Before you can build and sustain a fully free society, in earth or in space, you have to be able to fully imagine it.
Positive and persuasive visions of liberty – that can capture people’s imaginations as both desirable and feasible – are crucial to help sustain free and diverse societies where people flourish. And whatever their differing perspectives, such visions must have plausibility, practicality and legitimacy.
That’s where science fiction can play a vital role – and Visions of Liberty, an anthology exploring different futuristic scenarios of freedom, fulfills that goal with fascinating, engrossing and surprisingly plausible stories.
Edited by Australian libertarian Mark Tier and prolific sf editor Martin H. Greenberg, Visions of Liberty was recognized in 2005, along with its companion Baen Books anthology Give Me Liberty, with a Special Prometheus Award.
(Give Me Liberty, meanwhile, focuses on previously written and published stories – some classics. Click here to read that Appreciation.)
Like Free Space, an anthology that won the first Special Prometheus Award in 1998, Visions of Liberty ambitiously invited a variety of sf authors to contribute original stories that had never been published before.
That focus on totally new short fiction reflects an especially daring and admirable strategy – daring, because, per Sturgeon’s Law, only a small quotient of new works typically have the quality and imagination to stand the test of time, but courageous, because if editors, anthologies and sf magazines don’t encourage writers to test themselves and create anew, who will?
Greenberg and Tier didn’t try to commission all new work from sf authors, as Free Space ambitiously did. Instead, they sifted through all the classic and recent sf short stories written and published over the past half century or so to try to find some of the best stories addressing libertarian themes that still resonate in the 21st century.
And they largely succeeded.
Their somewhat different focuses are complementary, allowing the stories in each book to be read separately, alternately or together.
In his illuminating introductory essay for Visions of Liberty, Tier described the focus of their anthology as imagining “a plethora of Freelandias” – totally free societies without government.
“Although there’s a strong individualistic streak within science fiction, until recently very few stories were set in a completely free society,” Tier wrote.
“One reason, perhaps, is that all fiction thrives on conflict and a truly free society is so peaceful that there’s not very much to write about.”
Tier’s introduction reminds us that governments, per se, were a relatively recent development in human societies, sparked by the transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to agriculture, which meant people settling down in one place .
“That meant, for the first time, human populations much larger than small tribes of a hundred-odd hunter-gatherers… and something else:
“For the first time, there was something to loot,” Tier writes.
Freedom, he explains, is a very recent phenomenon, and our modern concepts of liberty really didn’t become part of our language and culture until the Renaissance a few centuries ago.
“No medieval king or indian maharajah ever fought for freedom. They fought to keep their power or to expand it. Their prize: the surplus they could extract from the peasantry…”
Today’s major tourist attractions – the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal… were all built by forced or slave labor for the pure benefit of their rulers. There was no pretense that “we’re doing this for your own good.”
“From the agricultural revolution until the Renaissance, mankind of the choice of rule or be ruled; to be the oppressed or the oppressor. The idea of freedom – that you should neither rule nor be ruled; to be left alone to pursue your own happiness in your own way, and grant others the same right – did not exist, just as it still doesn’t exist in most parts of the world,” Tier wrote.
LFS members will be pleased to know that in his introduction, Tier praises James Hogan’s “sadly neglected” Voyage From Yesteryear (one of the very first works recognized by the Prometheus Awards, as the 1983 Best Novel winner). Tier also mentions that L. Neil Smith’s novels The Probability Broach and Pallas won the Prometheus Award (respectively in 1982 and 1994).
Like all three of those Prometheus-winning novels, the nine stories in this anthology plausibly imagine societies without government – moreover, societies that actually function relatively well (albeit differently in some respects, and certainly not perfectly.) Then again, has there ever been perfection in our human history so far on Earth?
None, moreover, are Utopias by any means. (And lest we forget, the word “utopia” comes from ancient Greek and means “nowhere.” That’s a clue.)
“Like real life, there’s pain and suffering,” Tier writes.
Here are capsule reviews of those stories, which together offer a rather quick and entertaining read in 289 pages:
Co-editor Mark Tier himself, far better known for his bestselling nonfiction books than his rare fiction, contributes a story to the collection that’s not bad. Not bad at all!
In “Renegade,” Tier imagines how a murder investigation might proceed in a future Earth where libertarian thinking and privatization trends have developed sufficiently to create a workable anarcho-capitalist society without government – but with a functioning and surprisingly effective private crime-fighting system.
The clever and plausible story revolves around two private investigators charged with finding the whereabouts of a man who brazenly killed his business partner and disappeared.
The only clue, if it is a clue at all, is that the murderer’s home library is missing a travel book about a country that starts with “N” on a shelf full of alphabetized travel books.
Oh, and by the way, the murder and the events leading up to it were videotaped through a home surveillance system, though an initial viewing by the private police reveals nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary.
“Renegade” is more of a “whydunit” and a where-are-they-now story than a traditional whodunit, but Tier’s smart variations on a familiar mystery theme, and rational protagonists who strive to pay extra attention to emotion and character, pay off well.
ROBERT J. SAWYER’S “THE RIGHT’S TOUGH”
One of the most intriguing, amusing and surprising stories is “The Right’s Tough,” in which Robert J. Sawyer imagines the first interstellar team of astronauts returning to Earth after generations to discover a world very different from the one they left.
It won’t give away the final twists of Sawyer’s ingenious tale to reveal that, very soon in the story, the astronauts learn that there is no U.S. President any more to greet them because there is no government.
In a scenario that libertarians will like quite a bit, at least at first, American and world society is revealed to be self-regulating and socially and economically and technologically advanced, all without the help or hindrance of the coercive State.
The astronauts have a difficult time adjusting to the new world they’ve visited, in some ways a very alien world (despite the continued existence of the White House, now a tourist attraction. The White House restaurants offer menus with a variety of distinctive dishes, each named after one of the 61 men and seven women who had served as U.S. presidents. One of Sawyer’s small but deft touches: One of the characters orders a “Clinton” (pork ribs and masked potatoes with gravy.”
Yet, one of the dystopian undercurrents of Sawyer’s story is his smart – and today increasingly prophetic – extrapolation of one of the more ominous implications of social media and the potential oppression of social ratings to gauge approval.
This particular future without government may dodge many of the greatest evils in history that are directly due to government – from tyranny and slavery to war and Prohibitions of various kinds. Yet, it’s a world I wonder whether I’d really want to live in, because of the strong social (albeit voluntary) controls that have developed via majoritarian tendencies.
I guess one of Sawyer’s underlying themes is: Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it – good and hard.
“The Unnullified World,” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., plausibly imagines a planet with a frontier-like free society, much like the historic gold-mining communities that arose in California and the Yukon in the 1800s before formal government was set up there.
It’s a harsh environment for human beings, both in terms of nature and society. The men in this world can’t afford the luxury of sloth or irrationality or irresponsibility or they might not survive.
Biggle paints a realistic portrait of a functional, if unforgiving social system that evolved without the compulsion inherent in government.
When a visitor to this world comes to investigate the circumstances of a disappearance and possible murder – a visitor honestly interested in pursuing the facts of an apparent crime but also representing a very real and powerful foreign government – his point of view reflects our own outsider’s vantage point.
And what he ultimately discovers about that man’s destiny and about how this human outpost works – without giving much away – reinforces some harsh truths that even libertarians might do well not to forget: Freedom means responsibility – and evading responsibility and denying reality has serious consequences.
Perhaps the best story in the anthology is “Pakeha,” Jane Lindskold’s compelling and plausible portrait of a fully free society without government in a future, post-apocalypse New Zealand.
Apocalypses in our era are a dime a dozen, but Lindskold’s plot trigger is especially convincing, without giving away any details. Suffice to say that she insightfully imagines how New Zealand’s farming/ranching economy and culture might adapt if a specific and crucial element of our techno-industrial, petroleum-based global economy pretty quickly became inoperative.
“Pakeha” is also enjoyable as something of a revelatory “first contact” story, although here the “alien” culture is actually a very human one, sturdily based on the history of the frontier and the self-sufficient but mutually cooperative farming/ranching communities that tend to emerge on the frontier by necessity. (Without giving too much away, just recall the group barn-raising social events common in Amish and other traditional rural communities.)
Beyond its realistic world-building and convincing plot, Lindskold’s story is even more effective because its characters come alive – albeit not all are likable. In fact, her story, ultimately in its essence about the importance of building character, offers a wise reminder that no healthy society can function without good and decent people who take responsibility for themselves, their families and communities while respecting the rights, dignity and humanity of others.
Without that, of course, no society can prosper, or perhaps even survive. (And let’s not take that for granted, or forget that in reality, even today’s societies very much with government, including the vast majority still hamstrung and severely damaged by obtrusive and oppressive States with corrupted and power-abusing elites, actually rely more than most people recognize on the generally good, peaceful and social behavior exhibited by most people the vast majority of the time.)
The problem for libertarians, of course, is how do you deal with the few who violate social norms, especially through aggression. If the institutionalized and legalized coercion at the root of all government is the only way to keep the peace and “stop” violent crime, then who will watch the watchers? But if that cure is worse than the disease, as many libertarian political philosophers and others have argued over the centuries, then are there effective ways to deal with the initiation of force or fraud when it inevitably arises?
Here “Pakeha” offers some excellent answers. The story stimulates deeper thinking about the prerequisites of achieving, and then sustaining, societies with law and strong social norms but without even a smidgen of coercive government.
Lindskold’s answer implies that a drastically shifting “Overton window” might well be one of the most effective – and perhaps one of the only – ways that our present statist-dominated world might give up even the ghost of government rule. That is, if (and it’s a pretty big ‘if’), a courageous and maverick leader – one without grandiosity or power-lust but exemplifying a rare focus on reality and practicality above politics – can rally the people to exploit a narrow window of opportunity.
I will long remember “Pakeha” for the stirring and sobering wisdom of its themes. Among the themes I most take to heart: Courage and character counts – especially when the price of peace and freedom is eternal vigilance.
RESNICK AND BUCKELL’S “THE SHACKLES OF FREEDOM”
Sometimes people make choices with their freedom that we might not understand or approve of.
That is the poignant tragedy depicted with poetic realism in Mike Resnick and Tobias S. Buckell’s “The Shackles of Freedom.”
They basically imagine a pre-modern Amish-style community established on an alien planet that is largely liveable, despite some dangerous wildlife, but whose citizens refuse to embrace modern technology or medicine.
The story is framed from the point of view of a visiting resident doctor, who is dedicated to helping the farm community of fellow humans despite his frustrations because he comes from other Earth-settled planets that benefit enormously from far more advanced and life-saving technology.
Incorporating touches of wistful romance, a brief but life-threatening alien encounter and the tragedy of cross-cultural conflicts and misunderstandings, this austere but beautiful story will linger in the memory, and uneasily so.
JAMES P. HOGAN’S ‘THE COLONIZING OF THARLE’
James Hogan (a prolific British/American sf author and Prometheus winner – for Voyage From Yesteryear – much missed since his passing in 2010) was deft at establishing the odd realities of a foreign planet where the customs and attitudes are drastically different.
In “The Colonizing of Tharle,” Hogan sets up such divergent human behavior that it becomes a sort of mystery tale – not “whodunit” so much as “why do they act that way?”
His answer I don’t find completely plausible psychologically, but in the process Hogan does set up a plausible and functional anarchistic society where the people prosper without major problems.
Aside from a few dissidents, whose rights are respected by the majority.
Hogan’s main literary speculation here is interesting in imagining a quite different culture than the ethos that some believe is the foundation of modern acquisitive capitalism.
It is refreshing to see a libertarian sf writer imagine a fully free planet where the culture and social behavior truly is alien.
JACK WILLIAMSON’S “DEVIL’S STAR”
Most freedom-loving sf fans will enjoy “Devil’s Star,” Jack Williamson’s pro-freedom but over-simplified tale of how a remote hell-hole planet of anarchistic exiles resist imperialist take-over by military representatives of an authoritarian and corrupt galactic empire.
Not only do these feisty freedom-fighters succeed in self-defense (a revelation that at this point, I don’t think will undercut the pleasures of this gung-ho tale) but they also somehow quickly inspire an interstellar revolt that forces the galactic Emperor to abdicate.
That’s the libertarian ideal of a freer future, and always a pleasure to imagine. Yet, after reading this story, and relaxing our temporary suspension of disbelief, readers might start to get suspicious of the plausibility of such an impossibly quick end to such a long-established tyranny.
Yea, right. I wish!
If only the common tyranny and constant abuses of power by some humans over others could be so easily abolished. But sadly, human psychology and acquiescence to even a harmful and unjust status quo seems to be the sheep-like tribal norm in what I strongly suspect is humanity’s still-early and still-barbaric evolution and history.
Still, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to Williamson – a major golden-age sf writer with libertarian sympathies who has been recognized by the Prometheus Awards (for his story “With Folded Hands…,” inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2018).
In fairness, Williamson’s libertarian-wish-fulfillment plot in “Devil’s Star” seems telescoped and pretty much crammed into a short story. Quite likely, if Williamson had had the time or inclination to expand it, “Devil’s Star” might have become far more plausible, in its details and characters, at novel length.
LINAWEAVER, STACKPOLE STORIES
Two interesting stories round out the anthology, one emphasizing humor and the other emphasizing mystery.
“A Reception at the Anarchist Embassy,” by Prometheus-winner Brad Linaweaver (Moon of Ice), offers comic riff speculating cynically about an anarchistic interstellar future that ironically doesn’t turn out the way today’s libertarians expect (along with several amusing libertarian in-jokes).
“According to Their Need,” by bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole, weaves a suspenseful sf murder mystery set on a stateless planet where murder is virtually unheard of because a computerized social-psychology-reinforcement system screens everyone for their temperament, wants and desires and largely fulfills them all.
But Stackpole’s anarchistic scenario, the fifth story in his Purgatory Station universe, isn’t the kind of future freedom I imagine or would want to live within, since his very programmed – if non-coercive – society reeks of the dystopian passivity of a Brave New World.
I guess the implicit sobering theme here is that culture matters a lot – and that freedom is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for the full flourishing of humanity.
Overall, that’s a lot to ponder, a lot to imagine and a lot of wisdom to digest from Tier and Greenberg’s well-chosen anthology of nine thought-provoking stories of freedom in the distant future.
* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40thanniversary of the awards and continues today.
* 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 enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of 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.