High in Manhattan’s famous Flatiron Building you’ll find the headquarters of Tor Books, the most successful science fiction publisher in the world. The Flatiron is a monument to mad Belle Epoque futurism, with a wedge shape that makes right angles rare. Inside Tor’s cramped office, drifts of books cover every horizontal surface and most of the vertical ones. The mind boggles at the destruction that could be wrought here by a dropped match, let alone a misfired laser gun.

Tor publishes between 110 and 120 new original titles each year, routinely topping the science fiction bestseller list compiled by the industry magazine Locus. For 20 years running, it also has won the highly respected Locus Award for the best science fiction publishing house. This year Tor earned yet another distinction when its authors claimed all five finalist spots for the Prometheus Award, the annual prize for best science fiction novel of the year handed out by the Libertarian Futurist Society.

So is this the most successful libertarian propaganda venture in modern history? Publisher and founder Tom Doherty denies any ideological agenda. “First comes the story,” he says. His only stated goal is to “do a story in a way that’s honest.”

Science fiction has long served as a kind of mad scientist’s basement lab for testing out different political,economic, and social arrangements. Tor’s success suggests that science fiction’s commitment to meditations on the importance of human freedom remains strong, as mainstream writers borrow more freely from the once-ghettoized genre, indulging in science fiction–style hypotheticals that probe both the outer limits of and existential threats to liberty.

“Libertarianism is very much part of the intellectual argument of science fiction,” says longtime Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. “It’s impossible to be a part of the argument of science fiction without engaging both broad libertarian ideas and also specifically the whole American free market intellectual tradition.”

Science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, a self-described civil libertarian whose Tor titles include the brilliantly paranoid young adult novel Little Brother, suggests why science fiction writers think so much about alternative worlds. “It’s completely unsurprising that people who, you can imagine, aren’t at the top of the pecking order in high school would turn to science fiction,” says Doctorow, who is also co-author of the wildly popular geek blog Boing Boing. “The people who write it have often not been beneficiaries of the authoritarian system. They’re the people who don’t fit in exactly, and if you always rub up against social constraints, you’re the kind of person who’s willing to sit down and have a good hard think about whether this is the best way to do things.”

Two decades after the death of the trailblazing author Robert Heinlein, the connection between science fiction and libertarianism remains strong, continuing to yield fascinating results. Some of the most interesting are coming out of Tor Books.

Tom Doherty, who started out as a salesman of cheap paperbacks for Pocket Books, founded Tor on his birthday in the spring of 1980. (Tor is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “summit” or “peak.” This image also provides the imprint’s logo.) Doherty was publisher at the time of the science fiction imprint Ace but decided it was time to strike out on his own. That first year Tor shipped just four books, and two were movie tie-ins: Flash Gordon and Popeye. The new publisher announced his arrival in earnest in 1981 with Psychotechnic League, by libertarian favorite Poul Anderson.*

“The American public is pretty bright, and they will buy things that are good,” Doherty told Locus in 2003. “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.”

Legend has it that when trying to come up with a motto for his new imprint, Doherty fell in love with “Tor Books: We’re history!” because of his belief that novels featuring anthropology and archaeology were just as much science fiction as were shoot ’em ups on alien spaceships. He settled on the slightly more politic “History: Past, Present, and Future” as the guiding idea for his unorthodox house.

Doherty’s management philosophy centers on hiring good people and letting them have their way. He lured fellow Ace employee Jim Baen to Tor soon after it was founded, and they quickly built the company into a powerhouse before Baen left in 1983 to found his own imprint, Baen Books. To this day Tor maintains a friendly rivalry with Baen, and Doherty retains a silent partner stake in Baen Books. Tor minimizes meetings (in part by always allowing its employees to work remotely in various far-flung locations, long before telecommuting was a household world), and individual editors are given leeway to pursue unorthodox projects. One editor, for instance, splits his time between space operas and Middle Eastern women’s fiction.

Doherty sold Tor to St. Martin’s in 1986 but maintained editorial control. Although St. Martin’s later became part of the German publishing conglomerate Holtzbrinck, Tor has retained a large degree of independence. This is deliberate, in part because Tor has an unusual editorial process. At most fiction publishing houses, decisions are made by consensus. All the editors, often drawn from many genres, sit down together and decide which authors to sign and how much to spend on promotions and advances. The result, Doherty argues, is an unwillingness to try something new or unusual. Tor decided to do things differently. “We don’t do things by committee and we don’t expect anyone to take care of us,” Doherty says. “We can stray outside the genre as long as they sell. We’ve got to be self-supporting.”

Despite being part of a large multinational publishing concern, Tor sometimes behaves more like a mom-and-pop shop—though not without that profit motive in mind. Doherty’s two daughters work for the company. So when his daughter Kathleen, who was working with Wal-Mart on a literacy promotion program, came to him with a plan to publish cheap copies of classics that were bound and illustrated in ways that appealed to kids instead of teachers, Doherty gave the green light. That order wound up totaling 17.5 million books.

Doherty says he also has given away “hundreds of thousands of copies” of Orson Scott Card’s young adult favorite Ender’s Game over the years, as a kind of science fiction gateway drug. He writes his congressman once a month, just to tell him what’s on his mind. Today he plays the role of grand old man with style—Nielsen Hayden calls him an “old-fashioned captain of industry, entrepreneur type”—presiding over Tor’s burrow from his award-cluttered office in the Flatiron’s pointed end.

Tor enjoys strong name recognition and brand loyalty among fans, thanks to its quirky catalog, industry recognition, and strong record of hits. Besides earning multiple honors in the two major science fiction awards—the Hugo (awarded by fans) and the Nebula (awarded by fellow writers)—Tor has racked up some more unusual prizes, such as the Lambda Literary Award for gay and lesbian fiction.

The Prometheus—established in 1979, about the same time Tor was founded—is one of those niche awards. Its winner’s circle used to be dominated by a small clutch of explicit libertarians, such as Poul Anderson and L. Neil Smith, who made a brief run for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1999. According to Anders Monsen, editor of the Libertarian Futurist Society newsletter, the honor has moved toward novels like this year’s finalists: books that espouse no dogma but clearly engage themes of liberty and authority. “The general trend has been that the market has moved on,” Monsen says. “J. Neil Schulman [author of The Rainbow Cadenza] moved on to nonfiction, and L. Neil Smith is not selling. Instead, libertarian ideas have penetrated the mainstream more; they’re easier to recognize. Our mission is to promote libertarian science fiction, but it’s also to promote libertarianism in science fiction more generally.”

This year, Tor’s Prometheus finalists included three alternate history novels. One is Jo Walton’s Ha’penny, the second in a series set in a Britain where a 1941 “peace with honor” forestalls World War II. Another is Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator, set in a communist Italian People’s Republic being infiltrated by capitalist travelers from a parallel universe. The third—only a slightly alternate history, since the turning point is the 2000 election—is Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, in which a fractured family dodges the security state after a terror attack. The fourth nominee was Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin, a space opera centered on humanity’s struggle against alien colonizers and enslavers. Similar themes of slavery and freedom guide the fifth finalist: Fleet of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, a prequel to the popular and long-lived Ringworld series.

In July, Prometheus announced a tie for first place between two of the alternate histories, Ha’penny and The Gladiator. A Hall of Fame prize is also awarded each year to an older book, so those two reconsiderations of failed versions of totalitarianism will be entered into the record books alongside that classic about control, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Taken together, this fairly diverse bunch of novels demonstrates a strange but familiar kind of science fiction alchemy: Writers with a jumble of competing views, working with editors spanning the political spectrum, churn out books for the mass market that turn out to be surprisingly effective propaganda pieces for liberty and against government.

Scratch a civil libertarian, and you’ll often find a 15-year-old who read a lot of Philip K. Dick. Ask a college guy protesting censorship at his student newspaper for his inspirations, and there’s a good chance Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will come up. Meet someone who thinks there might be an upside to anarchy, and you have probably found a girl who once read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or a boy who loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

“I suspect S.F. has an individualistic, antiauthoritarian trend to it not least because so many of the people who read and write it (not all by any means, but quite a few) are innerdirected introverts who make neither good leaders nor good followers,” emails Harry Turtledove, a best-selling author whose most famous novels pose questions about contingency in history and the importance of individual action. “Am I talking about myself? Well, now that you mention it, yes. But I ain’t the only one, not even close.”

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the goateed and bespectacled Tor eminence who edited two of the house’s Prometheus finalists this year, draws a direct line between youthfulness and openness to libertarian ideas. “Young people read fiction to figure out how the world works,” he says, “and science fiction is an extremely effective, quick way of testing your views of how the world works.” Paraphrasing the late novelist and critic Thomas Disch, Hayden says, “Enormous quantities of science fiction and fantasy are about power, and who needs power fantasies more than teenagers, people who have a little bit of power for the first time in their lives and need to think about how power works?”

The god in the machine, the man who roped science fiction and libertarianism together, is Robert A.
Heinlein. The author of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the half-dozen most influential libertarians of the 20th century, and much of the science fiction written after his heyday is an attempt to answer questions or squabble with conclusions he first posited in his books.

“Heinlein’s great strength,” Doctorow says, “was that he could put his arm around your shoulder and say, ‘Look kid, I’m going to make you understand how the world works. What the fuck does a woman want? What drives society? How does a military work?’ That’s incredibly powerful, especially to an adolescent.” Nielsen Hayden cites the same aspect of Heinlein’s work to explain why he has been “catnip to science fiction fans for so many generations.”

When asked about their early influences in interviews for this article, nearly all of Tor’s Prometheus finalists mentioned Heinlein, who once said of himself, “I’m so much a libertarian that I have no use for the whole libertarian movement.” Turtledove read Heinlein at 11, after which he was “off like a shot.” Walton read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress at 14 and “was very drawn to it.” MacLeod calls Heinlein “the giant of S.F. who stimulated the most libertarian thought.” Buckell, author of Ragamuffin, says Heinlein “didn’t do much” for him but pays tribute to the author’s influence with a hasty, “Not that there’s anything wrong with Heinlein!”

Buckell’s critique of Heinlein—and other mid-20th-century science fiction greats, such as the not-so-libertarian Isaac Asimov—is that they missed something crucial about the political and cultural diversity of the future. They “rewrite suburban America in the future,” he says. “In the ’50s and ’60s, people were a little more didactic. In this day and age, people expect a little more subtlety out of their fiction.”

A new crop of Tor authors is delivering just that kind of subtlety. MacLeod calls his The Execution Channel “an angry book.” But even when writing in a rage, Hayden says, MacLeod “has got a talent which I wish more science fiction writers had.…His books, all of them, have real politics in them, in which there is a real diversity of viewpoints, each of which gets off some good lines.” It’s a talent, Hayden feels, that is becoming incrementally more common and exponentially more valued within science fiction (which Hayden prefers to call “speculative fiction” or “idea fiction,” since speculation and ideas are what the category is really all about).

“I think the genre has grown up in very many ways,” says Claire Eddy, who has been an editor at Tor for 23 years. “There are aspects to our society that are more Blade Runner and less Star Trek.” Science fiction has become more intimate, she says. “There is much more of the human element and how we as a species will deal with the science.”

Science fiction appeals to people grappling with these heavy issues in their personal lives as well as on a broader social level, Buckell adds, “because our books often deal with creating whole new societies. Whether it’s a technology that revolutionizes things, or people leaving a planet to start a new colony, it’s people trying something revolutionary.”

Buckell’s Ragamuffin, for example, depicts humanity struggling for independence from humiliating bondage to aliens, who use travel and communication restrictions and mind control to keep human populations small and powerless, while offering the Orwellian assurance that humanity has already been “emancipated.” 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.

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.