Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 676, June 24, 2012

"Our civilization is unique in history and
renowned the world over for the value it's
always placed, historically, on ideas"

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Where No Libertarian Has Gone Before
by L. Neil Smith

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Presented Friday, April 26, 1996, at the Colorado Libertarian Party Annual Convention
Reprinted from Issue Number 8 (May 1996) of this magazine

"It is moral weakness, rather than villainy, that accounts for most of the evil in the universe—and feeble-hearted allies, far rather than your most powerful enemies, who are likeliest to do you an injury you cannot recover from."
Bretta Martyn

Depending on how you look at these things, I've been a science fiction writer for 19 or 29 years. During all that time, it seems to me there's always been some editor or agent on the phone, whining into my ear about how bad the business is lately.

Of course, you have to accept some of this simply as bargaining strategy on the part of editors—or excuses on the part of agents—for why a writer should be happy to accept less money. That kind of song and dance has been going on since the first copper stylus got mashed into the first clay tablet, back in ancient Sumeria. From an editor's point of view—or from an agent's (they're essentially the same no matter what they claim; these people go to lunch together every day)—writers should always be happy to accept less money.

But there's a particle of truth here, too. The same period of 19 or 29 years has, in fact, been marked by shrinking rack space in grocery stores and drugstores for genuine science fiction—rack space incongruously occupied instead by offerings featuring dragons, dwarves, or enchanted swords on their covers. Where I differ with editors and agents—to whom I've vainly tried communicating this point for every one of those 19 or 29 years—is in my belief that genuine science fiction is dying from self-inflicted injuries. Furthermore, I believe I'm uniquely qualified to pontificate on the subject; in many respects, I'm one of the few individuals left, in the whole wide world, actually writing the stuff; which is to say, still writing genuine science fiction.

Science fiction editors and agents, I believe, tend to regard their declining market as a mysterious and regrettable but fundamentally unavoidable fact of nature—something like the weather, or the way Republicans look at inflation—which can't be blamed on anybody in particular, especially on science fiction editors and agents. And yet the reason for this slow-motion literary catastrophe—and if you'll bear with me, because its relevance is crucial to the future of individual liberty in general and that of the Libertarian Party in particular—the reason for this slow-motion literary catastrophe can be established easily and inarguably.

Our civilization is unique in history and renowned the world over for the value it's always placed, historically, on ideas, in and of themselves—and for the way it's always put those ideas into action. Today, science fiction is the only literature of ideas remaining in our civilization, and it's revealing that whenever writers from other fields, non-fiction or so-called "mainstream", decide it's time to say something really important—George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, B.F. Skinner, Margaret Atwood—they turn, almost reflexively, to science fiction.

Historically, since its 19th century inception, genuine science fiction has always been driven by some kind of Utopianism, presenting us with stirring visions of the wonderful new universe that will "inevitably" result if all of us just buckle down and practice whatever it is the writer has to preach. In the beginning, what the science fiction of Jules Verne, for example, or later on, of John W. Campbell, had to preach was simple: "Technology: Its Virtues and Benefits". At the same time, however—especially in the light of two World Wars in which technology took over its own promotion and sales—Utopia has been politically defined, almost invariably, as some variety of socialism.

On occasion, it's been right-wing socialism, a very poorly-understood intellectual phenomenon (frequently misrepresented as consistent with the libertarian philosophy of America's Founding Fathers) in which the central concept is that the life, liberty, and property of the average individual must be sacrificed (or at least temporarily dragooned) for the sake of achieving certain "highly desirable" collective goals—such as establishing a military or scientific base on the Moon, or slaughtering pesky aliens, or wiping out interplanetary drug pushers, or simply moving Antarctican icebergs to thirsty tropical consumers—all goals traditionally advocated by conservatives (or even outright fascists) ranging from E.E. "Doc" Smith to Dr. Jerry Pournelle.

Most often, of course, it's been left-wing socialism, an intellectual phenomenon (if you want to give it that much credit) we've come to understand all too well, in which the central concept is that the life, liberty, and property of the individual must be sacrificed for the sake of achieving certain "highly desirable" collective goals—such as establishing national healthcare or achieving universal weapons confiscation—traditionally advocated by liberals or even outright communists. These unworthies have dominated science fiction more or less since the turn of the last century, although a few decades ago they grudgingly made room for a few token right-wing socialists—perhaps because the real goal of both camps (like that of editors and agents) is essentially the same: sacrificing the life, liberty, and property of the individual for its own sake, whatever the excuse.

Sometimes I think the lefties moved over and made room for the righties because they became absolutely terrified of what else might be bearing down upon them.

Like, me.

Well, no, not me, exactly. But somebody like me.

Only a Whole Lot Worse.

Ayn Rand scared the living shit out of these people. A Eugene Zamiatin or a Robert LeFevre or even an Ira Levin they could suppress or dismiss for one reason or another, which is why so few readers have ever heard of We, Lift Her Up Tenderly, or This Perfect Day. But little old Alice Rosenbaum was always right there in their nasty collectivist faces, standing on their toes, her literary fists locked into their lapels, shouting up their nostrils, stubbornly refusing to be dismissed or suppressed, challenging their most fundamental assumptions in the very language that socialists of both stripes thought they had invented: "skiffy", the correct pronunciation of "sci-fi".

But what scared the lefties even worse than Ayn Rand (if that's possible) was the actual new universe that appeared to be resulting (inevitably, as it turned out) from the practice of their ivory tower theories—theories they had been advancing since the time of Mary Shelley, Edward Bellamy, and H.G. Welles—by political pragmatists like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Pol Pot.

It wasn't simply that the ideas of left-wing socialism weren't working, although that was certainly true enough even before the Evil Empire collapsed in an unprecedented, although not exactly unpredictable, manner. Invariably they seemed to culminate in the demise—from causes ranging from mass starvation to firing-squads to simply being marched to death—of tens of millions of the very proletarians those ideas had been intended to benefit in the first place.

Which is how it came to be that all of those "traditional" science fiction writers (that's a contradiction in terms, you understand), all those lonely, toothless, quakey-voiced old-timers of all ages still trying to eke out their existence in the empty philosophical badlands and political ghost-towns that Left-Wing Utopia has become (or even those lucky enough to be living in greater luxury off the tailings of the statist mother-lode they and their predecessors once helped to mine) that's why they all have nothing but bad news for us now. They're mistaking the failure of their ideas for a failure of humanity, or even of reality itself. As a consequence, many of them have simply given up and become whining nihilists, neo-Luddites, and eco-fascists. A favorite phrase of theirs is, "The future isn't what it used to be". To which I reply, "And whose fault is that?"

Those left-wing science fiction writers who remain commercially successful today tell us tales of interstellar military superstates with the unquestioned and unquestionable power to quarantine whole sectors of the galaxy because, in their infinite wisdom, they've decided it would be bad for unsupervised adults of differing species to meet and freely exchange ideas and articles of trade with one another. (Although exchanges of bodily fluids seem to be okay.) In practically the same breath, they speak lyrically of local authorities with the technological ability to search individuals for concealed weapons or other contraband at a distance, an everyday practice nobody in these stories ever resists or even complains about on a humane or Constitutional basis.

Now I ask, didn't this kind of thing used to be a staple of negative Utopias like 1984 and Brave New World? Didn't it used to constitute the furnishings for cautionary tales about a loss of individual liberty and self-determination that was to be avoided at all costs? Now it's taken for granted as inevitable—and probably even desirable—whatever other possibilities the future may present.

Which brings us back to the original point. Genuine science fiction is dying today because it works in exactly the opposite way that science fiction did in the past. Yesterday's science fiction showed us a future in which most of today's problems had been solved. While they would certainly be confronted with new problems, in general, people had more reason to be happy, reflecting a general trend of progress in the real world.

Now all that has changed. They may be interesting places to visit for an hour once a week, and they may paint pretty pictures across our TV screens or introduce us to individual characters we come to care about, but who the hell wants to live in the authoritarian, militaristic futures portrayed by Star Trek in all of its incarnations, by Babylon 5, or by Space: Above and Beyond? Even The Jetsons have been enlisted to serve the ends of political correctness. The best recent science fiction—and, naturally, the one that received no notice at all from the media establishment—was Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct which offered us a future that was worth waiting around to see, if not actively striving to bring into existence.

So what happens to a community of shopworn left-wing Utopian writers who for decades have continued to insist on seeing a future that demonstrably—to anyone who isn't tenured, working for television, or living in Sri Lanka—doesn't work? Enter J.R.R. Tolkien, along with what seemed at the time like thousands of blatant imitators, sucked into the world-swallowing vacuum in the science fiction market created by the implosion of Marxoid idealism. Enter the dragons, the dwarves, and the enchanted swords.

For all of its socialism, science fiction had once been a forward-looking literature of limitless perspectives. But as irrationality and magic began to displace reason and science as the motivating epistemology, as the genre began looking backward to feudalism and the Middle Ages for what it regarded as inspiration, and as readers began to tire of narrowed horizons (not to mention the same old thing re-rewritten over and over), the rack space—"inevitably" once again—began to diminish.

It was the exceptions (don't you hate it when this happens?) that proved the rule—and still do today. The books that kept the rack space open for all those parasitic and reactionary dragons, dwarves, and enchanted swords, the only books that didn't gradually decrease in number, were those, just like the good old days, with spaceships, aliens, and ringed planets still on their covers, but whose subtitles now always seemed to include the word "star", accompanied either by the word, "wars" or "trek".

There is some truth in the idea that Star Wars succeeded partly by co-opting medievalism; there are plenty of swords in Star Wars, several different varieties of dwarves from Jawas to Ewoks, and if you look carefully, in one of the desert scenes, high on a dune-crest, the bones of a dragon exposed by the wind. And it's equally true that Star Trek and its progeny have remained as unabashedly, old-fashionedly socialistic as The Shape of Things to Come, steadfastly (and this is an important secret of their success) refusing to acknowledge the utter demise of socialism in every other branch of the cosmos. It's still the "Progressive Era" or the "New Deal" or the "Great Society" beyond Antares, and the War on Drugs goes on forever, out there where no man—uh, person—uh, being has gone before.

But both Star Wars and Star Trek display a future (yes, I know, Star Wars claims to be "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", but, except for Darth Vader, every one of its major characters is a pathological liar, so who believes that?) both display a future featuring individualistic causes, violent adventures, a little sex—very little sex—the triumph of the putative good over the arguably evil, and technology almost anyone might look forward to.

Except perhaps unconsciously, viewers tend to overlook or ignore the socialist or environmentalist or multiculturalist propaganda, in order to see Praxis the Klingon moon blow up one more time or find out if Deanna's really going to wind up in the sack with Worf. Hence the remarkable success of movies and programs like these in a period when science fiction generally lies dying, killed by the bankruptcy of its underlying ideas and by a craven retreat from a future it knows it can no longer predict, create, or control.

The fact is, we may be seeing the first signs that even Star Trek can't go on lying to itself indefinitely, as irrationality and primitive mysticism begin more and more forceably to supplant even its rationalistic foundations. For my part, if I see one more story about Chakotay and his animistic "spirit guides", I think I'll puke.

There's a cure for this, although it'll be a bitter pill for the right-wing socialists, obsolete leftists, dragonpushers, dwarfmongers, and enchanted sword salesmen to swallow. Science fiction, as the world once knew it, is dying because its self-contradictory dreams died first, murdered by its own advocates and representatives in places like the Soviet Union, Dachau, the Cambodian "killing fields", Tienanmen Square, and Waco, Texas. Science fiction's only hope for survival now is to usher in an alternative literature, offering humanity a fantastic yet credible future worth believing in, worth working for, and therefore worth reading about.

That literature doesn't have to be created, it already exists. I'm happy to say I had a hand in its creation nearly 20 years ago, along with a dozen other novelists of my approximate age and outlook. Even better, I know of at least half a dozen more science fiction manuscripts by other, mostly younger writers with the same viewpoint as ours, languishing at the moment for lack of proper editorial attention.

I predict now that if New York publishing doesn't make a place for them soon, they'll make a place for themselves, and on their own terms. The last time something like that happened, New York got Rush Limbaugh. This time, it'll get a dozen Limbaughs (with both halves of their brains operational—which automatically makes them libertarians) and it'll lose not just its hold on science fiction publishing, but on publishing in general.

But I digress. You'll recall I said earlier that what I called a "slow-motion literary catastrophe" is crucially relevant to the future of individual liberty in general and that of the Libertarian Party in particular, and that, "except perhaps unconsciously, viewers tend to ignore socialist propaganda".

On the other hand, it's been pretty well established that if you were to stand in front of a full-length mirror for an hour every day and sing "I Feel Pretty" over and over again, it might change the way you look or it might not, but by speaking directly to your unconscious mind, which is slow to learn and even slower to forget, it would change the way you carry yourself and the way you wear your face. Before long, regardless of how you look objectively, people would find that they enjoy being with you and begin looking forward to it. If they're especially perceptive, they might notice that they have an impression that you're prettier than you really are. Then again, they might just think you're pretty.

In the same way, if you were to stand before the same mirror for the same hour every day and say, "I'm mean, stupid, craven, and dishonest" over and over again, how long do you think it would be before you started acting—and being—mean, stupid, craven, and dishonest?

The media—its books and plays, its poetry and music, its movies and TV—are a civilization's mirror; writers in those media are the ones deciding what's going to be said, over and over again, every hour of the day, every day of the week, speaking directly to your unconscious mind, and the unconscious minds of everyone around you, from the day you're born until the day you die. Like drops of water gradually shaping a stone, they decide—perhaps not what you think of yourself, unless you're the weak-minded sort of individual who votes for Democrats and Republicans—but what a civilization thinks of itself. And of all the media, science fiction alone shapes civilization's expectations regarding what it will become.

The question is, do we really want somebody else standing in front of the mirror for us, deciding for us what we're going to say to ourselves over and over again, deciding for us what we're going to become? Do we really want to grant, either to Lucasian neofeudal mysticism or to Roddenberrian military socialism, a monopoly on the future by default? Depending on how you look at these things, 19 or 29 years ago, my answer to that question was "No!" I saw even then what those among us—those who haughtily proclaim that they don't read fiction—fail to see even today: you can't fight a cultural war if you ain't got any culture.

Ten years before the American Revolution, human life expectancy at birth in the most culturally and technologically advanced city on the planet was 20 years, four months. The highest velocity attainable by human beings was the 40 miles an hour that can only be sustained for a quarter of a mile on the back of a galloping horse. A simple, single-shot rifle necessary to feed and defend a family required a year's work by a skilled craftsman and represented an investment greater than the family car does today.

Two and a tenth centuries after that Revolution—and the unprecedented peace, progress, and prosperity it offered our species simply by setting us free as individuals to create peace, progress, and prosperity for ourselves—human life expectancy at birth approaches four times that figure, people commonly travel at sixteen times that velocity (and occasionally move at twenty-five thousand miles an hour) and a state-of-the art weapon, where we haven't shamefully allowed government to tell us what we can and cannot do about such things, may be obtained for less than a week's wages.

Depending on how you look at these things, 19 or 29 years ago, I decided that my mission in life was to acquaint people with all of that, and with the additional fact that each and every one of has a chance to live another two and a tenth centuries, long enough to see our lifespans increase geometrically again, to travel at speeds approching—if not transcending—the velocity of light itself, and to exist absolutely free of harm or even interference by that cancerous growth civilizations acquire, which is a major reason we need state-of-the-art weapons, and which we all know as "government".

Freedom, immortality, and the stars.

Or, just to put it in what may seem like everyday, more practical terms, half of everything we make—to be precise, 47% or our income—is taken from us in the form of income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and so forth. To add insult to injury, half of what we spend evaporates the same way, not spent on the quantity or quality of the goods and services we think we're paying for, but wasted on corporate taxes, inventory taxes, and that sort of thing.

What's even worse, according to economist Arthur Laffer, the burden of complying with socialist regulations doubles the price of everything again, so that we're spending eight times as much as we should need to, to acquire life's necessities and luxuries. Every day, we run on one eighth of our real capacity, while right-wing and left-wing socialists greedily gobble up the remaining seven eighths of our substance, not to mention our opportunities, our futures, and our children's futures.

To get the merest glimmering of what it would be like were that not so, in a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, without changing anything else, we would immediately have eight times the real wealth that we presently enjoy. In the most direct of terms, this means that the Rocky Mountain News I used, in part, to write this speech would have cost me 4 cents instead of 35 cents (6 cents "in designated areas" instead of 50 cents), or for the same 4 cents I could have bought a package of Jell-o or a can of Bush's Baked beans—he may have been a lousy President, but his beans are terrific.

I could have had a Klondike bar for 6 cents, two liters of Coke to wash it down for 11 cents, 32 ounces of Gatorade for 12 cents, two rolls of paper towels to tidy up (I'm a messy eater, what can I say?) for 13 cents, and almond cookies for dessert, eighteen for 16 cents.

In a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, a Budget Gourmet dinner costs 19 cents, Eggo waffles are 22 cents a box, hamburger is 23 cents a pound, and bacon is 24 cents. Coke products—a 12-pack is 35 cents, Tyson boneless chicken is 36 cents, a 64-ounce carton of orange juice is 36 cents, Oscar Mayer wieners are two packages for 38 cents, and top sirloin steak is 49 cents a pound. Tylenol caplets are 24 for 55 cents.

A little more generally, in a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, an electronic telephone beeper will cost you 62 cents, a disposable 35mm camera, 75 cents, .45 automatic ammunition is $1.28 per box. Disposable diapers are 72 for $1.49, just like the latest CD album. Unlimited internet access is $1.50 a month, the latest VHS cassette is $1.87, and a pair of mink earmuffs are on sale today at Dick Kaye's for $1.88.

In a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, ski lift tickets are $2.63, golf shoes are $3.63 a pair, cell phone service is $3.74 a month. A four drawer chest from American Furniture goes for $4.75, orchestra tickets to Miss Saigon for $5 (front balcony seats are $2.50) and a glass-top dinette, 5 pieces, costs $12.38. A white metal daybed and mattress are $17.38, a round-trip ticket from Denver to Mazatlan is $18.63, and a complete set of golf clubs (to go with those shoes) is $22.38. A Remington Model 870 shotgun is $27.48, a "traditional" sofa goes for the very untraditional price of $36, and a Glock 21 9mm pistol is $53.74.

In a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, a 133 mhz Pentium w/color monitor, 1.6 Gbyte hard-drive and 6X CD ROM will cost you $299, a '96 Neon, $1112.25, and a '96 Plymouth Voyager is $2111. The average American home goes for $12,500, and that Winnebago—a 37' '96 "Luxor" you thought you could never afford—will set you back $19,862. (I had no idea the damned things were so expensive!)

Some items, in a tax-free, regulation-free civilization, beer, for example, or whiskey or cigarettes, are harder to calculate because of the excise taxes levied against them. For Japanese cars, for example, you'd have to subtract an average of $4000 import duty before dividing what's left over by eight. I think gasoline would cost about 11 cents a gallon, in a tax-free, regulation-free civilization.

Another way to look at this is to take your present income, multiply it by eight, and think about the lifestyle that would make possible. (Within the constraints of an action-adventure plot, I tried doing this in 1979 with my first novel, The Probability Broach and will make rather more of it in 1999 with The American Zone. ) If you earn, say, $20,124, which is what the average Coloradoan makes, that will give you the real-wealth equivalent of $160,992 to spend every year. If you make $35,306, which is what the average federal bureaucrat in Colorado makes, think about an equivalent income of $282,448. I have friends who make about half that, and (at least from the viewpoint of an impecunious novelist) in terms of their houses, their cars, vacations, and other everyday concerns, they might as well live on another planet.

I'd like to try living on that planet, myself. How would you like to make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year? How would you like to live in a civilization where everybody does, and as a result, splendid new things happen every day, and nobody can predict what wonders tomorrow will bring? Space elevators, nerve and limb regeneration, a cure for cancer, a transatlantic tunnel (hurrah!), anything. The possibilities are absolutely endless.

This is not speculation.

This is not wishful thinking.

This is not fantasy.

It is an absolute, pragmatic certainty, securely rooted beyond the power of anybody's reasonable ability to doubt it, in the principles of individual liberty, the laws of economics, and the history of America's first 200 years.

But none of this will ever happen under the administration of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, or even of Phil Gramm or Steve Forbes, dedicated merely to reducing taxes by a half dozen percentage points. There is a price for the next quantum leap in peace, prosperity, and progress, just as there was for the first. It is that we may not falter, we may not temporize, we may not compromise—we may not give an inch, even for a minute; we may not give an Angstrom unit, even for a picosecond—we must stand fast by the principles of liberty we claim to believe in.

And we must be unafraid to proclaim them, in no uncertain or ambiguous terms, from the very housetops.

Or we will lose, not just everything we have, but everything we might have had, and we will have nothing left, neither liberty, nor property, nor even life itself.

The choice is the sky above or the mud below.

The choice is everything or nothing.

If you doubt that, then consider: 11 days ago, you and I and every other member of America's productive class were forced at bayonet-point to pay to have medals of valor struck for the jackbooted thugs who murdered Vicky and Sammy Weaver—and for the ammunition Lon Horiuchi and his fellow federal gang-bangers did it with. The same 11 days ago, you and I and every other member of America's productive class were forced to pay for the bulldozers, and wrecking balls, and the gasoline to run them, that were used to bury the evidence of what really happened near Waco and in Oklahoma City.

The sky above or the mud below. Everything or nothing.

If it's ever occurred to you to wonder why I take the stance I do on issues or on personalities, now you know. There's vastly more at stake here than any conventional politician or his handlers or followers have proven themselves capable of comprehending.

We're all accustomed to hearing about the "democratic" virtue of compromise—over and over and over and over again, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. A "reasonable" and "decent" willingness to accept compromise, which has been brutally programmed into the productive class by those—the public schools, the media, the government, all of whom, just like muggers, basically regard us as groceries—is ultimately responsible for every mess in which we who value liberty find ourselves today.

The other side has never had any illusions about decency, reasonableness, or compromise. We begin at "A", say, for example, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be enfringed". The enemy demands "Z", the confiscation of everything in the country that goes "bang", when he isn't even entitled to "B", the time of day. He then generously allows us to talk ourselves into "compromising" by settling for "M", the 1968 Gun Control Act. Whereupon the process begins all over again. Having conned and bullied the weakest among us into accepting "M"—for themselves, as well as for us—the enemy immediately renews his demands for "Z". This time, the moral cripples on our side are more than willing to accept "S", the Brady Bill and the Bill Clinton ban (originally proposed by Bill Bennett) on rifles and magazines.

And so it goes, in this instance with the poisonous "help" of Bob Dole, the Republican National Committee, and the world's oldest and largest gun control—no, make that, "victim disarmament" organization, the National Rifle Association.

Until the American productive class finally learns that matters of morality are not negotiable, until we learn to stick with "A" no matter what—or better yet, to demand a "Z" of our own until the enemy begins to accept a fatally destructive series of compromises—we will continue losing ground, one "reasonable" and "decent" compromise after another, until nothing—nothing—remains of our liberty, our property, or of us.

In my chosen political speciality, The "Z" I strive for is the day when any 12-year-old kid can walk into a hardware store, slap $62.50 in gold down on the counter, and walk out with a Thompson submachinegun without having signed a single piece of paper—or even having identified herself. And at $1.28 a box for ammunition, she'll be able to afford an awful lot of practice.

The sky above or the mud below. Everything or nothing.

Think about that mirror I mentioned. Between verses of "I Feel Pretty", you might try asking it: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which will it be—none or all?"

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