggle—a struggle that continues to this day.

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