Why are libertarians attracted to science fiction? Is it simply that the genre promotes a more open mind? In any case, it seems that science fiction has more than its share of writers who advocate freedom. The following list is what I, in my humble opinion, feel are the ten best science fiction books written. Most of these have won the coveted Prometheus Award for liberty-oriented science fiction or at least made the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Many have garnered the Nebula and/or Hugo Awards as well.
10. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
Originally this was comprised of three books: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, which are now available combined into a single plump volume. It’s a hilarious, satirical book that ties in practically every conspiracy you’ve ever heard of. Shea and Wilson satirize everything, including Objectivists and libertarians – of course, any healthy movement should be able to laugh at itself. Illuminatus helped inspire a host of conspiracy-oriented works, such as Chris Carter’s X-Files, The Da Vinci Code, and (my personal theory) the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse. It popularized the Discordian religion, which worships Eris, the goddess of chaos- certainly a faith an anarchist could embrace. Another of its cultural contributions is the word fnord, which represent an insidious subliminal message inserted into all mass media. Illuminatus won the Prometheus in 1986.
9. The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin
This is the story of a society of outcasts on a (barely) habitable moon orbiting Tau Ceti; the settlers are anarchists and other radicals exiled from the larger primary world. The book explores some important concepts such as societal organization and the status of property in an anarchist system. Another important plot element is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how language may affect or restrict human thinking. (This was the principle behind 1984’s “Newspeak.”) LeGuin is perhaps best known for her brilliant book Left Hand of Darkness, about a hermaphroditic human society, which I also recommend highly. The Dispossessed won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in 1974 and 1985, and was named to the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1993.
8. V is For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (illustrator)
Yes, this is a graphic novel, but its effects on the liberty movement, and Western culture in general, have been so profound that it deserves to be included. For those few who aren’t familiar with it, V is For Vendetta describes a popular uprising against a totalitarian British government, which is inspired by a single mysterious individual. Part of what makes the book so compelling is that its protagonists,the masked, anarchist “V” and his young companion Evey are not ideals but deeply flawed human characters. Additionally, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by “V” throughout the store has become a worldwide meme representing rebellion. The movie version by the Wachowski Brothers was also wildly popular, but unfortunately blunted some of the graphic novel’s harsher aspects, which led Moore to eventually wash his hands of the project. In any case, Prometheus agrees with my classification; the book won a spot in their Hall of Fame in 2006.
7. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
This is Stephenson’s third novel and in my opinion, his best, even though it’s not as polished (or long-winded) as his later books such as Anathem. This one contains some of his greatest ideas, many of which predict the (probable) political future of the world. Snow Crash draws heavily from the “cyberpunk” genre and has significant elements of satire. The setting is a United States fractured into many thousands of sovereign enclaves. Its central plot was a “mind virus” in the form of the ancient Sumerian language. Another element I enjoyed was a character who was labeled a “sovereign” – a bad-ass biker who traveled with his own personal nuclear weapon. Snow Crash has been nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C Clarke award. Stephenson won a Prometheus award not for Snow Crash, but for his novel System of the World, in 2005.
6. Probability Broach by L Neil Smith
I’ve never seen L Neil Smith’s books in the mega-chain book stores, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile; they’re just not commercial enough. This is the book that began his “Gallatin Universe” series, which describes an alternate North America that has an extremely minimalist government. The protagonist, Denver police detective Edward ‘Win’ Bear, is transported from the real world to this alternate version, where he uncovers a plot from our universe to conquer this wonderfully under-governed territory. Of course, after experiencing utopia, Bear is hardly inclined to return to our messed-up world.
One of the best things about Smith’s books is their author. He’s is a tireless activist and a long-time feature of the libertarian movement who never minces words. My favorite L Neil quote: “If you’re not a little bit uncomfortable with your position, it isn’t radical enough.” Incidentally, Smith founded the Prometheus awards in 1979, and Probability Broach won it in 1982.
5. The Stars are Also Fire by Poul Anderson
This book is the second in Anderson’s Harvest of Stars series. It depicts the struggle of the Lunarian race (the descendents of human colonists genetically altered for life in the moon’s low gravity) to achieve and maintain their independence. Their adversary is the Terramind, an all-powerful computer which controls human society “for their own good” and refuses to allow any group to slip outside its control. As such, the books is a powerful argument for liberty. The Terramind is not motivated by human power-lust, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. Any tyranny, no matter how well-intentioned, is still tyranny. One of the most interesting things about this series is how the Lunarians become a separate race of humanity, tall and slender like Tolkien-esque elves, speaking their own artificially constructed language.
During his lifetime, Anderson received three Nebula and and seven Hugo awards for his novel. The Stars are Also Fire won the Prometheus award in 1995, and Anderson received a Prometheus lifetime achievement award in 2001.
4. The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod
A native of Scotland and a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s ironic that Ken MacLeod has written one of the best and most entertaining libertarian novels ever. MacLeod is fascinated with different political systems from Trotskyism to anarcho-capitalism, and his novels reflect that fascination. The Stone Canal addresses a future in which some members of the human race have evolved into an electronically-based super-race (a manifestation of the so-called “technological singularity.”) The super-beings open up a wormhole to a nearly-habitable planet known as “New Mars” which is terraformed and settled by humans of the more traditional variety. New Mars is an anarcho-capitalist society in which people coexist with intelligent robots. This book addresses fundamental questions of human identity. The protagonist, Jonathon Wilde, exists both as a cloned copy of his original biological self and as a sentient robot known as “Jay Dub.” Both entities have his memories and personalities, which is the “real” Jon Wilde? In another plot twist, Wilde’s former best friend has cloned Wilde’s deceased (for the time being) wife as his personal sex toy, also called a gynoid (a female android, of course.)
MacLeod is fond of intellectual puns; the Stone Canal (which in the book is an actual stone-lined water channel) is named after an anatomical feature of the starfish. My favorite MacLeod pun is the name of another of his books- The Cassini Division, which is both a gap between the rings of Saturn and a human security detail based in the outer Solar System. The Stone Canal won the Prometheus award in 1996.
3. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
No list of libertarian books would be complete without something by the great master. Most of Heinlein’s books have liberty-related themes, but this is one of the best, having won a Hugo award in 1967 and of course a Prometheus award (belatedly, since the award didn’t exist until 1979) in 1983. Like The Stars Are Also Fire Like The Stars Are Also Fire, it involves a revolt of the Lunar colonies from control by the Earth. (If you detect a rebellious theme running through a number of these books, you’re correct.) Unlike Poul Anderson’s version of the lunar rebellion, Heinlein’s book has an intelligent, self-aware computer who happens to be one of the good guys. Strictly speaking, this book seems to advocate minarchy as opposed to anarchy, though one of the characters was reportedly modeled on “rational anarchist” Robert LeFevre.
One of my favorite things about Heinlein is his creative character names, such as female rebel Wyoh Knott, and of course, the computer, HOLMES IV. (I won’t spell out the acronym here.) This book popularized the very libertarian phrase, ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or TANSTAAFL, which became the title of a 1975 book on free-market economics by Milton Friedman. (Heinlein did not, as I’d formerly believed, invent this saying. According to Wikipedia it has been appearing in print since at least 1938.)
2. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
A Deepness in the Sky is possibly my favorite book of all time. It’s an amazingly conceived, brilliant, moving novel. The scientific premise is fascinating in itself: a periodic star which is “off” for all but 35 of its 250-year cycle, giving rise to a unique ecology in which all forms of life hibernate for the two-century winter. In this unusual star system, human explorers encounter an intelligent race resembling giant spiders. (“Deepness” is what the spider race call the underground chambers they use for their long periods of sleep.) The human visitors include a group of free-market traders, called the Qeng Ho, and the Emergents, the representatives of a nearby totalitarian human society. The deceitful Emergents attack and enslave the Qeng Ho, while plotting to exploit the spider world. The surviving Qeng Ho struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds to throw off their captors and save the spiders, not only from the Emergents, but from a planetary arms race. This book features elements of nanotechnology, which is used by the bad guys as part of a ubiquitous spying apparatus.
The only gripe I have with Vernor Vinge, a retired professor of mathematics, is that he’s only written eight novels. I had the honor of meeting him at a science fiction convention in San Diego in the early 1990’s; he seemed to be a very down-to-earth person. By the way, it’s not a coincidence that prolific sci-fi/fantasy author Joan D. Vinge shares Vernor’s last name, because the two were once married. (I assume they must have parted on relatively good terms, since she kept his surname.) Deepness in the Sky won the Prometheus award in 2000, as well as the Hugo and Campbell awards.
1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Published in 1957, this was Ayn Rand’s fourth and final novel, and in my opinion, her best. Among other things, it outlined the philosophy of Objectivism and introduced the iconic character John Galt. Probably the world’s best-known political book, Atlas Shrugged is not always considered to be science fiction. Rand herself described it as a “mystery” or a “romance.” Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case for the book being sci fi, considering that three inventions: John Galt’s motor, Henry Rearden’s metal alloy, and the governments “Project X” weapon, played significant roles in the book. It is certainly speculative in the sense that Rand envisioned that the world’s most inventive and creative people would “go on strike” thus breaking the despotic rule of the corrupt collectivists who run America. Who could forget John Galt’s (in)famous 70-page speech, in which he berates all the parasites of the politcal class. He does this by hacking into the broadcast system – a rather modern sci-fi nontion.
Though reviled by progressives and the intelligentsia, Atlas Shrugged is surely one of the most influential books of all time. Numerous conservatives and libertarians, including politicians and pundits such as Paul Ryan and Glenn Beck, have proclaimed it to be their favorite book, or the book that inspired them to become political. There are a number of elements in Rand’s message with which I disagree strongly. She was certainly no anarchist, she was far too deferential to the military, and her writing frequently has a judgmental tone that can easily match that of the most fervent fundamentalist preacher. What I love about Atlas Shrugged, though, is its unashamed celebration of the individual, and its complete rejection of the pan-religious cult of self-sacrifice. This latter has, in my view, been responsible for most of the misery of human existence, by giving sociopathic liars who call themselves “leaders” the ability to harness the minds of backs of their fellow human beings. Atlas Shrugged earned Rand a posthumous place in the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1983.
0. Honorable Mention: The manga series Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (illustrator)
Technically, it’s not science fiction, as the plot is driven by magic, but with a well-defined set of rules. At the beginning of the story, high school honor student Light Yagami finds a mysterious black notebook. The inscription within explains that the act of writing a person’s name in the notebook will cause that person to die of apparent natural causes. The notebook has been planted by a shinigami, a sort of Japanese Grim Reaper whose boredom inspires him to do this as a prank on humanity. Light sets out to use the book for good ends, ridding the world of murderers, rapists, and other contemptible criminals. Unlike Superman, who enjoys god-like powers but never intentionally misuses them, Light is quickly corrupted by the ability to kill from afar, and sets himself up to rule the world. Soon he begins executing anyone who threatens his reign in any way. There is an animated version of Death Note; I’ve only seen the first episode but it appears to be true to the quirky darkness of the original, albeit a bit less subtle in its message. This series should be loved by libertarians because it illustrates Lord Acton’s maxim, “Absolute power corrupts absolultely.”
Atlas Shrugged is by far her worst novel in my opinion anaywy. So many critics cite it as her best, honestly it’s 1400 pages of a railroad executive with an identity crisis. I’d take The Fountainhead over it any day, bring on the Roark!