The Disco-Era Libertarian Utopian Novel
The Probability Broach (North American Confederacy, volume 1)
By L. Neil Smith
1980’s The Probability Broach launched Smith into what turned into a twenty-one-year-long career with such major publishers as Del Rey, Baen, and Tor1. It was the second novel to win the Prometheus Award, which Smith himself founded. He was a frequent nominee for that award and pretty much only that award. Smith would go on to win the Prometheus three more times2. The Probability Broach is the book that began it all. Follow me into a land of commodity-based currency, talking gorillas, and grade-schoolers with guns as big as they are!
But to get there we have to begin in a doleful version of America, a police state where by 1987 the energy-crisis has been exacerbated by the efforts of the government, where a new prohibition has given the government new tools to stomp on the little guy, where the federal police clearly consider themselves above the law, and where life basically isn’t a lot of fun. Happily for Denver cop Win Bear, he is about to get an express ticket out of the place.
When Bear is called to investigate the murder of a scientist named Meiss, it looks like just another straightforward murder of the sort the cops usually fail to solve. The affair takes on more ominous overtones when Oscar Burgess of the Federal Security Police, America’s answer to the KGB, takes an interest. Meiss had powerful enemies and by trying to investigate his death, Bear and his coworkers have allied themselves with Meiss. In short order one of Bear’s coworkers is run down and Bear himself only narrowly escapes a bomb in his apartment.
Bear follows Meiss’s life back through weird, extremist politics of a kind we would call libertarian but which the novel, explicitly borrowing from Le Guin, calls Propertarian. The investigation ends up at Meiss’s research post at Colorado State University. Bear is alert enough to spot that Meiss’s boss, a socialist second-hander named Bealls, is probably working for Team Evil. That’s not enough to save Bear from a running gunfight in Meiss’ lab that ends with an explosion.
When he regains consciousness, Bear finds himself hundreds of meters from the lab; he has been thrown there by the explosion. Or so it seems at first. He has to reject that explanation almost immediately. The community around him is just too different. Even the conjecture that he was somehow blown into the future does not seem to explain what he is seeing. The idea that Bear has been displaced in time is almost correct — but instead of being blown into the future, he has been blown sideways into a world where the Whiskey Rebellion ended with George Washington’s death, the repudiation of the American Constitution, and the rise of a glorious anarchist state, the North American Confederacy, whose influence has by 1987 spread across the world. Only a handful of eccentrics — the Hamiltonians, named after Alexander Hamilton, here considered a great villain — still dream of a world with strong federalist government.
About the talking apes and the dolphins: it was the 1970s. Signing apes and thinking dolphins were all the rage.
This isn’t one of those books like Farnham’s Freehold or Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887 where the event that dropped the lead into an unfamiliar world is a one-off. Thanks to the abundant wealth of the tax-free NAC and the fact people like Ralph Nader are not allowed to get in the way of progress, the NAC is many decades more advanced than Bear’s original worldline. The probability broach that brought Bear to this world was first opened from the NAC side by researchers trying to develop an FTL-drive. Unfortunately, just because Bear’s original worldline would not have been able to invent the Broach does not mean they cannot duplicate it or at least exploit it.
There are a few details in common between the two worlds, in particular people. Both worlds have a version of: there are two Nixons, although the NAC’s is a burglar, and both worlds have a Win Bear, although the NAC’s version, Ed Bear, is a much healthier and much happier man than the protagonist.
What looks like a wonderful, if sometimes peculiar and often lecture-rich, utopia to a cop like Bear looks very different to Burgess of the Federal Security Police. Burgess sees a world without any standing army or experience with mass warfare, a world ripe for conquest. And Burgess has local allies in the form of known Hamiltonian Manfred von Richthofen and Manfred’s pals in the Federalist Party. With the local government beyond useless by design, the only bulwark between the NAC and brutal invasion is Win, his … twin Ed, from the anarchist world, and Ed’s plucky old lady next door neightbor, a plucky old lady named Lucy Kropotkin.
A recurring characteristic in utopian novels is that the inhabitants are as prone to informative monologues as a Canadian who has just discovered that their American guest thinks the US won the War of 1812. This book is no exception. There’s no danger that the reader will be left wondering how exactly the NAC came to be because Smith is more than willing to explain. At length.
Among the recurring lessons is the idea that tax money, once collected, has no further positive effect on the economy, which is why the folks from the NAC figure that their economy is eight times bigger than the USA’s because the NAC has no taxes (and nothing the taxes are spent on but never mind that). Also, in the absence of the State and anti-progress nannies like Nader — remember when it was the right wing who hated Nader? — super-science of all kinds, from mile long airships to deep space colonies, from freeze rays to what are actually pretty good guesses as to what a home computerized communications system might look like, become a simple matter of will.
Speaking of Canadians, this is another SF book where an independent Quebec turns into a People’s Republic, I guess because that’s the only form of government an American in the late 1980s could imagine a new nation adopting. I can imagine nothing more plausible than the US allowing a Communist state to form on or near its border. It may be that Quebec’s condition is supposed to reflect the fact that by 1987, the Soviet Union is ascendant over much of Eurasia, having conquered China sometime before the book opens.
Back in university I had a friend who found the scenes featuring little kids running around with great big pistols unbelievable. I suspect my friend grew up in a Canadian city, where firearms were not that common in the 1970s (although not unknown). Where I grew up, out in the sticks, pretty much all the kids at Josephsburg grade school had access to firearms (although generally rifles and shotguns) and the resulting carnage was well within acceptable limits3. It might seem odd to some, but I am certain that while there might be the occasional moment of playful gunplay in the NAC’s grade-schools4 and playgrounds, a healthy majority of the kids would survive to graduate. Well, maybe not entirely healthy but certainly a majority.
One of the little benefits of books like this is that authors can create humiliating new roles for historical figures one does not like and glorious ones for the author’s heroes. Accordingly, Nixon is imagined as a burglar while Ayn Rand becomes President and Admiral Heinlein gets to defeat the Czar’s navies. Well, at least RAH didn’t end up as a military dictator of some kind as he did in Niven’s 1989 “The Return of William Proxmire”.
I like to think there’s at least one timeline where Nixon ended up as a concert pianist but that’s not the sort of possibility that appeals to authors of alternate history.
Smith is aware that the butterfly effect will erase familiar figures from history as the effects of the point of departure reach their birth-lands. Bear exists in both worlds because he is a Ute (a group Bear does not think much of) and apparently completely changing world history didn’t affect the Ute part of North America until after the 1940s (feel free to discuss this in comments). How it is Nixon, Rand and Heinlein exist in both worlds is never properly addressed but it is at least possible if we were to compare Nixons, Rands, and Heinleins, it would turn out that the analogs are more like siblings than doppelgangers.
My take on the early 1987 scenes is that they are intended as an If This Goes On scenario, which means the author almost certainly didn’t intend the mutterings about Roosevelt having caused WWII as an indication Bear is himself in a time-line that branched from ours in the past. Smith’s historical models are as non-consensus as his politics and I expect he is being perfectly serious. I would not be astounded to discover Smith at one time had a copy of The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor. On the plus side, this is early enough he didn’t feel the need to drop AIDS-denial into the text .
Speaking of odd historical views, I am profoundly skeptical that any version of Jefferson would ever have freed his slaves absent a pistol to his head. I’ve never understood where certain people’s unreasonably sunny view of the fellow comes from.
At no point does Smith make the mistake of engaging in subtlety, which might only undermine his message. The narrative pauses from time to time for expository dumps. There is a much-too-long section involving the continental congress that exists, as far as I can tell, to establish that there’s no point in hoping that the NAC’s government will save the day. This section also makes it clear that atomic weapons are indeed covered by the right to bear arms. Smith compensates for the interminable infodumps with cathartic action scenes heavy on gun fire and explosions. Burgess is cheerfully villainous and I imagine that in private von Richthofen only stops laughing malevolently in order to stroke his dueling scar with a vicious leer.
While the history of anarchists taking on armed states is generally a doleful one, the NAC benefits from the fact that this is a multiverse where every possible alternate history exists in some timeline (more on this in the Venus Belt review). In the grand scheme of things, there probably are not very many histories where the anarchists won but for the purposes of the book, there only has to be one.
Unburdened by plausibility, this seems to be good dumb fun. It’s not like any shadowy cabal financed by a pair of billionaire siblings is going to spend decades undermining the US’s political process in the service of political extremism of the sort promoted in this book. Readers should feel free to kick back and enjoy a ludicrous but amusing adventure.
The Probability Broach is available in a variety of formats.
1: The sequel to this novel, The American Zone, seems to have brought Smith’s time with mainstream publishers to a screeching halt. If I can ever track down a copy — and it is beyond obscure — I will review it, because happily it turns out its problems are the sort an author can fix with a little help or at least the sort a reviewer can dwell on at length.
Oh, ha ha ha. When I said “obscure” I should have said from Orb.
2: It does look a little odd having an award’s founder win the award so often but the depth of the US libertarian SF writers bench wasn’t and isn’t that great. The people running the award (at least after it was reconstituted after collapsing due what seems to have been a lack of organization) compensated for this early on by being willing to nominate works by authors well outside their core membership, authors like Delany, Atwood, and Ann Maxwell (whose A Dead God Dancing is in the Tears stack).
3: A solid 80% of my family got out of the 1970s with no mortal gunshot wounds at all and even the 20% only had one, statistically insignificant given that they had been in the presence of loaded firearms many hundreds of times.
More generally, while Josephsburg school had a pair of brothers I think of as serial killers in training — they took altogether too much glee in shooting animals to no purpose but to maim and kill animals — it wasn’t until high school that I can remember anyone actually shooting another human. In those cases, the causes were basic gun safety lapses such as not looking beyond the target, sound-shooting (discharging a firearm in the direction of an unidentified noise), and being only approximately correct about rifles being unloaded. None of the shooters were would-be killers.What they were was teenagers.
4: Although the NAC’s schools probably look nothing like the sort of schools we have. No state education, for starters.