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Ten best libertarian sci-fi stories

Io9 lists their ten best sci-fi libertarian stories: and the mix is an interesting combination of the obvious and the outliers. The anarcho-socialist tradition, mostly British, is referenced, revealing some surprises on the influences that could be fictionalised as libertarian utopias. My own favourites are that hoary old goat, the fabian Wells, providing a counterpoint to his scientific socialism, and Eric Frank Russell with his homage to Gandhi.

Some would criticise the absence of L. Neil Smith, Ken McLeod and others, but lists are always a springboard for discussion, an opportunity to find works that did not blip the reading radar.

17 comments to Ten best libertarian sci-fi stories

  • David

    It’s not very well known, but “The Syndic” by C M Kornbluth is a very good example of this. It compares favourably with L Neil Smith’s “The Probability Broach” in one key respect.

    When the Smith’s North American Confederacy is threatened by Hamiltonian Statists, its ceremonial President refuses on moral grounds to give the teeny weeny Government any extra powers even to cope with a potential Statist invasion; restricting entry to the NAC is clearly logically inconsistent with the foundation of that country.

    The only way Smith can resolve this paradox is to have the main character challenge the head Statist to a duel, which while solving the immediate problem does not address the philosophical issue.

    Kornbluth, by contrast, makes much more of a go at tackling this thorny problem. When his Syndic is threatened by various repressive interests, its nominal leader rams home the difference between it and a Government – the Syndic’s primary raison d’etre is to maintain its own popularity among a freedom-loving population, not to protect them or anything like that.

    Once his Syndic is facing a life-or-death crisis that tempts its members to invoke “emergency” powers, the leader suggests that this implicitly means the Syndic has already let itself die by allowing things to reach such a pass in the first place.

    Implicitly I think we are meant to assume a choir-related basis for this line of argument, in that if people wanted to protect the Syndic they would do so independently; its arrival at a point of crisis is thus evidence in and of itself of its ebbing public support and thereby its mandate to “govern”.

    Although I suppose the title character in TPB (yes, indeed…) might himself be an example of just such a proactive act in defence of the status quo.

  • David (erratum)

    ^Sorry, a CHOICE-related basis (line 14).

  • Michael Z Williamson’s Freehold is another excellent book omitted from the list – you can read it in ebook form free at http://www.webscription.net//p-162-freehold.aspx

  • virgil xenophon

    The Libertarian dilemma David talks about is perhaps best resolved philosophically by taking the tact that individuals have a better chance of keeping intact both their physical existence and their individual freedoms by submitting to a “mini- Leviathan” whose ability to arrange/coordinate an organized collective response–however coerced–to existential threats paradoxically creates a more certain possibility of the physical survival of the individual and his social freedoms than would be possible if the individual acted independently. And as long as the individuals involved willingly submit to these new restrictions, ultimate freedoms are secured. “There can’t be a December if there ain’t no September.”

  • virgil xenophon

    Sorry–“taking the tack”

  • How about Neil Stephenson’s works like Snow Crash or The Diamond Age?

  • Richard Garner

    I thought Freehold was good, with an interesting Hospers-style ultra-minimal state. I was actually thinking that Perry might enjoy it, as it seems to be very much that “Heinleinian Libertarian” type of book that is favourable to the “realities” of war and military life. Crazy old Rothbardian that I am, I found that off putting, but the novel over all was very good.

    No mention of J Neil Schulman here, either.

  • Nuke Gray!

    David, I think the Confederation could have been saved by the Gallatinists simply choosing to co-ordinate as an army, or a series of allied guerillas. Regular armies hate such warfare, and would rather march in straight lines. Half of the work of Wellington was done for him by the Spanish guerillas!
    As a book, it deserves a better title. “The World that killed Washington”?
    I can’t think of an Australian book which is libertarian, though the movies, “The Castle”, and “Getting Ahead” have some anti-government themes.

  • I recommend The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov. In The End of Eternity, all of history is planned by the Eternals, planners who really are all-wise because they have time travel and can see what the effects of their actions will be, … and they still manage to make a mess of things. A quote:

    “Any system like Eternity which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a Reality the stars are out of reach.”

  • David (sans typos this time hopefully)

    Nuke Gray: You make a good point. Although I am wary of heading into Iraq-debate territory by saying this, it is nonetheless true that low-level insurgencies often work well against even the best-organised invasions, particularly from a morale point of view. And since the invaders would almost certainly be heavily reliant on conscription of the unwilling, the balance of morale would already require only the gentlest of pokes.

    Virgil Xenophon: Sorry, what? Either I’ve completely misunderstood you or you’re heading down exactly the slippery slope of submission, coercion and conscription that Smith’s protagonists are at such pains to avoid.

    Regarding The End of Eternity and similar novels – the kind that involve barely-recognisable, transcendent future-people swanning around spacetime and generally behaving like the Greek gods (bonus points if you spotted the unintentional pun on “swan”), I’m not sure they’re so Libertarian after all. By setting their anarchic, free societies in the far future, don’t they implicitly make the claim that freedom is impossible for homo sapiens in its current state? That the only way such a society can come about is through colossal technological progress?

    The theories of the Austrian School suggest otherwise, and it is these theories that I would argue are the basis for “here-and-now” Libertarianism. The more realistic, “grimy” Libertarianism of Harsh Mistress is more to my taste, personally, even if such novels seem to be obsessed with the setting of an offworld mining colony. Their setting is futuristic but the same basic rules apply: mortality, physics etc. When Asimov and others fling these out of the window, their resulting paradises ring a little false for me, trapped here in the 21st Century.

  • Kevin B


    Being as it’s Monday, and given the current state of Western Civilization and the world in the early years of the 21st century, perhaps a look at Sci-Fi’s take on post-apocalyptic societies might give us a better handle on what to expect.

    For instance, the kind of societies Niven and Pournelle foresee in Lucifer’s Hammer, or Fallen Angels. These at least deal with 20th, (or 21st), century tech, and how to keep it alive in the dark ages.

    Sadly, for me the Sci-Fi tales which ring truest are those which deal with libertarians trying to survive and prosper in an increasingly statist universe where government(s) control the technologies which keep the people alive.

  • Paul Marks

    Regular armies have a long record of defeating irregular forces.

    Indeed the American armed forces have done so many times.

    Of course irregular forces may win – but to rely on their winning is a error.

    Especially if a regular military makes basic moves – such as restricting media access.

    To win against irregular forces (whether it is the Apache, or the forces in the Dutch speaking Republics of South Africa, or……) harsh measures need to be taken.

    Of course restrictions on the media are not libertarian.

    Even a media such as the one that covered Vietnam – which lavished attention on every crime by American forces, but almost totally ignored even the murder of vast numbers of civilians by the V.C. and N.V.A. – for example see what happened at Hue during the Tet Offensive.

    Even today such supposedly “politically incorrect” media people as Mr J. Clarkson just go to places such as Hue (on a rather expensive B.B.C. car show event) to snear at Americans and do rather poor imitations of American accents.

    I suppose a libertarian approach would be to allow alternative media.

    For example, I did not think going into Iraq was a good idea – but I was disgusted by the one sided coverage of the war by the mainstream media.

    But the existance of Fox News (cable and sat only that it is) allowed at least a minority of Americans to get the other side of the story.

    And this prevented the total collapse of the public will to support the fight.

    Had Fox News existed in the 1960’s and 1970’s – asking such questions as “if we are fighting why not fight to win – why not victory?” (questions that were asked by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and others at the time, but with no media support – the media, like Johnson and Nixon, being only interested in an “honourable end”, i.e. blood soaked slow motion defeat, rather than victory) well………….

    Perhaps millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians who were murdered by the Marxists might have been saved.

    “But the war should not have faught at all” – perhaps not, but it was not “unwinnable” and if one is going to fight a war (and lose almost sixty thousand men fighting it) one might as well win the war.

    Cut off the enemy supply lines (by large scale infantry on the ground in Laos), and the phony “irregular” nature of the enemy leadership. Not an original point I know (Ike pointed out in the 1950’s that if America ever went into IndoChina the mountains of Laos would be the key and only large scale infantry operations could close enemy supply lines).

    Target the enemy political and military leadership – rather than being careful NOT to kill them.

    And when the enemy ask for talks do not (every time) stop attacking – but take the request for talks as a sign of weakness and attack even harder (till the people asking for the talks are dead, or accepted they are defeated).

    Last point:

    Presently there are no attacks on the enemy leadership in Quetta, Pakistan.

    This means that all the other attacks (both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan) and all the hard fighting and dying by American and other military forces in this war are being betrayed.

    Neither Bush or Obama ever had any intention of winning the Afghan war (the objective is not victory it is “talks” or other such nonsense).

    If they had wanted victory they would have killed Mullah Omar and the others in Quetta – and they have not even tried to kill them.

    Until when and if they do so kill them, the war is a fraud and the soldiers and marines are dying for nothing.

  • I read The Dispossessed in Utopian Lit class. One theme I recall is the nominal anarchists’ ironic slide to statism. Social engineers seek to preserve libertarian ideals through coercive means, including their own version of Orwellian Newspeak.

  • Nuke Gray!

    Kevin B.,
    I have an interesting idea for a novel, which I work on intermittently. It involves a group of Libertarians who practice what they preach, and issue insurance to drug-dealers and other heroes of free markets. If the insurer is imprisoned, they will be liberated within a set time, or you get a bonus. a policeman is given the task of infiltrating the elusive group, and by the time he finds out who the leader is, he really does want to join them, after helping them to foil stupid government schemes which blight people’s lives- drug laws, heritage preservation orders, council regulations, etc.
    What we need are people like that, with a motto like- ‘Underdogs United, Liberating Victimless Underdogs!’.

  • Nuke Gray!

    Just reading about the end of the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, and I came across an interesting item. It seems that the Sri-Lankan army won by adopting guerilla tactics! Training in jungle warfare, etc. So those tactics can be good for an army, as well.

  • Paul Marks

    Walter Block may have had an influence on you Nuke Gray!

    As for working with the “dregs of society” (as some might call them, rightly or wrongly) the “Centre for Civil Society” in India is sympathetic to such ideas. Parth J. Shah may be a person it would be interesting for you to contact.

    On military tactics:

    Yes – whether it is the Apache or the Tamil Tigers, it is no good just sitting behind fortifications.

    One has to go looking for the enemy.

    Of course the media will (again rightly or wrongly) call such anti guerilla units “Death Squads” – but sometimes small units operating independently have to be used (and they will not be fluffy).

    However, it must be remembed that guerilla armies are just that – armies. When they get big they need lots of supplies (the “we have captured them from the government side” stuff nearly always turns out to be propaganda) and control systems.

    Those endless trucks going down the road system rather misleading called Uncle Ho’s “trail” were not what most people think of as “guerilla warfare” – but they were what the enemy was about. National Liberation Front (V.C.) or N.V.A.

    Not that there was a real difference after 1968 anywar – the V.C. were a busted flush after Tet, tottally dependent on the N.V.A.

  • Net-Nomad

    With the rise of hard-left writers like China Mielville to prominence, I’m of the opinion that new Libertarian SF titles are in danger of being “edited” out of publication due to ideological gatekeeping by the big publlishing houses. I haven’t seen anything brand new from the major publishers recently that piques my interest.

    Like many other Libertarian SF readers, I’ve moved on to Indie publishing houses.
    While it certainly can be the proverbial “needle in the haystack” when looking for good quality books/ebooks in the slush pile of Indie works that are simply vanity books, I’d rather pay a few bucks for an Indie ebook, than shell out $10.00+ for something that is essentially crypto-communist propaganda like Mieville’s Iron Council.

    Recently I’ve found a few Indie SF stories that are excellent.
    Two that I’ve just finished reading are Soldier of the Legion by Marshall S. Thomas, and The Stygian Conspiracy (Nexus Arcana) by Kodai Okuda.
    Of the two, The Stygian Conspiracy is the more…Libertarian. The author isn’t shy that’s for sure, but the book was a really fun read. I was surprised how fast I consumed the ebook.

    I hope some of you find them as enjoyable as I have.