The Lost Sisterhood and the Case for Libertarian Novels

A best-selling writer explains the power of historical fiction.


Editor's Note: Anne Fortier is The New York Times best-selling author of Juliet (2010), and her new novel, The Lost Sisterhood, came out in March. A former staffer at the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, she talked recently with Reason TV about Amazons, academics, and adventure. Watch that here or scroll down to the bottom of this article.

How can a freedom-loving writer make the greatest impact for liberty in the world today? For me, the chosen path has always been through fiction. Even as I pursued a doctorate in the history of ideas in my native Denmark, I realized I had neither the encyclopedic training nor the passion for cool logic—not to mention the nerve—to follow in the footsteps of classical liberal philosophers and economists such as Robert Nozick, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

In my case, the desire to explore themes of freedom and human action led inescapably to the novel. For as long as I can remember, I have endeavored to physically and emotionally inhabit my interests—moments in history as well as ideas—rather than treating them as objects on display. And there is no question that the novel has the potential to attract and influence scores of readers who are not necessarily predisposed to agreeing with the underlying philosophy. Classic examples are the widespread and continuing readership for Orwell's Animal Farm, as well as—obviously—the works of Ayn Rand.

Within the realm of fiction, it is always tempting to set one's stories in a dystopian future, where all our misgivings about state power can be shown in full force. In the current book market, however, an aspiring Rand or Orwell risks being labeled as a writer of science fiction or fantasy and relegated to the themed side-shelves in the vast mass-market paperback jungle. Don't get me wrong. That can be a great place to be, and a good libertarian author may well be able to grow a keen following of like-minded fans. But one's chances of ending up on the front table, rubbing spines with Dan Brown and Nora Roberts, are quite slim.

To build a significant audience among the educated female readers who make up the overwhelming majority of American book buyers, an author is generally better off working within the genres we know as literary and historical fiction (two examples are Kathryn Stockett's wildly popular The Help, and Jamie Ford's now-classic Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). These are traditionally the kind of books that show strong sales over time, and they also—in contrast to science fiction, crime and mystery, and romance—have a greater chance of becoming staff picks and book-club favorites. That sort of viral marketing does not just increase sales but influence with both readers and publishers.

To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called "the fatal conceit" and the corrupting effects of power—especially state power. Thus the author need not invent a world and infuse it with political philosophy ex nihilo. The world is already there, firmly based on research, and you don't have to exercise much poetic license to illuminate the evils of statism and the heroic nature of the freedom fighter throughout human history. For example, my first novel, Juliet, is partly set in medieval Siena and based on the historical situation that informed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was a time torn between emperor, pope, and corruption and nothing is easier than to let one of the present-day characters speak the glaring truth: "The devotion of the old neighborhood militia was essentially what made the Sienese republic possible. If you want to keep the bad guys in check, make sure the good guys are armed."

In my new novel, The Lost Sisterhood, the classical liberal subtext is everywhere apparent. The action alternates between contemporary England and North Africa and the Bronze Age Mediterranean world of Myrina, the legendary first queen of the Amazons. Our modern-day male hero is explicitly libertarian, and the lost sisters of my title are not lost at all. Freedom fighters that they are, the Amazons have simply chosen to live outside established society. I had much fun creating scenes where the ancient world foreshadows modern life—that is, life within the impudent, groping embrace of the state—and it is my hope that readers will feel a twinge of outrage at situations such as this one, in which Myrina returns to her companions with five hard-won copper tokens in order to pay the fee for staying overnight at the harbor in Crete:

"Wait!" she cried, striding down the gangplank to the outer dock where the boat was moored. "How many copper tokens to stay the night?"
"That depends," said the man. "What do you have?"
Myrina opened her fist and showed him.
"Ah," he said. "Let's say two, then. Plus two for tomorrow."
"What?" Kyme stepped forward, her face still flushed from the argument Myrina had missed. "Can we not pay those in the morning?"
The fee collector shook his head. "Then you must leave at sunrise. But you won't be able to. Not the way that north wind is blowing."

Welcome to income-based taxation and installment payments.

Historical novels—especially bestsellers—are also more likely to appeal to filmmakers, which opens up the possibility of a whole new audience for one's ideas and themes. Traditionally, the theme of liberty has primarily found its way to the silver screen via dystopian narratives set in the future (such as the graphic novel V for Vendetta), but I suspect that is primarily due to the scarcity of libertarians in the field of historical fiction. It's true that it's just as likely that the libertarian ideas might not make the transition to screenplay in perfect condition, but at least the hype surrounding a film release will draw new readers back to the original book (as happened, for instance, with Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall, an anti-war, anti-Prohibition novella after it was made into a 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt).

So historical fiction is one of the best avenues through which a freedom-friendly novelist can reach a wide and varied audience.

A novel is not a philosophical or economic argument, of course, and I don't write fiction to convince people that, say, the minimum wage hurts the poorest, lowest-skilled workers (which it does) or that airline deregulation was a good idea (which it was). A novel is, hopefully, the starting point of a conversation, one in which the author engages readers and asks that they see things from a different point of view than they might otherwise. The author creates an alternative world in which the readers invest their time and their emotions. The payoff is not conversion to an ideological position but a heightened awareness of different possibilities, often via an empathetic, visceral reaction to injustice.

There's no question that economic arguments, philosophical treatises, and policy papers have changed the world in direct (and often disastrous) ways. But it's equally true that popular fiction has a huge role to play in not simply illustrating what a freer world might look like but to explore some of its possibilities, contradictions, and challenges to living, breathing human beings. Above all, imagined characters have the license to shock and provoke the reader without turning them off the book itself. Who, we might well wonder, is speaking the following passage toward the end of The Lost Sisterhood—an 82-year-old modern-day Amazon named Otrera or Anne Fortier?

"If you want to survive—especially in this age of cradle-to-grave surveillance—you have to be analog. Don't tell me you're unaware of the fact that your own government is tracking digital communication with impunity?…Never mind the approaching apocalypse of which most people never give a second thought, but ask yourself this: Who is more amateurish, more vulnerable—those who rely on machines that need to be plugged in, or logged on, or in some other way connected in order to be more than a useless slab of plastic … or those who have learned to master life without?"

Watch Reason TV's interview with Fortier:

NEXT: Brickbat: This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

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  1. “It was a dark and stormy night, and I didn’t need any National Weather Service to tell me.”

    1. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the free market began to take hold.”

      1. He overcame her with his passion, looked –nay, delved— into her eyes, “In the absence of transactions cost the level of production of goods or services in an industry in which there are externalities is independent of whether or not the party who perpetrates negative externalities is legally liable for the costs of the externalities on other parties.”
        She shuddered against him, crying out, “The income distribution does of course depend upon whether or not the perpetrator is liable, but that is a different matter.”

        1. You ain’t no SugarFree, but damned if this one ain’t a page turner!

          When do we get to the part where he rips off the bodice off Freedom and ravishes her market?

          1. That doesn’t happen until the sequel to His Invisible Hand. She’s Got Goldbug Fever will be out this summer in paperback.

        2. I came

        3. Derivative Ayn Rand fanfic.

          1. Guilty, though Rand seemed more passionate about smoking than sex.

        4. (^_^)? here is ur awesome post trophy.

    2. “And so we beat on, orphans against the current…”

    3. “In a hole in the ground there lived a capitalist.”

  2. This is why there are no female, libertarian, fiction authors.

  3. “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles.”

    1. +1 Somali Transit Authority

    2. Without government, who would have given Kerouac a topic? Checkmate, loonytarians.

      1. On The Private Highway
        The Town and the City and the Suburbs and the Exurbs and the Socialist Arcology
        The Dharma Self-Employed
        Tax Avoision Angels

  4. And there is no question that the novel has the potential to attract and influence scores of readers who are not necessarily predisposed to agreeing with the underlying philosophy.

    Whopping *scores* taken in by this trickery, eh?

    1. Scores? Does this mean we are on the verge of a Libertarian revolution?

    2. Readership is down, what can we say?

  5. I couldn’t agree more. That’s one reason why I started the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association.

  6. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of iPhones, it was the age of NSA surveillance, it was the epoch of faith in government, it was the epoch of skepticism at the state’s abuses, it was the season of laser surgery, it was the season of Obamacare, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Libertopia, we were all going direct the other way.”

    1. Dickensian run-on -100 points.

      1. (that’s minus 100, not a separator)

  7. INT. Night. Hotel room. Couple setting up a camera.

    Mick: Remember, I didn’t get into this for the sex. I want to change people’s lives with ideas! I need you to understand that.
    La Belle: Yeah, yeah. Are we gonna fuck or what?
    Mick: Recite the line first.
    La Belle: Ooo, baby, service my pussy with that invisible hand!
    Mick (pounds bed): Say it…with feeling. Never mind. Read this.
    La Belle:”The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.” Look, Mick, this is a downer. Can’t you just fuck me and add all this in caption?
    Mick (looks out window): Get. Out.

    1. It took me four years in Bangkok to get that filmed. Four. Years.

      1. Four years in Bangkok and the tough guys crumble;
        Not much between despair and ecstasy;
        I can feel the devil walking next to me.

        1. I’d let you watch, I would invite you
          but the memes we use would not excite you

  8. Les Mises-erables

    1. A pun. Seriously? Puns?!?

    2. +1 Fiat Currency

  9. “suddenly, thump! thump! down Alice came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over.

    “Alice was not a bit hurt, and she jumped up on to her feet in a moment: she looked up, but it was all dark overhead; before her was another long passage, and the White Rabbit was still in sight, hurrying down it. There was not a moment to be lost.

    “I do declare, said Alice, ‘I believe I’ve fallen into an extended metaphor about the madness of statism.'”

  10. “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. He died during a drug raid. He shot the sheriff, and the deputy shot him.”

    1. Lets re-work that, have Marley be the dog. No need to feed the “officer safety” lie.

      1. There are cases when they think the unnanounced home invaders are some sort of burglars.

        1. Still, the abuses of the police are better demonstrated in a situation where it’s less subject to a pro-cop spin. Unless you can work in a realization by some fictional officer that the shooting was the fault of the police tactics, it might be a bad starting point.

          1. Fine…Marley was dead to begin with. Dead as a doornail after the cops came, looking for weed. They shot him in his bed and the planted a knife on him. Then Marley’s ghost haunted the cops until they repented and joined Law Enforcememnt Against Prohibition.


            1. I’m not trying to be antagonistic (except that dickensian run-on comment, but that’s because I hate that book). I play devil’s advocate editorial. The premise wasn’t bad, just too easily read differently from the message intended. I may suck at inspiring people to new creative heights, but I was trying to be helpful.

                1. I just realized “Ganja gun” would be a good title for a libertarian novel.

                2. Ya need to relax, mon:

                  Seriously. The first iteration of the joke was pithy. That said, I also like the idea of Marley being a dog.

                  1. Marley was always a dog. We only learn this at the end in a M. Night Shamalamadingdong twist.

  11. It’s a difficult balancing act. If you are too explicit with freedom advocacy you are written off as a political hack, too subtle and the subtext floats past most readers.

    That’s not to say fiction shouldn’t play a part in promoting freedom. Novels influence, they clarify and promote brand libertarian, and satire is a powerful weapon when wielded deftly.

    Why most writers aren’t raving libertarians has always baffled me. There is no clearer example excessive taxation than self-employed writers. The state contributes almost nothing to the production of a novel. Publishing requires some contribution to the state, but the taxes required to support it are minimal at best and copyright enforcement is increasingly meaningless unless you are a large entity to begin with.

    1. In my last novel (written at first just to vent stress, but then it proved to not be bad) I had characters who were based on Jezzies and H&R Commentariat, but I had to tone them down to be believable. miss the rooftop debate between the H&R proxy and the Vigilante. But it got too preachy.

      Copyright only exists to protect the large firms that don’t actually produce content. If you want to inspire a creator to create, shorten the copyright so that the income stream is going to go away if they don’t make a new one. It worked for hundreds of years (since the time of inexpensive printing began until the 1970s when copyright extensions began)

  12. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

    Wait, that novel is libertarian already.

  13. There once was a man from Nantucket
    Who kept all his wealth in a bucket
    The cops seized it under the pretext that it was drug money
    And the man didn’t get the money back even though he was innocent

    1. …read her work?

    2. She’s beautiful and seems smart, but she’s not in porn so this will probably be the last we hear of her on Reason =)

      1. Meh, wisps and jet trails of smart women flit about the space here and I don’t recall ever viewing the majority of them entertaining objective minds with audacious nudity.

    3. Yowza.

      Is there such a thing as a homely Dane? I don’t ever recall running into one.

  14. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. ‘Drop the razor!’ shouted a voice. Buck Mulligan looked up, and the last thing he saw was a policeman pointing a gun at him and yelling ‘stop resisting!'”

  15. I’m outlining a novel in which one of the subplots involves a true believer in statism who falls under the wheels of her own juggernaut. The proposed title is These Words Are True and Faithful because there are religious themes and because so many of the characters are bullshit artists.

    1. Would those religious themes include statism as faith?

  16. Dear, you look like Minnie Mouse with those sunglasses on your head. I only read offbeat graphic novels, philosophy tomes, and historical nonfiction, but a fictional, Dan-Brownesque novel on Amazons seems appealing but nowhere does the word ‘sexy’ enter into any review I’ve read so far. Maybe the patriarchal acid is leaking out of my brain battery in the form of desire piqued by large numbers of warrior women linked to domination, freedom, and edges of erotica but so be it. My fiction-tripping always seems to incorporate shades of coitus.

  17. Black woman growing up in Northern inner city, living with parents, falls in love, gets married, has a kid. They split, divorce, she gets ADC. She loses fast food job when min wage increased. They reconcile, he moves back in, don’t re-marry. ADC finds out, threatens to cut her off, he moves out, drifts away. She moves back with parents. She dabbles in drugs with co-worker, gets busted for MJ, spends 90 days in jail, has affair, parents kick her out, has another kid. Junkie breaks in and beats her up, she gets pistol for protection. She gets a sugar daddy from a gang who forces her into prostitution and has another kid. Her eldest son runs for the gang and gets killed in a run-in with the pigs. She gets busted for carrying her pistol into the 7-11.

    PS She lives in a district in which the R rep votes for the Civil Rights Act.

    The Help-less

  18. Copper tokens? If you’re writing historical fiction, shouldn’t you research historical names for money, for reader immersion purposes?

    I think my dejection may be colored by my current enjoyment of the Book of The New Sun. When you have to research the etymology of every 10th word to comprehend a passage, it’s going to make everything else seem lacking flavor by comparison.

    1. These are fictional Amazons, right? They can trade in copper elbins or ponts or whatever made-up currency she wants.

      Oh, well. Minor point, I guess.

  19. I know reading the novel 1984 pushed me towards libertarianism.

  20. F. Paul Wilson is perhaps the only somewhat prominent libertarian author, though he likely wouldn’t pass Reason’s true Scotsman tests.

    He wrote the novel the movie The Keep was based on, and is mostly known now for his Repairman Jack series of novels, about a vigilante who fights the paranormal.

    But he also wrote several very libertarian SF novels. An Enemy of the State is about a libertarian who overthrows a galactic empire. Each chapter starts off with a little blurb about free market economics.

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