Volume 24, Number 1, Fall, 2005

Anywhere but Here

By Jerry Oltion

Tor Books, 2005
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

From the dust jacket copy, Jerry Oltion’s latest book sounds like a classic libertarian story of a free frontier in space. It turns out not to be exactly that, but libertarian readers may enjoy many aspects of it. In many ways it’s very much like a classic Analog story about new technology and its social impact.

To be specific, this is a “garage technology” story—the kind where a lone inventor, in his home workshop, puts together a radical new device, based on his personal genius, a radical new theoretical concept, or a lucky accident, and the device changes the world. Such stories used to be more common than they are now; they draw on older American hero-worship of inventors, especially solitary and eccentric inventors. Often their characters are “just folks” types with homespun manners. Oltion has exactly captured that feel with the central characters of this story, Trent and Donna Stinson, a Wyoming couple going into space because the development of cheap faster-than-light travel has put America into a depression: Trent is out of work and Donna’s hours have been cut back to almost nothing.

The stardrive technology isn’t invented in this book; it looks as if this is a later volume in a series, whose earlier volumes told that story. The inventor, Allen Meisner, shows up in this book, but it’s not about him; it’s about two fairly ordinary but competent people (a bit more competent than they give themselves credit for) having adventures—that is, getting into unexpected trouble. The characterization is somewhere in between classic science fiction and television situation comedy. The setting is a bit old-fashioned: it appears that Earthlike planets, with oxygen/nitrogen atmospheres, liquid water, and only mild biohazards are all over the galaxy, just waiting for the first colonists to arrive in vacuum-sealed pickups. The past decade or two of extrasolar astronomy have made this look a lot less likely. In some ways Oltion’s story is as much a period piece as if it were set on the Mars or Venus of Heinlein’s juveniles.

The political and economic subtext of this book gives evidence of Oltion’s being not just culturally but politically a conventional leftist. His central characters are from Wyoming, and more or less conservative, but they aren’t Biblical literalists: they accept evolution as a fact, and when they meet aliens who tell them about ancient visits to Earth where they played the role of “gods” as a joke and seemingly started human religion, the Stinson’s aren’t more than mildly surprised. Geopolitically, the United States is the bad guy of this future world, keeping the rest of the world under its thumb with raw military power and repressing its own citizens; the surviving resistance is led by the French and the Arab nations. None of this is necessarily in conflict with libertarianism; certainly Darwinism isn’t, and libertarians are able to imagine the United States government as the bad guy—we often think the real one is just that! A passage where the Stinsons try to buy something from an alien merchant, who refuses to quote a price and instead asks what they can afford to pay, explaining that fixed prices lead to class warfare, economic exploitation, and monopoly, could have come right out of Karl Marx—and combined with the others, makes it look as if Oltion is somewhere in the range from liberal to socialist.

But given that, he’s the sort of leftist that libertarians are able to get along with. He’s critical of repressive authority, and sees government as likely to be exercising such authority, rather than as a benign protector of the common people. He sympathizes with the common people doing things for themselves. In particular, he shows them going out into a frontier setting to start over in a better world. A country run by this sort of leftist would be a lot more congenial for libertarians than one run by Leninist revolutionaries, or even social democratic bureaucrats. His Galactic Federation causes problems for the heroes not by being too assertive, but by insisting on keeping its hands off when they want help.

It’s also worth noting that Oltion shows that there is some basis for American repressiveness. His stardrive technology is basically teleportation, with conservation of momentum—that is, if you leave Earth’s surface and teleport to the orbit of Mars, you still have Earth’s orbital velocity, and have to worry about crashing into Mars! This provides a way to bombard people from orbit with small asteroids—and this version of “throwing rocks” isn’t the exclusive property of a band of heroic anarchist Loonies, but is available to any terrorist nut with a computer, some downloaded software, and a decent-sized sealed vehicle. The United States in this world has a lot of new craters, and the United States government has made quite a few of its own, as well as actively trying to suppress the new technology. The adversaries in this story aren’t simple villains for villainy’s sake, which makes the story more interesting.

I wouldn’t call this an especially profound book. But it was entertaining, and its author’s cultural and political viewpoint was skewed from mine, rather than diametrically opposed. Other LFS members might find it worth a look.

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