Volume 23, Number 2, Winter, 2005

The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel

By L. Neil Smith & Scott Bieser

Big Head Press
2004: $19.95
ISBN 0-9743814-1-1
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
November 2005

L. Neil Smith’s 1980 novel, The Probability Broach, stands as the archetype for libertarian utopian fiction. Political elements were not new to sf, but Smith stepped out of the traditional sf narrative by creating an individualist anarchist’s dreamland. His novel took a no-holds barred look at the possibilities of a society unfettered by regulations, yet not devoid of order or legal institutions.

Sixteen years after the first edition, Tor reprinted The Probability Broach, first as a paperback, then a few years again as a trade paperback with a superb new cover, to coincide with the hard cover publication of its sequel, The American Zone (2001).

And now, after more than two years in the making, this classic work of fiction makes its debut as a graphic novel in a way that extends Smith’s vision in living color. Artist Scott Bieser has converted nearly 300 pages of dialog-heavy text into a wondrous world of visual humor and power that is sure to be read again and again by both fans of the original novel and newcomers to Smith’s world.

The graphic novel version of The Probability Broach follows the same narrative trail as the original book. Lieutenant Win Bear is a tough-luck cop in 1987 Denver, his world beset by food and power shortages, government intruding into every aspect of the people’s daily lives.

Working on the case of a slain scientist, Vaughn Meiss, Bear stumbles into an alternate world, where history took a sideways path during the Whiskey Rebellion, and calls itself the North American Confederacy. Before Bear has gained an understanding of how this world differs from his own, he is attacked and nearly killed. We later learn these attackers were the henchmen of the people in Bear’s world who killed Meiss. Armed with new-found friends and lots of bullets, Bear and company take on these enemies.

Bieser’s draws Bear’s world in muted sepia tones, while the North American Confederacy’s colors are rich and vibrant. This is no mere affectation, but achieves its goal of setting the mood and values of the two societies. Like movie directors coloring the light for effect and narrative purpose, Bieser employs color, tone of voice, and facial expressions to differentiate the two worlds.

Win Bear discovers another Edward Bear, who like himself is employed in law enforcement, but runs his own company. Smith’s ability to sketch colorful, three dimensional characters gives us the wonderful Lucy Kropotkin, an at times cantankerous but always passionate defender of liberty. Other main characters include the healer Clarissa Olson, who becomes Bear’s love interest, and the scientists who created the Broach that sent Bear into their world: super-sexy Dora Jayne “Deejay” Thorens, and a porpoise known as Ooloorie Eckickeck P’Wheet.

We encounter the evil Hamiltonian Manfred von Richthofen, living in Laporte under his new name, John Jay Madison, as well as his henchman from Bear’s world, the sinister Homeland Security Policeman Oscar Burgess.

Smith has drawn the ire of non-libertarians and some libertarians alike in his implacable and relentless focus on the right to bear arms and use of these arms in self-defense as the way to bring about and maintain a free society. Someone once wrote, “an armed society is a polite society.” Much like Henry David Thoreau subverted Thomas Jefferson by changing his statement, “That government is best which governs the least,” into “That government is best which governs not at all,” Smith brought about his peaceful society by arming every member of that society, including young children.

To Win Bear, a cop used to seeing heavy hardware only on the hips of fellow cops, this society is disconcerting. Yet he warms quickly to the gun-toting anarchists who rescued and healed him, and discovers that perhaps there is something to their philosophy after all. There are moments in the original book where debate takes over the narrative, where Smith’s passion for liberty and hatred of the state and its minions slow down the pace. In TPB: TGN, dialog like this often crowds the panels, Clarissa Olson still has her John Galt moment, and the Congress scene still drags somewhat.

It’s somewhat disconcerting to see virtually every character lighting up various forms of tobacco at every opportunity. The medical technology of the NAC appears to have solved all the health related aspects of tobacco, but does that include the bad smell that lingers around smokers? I suppose, since governments everywhere wage yet another War on Something—in this instance: tobacco—smoking has become an act of defiance.

Bieser imbues Bear with numerous and hilarious facial expressions. Even Bear’s hat takes on a distinct personality, and accompanies him virtually everywhere. The Probability Broach derives much of its success and appreciation not just from creating a believable, and in some regards desirable, libertarian utopia, but also through its very human characters. True, they tend to talk a lot, but they all share a passion for life and liberty.

Inside jokes abound in the book. The intruder who nearly stabs Win at Ed’s house, Tricky Dick Milhous (aka Richard Nixon), slimes his way onto the pages with great effect. But wait, is that Jimmy Carter at the Continental Congress, selling “Peanuts! Pinons, Frahd grasshoppahs?” Smith makes at least one cameo appearance, in the bottom right corner of page 139 as a spectator at this self-same Congressional gathering; a painting on Lucy’s wall matches Bieser’s cover of Smith’s non-fiction collection of essays, Lever Action. Friends of Smith appear as store-names, and even characters. Former The Libertarian Enterprise editor Dan Weiner replaces Jimmy Valentine in the safe and vault scene from the original book (though the last name on the sign is spelled Wiener). Kerry Pearson, to whose memory the book is dedicated, appears onboard the dirigible The San Francisco Palace, where we also briefly see Kent and Fran Van Cleave. There are countless other such details, which add elements of interest to some people, and never really detract from the story.

This graphic novel incarnation of The Probability Broach will delight and amuse you once again. Liberty needs its passionate defenders, the people who are willing to throw all their creative effort into the fight for freedoms. You may not agree with everything Smith presents in his version of a free society, but I would take the North American Confederacy over our present option any day. Three cheers for Bieser and Smith.

All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.
Creative Commons License
Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurists Society, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.