Agorist dreams materialize in a near-future of runaway inflation, economic collapse: J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, the 1989 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom works, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of past award-winners. Here’s an Appreciation of J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, the 1989 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner:

By Michael Grossberg

Milton Friedman, Anthony Burgess, Thomas Szasz, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle and Ron Paul were among the prominent writers, fellow freedom-lovers or libertarians who highly praised Alongside Night when it was published in 1979.

Friedman, a world-famous Nobel-laureate economist, endorsed J. Neil Schulman’s sf novel on its cover as “an absorbing novel – science fiction, yet also a cautionary tale with a disturbing resemblance to past history and future possibilities.”

Szasz, a leading psychologist in the libertarian movement, called it “engrossing” and wrote that “it might be, and ought to be, the Atlas Shrugged of the ‘80s.”

Anderson called it “a frightening and all too plausible picture of the near future. America is already a long way down the road that leads to it. yet there is also a hopefulness in the story, for the author develops a philosophy, in considerable practical detail, that we could begin living by today, if we will choose to be free.”

Burgess (whose classic dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange would be inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2008) called Alongside Night “a remarkable and original story… The picture it presents of an inflation-crippled America on the verge of revolution is all too acceptable.”

Why did Schulman’s fast-paced, relatively short and explicitly libertarian first novel spark such wide acclaim? Only a handful of explicitly libertarian novels were beginning to be written by the late 1970s and early 1980s, so Alongside Night naturally made a big splash within the libertarian movement.

But why did his near-future cautionary tale also grab the imagination of several prominent writers (including Burgess, largely a classical liberal, and Pournelle, largely a conservative) who didn’t themselves identify as libertarian?

Perhaps the biggest reason, I suspect, is that Alongside Night was embraced as an exciting, convincing and imaginative breakthrough –the first novel to dramatize in concrete detail the emergence of an libertarian and Agorist society from within the progressive collapse and ashes of America’s increasingly controlled and statist economy.

Schulman was a close friend and intellectual ally of maverick libertarian thinker Samuel Edward Konkin III (to whom his novel is dedicated as “mentor, conspirator, friend”).

Konkin coined the term, inspired by the ancient Greek word ‘agora,’ referring to an open marketplace unspoiled by violence, is defined as “a social philosophy that advocates creating a society in which all relations between people are voluntary exchanges by means of counter-economics, engaging with aspects of peaceful revolution.”

Basically, Agorist thinking takes libertarian political economy to a logical anarcho-capitalist extreme, imagining how an “underground” or outlawed black-market economy can thrive as an effective alternative and even save lives when the government-imposed economy breaks down, hurting the lives and livelihoods of millions from nationalizations, Prohibitions, wage and price controls and other dictatorial wrenches thrown into what economist David Friedman called the ‘machinery’ of freedom.

Highly influenced by Konklin’s views, Schulman used his talents as a novelist to explore and dramatize Konkin’s Agorist strain of libertarian philosophy in a fun, high-spirited way – while also weaving in ideological points in the dialogue as well as pertinent references to Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises. In so doing, Schulman introduced not only his vision of radical libertarianism but also the “Agorist” brand of left-libertarianism to a much wider audience than any of Konkin’s New Libertarian magazine articles ever did or could.

Well-paced with elements of mystery, suspense and drama and set during the last two weeks of the world’s greatest superpower beset by runaway inflation and increasingly worthless currency, Alongside Night is a rare coming-of-age novel where the focus is not so much on the maturation or enlightenment of its youthful central character but primarily on dramatizing the character of the alternative economy that the young man discovers.

The nominal central character is Elliot Vreeland, the smart son of a famous economist Dr. Martin Vreeland. (In his prefatory note, Schulman makes clear that Dr. Vreeland was not based on Milton Friedman and in fact, in an early draft of the novel, Vreeland already been described as having won a Nobel Prize for economics before Friedman did in 1976.)

When Elliot is abruptly taken from school and learns the shocking news that his father has died under mysterious circumstances and that his family has been kidnapped by the authorities, the earnest and intelligent student must find his own way to escape the government’s reach.

Elliot begins a revelatory journey that takes him as a wide-eyed observer into a side of society that he (and vicariously, the reader) has never seen before or imagined.

Rather than focusing as many coming-of-age juvenile novels do on the emotional coming-of-age of their central character, Alongside Night prefers to use Elliot as basically the readers’ eyes and ears  on a revelatory and also slyly amusing journey into a veritable Agorist utopia.

Here’s an example of Schulman’s often-ideological dialogue, set during a conference in which Dr. Rampart, a female agorist leader, explains why their underground free-market agora works so well.

“We are agorists: propertarian anarchists. Our prosperity to date has come by follow agoric principles… Why would we abandon market principles we have found efficacious in favor of hegemonic ones that have led society after society into ruin?”

When challenged that the new agorist institutions are basically acting like governments, Rampart responds: “What keeps anything as innately aggressive as governments from warring, except a realistic appraisal for conquest and the eventual realization by the ruling parties – usually fragmented – that they have more to gain by peaceful commerce than expensive wars? Why play negative sum games when positive sum games are available?”

The underground libertarian society, called Aurora, is consciously contrasted with any typical scenario in standard utopias. Given a grand tour, Elliot concludes that “the inhabitants of Aurora looked more like a Chamber of Commerce convention – well, maybe Jaycees – than a revolutionary cabal.”

Rather than employing the grandiose and violent tactics of most revolutions that dream of utopias, the common-sense libertarians who live in Aurora explain that the Cadre’s goal – a laissez-faire society – “precludes our use of what would be traditional revolutionary tactics; we re forced to rely mainly on stealth. And, as such, the main precondition for anyone to deal with us is a good deal of discretion. You must refrain from learning more about Cadre business than the part that directly concerns you, and never discuss Cadre business with anyone but another ally. The rest will follow easily enough if you keep just one rule:mind your own business.”

While other libertarian sf novels of the late 1970s and early 1980s (notably, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels and James Hogan’s Voyage From Yesteryear) were set in a distant future throughout the solar system or among the stars, Alongside Nightstaked out fertile ground in a recognizable near-future in what could be called ‘social science fiction,” with its greater focus on major changes in attitudes and socioeconomic developments.

With its primary focus on adventure and discovery in a new underground world amid an overall collapse, Alongside Night offers a cautionary dystopian tale about the threat of tyranny as well as hope about people adapting to change and forging a new economy in liberty.

Note: J. Neil Schulman (1953-2019) also won the 1984 Prometheus award for Best Novel for The Rainbow Cadenza. his novel Alongside Night.

J. Neil Schulman File photo

His novel Escape From Heaven was a Best Novel finalist in 2003. Most recently, Schulman’s novel The Fractal Man   was a Best Novel finalist in 2019.

He also wrote nine other books, including the short-story collection Nasty, Brutish and Short Stories and several non-fiction books, including Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns and The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana.

A filmmaker as well as a novelist, Schulman adapted Alongside Night into a 2014 feature film of the same title, starring Kevin Sorbo, Jake Busey, Tim Russ and Garrett Wang, which had a limited theatrical release and was released for streaming on Amazon Video, Amazon Prime and iTunes and as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

Coming up next in the Appreciation series: a combined appreciation of F. Paul Wilson’s Healer and An Enemy of the State, the 1990 and 1991 Prometheus Hall of Fame winners and part of Wilson’s LaNague Federation trilogy, which includes Wheels within Wheels, the first work to receive a Prometheus Award in 1979..

* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society(LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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