The Prometheans: The Probability Broach

Before we start looking at this book properly, a little note on something about my edition of it – in the introduction to the ebook edition, the author says “Thanks largely to Jim Frenkel and Tor Books, who believed in this book when nobody else did.”

James Frenkel is, of course, the disgraced editor who a couple of years after the ebook version of this book came out was dismissed from his post at Tor books over his pattern of repeated sexual harassment. This is not directly related to this book, but as this series of essays progresses we will, of course, be looking at the level of misogyny in the intersection of technolibertarianism and SF fandom, and it is…interesting how many of the Prometheus Award books Frenkel was involved in editing.

(Another thing to note is that what I’m looking at here is the “unexpurgated edition” of this book, released in 1996, because that’s what’s currently available. Comments on the book may therefore not reliably reflect the book that actually won the award).

But on to the book itself. Coming to this book, I expected utter crap. L. Neil Smith, for those who don’t know, is the person who instigated the Prometheus Award in the first place, before the formation of the Libertarian Futurist Society who gave the second and all subsequent awards. So that Smith himself received the second award does seem to smack slightly of back-scratching by friends, rather than being a judgement on the quality of the work. Along with that, Smith’s only works to have reached a wider audience than the Libertarian community are three Star Wars tie-in novels about Lando Calrissian, so I wasn’t expecting greatness.

And, of course, I didn’t get greatness, but what mildly surprised me is that – assuming for one moment that one can accept the political implications of Smith’s story – it’s quite readable. Smith is no great stylist, but he writes clear, efficient, prose with a distinct voice. He’s writing pulp adventure, and his style is perfect for that – it takes you from one action setpiece to the next relatively efficiently, and you never feel bored when reading it.

In its main plot elements, The Probability Broach is fairly straightforward. A policeman from Five Minutes In The Future (just at the end of Jimmy Carter’s disastrous second term, it’s implied, in which he bans things like air conditioning because of their energy consumption, bans personal possession of gold and silver, and bans tobacco) gets transported into a utopian alternative universe, in which everything is much better, apart from the tiny band of evil people who are conspiring with the government in his universe to make the utopia another dystopia.

The universe Smith portrays is quite appealing – a standard post-scarcity society, with no government, where apes and cetaceans are granted full personhood, nation states don’t exist in any real sense, there are colonies on the moon, people regularly live to 150, and there are, of course, Zeppelins everywhere. There are no laws and no prisons. The only fly in the ointment is Baron von Richthoffen, still alive in the 1980s, and leading a secret society of authoritarian terrorists.

So far, fair enough. You or I might not agree with anarcho-capitalism, but there’s a longstanding tradition of creating utopias that show that one’s own personal political views are definitely the correct ones and that if they were just put into practice everyone would definitely agree that everything was better. If L. Neil Smith wants to set his story in a world where everyone agrees he’s obviously right about everything, that’s not a problem.

What is a problem – and a major one – is the way in which Smith gets there. And the warning signs of this are visible almost immediately. Our protagonist, early on, makes a racially insensitive remark and then quickly apologises, saying he’s having a bad day, and this is one of the things that is used to humanise him – because which of us doesn’t act more racist when we’re tired, right?

And then, a little later, we get this, from our protagonist, right after mentioning for the first and only time that he’s an “Indian” (as he puts it himself): “Well, I never set much store in being ‘Native American’—neolithically ignorant while the rest of the world was out inventing the wheel, gunpowder, carbon steel. Hell, if our esteemed ancestors had been able to get along with one another thirty days running, they could have thrown Pizarro and Cortez out on their hairy asses and developed a real civilization.”

This isn’t racist, you see, because the character is “Indian” himself. (Smith has responded angrily to charges of racism, pointing out that several of his novels have “full-blooded Indian” or Jewish protagonists, and that others have nine-legged crabs as protagonists, and that in other of his books “hardly anybody’s white, because of an especially nasty kind of `affirmative action’ carried out by the American Soviet Socialist Republic.” You can decide for yourself if that’s something someone with racist beliefs would say… Smith has also said “There is a genuine conspiracy to flood our southwestern states— Arizona, New Mexico, southern California, southwest Texas—with enough foreign nationals to seize them politically and deliver them, to American socialists, and then to Mexico.” Again, decide for yourself if Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are hotbeds of socialism…)

So the choice of name for his utopia is…suggestive. It’s the “North American Confederacy”. Now, Smith is clear to say that this is not the Confederate States of America. It is, however, founded on the same “theory” that brought the Confederacy of our world into existence – that the US Federal Government has no rights over the States.

In Smith’s world, the Whiskey Rebellion succeeded. This is an important event in the early history of the US, and one which will be completely unknown by the vast majority of non-US readers. This points once again to the way in which Libertarianism is a uniquely USian political viewpoint, and one which is almost entirely engaged with issues that are only salient in US terms – and this is one of the reasons why attempts to transplant it to the UK, with parties like UKIP, seem even more likely to go fully crank-fascist than the USian iteration of the philosophy does.

Anyway, the Whiskey Rebellion succeeded, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were denounced as tyrants and traitors, and the US Constitution was abolished, returning the country to the Articles of Confederacy (though not called the “United States of America” despite that being in the Articles…). Albert Gallatin (a minor figure in early US history – and this book pretty much assumes you’re familiar with every figure in late eighteenth century US politics and their views on fiscal policy) sides with the rebels and becomes second President. He stops the Federal Government having a monetary or trade policy, and in particular stops the creation of money by the Government, leaving it to private individuals to make gold and silver coins.

(Again, we see over and over again in these books an obsession with the idea of “sound money” and the gold standard, and we’ll be looking at this much more in future essays).

Because the Government isn’t making dollars, the “Indians” decide to eagerly join the NAC, and are welcomed, so nobody needs to do any of that awkward genocide business. Similarly, and even more grotesquely, this Jeffersonian, rather than Hamiltonian, version of US history means that Jefferson himself is freed to become an eager anti-slavery campaigner, and he eventually, as fourth President, abolishes slavery much earlier than it was in our world.

And this is where we get to where this book is putrid. We have a “Confederacy”, built on “states’ rights”, just as the real-world slave state was, but by authorial fiat giving states more rights somehow means that Jefferson becomes an abolitionist and the slave states give up their slavery voluntarily.

There’s a list of Presidents in the book, including H.L. Mencken and Ayn Rand. That list revolted me, to the point of almost making me physically sick. The list has Frederick Douglass in it. It also, though, has Calhoun – the man who called slavery a “positive good”. It has Lysander Spooner, who was anti-slavery but defended the “right” of the slave states to secede. And it has Jefferson Davis. The man who went to war for the “freedom” to “own” people like Douglass.

Because the theory of the state, and of economics, that this book puts forward is the same one held by the slavers, and specifically used as a continued justification of slavery. What this book is saying is that the defenders of slavery – people like Jefferson who “owned” and raped slaves, people like Davis who went to war and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands in order to preserve their ability to torture and kidnap – were moral, good, people whose opinions should be considered a sound basis on which to run the world, and that it would be better if their ideas had won the intellectual argument. It’s saying, in effect, that the only reason they kidnapped, tortured, and raped is that they were “forced” to by their political rivals – that the ability of a national government to issue money and collect taxes is such a great evil that it caused the lesser evil of the subjugation of an entire race. “It wasn’t us Libertarians who did the slavery. Some big boys did it and ran away.”

To include Frederick Douglass on a list that also includes Jefferson Davis, and to portray them both as having essentially the same idea of “liberty”, tells us exactly how morally and intellectually bankrupt the Libertarian vision of liberty actually is, and is so profoundly disgusting that I can’t express strongly enough my utter contempt for anyone who would do such a thing.

On this evidence, Libertarianism political thought is merely an attempt to avoid facing the fact that the one time their views were implemented politically, the result was the slavery of millions. A contemptible book about a contemptible idea.

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5 Responses to The Prometheans: The Probability Broach

  1. Gilly says:

    I can’t help but notice that all the Promethean winners you’ve discussed so far are incredibly parochial. It says a lot that the best book so far is essentially “the american revolution on the moon, except the jeffersonians come out on top this time and without the slavery and genocide that makes us look like bad guys”. Suffice to say, I don’t think I’d be able to convince anyone to read it, and I doubt that anyone who did would think if it as “reaching for the stars” in any meaningful way.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely. That changes somewhat eventually (there was a period in the early 2000s where it was jokingly referred to as “the award for best Scottish Socialist SF” because Ken Macleod and Charles Stross were always up for it, and 1984 will be up in a couple of essays’ time), but yes, it’s really showing up how Libertarianism is basically relitigating lost arguments between a handful of 18th-century slavers…

  2. It’s odd the way that in the European tradition Libertarian was more or less synonymous with Liberalism while in America the two terms have diverged to such a radical degree (though due to US cultural influence exacerbated by the internet, it looks like American usage of the term Libertarianism is gaining ground over the traditional usage in European discourse too).

    • davidgerard says:

      Rothbard deliberately co-opted the leftist version of the term “libertarian”, and bragged of having done so. The wider adoption is courtesy the Internet, of course – before I’d got on the net I’d thought of these ideas as some sort of straight-faced Swiftian satire, I didn’t think anyone could actually believe them.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    “Smith is no great stylist, but he writes clear, efficient, prose with a distinct voice.”

    What is a great stylist, if not someone who writes clear, efficient, prose with a distinct voice?

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