Tinkers, Jailers, Soldiers, Skies


The Game of Empire, by Poul Anderson, New York: Baen Books, 278 pp., $3.50 paper

Manna, by Lee Correy, New York: DAW Books, 239 pp., $2.95 paper

The Final Encyclopedia, by Gordon Dickson, New York: Tor Books, 696 pp., $18.95

The Peace War, by Vernor Vinge, New York: Bluejay Books, 288 pp., $16.95; New York: Baen Books, 378 pp., $3.50 paper

The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who read science fiction, and those who don't like it and never did and have no plans to try it (again) before the 21st century. As they say, a diversity of views and tastes is among the inevitable results of freedom.

But if you are among those who long ago wrote off science fiction as worthless dime-store pulp about little green men carrying off scantily clothed Earth women to their laboratories and bedrooms, consider:

• Are you concerned about foreign policy, worried about the problems of nuclear deterrence, and fascinated by the possibilities of an effective strategic defense system?

• Are you excited by the rich potential of free-enterprise zones, especially in so many parts of the Third World, where suffering human beings are struggling to find a way out of a generations-long abyss of poverty?

• Do you sometimes wonder how a fully free society, unrestricted by coercive government, might operate and how its private, voluntary institutions might develop?

• And feeling the coercive slings and arrows of the modern state, do you ever look around wistfully for renewed inspiration in your own struggle to live freely?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, you might want to reconsider your opinion of science fiction, which often explores and dramatizes such political, economic, social, and personal questions.

If you are among those who refuse to feel guilty when identified as a science fiction fan, there is no need to mention that science fiction is the only popular literature of ideas today. In fact, it is arguably the 20th-century's preeminent literature of ideas—filled to the brim with questions and answers examined, more often than not, from an individualist perspective that many REASON readers will find congenial.

What makes four recent science fiction works, The Peace War, Manna, The Game of Empire, and The Final Encyclopedia, remarkable is not their exemplary focus on individual liberty. By now, that's simply a matter of course for a healthy percentage of the science fiction novels published each year. No, what makes these novels stand out is the skill with which their authors build up gut-churning suspense and plot devious political intrigue in the perennial battle to attain, or sustain, a free society.

The Peace War, by Vernor Vinge, is one of the best science fiction novels of the past year. In this political thriller about an unusual war to end an even more unusual form of tyranny, Vinge, a relative beginner in the field, has succeeded in doing what science fiction does best: he's conjured up a fascinating new concept and imagined how it would transform the world.

Near the end of the 20th-century, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the verge of World War III, a small group of scientists discovers how to create impervious force fields. Named "bobbles," the fields are mirror-like spheres that can vary in size from the soap bubbles they resemble to gigantic globes big enough to enclose entire cities. At first glance, the bobbles appear to be a perfect defense against nuclear war. So the idealistic technocrats decide to save mankind from itself by setting up bobbles around every military installation and missile site in the world. Just as World War III begins, they do so, not only ending the war abruptly but also protecting the survivors by enclosing all radioactive bomb sites in bobbles as well.

A world free from the terror of nuclear war—sounds like paradise, right? Wrong. Once created, the bobbles can't be destroyed. The temptation to use this powerful new technology for their own benefit is too great for the scientists to resist. The result is the Peace Authority, a "benevolent" dictatorship living in privileged high-tech enclaves and using their powers to prevent anyone else in their plague-decimated, post-holocaust world from developing, or redeveloping, modern technology.

Half a century passes, and a variety of new societies have arisen from the ashes of the old, with relatively sovereign governments—as long as they don't challenge the Peace Authority's authority. In Aztlan—Mexico and Baja California—feudalistic "jefes" fight to preserve their medieval turf, keeping their citizens in indentured servitude. In New Mexico there is a fascist government. In Arizona, there is a faltering republic—the closest thing to the old US government, which was suppressed by the Peace Authority. And in California, from Santa Barbara northward, there are the Tinkers, a decentralized network of anarchocapitalist villagers who follow a "small-is-beautiful" philosophy partly because they want to and partly because they must.

Using private police protection agencies for security and a commodity gold standard for money, the Tinkers, descendants of all those computer freaks in Silicon Valley, live a peaceful, modestly prosperous life. But their memories—and Celest, a popular computer game devoted to the orbital ballistics of space travel—keep their high-tech ambitions alive and make them remember "what the human race had almost attained." The increasingly lazy and corrupt Peace Authority may think they've made the world safe for their own technocracy. But secretly, in hidden cellars and underground laboratories, the Tinkers are plotting to regain scientific knowledge—and regain their freedom.

"They brought us peace, Wili, but the price was very high," the reclusive originator of the bobbles, whose invention was stolen from him by the technocrats, tells a young black boy who escapes from the murderous clutches of rival Los Angeles gangs. With the boy as his apprentice, the inventor continues to research the confusing theory behind the bobbles.

Then one or two small bobbles suddenly disappear—in one case releasing tremendous radiation from an exploding bomb—and all previous theories about the bobbles are overturned. Panicking, the Peace Authority retaliates against the Tinkers, whom it suspects, quite rightly, of sedition and, quite arbitrarily, of responsibility for the disappearing bobbles. Responsible or not, the Tinkers must fight to protect themselves and their hard-won advances. Thus, the peace war.

Unpredictable in its exciting plot twists yet totally logical in retrospect, The Peace War is the kind of suspenseful adventure novel that is a joy to read. If this gem of a story has any flaw, it's in its ambiguous and somewhat anticlimactic ending. Without giving too much away, let's just say that the ending may be less-than-completely satisfying to those who dislike coercive government on principle.

Like The Peace War, Lee Correy's Manna forecasts some novel developments in the direction of freedom. That should be no surprise, for "Lee Correy" is actually the pen name of G. Harry Stine. In The Third Industrial Revolution and other speculative nonfiction works, Stine has explored the vast possibilities for freedom on the high frontier of space.

In Manna, he projects the great success of an innovative African freeport, the United Mitanni Commonwealth, that becomes the first private spaceport, with its own orbiting space station and space shuttles. Modeling itself after Hong Kong, Singapore, and other successful free-market city-states, the Commonwealth has transformed a mid-African desert into the promised land for a melting pot full of emigrants and refugees from the rest of the planet's government-burdened societies.

The Commonwealth becomes the place to go for anyone with the drive and initiative to get ahead. By the early 21st century, with America's experiment in freedom in decline, the spaceport also becomes the refuge of an American aerospace pilot too individualistic to survive for long within the US military bureaucracy.

But it's not easy for Capt. Alexander Baldwin, grown used to US rules and regulations, to adjust to the heady liberties and evolving customs of an unrestricted free market—such as attractive women walking around fully armed. "If one acts like a slave, one will be treated like a slave," General Vamori, the Commonwealth's leader, tells him, explaining that women who go about armed are not second-class citizens vulnerable to being coerced against their will.

Baldwin wants so badly to go into space in the most advanced equipment available that he doesn't mind joining the Commonwealth's military team—a private corporation—even if that entails the possibility of fighting his former countrymen. That possibility becomes reality when the Commonwealth's growing success threatens the tariff-ridden space business controlled by the other governments. Since they view wealth as static and limited, these governments fail to appreciate the Commonwealth's philosophy of freedom that makes possible "a world that has plenty of everything for everyone."

Continuing their old pattern of escalating trade barriers, diplomatic intrigue, espionage, and disguised "terrorist" accidents, the other governments do everything they can up to a space war between laser-beaming orbital satellites to pressure the Commonwealth into giving up its free-trade policies. Correy's understanding of free-market economics is matched by his cynical realism about power politics, giving his fast-paced story an extra dimension of verisimilitude.

What's missing in this otherwise entertaining and instructive political thriller are characters of more than one dimension. At times, Manna reads more like an ideological tract than like a novel. At other times, disdaining all pretense of concern with ideas, it reads like the pulp fiction shoot-em-up that it unfortunately is. It's a shame, because in the hands of a better writer, Manna could have been so much more.

Also disappointing is Poul Anderson's The Game of Empire, a minor adventure story distinguished mainly by the fact that it's the first Anderson novel in more than a decade whose events take place in his much-acclaimed Polysotechnic League series. Perhaps expectations were too high after the colorful capitalistic adventures in earlier Polysotechnic League works—The Man Who Counts, A Stone in Heaven, Ensign Flandry, Mirkheim, and Trader to the Stars.

Although The Game of Empire doesn't bring back Nicholas van Rijn, the crafty capitalist who pursued his profits from planet to planet, it does bring back the dashing individualistic hero Dominic Falkayn—albeit in a minor role. A lot of time has passed since Falkayn's earlier battles to save interstellar civilization from the Long Night of authoritarian barbarism, enough time for a new character to take center stage: Falkayn's long-lost daughter, Diana. It may be for the best. With Dominic grown weary and cynical and increasingly desirous of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, only Falkayn's spiritual and genetic heir has the youthful spirit, eager optimism, and just plain nerves necessary both to get into trouble and to find her way out of it.

With only her deceased mother's motto—"better to die on your feet than live on your knees"—to guide her, Diana must fight for her freedom and her planet's independence against a popular military leader who has proclaimed himself emperor "for the good of the Empire." Sir Olaf Magnusson is willing to spare no expense in his quest for power, even if he has to pay for it with the uncounted lives of innocent civilians and obedient starship crew members. Here Anderson's melancholy romanticism and poetic understatement is at its best, especially in one chapter on the "two faces of war" that powerfully evokes the private tragedies inherent in the results of coercive "public" policies.

Anderson also can be counted upon to give his teenage heroine some irresistibly appealing sidekicks. There is, for example, a terrifying but entirely pacifistic giant alien lizard who happens to be a devout Jewish Catholic on an interplanetary search for archeological evidence confirming Christ's existence, and a panther-like humanoid alien named Targovi who has his own secret mission.

But none of Anderson's ample talents can make The Game of Empire more than it is: a modest juvenile potboiler worth recommending to ardent Polysotechnic League fans and adolescents who haven't yet been exposed to the best of Anderson. Anyone else who hasn't had a chance to get acquainted with this series should rush out and get one of his earlier classics—for starters, a good bet would be The Man Who Counts—because few authors have captured the creative, individualistic spirit of free enterprise better than Anderson has.

One author who often comes close is Gordon Dickson, himself personally influenced by Anderson. Dickson has spun off his own fiercely freedom-loving adventure series featuring the "Dorsai," individualistic mercenary soldiers whose magnificent exploits gave the series its popular name.

With the publication of Dickson's The Final Encyclopedia, the grandest and most ambitious Dorsai novel yet, it becomes clear that it was never really accurate to name the series after the Dorsai. After all, they are only one of the genetically specialized peoples to have evolved since humankind left Earth to scatter its seeds among the stars. In Dickson's future history, there are also the Exotics, superintelligent eggheads with a thirst for advanced technology and a lust for knowledge; and the Friendlies, an emotional, religious breed whose faith is their strength. And playing an increasingly influential role in interplanetary affairs are the mysterious Others, a small group of charismatic humans who threaten to set up a static and statist dictatorship that will stop evolution in its tracks. Their plan is devilishly simple: to freeze society, stop progress, and thus ensure the stability of their own rule.

In Dorsai, first published a quarter of a century ago, and in its successors—Soldier, Ask Not, Tactics of Mistake, Lost Dorsai, and The Spirit of Dorsai, among others—Dickson focused on his brave caste of soldiers, their strong code of personal ethics, and their innovative military strategies. In The Final Encyclopedia, he corrects that imbalance, giving equal weight to the virtues and flaws of his universe's other castes, even including the Others within his generous vision of our species' diverse future heritage.

It is an epic tale Dickson tells, taking his hero, Hal Mayne, on a gripping series of coming-of-age adventures in each of the strongholds of the Dorsai, the Friendlies, and the Exotics, before winding up for a final confrontation with Bleys Ahrens, leader of the Others, at the Final Encyclopedia. Here, orbiting the Earth in a vast computer into which has been fed the species' accumulated knowledge, history, and culture, Hal discovers the Encyclopedia's—and mankind's—true purpose.

"The question is, which of two choices is it going to be?" Hal asks. "The type (of human) that'd stop and keep what we have—or the type that'd go on risking and experimenting? Because the human equation that's involved can stand for only one solution. If the dominant survivor is the Bleys type, with its philosophy of stasis, then for the first time since we lifted our eyes above the hard realities of our daily lives, we stop where we are." Tyranny, and its inevitable braking effect on evolution and progress. Or freedom, with its flowering of diversity and self-fulfillment. Which will it be for our species? For Dickson, the choice is clear.

The Final Encyclopedia is a fitting climax to the first third of Dickson's vast Childe Cycle, a planned series of more than a dozen historical, contemporary, and speculative novels dramatizing the evolution of mankind from its barbaric past through the statist present to the free future prophesied in the Dorsai novels. Yet, because of its size, scope, and prophetic vision, Dickson's latest novel could easily stand alone as the crowning achievement of his career. It's that good.

The Final Encyclopedia and The Peace War are well worth reading; Manna and The Game of Empire, while enjoyable, don't quite measure up. However, what made each of them (with the exception of the more recently published The Game of Empire) well-deserved finalists for this year's Prometheus Award—an annual literary award for fiction dramatizing the virtues of freedom—is the entertaining and thought-provoking way they project a future more sympathetic to the value of liberty than today—a future that (in no small part, thanks to fiction like this) could well be just around the century's corner.

Still and all, some people, inveterate skeptics toward science fiction, will disparage these novels, whatever their purely literary merits, as mere escapist fiction, good enough for a pleasurable read while on vacation but not good enough to take seriously once one returns to the "real world." In fact, these imaginative projections of the fight for freedom on the high frontiers of the future, precisely because they do chart a variety of ways to "escape" the heavy hand of government, are very much worth reading as an important literary step toward making that real world a better, freer world.

Michael Grossberg is a reporter and movie and theater critic for a California newspaper.