An All-Too-Possible Future
Schulman's characters face social collapse and find a way out
Alongside Night, by J. Neil Schulman, New York: Crown Publishers. 1979. 181 pp. $8.95.
Let's not call this science fiction. After all, the publisher isn't, despite the fact that it follows the best "If this goes on…" tradition of the genre. Let's call it near-future fiction and leave it at that, although it's also a coming-of-age novel, a utopian/dystopian novel, and a novel of ideas. It's also a first novel, and it's full of surprises, not all of them confined to the plot.
Briefly, Alongside Night concerns Elliot Vreeland, the 17-year-old son of a Nobel Prize-winning economist—one whose theories seem to jibe nicely with the Chicago School. (The Author's Note disclaims any intentional similarities between the economist character and Milton Friedman.)
Elliot Vreeland's world is Manhattan in the not-too-distant future, in an America that is falling apart. Decades of fiscal mismanagement and irresponsibility have finally brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. The inflation rate is through the roof, the cost-of-living index was 2,012 percent for the last quarter of the previous year, a taxi ride costs 2,000 blues (New Dollars). Businesses are failing hourly, strikes are rampant, and Elliot, a high school senior, is not even sure there will be any colleges left to attend come September.
But these are merely background problems, a part of everyday life. Elliot's trials begin in earnest when his father, mother, and sister disappear, kidnapped—possibly murdered—by forces of the State. Armed with a .38-caliber Peking revolver and a money belt full of Mexican 50-peso gold pieces, he begins a trek through a future Manhattan on the verge of social collapse.
At first look, the cityscape Schulman presents is a nightmare, totally alien to anything on earth; yet the more you see, the more you realize how uncomfortably close it is to Mayor Koch's town. There are bright spots, however—pockets of civilization made safe by merchant groups who have hired security forces to protect their customers. Eventually, Elliot connects with the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre, a laissez-faire underground group that has been labeled "terrorist" and "gangster" by the government, and outlawed. Within one of the cadre's safe areas he meets Lorimer, a girl his age who, like most cadre members, goes by a pseudonym and who is more than she seems.
The agorists dine in places like the Tanstaafl Cafe, fly the Gadsden flag, and say things like "A is A." The author has put a lot of effort and ingenuity into little things among the agorists, especially the names of their businesses: NoState Insurance, Anarchobank (which issues the Bank Anarchocard to qualified customers), the Black Supermarket, and so on.
Some will be tempted to compare Alongside Night to Atlas Shrugged: both works deal with America on the brink and with a libertarian group that has retreated to a secret enclave. But the resemblance stops there. Ayn Rand's book puts forth a set of carefully derived principles and expounds on the philosophy derived from those principles. Schulman takes a completely different approach. His characters make no speeches. Aside from excerpts from a few fictitious books, there is little discussion of principles. Instead, he lets the social and economic chaos of Elliot Vreeland's world speak for itself. The thrust of Alongside Night is entirely empirical. The message is clear in everything we are shown: collectivism doesn't work. And if we continue with our current fiscal and social policies, Elliot's world is what we must expect.
Do not let the above lead you to think that there are no ideas here. There are. Plenty of them. None entirely unique to libertarian thought, but many that are potentially shocking to the uninitiated—those who still believe in municipal bonds, the stock market, the FCC, urban renewal, and on and on.
But most important of all, I think, is Schulman's emphasis on, and insistent use of, the term agora. It's from the Greek, meaning marketplace, and is, as far as the reading public is concerned, a neutral term. Unlike "capitalism" and even "libertarianism" ("What's that you say? He's a libertine?"), agora engenders no knee-jerk responses. It's not even an official ism.
FIRST NOVEL TROUBLES
As with any first novel, Alongside Night is not without its flaws. Any novel of ideas must walk a tightrope. The ideas are the raison d'être for the work, yet it must remain a novel: there must be emotional involvement of sufficient intensity to counterbalance the intellectual content. This isn't easy. It requires an expert sense of balance. Schulman does well for the most part, but after a tense beginning, the adrenalin fades as we move into the middle chapters. There's intellectual stimulation aplenty as we explore the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre and meet the mysterious Lorimer, but emotionally it's a trough.
It could be, however, that I found these sections emotionally flat because of my familiarity with libertarian thought; outsiders, seeing laissez-faire economics put to practical use for the first time, may well find the middle chapters riveting. A strong emotional component here might only prove distracting.
The main characters could use further development. Do not misunderstand: they are not stereotypes; none of the major characters is a stereotype. But Elliot is a bit too cool for a teenager whose family has been kidnapped, his father possibly murdered by the State. And Lorimer/Deanne, considering her developmental environment—how did she ever manage to become a libertarian? Neither of them seems to have much of a life outside the plot. Elliot obviously likes science fiction—but is it a mere reading preference, or does he have a passion for it? He plays chess well—a passion, or something for idle hours? I didn't feel I knew him too much better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. Again, this may be a calculated effect on the author's part, but in a novel involving coming of age, I like to be pushed a little deeper under that character's skin.
These are minor points. The story picks up again in the second half, and there are so many good moments all the way through. Schulman's writing is at its best when he's moving his characters through the streets of Manhattan-to-be, where virtually everyone is a criminal: there are the moral criminals—the muggers, the thieves, the bureaucrats—and there are the statutory criminals—gun owners, gold owners, black marketeers. You get the feel of social breakdown. It's unsettling.
Yet it's not all bleak and chaotic. There are touches of humor and glimmers of hope amid the gloom. There is a truly startling moment in part one in which Elliot asks a porn shop counterman who has been hiding gold for his father why he hadn't stolen the gold and run off. The man's reply: "I didn't steal the gold 'cause it don't belong to me." After seeing what is going on in the rest of the city, the simple integrity of that statement hits you right between the eyes…and stays with you for the rest of the book.
This is a radical novel. It pulls no punches, offers no compromises. It effectively presents a social, moral, and political point of view without polemic, without stridency. Without hysteria, it projects a bleak future for us all, but not without hope, for there's a deep affection for humanity despite all its foibles underlying every sentence. I understand J. Neil Schulman is only 26; I foresee a long and successful writing career ahead of him. I don't know him, but after reading this, his first novel, I'd like to.
Alongside Night offers the libertarian reader a great deal of pleasure, but holds so much more for the nonlibertarian. It will shock those who are unprepared for it. Who knows?—It may even wake a few people up. I hope it sells 20 million copies.
F. Paul Wilson is a practicing physician and the author of several novels. For Wheels within Wheels, he was recently given the first Prometheus Award—payment in gold for outstanding libertarian sf.