Science Fiction

It Could Have Happened Here


The Probability Broach, by L. Neil Smith, New York: Ballantine Books, Del Rey, 1980, 273 pp., $1.95 (paper).

Many science fiction writers have presented pictures of libertarian societies, but in general they have been placed at some distant time in the future or on a distant planet or moon. Often we are told how and why they developed. Neil Smith's libertarian society is located right here, right now. He shows us what our world might have been like if something had happened just a little bit differently in 1776. His gimmick is the Probability Broach, a hole between our universe and an alternate one whose history was the same as ours until that critical year. But then the Whiskey Rebellion was successful, George Washington was assassinated, and the Federalists' constitution was declared null and void. The Articles of Confederation were revised with stringent limits on government power, and government influence steadily declined.

Smith's hero, police lieutenant Edward W. Bear—"Win," to his friends—stumbles through the hole in 1987 while investigating a political murder. He leaves a society, our society, where tobacco is prohibited, special permission is required for air conditioning and for private cars, old people beg in the streets, and the Department of Energy can close any business it deems not important enough to use "our nation's precious and dwindling energy reserves." Win finds himself amongst vigorously independent people and exciting advanced technology in a thriving anarcho-capitalist "North American Confederacy." He doesn't have much time to figure out what caused the two worlds to diverge because some of the villains followed him through the hole and are trying to kill him.

This book is great fun reading. The good guys and gals include some delightful characters. The fiercely independent, outspoken, 136-year-old Lucy, who fought the czar and the Prussians, hates government and loves politics, is bound to be almost everyone's favorite. There are laugh-out-loud lines and much spirited dialogue. There's the pleasure of learning that just about every libertarian hero from Lysander Spooner to John Hospers has been elected president of the North American Confederacy. "None of the above" won a term, too. On the other hand, a fellow named Jimmy-Earl is a peanut vendor.

Smith has sprinkled enticing examples of how things might have been throughout the book. Many inventions and discoveries came sooner. Men and women landed on the moon in 1949. Sophisticated home computers are as common and as taken for granted as electricity. Chimpanzees and cetaceans participate in society and have rights. There are four phone companies, and they provide very polite service. As we would expect of anarcho-capitalism, justice is provided by private associations.

Some readers will criticize Smith for arming his people; virtually everyone over the age of eight carries a weapon—or two. I don't think his argument for the weapons is very strong, but I'd rather let the author develop his libertarian society, idiosyncrasies included, than demand one with so little personality that we all accept it as the correct version.

The book has its flaws. The characters sometimes behave in improbable ways. The villains, particularly, seem to pass up a few good chances to eliminate the heroes. I think Smith has overestimated both the degree of technological advance that would have taken place and the degree of economic equality that would have been achieved. I find the latter a more serious problem than the weapons (which, by the way, Smith describes in loving detail).

I never really feared for the good guys after Win passed through the hole. Smith's description of that anarcho-capitalist world conveys such a feeling of whole-someness, innocence, and optimism that the reader feels confident that good will win over evil there. It's a tribute to Smith's writing that the whole mood of the book changed with Win's entrance in the alternate world. The first few chapters were depressing. It was hard to imagine a believable happy ending there. The lack of fear, though, wasn't a lack of suspense. There remained the issues of what the bad guys were up to and how they would be defeated. And the major mystery of the book—exactly what happened in 1776 that made events in the two worlds diverge—is not solved until the very end. The solution should please all libertarian readers.

Sara Baase is a professor of computer science at San Diego State University.