Tor's Worlds Without Death or Taxes

When is a mainstream publisher also an anti-authoritarian propagandist? When it publishes science fiction.

(Page 3 of 3)

The United Kingdom has been particularly fertile ground for libertarian-themed science fiction of late. Perhaps one reason for this is the U.K.’s burgeoning surveillance state, with cameras trained to catch everything from speeding to teenaged “anti-social behavior.” Nielsen Hayden describes Walton’s Ha’penny, her alternate history of a fascist Britain, as a look at “how totalitarianism creeps in on little cat feet and subverts people, even good people, and how people deal with being complicit in morally monstrous stuff.” Walton says she thinks her alternate universe, in which uniformed men constantly ask for citizens’ papers, has some relevance for our own: “Giving up liberty for safety is a trend that there was in the 1930s and ’40s. The [1914] Defense of the Realm Act actually gave the government phenomenal power. Churchill knew what he was doing and gave back habeas corpus. But that’s not the way to bet.”

“I notice that newer S.F. writers are much more willing to imagine different political arrangements,” says MacLeod. “The default of golden age S.F. was some kind of bureaucratic welfare state arrangement on Earth and some kind of empire stretching to the stars. Nowadays…you get a sense that the future will be full of quite diverse political systems.”

After all, says Prometheus’ Monsen, science fiction is at its best when it is “taking the old truism that nothing is certain except death and taxes, and turning that idea on its head on both counts.” What better way to imagine and prepare for this multifaceted political future—hopefully one without death or taxes—than by settling in with a good book?

* The orginal version credited Tor with Prometheus Award winner L. Neil Smith’s 1982 The Probability Broach. The book was originally published by Del Rey, and later acquired by Tor.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    And somebody was complaining here the other day about how libertarian blog comment threads end up derailing into sci-fi discussions!

    Excellent article.

  • robc||

    I havent been following my Nivenania (is that the right term?). I didnt know about Fleet of Worlds. Good thing I have some Amazon Gift Certificates looking for a purpose.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Good article. Kinda saddened that Verner Vinge didn't make it into the article though.

  • ||

    I enjoyed this article. I paid particular attention to the following line: "Themes of colonialism and political oppression run through Buckell's books, which isn't surprising: He was born in Grenada in 1979 and grew up in the messy aftermath of a communist coup."

    Although I haven't produced any books (yet?!) I was born in California in 1957 and grew up in the messy aftermath of a communist coup. The parallels encourage me...

    Sincerely, thanks for the entertainment and information, Katherine! Now I have a reason to return to NYC and see the Flatiron building.

  • ed||

    The best sci-fi underplays the sci and focuses on the fi.

  • ||

    Much of libertarianism-goes-to-space is a reflection of its impossibility in a world full of people content to run the gamut from sub-par to mediocre.

  • ||

    And the proper term is Heinleinatarian.

  • T||

    Kinda saddened that Verner Vinge didn't make it into the article though.

    Yeah, Vinge didn't but crazy old socialist Ken MacLeod did. What, what?

  • zoltan||

    Larry Niven sucks balls. Please go back to English class and learn characterization.

  • ||

    zoltan,

    I like Niven. Is he the grand master of literature? No. But I've enjoyed a number of his books. My knock on him is that he hasn't wowed me in decades, but that's not uncommon for authors. Did Mailer write much good after The Naked and the Dead?

  • ||

    # ed | November 13, 2008, 1:01pm | #
    # The best sci-fi underplays the sci and
    # focuses on the fi.

    I would say that, in the best SF, the S is "just there," and it is through characters' routine use and reactions to the S throughout the F that the reader comprehends it. That's been my experience, anyway.

    Two things I can't stand in SF: 1) theoretical or operational discussions, thinly, unsuccessfully disguised as dialog or exposition; 2) characters continuing throughout to describe SF implements or technologies by their unwieldy full names, e.g., "hypospray" ("hypo" "hype" or even the by-then-archaic "hypodermic" make more sense) "Tarkalian Tea" (why doesn't the tea have a name of its own? And how often do even we say "French Fries" in everyday conversation?), "photon torpedo" (it's a "torpedo" or even a "torp" -- the old fashioned kind of torpedo is the thing that needs the modifier), "sonic shower" ("shower" is fine). The list could go on and on. I'm sure everyone here has their favorites. I pick on "Star Trek" here because it's pervasive and big enough to take a hit without damage, and because, in spite of its glaring faults, I have great affection for it.

  • ||

    The best sci-fi underplays the sci and
    # focuses on the fi.

    I would say that, in the best SF, the S is "just there," and it is through characters' routine use and reactions to the S throughout the F that the reader comprehends it. That's been my experience, anyway.

    Two things I can't stand in SF: 1) theoretical or operational discussions, thinly, unsuccessfully disguised as dialog or exposition; 2) characters continuing throughout to describe SF implements or technologies by their unwieldy full names, e.g., "hypospray" ("hypo" "hype" or even the by-then-archaic "hypodermic" make more sense) "Tarkalian Tea" (why doesn't the tea have a name of its own? And how often do even we say "French Fries" in everyday conversation?), "photon torpedo" (it's a "torpedo" or even a "torp" -- the old fashioned kind of torpedo is the thing that needs the modifier), "sonic shower" ("shower" is fine). The list could go on and on. I'm sure everyone here has their favorites. I pick on "Star Trek" here because it's pervasive and big enough to take a hit without damage, and because, in spite of its glaring faults, I have great affection for it.


    Along the same lines. Can't remember who said it. Poul Anderson maybe. But he said when writing sci-fi or fantasy you should always call a rabbit a rabbit. If you call it a "snarkelhorn" or some other gibberish you're just making things difficult to read.

  • ||

    The door dilated.

  • robc||

    Niven is about location, not characterization. When you realize that the protagonist is the environment and what that will lead to society-wise, the lack of character development bothers you much less.

    People who demand good character development are single dimensional readers.

  • ||

    Although they're more cosmic thriller than SF, the Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson are conspicuous by they're absence in any article about Tor's anti-authoritarian leanings. Wilson won the 1st Prometheus Award and Repairman Jack has been called "a libertarian's wet dream."

  • Hogan||

    Did Mailer write much good after The Naked and the Dead?

    i think there's a very good, much shorter book buried somewhere in The Executioner's Song that could have been excavated by a good editor. And it's been a long time since I've read them, but I seem to recall Armies of Night and Why are We in Vietnam both being quite good.

  • Hogan||

    though neither were at naked and dead levels

  • ||

    Mailer defies editors.

    Actually, I didn't mean to suggest that he never wrote another decent book; I just meant that he peaked a long time ago.

  • ||

    The best sci-fi underplays the sci and focuses on the fi.

    As long as the writing is good, I think it can go either way. I enjoy so-called "hard" sci-fi because of my interest (if not ability) in math and physics, and some of the best sci-fi I have ever read (meaning, to me, that which set me thinking, and which inspired emotion in me) was hard, hard, hard on the sci.

  • ||

    First motherfucker drags out that "the best SF is about what it means to me human" bullshit gets a taser to the 'nads.

  • Dani Kollin||

    My brother and I recently signed with Tor and have our first book due for release this March. (The Unincorporated Man). Trying to make the Libertarian or even - heaven forbid - Republican argument with most of my friends almost always degenerates into abject frustration on my part and shocked expressions on theirs (Yes, I could pick new friends but the truth is I like to argue). Our novel has allowed us to make our case as to what we feel the true nature of liberty and freedom is without being interrupted, shot down or called bigoted fascists. As Mr. Doherty rightly points out, the story had better be there and writing a one-sided argument doesn't qualify. However, having a nice rational argument (finally!) with a really good bad guy does. Lots of things exploding also help.

    Dani Kollin
    Author
    www.theunincorporatedman.com

  • Tom Jackson||

    For any libertarian SF fans who might be interested in learning more: www.lfs.org. There's plenty of time to pay the modest membership fee and vote on next year's awards.

  • robc||

    First motherfucker drags out that "the best SF is about what it means to me human" bullshit gets a taser to the 'nads.

    Of course. The best SF is about what it means to be a robot.

  • ||

    I havent been following my Nivenania (is that the right term?). I didnt know about Fleet of Worlds. Good thing I have some Amazon Gift Certificates looking for a purpose.

    I just picked it up, but I'm only about a 1/4 way through; my craps aren't as long they used to be.

    Not too bad for his new stuff; interesting background on the Puppeteers. I didn't care for the last Ringworld novel. Bought it, read about 100 pages and put it down for good.

  • Jeff P||

    I liked Fleet of Worlds because it portrayed the Puppeteers and complete assholes. I've never read a more compellingly racist book.

  • ||

    The best scifi is about what it means to be human.

  • Dormouse||

    ^^

    The best scifi is about what it means to be.

  • economist||

    The best Sci-Fi is about what it means to be a sentient computer.

    Free Luna!

  • Neu Mejican||

    Psshawww.

    Any discussion of Tor, Science Fiction, and politics that doesn't even mention Samuel R Delany isn't a serious discussion.

    Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976)

    Is one of the more serious attempts to examine what a libertarian society would actual look like...of course that particular title is on Bantam (did Tor do a re-issue?).

    More on the book: http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=3777

  • Neu Mejican||

    Dormouse | November 13, 2008, 6:41pm | #
    ^^

    The best scifi is about what it means to be.


    The best scifi is about what it means.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Delany's own thoughts.

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/delany52interview.htm

    Speaking of Triton, personally I know perfectly well I can't detail the government that would produce that collection of communes and co ops, with family units at the outer rim and singles in the inner city, with the social interplay between a licensed and an unlicensed sector....But the book makes some guesses. And one guess is that the governmental structure will have to be at least as rich and imaginative and plural as the life structure of the citizens. But I can't-nor would I try to-specify that political structure in a novel, down to every governmental office and how it relates to every other.

    To find such a political structure, we'd have to try things out-and, far more important, be ready to revise our political structure when it didn't work out the way we wanted.

    And that, more than anything else, is what makes the enterprise fundamentally anti utopian/dystopian. Because a utopia (or dystopia) starts with a political structure that is self evidently-at least to the architect-superior (or inferior) to the existing one.

  • Neu Mejican||

    A further nugget to entice the Heinleinatarians...

    This is very different-I hope-from the rhetorical strategy shared by Heinlein and the Stalinist...

  • ||

    The reason bloggers really need to do some research on the politics of Cory Doctorow before splattering his words all over on "the #1 libertarian blog" on the internet.

  • ||

    Hey, I just wanted that taser to the nads.

  • BlueBook||

    The best SF is about what it means to be a hot lesbian gynoid.

  • ||

    Dani, good luck to you and your brother. Is this the first thing you've had published?

  • zoltan||

    robc, no need to be a stupid dick. I read a lot of sci-fi and Niven's grasp of the English language and storytelling skills (and his aforementioned lack of characterization) all contributed to my reaction after reading Ringworld: throwing it across the room. I'm just more of a Gibson fan. But hey, you can think not liking one-dimensional characters is one-dimensional, have fun with that.

  • zoltan||

    Trying to make the Libertarian or even - heaven forbid - Republican argument with most of my friends almost always degenerates into abject frustration on my part and shocked expressions on theirs

    Republican arguments degenerate on their own without much help. It's sad, though, that your friends don't understand libertarianism.

  • Dan Clore||

    Readers might like to check out my Nolan Chart column "Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians":

    http://www.nolanchart.com/article4700.html

  • ||

    Very nice article, with an illuminating insight into Tor's editorial policy. Let me hasten to add that the idea for the quote from me about "death and taxes" really originates from something F. Paul Wilson said in a speech back in 1983. His words about libertarian futurists has stuck in mind all these years, and if I failed to attribute the source to Wilson when Katherine interviewed me for the article, I sincerely apologize.

    As far as other libertarian writers, certainly Vernor Vinge comes to mind. He has published many books through Tor, and also won both the Hugo and Prometheus Award for several of his books. I'd also like to mention Victor Koman, whose novel Kings of the High Frontier should have received far more attention when it appeared in print in the late 1990s.

    As far as my comments about the market moving on, I said this with a large degree of sadness. L. Neil Smith continues to write great fiction-- his novel The Probability Broach is a classic, but he has published more than 20 novels since that first book--and there are other libertarian minded writers who also deserve readers and publishers. Smith's latest projects include the brilliant alternate history graphic novel, Roswell, Texas, which was published this year by Big Head Press.

  • Eric Haskell||

    While not technically science fiction, some of the best libertarian books - indeed the ones that formed much of my world view as a teenager - are Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, published by Tor.

  • flix||

    second the motion- Vernor vinge should definitely be there.

    Across Realtime (including The Ungoverned)
    A Deepness in the Sky....

  • ||

    Stainless Steel Rat ftw..

  • ||

    There is no Hayden tout court. Much of the article gets it right with Nielsen Hayden
    "A lot of the story of Tor," says Nielsen Hayden, "is Tom Doherty refusing to be only a science fiction and fantasy line. And yet we've managed to be huge in science fiction anyway."
    Some of the article gets it wrong with Hayden tout court which should be Nielsen Hayden
    "But even when writing in a rage, Hayden says, MacLeod"
    An easy correction and arguably and example of how important a good editor can be.

  • ||

    What's ironic about this is that science fiction has all but died as a genre. You'd be hard pressed to name any recent science fiction author of note with any popular standing.

  • SplendaFree||

    I do not care for libertarian SF for one simple reason -- I had never seen any that was remotely plausible.

    SugarFree was quite correct in this observation: Much of libertarianism-goes-to-space is a reflection of its impossibility in a world full of people content to run the gamut from sub-par to mediocre.

    But the corollary to it is: What makes you think people in space will be any different?

    In my teens and early twenties I used to love Heinlein. What spoiled his books for me was the realization that human beings do not act that way! Well, some do, but far too few to make Heinlein's societies possible.

    The most egregious example of such is "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." When people are thrown together with no laws, they DO NOT work like beavers to build productive businesses, respect each other's rights and individuality, and fight together to preserve their freedom. What really happens is few strong ruthless and charismatic individuals emerge as leaders, and the rest join up with them for protection. IOW, they form gangs/tribes, most if not all of them open to outside influence and bribery.

    When men greatly outnumber women, women are NOT placed on a pedestal, given complete control over their sexuality, and collectively protected by all the men. Instead, they become property. And in the above situation, women would become, essentially, prizes in gang warfare.

    I do not know whether Heinlein realized the impossibility of TMIAHM society (and many others he created). He either never understood, or refused to accept that most human beings value security over freedom (Jefferson's famous quote notwithstanding).

    My favorite SF writer is Alastair Reynolds. Ken MacLeod's line "you get a sense that the future will be full of quite diverse political systems" certainly applies to him -- Reynolds "Inhibitors" series is full of very different systems, some of which are impossible (yet) because their functioning requires citizens to be in constant communication via brain implants. But there is no sense that governments are automatically bad (although some are), or that untrammeled individualism is automatically good or desirable. I like that Reynolds was first (to the best of my knowledge) SF writer to portray humans merged in a Borg-like collective in a positive light. I am not saying this is something I expect or particularly want to see in real future, but it is exactly the kind of innovative idea I expect from today's SF writer. Imagining what society could be like if humans were [remade] different is one thing. Imagining what society could be like if humans were what author thinks/wishes they are, but actually are not, is another -- and not nearly as attractive to me.

  • Dani Kollin||

    Re: Overkiller's question: is this my first novel? Technically, no. I've written a few children's books and am working on a non-SF YA book now (work for hire under my own name, though). This however is my first "real" novel (in the sense that if it sells I'll actually see some extra money!).
    Re: Zoltan's comment: "Republican arguments degenerate on their own without much help." Sadly, you are correct. In fact my favorite quote - attributed to my brother and co-author is "Republicans screw you by breaking their promises; Democrats screw you by keeping theirs". Still, there's something about a smarmy, "we need to enact these laws for your own good" liberal that pretty much always has me defending any adversarial position.

    ;-)

    Dani

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  • قبلة الوداع||

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