All Hail the Gostak!

Sometimes a story has a moral that sticks with you. One of these was “The Gostak and the Doshes,” written by Miles Breuer and published in Amazing Stories in 1930. I read it in my childhood (no, I’m not that old, it was in a collection of classics) and I’ve never forgotten it. It involved a man who journeyed to an alternate universe in which the nonsense phrase, “The gostak distims the doshes,” was a political slogan. People had such strong opinions about it, both pro and con, that it caused a war. Here is yet another example in which fiction is used to illustrate a fundamental truth.

I think of the Gostak and its well-distimmed doshes (the phrase was actually coined in 1903 by educator Andrew Ingraham as an example of English grammatical structure) every time I read a news story about some irrational lunacy. The latest was when I heard that Paula Deen was fired from the Food Network over rumors that she’d used the infamous N-word many years ago in the South. Never mind that she’s not accused of harming anyone; apparently uttering an offensive word is not forgivable, even after multiple public apologies. Yet when a President tells lies, commits war crimes, and violates the Constitutional rights of the American people, his successor refuses to prosecute him, saying, “Let’s look forward, not back.” In my opinion, this attitude would be more appropriate in Paula Deen’s case.

I’m not just talking about this country’s obsession with political correctness. This has been going on for a long time. When a protester burns the American flag, the conservatives act as if the country itself has been attacked. If a redneck hoists the Confederate flag, the liberals treat him like he’s a member of the KKK with multiple lynchings to his credit.

One of the most idiotic examples of the phenomenon was the controversy that erupted a few years ago when Arizona voters rejected a state-sponsored Martin Luther King holiday. Immediately we were painted as Lester Maddox-type racists, and the NFL decided we couldn’t have the Superbowl. Never mind that there were had been two competing MLK holiday ballot propositions, which split the vote causing neither to win. Eventually the legislature enacted the holiday anyway, but the “racist” stain stuck with our state, despite the fact that the holiday didn’t do a single thing for our black citizens, unless of course they were public employees. It didn’t create jobs, it didn’t improve education, and it didn’t end racial profiling by the police.

The Gostak Effect, as I like to call it, isn’t confined to Americans. In Afghanistan, when there were rumors of the American occupiers desecrating copies of the Koran, the people rioted. An offense against this symbol of the faith was more egregious than actual violations of the Koran’s precepts (for example, the killing of innocent Afghans by the invaders.) China tolerates Taiwan’s de facto independence, but if Taipei ever made an official declaration, Beijing would be across the strait in an instant, the Taiwanese-American alliance be damned. In the Middle East, much of the Israeli-Palestine conflict centers around demands that the Palestinians accept Israel, not just as a legitimate state but as an explicitly Jewish state.

Why do people act this way? My guess is that it’s an inherent intellectual laziness we humans have. It’s a lot easier to react to a shibboleth than actually investigate a person’s character. Also, it’s a handy way for politicians and other “leaders” to instigate mobs to do their bidding – and then deny their malevolent intent when things get out of hand.

I guess there are two morals to this story: (1) people are highly irrational about their symbols, and (2) if somebody tells you that the gostak distims the doshes, you don’t dispute them; you just say, “When? And how many?”


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

t’s amazing what people will write plays about these days. That’s a good thing, because it’s pretty difficult to come up with an original idea. When you’ve got one, you run with it. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is one of those “crazy” ideas. It’s a musical about the life of America’s seventh president, and it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill historical play.

My girlfriend and I saw the play on June 15th at Phoenix Theatre. It was hilarious, irreverent, profane, and only occasionally historically accurate. In other words, we really enjoyed it. It has a rock ‘n’ roll score, which a friend described as “My Chemical Romance does Broadway.” In lieu of an official review, I’ll just say we thought the acting and singing were superb, especially Caleb Reese, of the local rock band “The Instant Classics,” as Old Hickory (which, the play informed us, was actually a nickname for Jackson’s penis.) The music, which included the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” was pretty catchy. The song, “Populism, Yeah Yeah” is still stuck in my head.

As I said before, if you want something that’s true to historical fact, this isn’t the play for you. Jackson struts around like a rock star, wearing a jacket with “AJ” and a lighting bolt in sequins on the back. He calls his friends “bro,” contacts constituents on a red telephone, and refers to his rivals in the Whig Party as “Republicans,” though the GOP wasn’t founded until 1854. In the play Jackson’s parents both perish on the same night. In real life, their deaths were 14 years apart.

In the most important respects, however, the play captured the spirit of the man- brash, egotistical and amoral. The word “bloody” in the title refers to the wars he fought, and to his appalling treatment of Native Americans. Most of us know that Jackson fought “the bloody British in the town of New Orleans”, which the play does mention. (Sadly they didn’t – or perhaps weren’t allowed to – use the iconic Jimmy Driftwood song.) Jackson was also a “hero” of the Creek and Seminole Indian Wars, and as President, he was responsible for the Indian Removal Act, which led to the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, is showing at the Phoenix Theatre (located at Central and McDowell) though June 23, 2013. Depending on your location in time and space, this information may not do you much good (assuming you are out there) but if you get a chance to see this play, I’d recommend it.

A Writer’s Nightmare

The rapid pace of current events is making it more difficult to be a writer, not just in science fiction but in other genres. For decades the Soviet Union was a staple enemy for spy thrillers. Now it’s gone, replaced by a new bad guy, the Islamic Terrorist. Yet these bearded fanatics hiding in caves and blowing themselves up are just not as menacing as a monolithic dictatorship with the power to nuke the planet. The Russian Federation is a force to be reckoned with, but its relationship to the West is now a lot fuzzier.

Another factor that renders stories obsolete is technology. William Gibson’s novels, at least the last ones I read a few years back, aren’t science fiction anymore. At best, they’re techno-thrillers, possibly even mainstream. Cyberpunk has become reality; maybe that’s why steampunk is now so big. In the latter case, we intentionally rewrite history, so we don’t need to worry about obsolescence.

I experienced a similar dilemma in writing Centrifugal Force. Originally one of the principal characters was the pilot of an Air Force spyplanes. As time passed, I realized that human pilots were on the way out, so I removed her story thread. Now that drones are in vogue, I’ve begun a new novella about drone pilots. I can’t dawdle, though, in case something changes.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the USA itself is going to be the novelist’s newest monkey wrench. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia, it was fashionable for a time to write about a disunited America. When world affairs settled down, that theme went away. Though with our massive debt, the economy teetering on the brink (what recovery? I don’t see it) and a possible new war in Syria, the USA could meet its end for real. The more we hear mainstream media pundits opining about American power and dominance being glorious and eternal, the more likely we’ll face an ignominious bankruptcy. The United States might even break up into separate countries. Not that this would be a bad thing; my contrarian view of this issue was one of my inspirations for Centrifugal Force. If and when it happens, though, it’ll cause a lot of novels in progress to be hastily rewritten to reflect the new “facts on the ground.”


Super Milk Dud and the Suicidal Sensei

For some reason, most science fiction fans also love Japanese anime, and I’m no exception. Perhaps that’s because these shows are much more creative than American animation, and the stories and settings are often quite bizarre. Those anime that incorporate humor are well-suited for my warped, Monty Pythonesque sensibilities. Occasionally, though, I find something that’s too weird even for me.

Last week my teenage son introduced me to The Super Milk Chan Show. Although we like a lot of the same things, this one had me puzzled. First of all, on the website we were on, it was designated for “mature audiences” and I had to log into my Facebook account to view it. That was amusing, given that I can watch full-fledged pornography on my computer simply by clicking a button that says “I certify I am over 18.” In any case, Milk Chan appeared promising at first. On the first episode we watched, the characters were discussing a news story about a world’s record being set for the longest human turd. Perhaps this is what passes for Japanese gross-out humor. If so, the Japanese are more fastidious than we are, because the few shows we saw wasn’t nearly as cool as The Ren and Stimpy Show.

The protagonist of the show is a little girl named Milk Chan who wears a costume and investigates crimes. Though she fancies herself a superhero, she has no powers except her obnoxious personality and rampant greed (when someone mentions money, yen symbols appear in her eyes.) Her sidekicks are Tetsuko, a nagging robot who looks like a talking water tank, and Hanage, a green slug, who never speaks. If I had to pick a favorite character, it would be the slug. Was it silly? Yes, extremely. Was it funny? Not particularly.

On the other hand, if you want more cerebral, albeit morbid, humor, you can’t go wrong with Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, which in English is Goodbye, Mister Despair. This is another of my son’s favorites, and this time I agree with him. It’s a light-hearted romp about Nozomu Itoshiki, a chronically depressed high school teacher, and his dysfunctional students. In the first episode, cute teenager Kafuka Fuura (who is so relentlessly optimistic that she enters the realm of denial) saves his life by preventing him from hanging himself. Surprise, he later shows up at school as her new teacher. All of Nozomu’s female students (the class is coed but the show mostly ignores the boys) suffer from various maladies that include obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, stalking, and domestic violence.

The humorous treatment of these serious topics will surely offend politically correct Americans, but so what? One of humor’s most important functions is to help people cope with life’s problems. It’s also healthy to laugh at oneself. My favorite character is Kaere Kimura, a foreign exchange student with obviously American traits. She’s the class’s only blonde, and is much taller and bustier than the other girls. If anyone gets a glimpse of her panties (which happens frequently, due to the shortness of her skirts) she screams, “I’ll sue you for sexual harassment!”

Mr. Despair, or SZS as it’s also known, has one more interesting feature. All the characters’ names are Japanese puns, which are achieved by regrouping the characters of their names. That’s why poor Nozomu Itoshiki is always depressed. Regrouped, his name reads “Mister Despair.” The episodes in the first series are quite strange- the various characters are introduced, have identity crises, disappear and reappear. The second season doesn’t quite match the first season’s morbid brilliance. It’s dominated by observational humor a la Seinfeld (in one episode, for example, Nozomu and his students poke fun at snooty restaurants that don’t accept “first-timers.”) Yet it’s still pretty funny. At its lowest point it’s still miles above the ridiculous Milk Chan.

Super Milk Chan is available on and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is on,,, and probably others.

Top Ten Libertarian Science Fiction Books

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.”