Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

January 2001
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

by Robert K. J. Killheffer

Give Me Liberty, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Mark Tier, Baen, 2003, $7.99.

SINCE THE events of September 11, 2001, the words "freedom" and "liberty" have been tossed around as often (and with as much thought) as baseballs in the spring. The terrorists, we're told, attacked us because they hate "freedom." Lee Greenwood sings of America as a place where "at least I know I'm free" a half-dozen times a day on all the country stations. Freedom becomes one of those words that loses its meaning through overuse. Meanwhile the Attorney General proposes to safeguard our liberty by curtailing it, citizens lose their jobs for exercising freedom in their speech, and we've sent our military abroad to impose our style of free society on other nations—by force.

But what does this have to do with sf? Most people—those who don't read sf, and even some of those who do—think of it as escapist fluff, a literature that offers refuge from the problems of the outside world. But if you ask me, the best sf grapples with real-world issues as gamely as any other fiction, and not just on subjects of science and technology (where it outdoes any competitor). With its roots in the utopian fantasies of the early modern era, through the future-war novels of the nineteenth century, and down through the mess of the twentieth to our own day, sf has provided the best fictional tools for exploring matters of political and social philosophy. And sf's visions of the future have had a lot to say specifically on the subject of liberty, its proper limits (if any), and the social systems most conducive to its practice.

George Orwell's 1984 may be the single most influential work of political fiction ever, and it's no accident that Orwell—not a genre writer, though deeply influenced by the work of H. G. Wells—adopted the mode of science fiction for his cautionarily prophetic book. He could never have conjured the notions of Big Brother and doublethink in such chilling fashion within the confines of a conventional mimetic novel. Prophets speak of the future, and the language of the future is sf.

(Plume has just published a handsome new edition of 1984 for the centennial of Orwell's birth. Pick it up and see how potent it remains, even two decades after the passing of its fateful date.)

Orwell's novel essentially codified the dystopic view of the political future in sf. After 1984, the repressive totalitarian state became a staple of sf, almost a cliché (though in genre sf, rebellious individuals more often manage to topple or at least escape the evil government). But the Orwellian nightmare-scenario is a warning, not a recommendation. It keeps our guard up against erosions of liberty, but it doesn't offer suggestions on how to increase the measure of freedom in our lives.

Ayn Rand's two sf novels, Anthem (1938) and The Fountainhead (1957), were not quite so influential, but they, along with Robert A. Heinlein's work (most notably The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress [1966]), helped refine sf's healthy skepticism about authority into something more powerful and prescriptive: libertarianism, a political philosophy which favors a minimal (or even nonexistent) government and a society based on unrestrained competition, in which voluntarily entered contracts are the foundation of all human interactions. Libertarianism is sometimes thought of as right-wing anarchism, due to its uncompromising dedication to free-enterprise economics.

Libertarianism has never dominated sf, but it has been a loud and consistent presence from the days of John W. Campbell onward, particularly in the person of Heinlein and his literary heirs. It's one of the longest-running and most insistent political themes in the field. Today, a small group of sf writers (led by L. Neil Smith) identify themselves explicitly as libertarian writers, and their fiction is often stiff with lengthy philosophical rant and cartoonishly simplistic scenarios in which incompetent bureaucrats get their deserved comeuppance. A few writers (notably Ken MacLeod and Vernor Vinge) present libertarian philosophy with greater subtlety and complexity—MacLeod's work is perhaps the most interesting overtly political sf being written today—but for the most part, libertarian attitudes simmer in the background of contemporary sf as an unexamined and dogmatic preference for private enterprise over state-sponsored programs. In Stephen Baxter's Manifold sequence, for example, and in John Varley's latest novel, Red Thunder, we're subjected to the tired fantasy of a single, amazingly capable entrepreneur doing what the government can't (or won't)—get us back into space—using only his ornery determination and personal fortune (plus, in Varley's case, the help of some plucky kids). The unlikelihood of these scenarios (no matter how accurate their science), and the refusal to acknowledge that, so far, it has only been government programs that have ever gotten us into space, give this old Heinleinian libertarianism a strained and desperate feel.

This is the sort of thing I expected to find when I opened Give Me Liberty, an anthology of stories dedicated to the premise of "doing away with government entirely." But I was surprised and pleased to discover that the stories gathered here—mostly from the fifties and sixties—reveal a distinctly different ethic from that in today's libertarian sf. There's no idolization of super-competent entrepreneurs to be found, and not much faith in capitalist economics either. In fact, some of these stories would warm any die-hard liberal's heart.

The book opens with Lloyd Biggle's "Monument" (1961), the story of an idyllic, low-tech indigenous society under threat of colonization and exploitation by an expanding high-tech civilization, and how the indigenes save themselves and their way of life from colonial ruin. Liberty is preserved—the liberty of the natives, anyway—but the forces that imperil freedom here are big business and private enterprise, not a rapacious or repressive government. Biggle's clear denunciations of unfettered development—and even of the profit motive itself—come almost as a shock. And Biggle's aborigines succeed not by eschewing government, but by using one of government's most controversial powers: taxation. It's a solution that would drive a devoted libertarian mad, but it's exactly the sort of approach that liberal campaigners for social justice might adopt.

Most of the stories in Give Me Liberty do not actually advocate the elimination of government as the path to greater freedom. Instead they focus on levelling the playing field. They identify inequalities of power as the engine of oppression, and in classic sf fashion they imagine a variety of gadgets to remedy the situation.

In "Gadget vs. Trend" (1962), Christopher Anvil proposes a "stasis device," a cheap and easy-to-use gizmo that renders whatever it's attached to virtually invulnerable and immovable. It gives citizens the power to resist government policies (and anything else) they don't like. "Historical Note" by Murray Leinster (1951) offers the personal flying machine as the answer. Armies dissolve, borders cannot hold, and no one can oppress anyone else when the victim can simply fly away. Leinster doesn't examine the complexities of his idea any more than Anvil does, and it's obvious neither gadget would ever produce the social effects the authors foresee, but these stories are not meant as serious proposals. They're fantasies, daydreams of how nice it would be if technology could simply sweep away all our problems.

The equalizing device in Frank Herbert's "Committee of the Whole" (1965) is a superpowerful laser gun that can be built out of stuff you might find lying around the house, or down at your neighborhood hardware store. (One of the prerequisites of these devices is that they're easily obtained by everyone—otherwise they would hardly be leveling the field.) With the secret of these guns out, the whole world will find itself in a state of mutually assured destruction writ small—down to the level of the individual person. Again, the plausibility of the device and its effects isn't the point—Herbert is presenting a political notion dressed up as a story. What's most striking here is the ideal proclaimed by the gun's inventor as he announces his discovery: He hopes that, under the threat of mutual extermination, "we might reach an understanding out of ultimate necessity—that each of us must cooperate in maintaining the dignity of all."

These stories propose a radical equalization in society, and the result (they hope) would be a culture of cooperation, not competition, with the aim of ensuring "the dignity of all." It is an anti-government vision insofar as the authors reject government as the means of achieving their reformed societies, but the foundation of them all—equalization of power—has far more in common with New Deal progressivism than with Rand's Objectivism.

Two of the stories in Give Me Liberty tackle the problem of imagining how societies might actually function without government. Vernor Vinge's "The Ungoverned" (1985) is by far the most recent story in the book, so it's no surprise that its vision and sensibility are much closer to current libertarian principles. Vinge's story takes place in the world of his novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime. The U.S. has subdivided into a variety of smaller states and regions, including the "ungoverned" lands—much of the middle of the continent—where no formal government exists at all. Here all the functions of society take shape in voluntary contracts. Folks in Manhattan, Kansas can contract with Al's Protection Racket for basic police and security services, and with Midwest Jurisprudence or Justice, Inc. for legal coverage. Some go without contracts at all, and rely on their own resources (which usually take the form of massive arsenals). It all runs pretty smoothly, until the Republic of New Mexico—which has retained a representative democratic government much like our own—decides to invade the ungoverned lands. Without a government there's no army, just the private police operations who have contracted to provide protection, and the larger companies they have recontracted with for backup. It looks like the New Mexicans will just walk in and take over, but of course it's not that easy.

Eric Frank Russell presents a very different kind of ungoverned society in "And Then There Were None" (1951). On this distant colony planet, the people live by a kind of barter, in which the "seller" of a good or service plants an obligation (an "ob") on the "buyer." The ob can be repaid ("killed") directly, or through exchange with third, fourth, or fifth parties, until the circle closes with the original seller getting something he or she needs. Without money, it's hard for anyone to become wealthy (there's only so much you can do with a pile of unkilled obs), and citizens can only own what they actually use (no landlords, no franchisers, no real estate magnates), so there is very little economic inequality. There is no government, no police force, no law. Even the repayment of obs is optional—but of course one won't get far, once word spreads that obs won't be honored.

The arrival of an ambassador on a battleship from the expanding human Empire would appear to spell the end of this governmentless lifestyle, but as in the case of the New Mexican invasion, it's much harder than the ambassador thinks to bring these Gands (as they call themselves) into the fold. Instead, the ship starts losing crew, as they find the local conditions more appealing than life in the stiffly bureaucratic and economically stratified Empire.

Unlike in Vinge's story, there is no reliance on force among the Gands—even in resistance to the Imperial emissaries. The Gands instead have "the mightiest weapon ever thought up"—nonviolent disobedience. They call themselves Gands after Gandhi. Their planetary slogan is "Freedom—I Won't," and they exercise that power of refusal to flummox and annoy and eventually chase the Imperial dignitaries away, leaving hundreds of former crewmen and soldiers to their chosen life of Gandian liberty.

Russell's story has a jaunty humor and a supremely subversive message that makes it the most enjoyable and inspiring story in the book. But it's not quite possible to believe fully in either his or Vinge's governmentless society. They both admit (Russell explicitly) that their schemes could only work in relatively small communities, in which everyone knew everyone else and reputations for cheating could spread quickly. And even then they depend upon a rosier view of human nature than a study of history would tend to support—it's easy to imagine how either system could be corrupted by individuals or (especially) groups who didn't play by the rules. Most importantly, neither story addresses the crucial issue of the weak, the sick, the old, and the handicapped—the Achilles heel of every libertarian vision. What can these contract or obligation-based societies do with citizens who cannot generate as much as they need—who can never kill all the obs they would run up?

Libertarians too often resort to social Darwinism to dismiss the problem—the strong survive, the weak don't, c'est la vie—but neither Vinge nor Russell, to their credit, cops out that way. They just ignore the matter. We never see anyone old or disabled in either story, so we get no sense of how such citizens fare. And this leaves the freedom of these societies tasting a little thin. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted in his famous "Four Freedoms" speech, true individual freedom cannot be had without two key components: freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The gadget stories, with their emphasis on radical equality, seem to have something of this notion in mind, but none of the stories here manage to depict a credible society that would ensure such complete freedom to all its citizens.

Give Me Liberty offers an excellent assemblage of some rarely reprinted material that deserves to be better remembered. The editors might have balanced the book with a couple of stories from more recent years—maybe something from Paul McAuley, or Bruce Sterling, or Greg Egan, whose novel, Schild's Ladder, was nominated for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award for 2003—but I can't think of any story from the past decade that addresses the issues of political freedom as directly as the selections here. Give Me Liberty is full of genuinely thought-provoking sf in the classic mode, doing what we badly need sf to do—challenging assumptions and exploring radical ideas, taking nothing for granted, daring to dream. And it provides something equally valuable. It reminds us of the shared roots of the liberal and libertarian traditions, which have over time become almost antithetical. Through these stories, we can see that devotees of freedom once recognized that all forms of coercion ultimately proceed from imbalances of power—economic, physical, emotional—and that the path to greater liberty lies through decreasing inequalities as much as possible. The difference then lay only in methods: liberal progressives saw government as a tool for achieving the goal, and libertarians saw government as one of the barriers to it. Over the second half of the twentieth century, libertarianism has abandoned the notion that liberty is intimately connected to mutual, cooperative, power-balanced relationships, while liberalism has seemingly forgotten that the goal is to increase individual freedom, not introduce a steady stream of new rules. The pleasure in Give Me Liberty lies in recognizing and celebrating the grand dream of true liberty upon which these two traditions are founded. The cause of freedom would be best served if liberals and libertarians could bridge their rift, and bring all lovers of liberty together again in common cause.

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to

Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art