Live Free!

August 7th, 2007

An occupational hazard of reviewing fiction is the necessity of engaging works one would not otherwise be likely to read. Thus I find myself from time to time encountering that peculiar fringe subspecies of the genre, libertarian science fiction.

The practitioners of libertarian SF tend to be ideologically motivated, and their fiction, more often than not, serves primarily as a medium for their Message. Of course, no political position confers immunity from the general tendency for an overload of ideology to make for bad story. But libertarian SF seems to be afflicted with a peculiarly wrong-headed Message, that we must go into space to live free!

In these stories, a starry-eyed vision of life in space – free! — is typically contrasted with life on Earth, portrayed in libertarian SF as stiflingly unfree, rule-bound, afflicted by bureaucracy and the mindset universally maligned by SF libertarians as “PC”. The libertarian ideology is centered around the notion of individual freedom, the right of individuals to do as they wish, unrestricted by government regulation.   SFnal libertarians see colonizing space as their escape from onerous restrictions on their freedom, but nothing is more improbable.

If the goal is planetary settlement, the libertarians have a better case. A single, naked libertarian dropped onto a virgin terrestrial planet with nothing more than a Swiss Army knife or stone hand axe would indeed enjoy the absolute liberty that he [it is usually he] can only dream of on today’s Earth. Happily unencumbered by bureaucrats or environmental regulations, he would be free to carve his way through forests, dig his way through mountains, plow his way across the plains, fish his way through the seas, and otherwise plunder his world to his heart’s content without let or hindrance.

Some libertarian SF is set on such accommodating planets, where the plot usually involves the triumph of rugged libertarian individuals against vile attempts to impose Earthly restrictions on their activities. Such works reveal how libertarian SF has at its heart the Myth of the Frontier, which gives it a distinctively American tone. Space, for such authors, is the Endless Frontier. When you have scraped one world clean of resources, or the bureaucracy catches up with you, there is always fresh one to exploit, further on.

On the mythical frontier, everything is free, and here we can see the double meaning of the term. In this idealized setting, the air is free, and the water; meat is free for the hunting, wood is free for the hewing, minerals free for the mining. The frontiersman does nothing to produce these essential resources, yet he claims the right to exploit them, and damned be the bureaucrat who attempts to regulate, restrict or tax his activity, violating this right for which he has not paid.

Unfortunately for this myth, virgin terrestrial planets are in short supply. The practical SFnal libertarian must perforce make do with the universe at hand, which tends to mean our own solar system, its planets and planetoids, both rocky and gaseous, and the vacuum in which they revolve around our sun.

This space, which so calls in siren tones to the SFnal libertarian heart, is inherently inhospitable, even hostile to human life. Our species evolved to live on Earth, where the essentials for life are present and, at least originally, freely available. On Earth, to take the most obvious requirement for life, air is still abundant, free for the inhaling, and, thanks to those nasty rules that restrict the freedom to pollute it, more or less breathable. Space, in contrast, is notably short on air. Push a naked libertarian out of the airlock into the vacuum of space, and his freedom, while technically absolute, will be quite short-lived.

To live in space requires that air somehow be generated, and the air must be contained in some way; this necessity entails certain restrictions on activity that could breach the containment. Living free in space does not extend to driving a nail into the spaceship’s hull to hang a picture. The laws of physics will enforce such rules even in the absence of a bureaucracy.

But generating and containing air is not free, either. There are costs. Living in space has to be paid for in a way that living on a planet does not. Ideologically, SF Libertarianism is close to capitalism; the freedom at the center of the creed is often identified with the “free market system”. Accordingly, the SF Libertarian is likely to prefer the first alternative. In theory, an individual sufficiently wealthy could achieve total libertarian freedom in space by constructing his own space station with all the necessities of life. It would hardly be free, in economic terms, but, once sealed inside, such an individual would be able to “live free.” Of course, this option would only be available to those very few who could afford it, and I suspect that with the same amount of capital, such an individual might be able to purchase his own island, declare sovereignty, and enjoy just about the same level of liberty, here on Earth. But perhaps he prefers the view of the stars to the beach.

However, life on such a proprietary space station, for anyone but the proprietor, would be anything but free. Where resources cost to produce, they will cost to consume. If the owner of the station allows immigration at all, he will probably charge for the privilege and impose regulations on the use of his resources. It is hard to imagine a libertarian finding such a situation attractive for anyone else but the owner, although I suspect the SF libertarians tend to imagine themselves in that role.

For the rest, there is collective investment. The individualist ethos of the libertarian is in general suspicious of the notion of the collective, with its suggestion of individual rights and freedoms being subordinated to some supposedly greater good for a greater number. Yet there is also precedent within the movement for the notion of common action towards a larger common goal, freely [of course] agreed-on by the participants. The solution to the apparent contradiction is a limitation on the participants, allowing only the right sort, who value libertarian freedom and will not be likely to impose restrictions on the actions of others, or make demands on them.

There is a strong strain of elitism within the sort of libertarianism that tends to manifest itself in SF, a strain that appears to be descended from the scenarios of Ayn Rand, in which the few specimens of homo superior band together to form a new society, excluding the parasitical masses of lesser humans. In the same way, libertarian SF authors seem to assume that only those who wish to live free will be drawn to space, and together, these like-minded individualist individuals can establish a society based on individual liberty.

Yet no matter how strong the libertarian principles of the founders, the environment of space necessarily imposes stringent limitations on individual freedom of action. The closed system of any space habitat is the antithesis of the infinitely open frontier of libertarian myth. If the supply of air is both limited and common to all, the individual who wishes to exercise his freedom to smoke a cigar is likely to provoke hostility, if not outright prohibition from the others who have to share the habitat’s atmosphere. As the population increases, so will the environmental strain to meet their needs, and the more their needs come into conflict, the more demand there will be for rules and regulations – in short, for government. Even homo superior does not live forever, and subsequent generations are likely to lack the principled libertarian zeal of the founders, as Resnick’s Kirinyaga illustrated so well in a different case.

When this occurs, as it inevitably must, then a few liberty-loving individualists will doubtless leave the stifling atmosphere of their habitats in space and seek a new frontier where they can live free. For the real problems that the SF libertarians have with life on Earth do not rise from the nature of humanity’s homeworld, but the fact that it is full of people. To the extent that space fills up with people, the SF libertarians will find that life there is even less likely to be free than it was on Earth.

68 Responses to “Live Free!”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 08 Aug 2007 at 10:08 am

    Very interesting stuff, Lois. I’ve been called by some a libertarian SF writer, and the two books I’ve written to date deal with a lot of the same issues you’ve got above. (Although I’m less shilling for a particular ideology than just making observations about it.)

    I think the interesting thing about the juxtaposition of libertarianism and technology is that the latter seems to enable the former. When you’re just a lone dude off by yourself on a virgin planet, you can be as free as you want. Add lots of other people to the mix, and suddenly you need all those tiresome laws and regulations just to get by. But in a very broad sense, technology enables us to chuck those laws and regulations to the side. Seems to me it’s a continuum: the higher the technology, the fewer the restrictions on freedom.

    Very, very crass example: Carry a boom box on the subway and crank that sucker up, you impose on everyone else’s space. Carry an iPod on the subway and crank that sucker up, no imposition whatsoever. Carry the next generation Brain Implant Sound System with Broadband Connection to the World Music Library on the subway, you can listen to whatever the heck you want without anyone else even knowing about it.

    Interesting stuff to contemplate. Personally my thinking these days is not so much that Excessive Governmental Regulation/Imposition on Freedom Etc. isn’t so much an evil as it is a necessary evolutionary step that we’ll eventually be able to outgrow as a species. Provided we don’t blow ourselves up first.

  2. sympathy for the devilon 08 Aug 2007 at 10:14 am

    Way to dismantle that straw man! It’s true, libertarians want to exploit the environment and they hate people. It’s all so clear now. In the future I will avoid such SF.

  3. Stacyon 08 Aug 2007 at 11:37 am

    How would future society technologically solve the physical reality of finite resources without imposing anything on anyone? I’m not sure there is a tech fix for economics. And how about a tech fix for murder, rape, road rage? And when you are listening to your Brain Implant Sound System on the subway right next to me, bopping to the beat in your head, what’s stopping me from beating in your head because you’re driving me crazy? Unless I have a Pacifier implant, which means I certainly don’t have freedom, do I? How is it possible to avoid anyone ever telling you “no!” for any reason? I honestly don’t see a way to “live free” without everyone in their own personal Matrix. And that’s not real. Seems like a classic paradox or conundrum soaked in irony will soon be involved. And I’m sure that there are SF books out there that have answered every one of the questions I put in this post.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 08 Aug 2007 at 1:56 pm

    The thing about technology is that it’s a product of a society – that is, other people. Without the work of other people, no one would be free to go off to space and escape all those other people.

    We’re a social species. When our neolithic precursors crossed the land bridge to settle this frontier the first time, their technology was relatively simple, but it was equally their society that allowed them to survive and thrive here.

  5. Lindenon 08 Aug 2007 at 2:31 pm

    My libertarian friend says a lot of these kinds of questions are answered by having everyone carry guns. You’re not going to beat my head in on the subway because I’ll kill you. Of course, you might kill me for playing my music too loudly. Knowing we could possibly kill each other, we will therefore reach a sort of individual mutual-assured-destruction compromise.

    But do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?

  6. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 08 Aug 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Part of the Live Free! meme depends on the right to be an obnoxious asshole in public. Consider the case of bikers, who for all the Easy Rider BS and mystique, really get off on riding their bikes into a crowded urban shopping district and revving the engines until everyone stares and they roar off.

    It’s related to the sport of “Freaking the Mundanes,” where a person goes out of their way to pull and Gordon Bennett and piss in the fireplace of societal norms. It causes gasps and staring, rolled eyes and whispers, but aside from being crossed off a guest list or two, no repercussions aside from gaining a little bad boy/girl mystique or freak/eccentric mystique.

  7. Ivyon 08 Aug 2007 at 4:22 pm

    King James once said that if a smoker and a non-smoker are in the same room, they can’t be equally free. There is always going to be conflict, and need for conflict resolution once one person’s actions impact another person.

    The brain-implanted music device won’t solve all the “listening to music” issues. I want the latest Melissa Etheridge album for free. I’m sure she wants to be paid for it. So do I have the freedom to download a pirated copy of her music, or does she have the freedom to retain distribution control of her work?

    Linden, your friend’s solution effectively denies anyone who has a religious or personal abhorrence to weapons to not carry guns. I’d like to live in a world where I’m free to avoid firearms. 😉

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 08 Aug 2007 at 5:46 pm

    Oh, the “everyone should have guns” business is an old load of codswallop, usually expressed by someone who asks “If you don’t have any guns, what are you going to do when the bad people who kept their guns come to enslave you?”

    The answer I came up with in childhood, mind you, still stops those people in their tracks: “Poison them.”

    It’s a very neat solution. Not only do you have a dead bad person but you also have plausible deniabilty AND access to a gun if you really do decide you need one.

    Of course this doesn’t appeal to the six-guns-at-high-noon crowd, since they think that the Texan “Needed killin'” defense always means “with a gun,” as opposed to whatever comes to hand. And oleander is cheaper and more plentiful than bullets.

  9. David Louis Edelmanon 08 Aug 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Stacy: Sorry, I can think of technological fixes for murder, rape, and road rage. The classic SF trope of mind uploading/backup makes murder rather irrelevant, smart cars could be programmed to prevent road rage, and, well, Neal Stephenson had a nice little technological fix for rape in Snow Crash, if I remember correctly.

    I’m not saying these are perfect fixes. And some of them create brand new problems that require fixes of their own. But going back to the music-brain-implant-in-the-subway thing… sure, there’s going to be one guy who can’t stand the way you bop your head to your brain implant music. But the other 50 people who would have been irritated by your loud boom box will be just fine with it. I call that progress.

    Re the guns thing: I don’t think belief in libertarianism necessarily equates to belief in absolute freedom of gun ownership. You can be a libertarian without believing that everyone should be able to bring an M-16 to work.

  10. Ericon 08 Aug 2007 at 6:53 pm

    This is no different than any other story that was ever told.

    It’s not SF, but how is Wall Street any more accurate? The good guys are the protag and his union-loving father, and of course the bad guys are the corporate execs. But what does that say about the small business owner who eventually created thousands of jobs? Or about the union grunts that slash tires or physically threaten non-members? It’s because the writers of Wall Street were telling a story according to their particular set of beliefs.

    Greed is a popular meme in storytelling. It is seen as universally evil, even though it happens to be perfectly natural human behavior that also inspires people to work hard, take risks, and sometimes as a byproduct create jobs or make things better for others. But we never hear about that story, because working hard isn’t very interesting. It’s more interesting when someone has cheated or stolen their way to success.

    Just as collectives can be misrepresented at an author’s whim, so can natural elements of human behavior. Religious fiction might downplay sexuality or present an ideal world as one where everyone has faith. How is that any more or less realistic?

    When you write your story, you can create any kind of implied set of morals you want. That is the joy (or burden) of being a writer.

    The hero is usually [insert your beliefs here] and the villain is [insert opposite of your beliefs here].

    If someone manages to write a good story without any belief-based conflicts, please let me know. More than likely though, such a story would read like the assembly instructions for a cheap piece of furniture.

  11. Lois Tiltonon 08 Aug 2007 at 7:03 pm

    There are several different flavors of libertarian, and some are more reasonable than others. I admit that my screed is directed at the lower end of this fiction and certain common flaws I’ve noted in reading it.

    But I’m quite sure there are better-written, more interesting exhibits of the species. Perhaps the defenders of libertarian SF might want to list some titles?

  12. miriamon 08 Aug 2007 at 8:07 pm

    What about Robert Heinlein in his later, crotchety years? IIRC, he wrote about a colonized Moon and solar system in which the motto was “TANSTAAFL” (“there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”). This meant that everything, down to emergency services and air, had to be paid for to the enormous company that provided it. In practice this meant that the rich pretty much got what they needed when they needed, while the poor (it was implied) are born in debt and sink deeper with every breath taken. The society is depicted as entirely cutthroat with everyone on the social scale always plotting (successfully or not) to screw each other over, often violently. This all seemed appalling to me, but the author seemed to find it peachy. In fact, when his protagonist heard a member of his party express the heretical opinion that air ought to be free, he summarily kicked him out of the party because he apparently couldn’t tolerate such an immoral viewpoint. I think I was supposed to agree with the protagonist, but somehow I couldn’t sympathize.

    Of course later in the novel, it turns out the guy the protagonist kicked out was actually a low-down dirty spy, thus proving the protagonist right…except I felt that plot point didn’t make much sense, and it seemed more like the author rather unskillfully stacking the deck to force me to agree with the protagonist’s viewpoint.

    I suppose that’s what really bothers me about political viewpoints in SF novels (or any other novels). If you are going to espouse a political viewpoint in a novel, you’d better make sure it make sense with the novel’s setting and plot AND with what we know of the characters, AND that it is a good novel in itself, beyond the message. Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s We, they were great novels in themselves, and also as anti-totalitarian statements. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, on the other hand – well, Rand could write parts of a good story, I’ll give her that. But she wrote her protagonist as a rather inarticulate man, mainly concentrated on his architectural dreams, little concerned with sharing political ideas or even communicating much with others. At the climax of the novel this character opens his mouth at his trial, and (even though he has never before spoken more than a paragraph or two at a time) delivers a twenty page speech with an eloquence that I felt was totally out of character for him. What bugged me the most was the feeling that at the climactic moment the author had clearly shoved her hand up her protagonist’s ass and made him into her sock puppet through which she could yap her theories. The characters up until that point had already been a bit 2-dimensional, but at that point I just stopped believing in them at all.

    I think that’s a flaw that a lot of politically motivated novels had – the temptation for the author to proselytize too obviously for his own viewpoint.

  13. Lois Tiltonon 08 Aug 2007 at 8:21 pm

    The one-dimensionality of the characters is a common flaw in a lot of ideologically-motivated fiction from all points on the political spectrum. It’s rarely an auspicious sign when a character gets up to deliver a speech.

  14. David Louis Edelmanon 08 Aug 2007 at 9:10 pm

    It’s rarely an auspicious sign when a character gets up to deliver a speech.

    …she says, right after I deliver a book that features not one, not two, but about four or five characters standing up and delivering politically motivated speeches. :-)

  15. David Louis Edelmanon 08 Aug 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Oh, and great topic, by the way, Lois. Thanks for getting this discussion going.

  16. Steven Brandton 09 Aug 2007 at 6:54 am

    I, for one, would like to see a list of the books that comprise “Libertarian SF”. It seems a bit hard for me to believe that these sort of books would, as you describe, glorify the raping of the environment. It would seem to me that if the authors in question really believed their ideology, the planet they colonize ought to be a nicer place for their free market ideas.

    Possibly one of the books on your list is Freehold, written by my good friend Michael Z. Williamson. It is primarily a military SF with a Libertarian utopia background. In this book at least, the Freeholders did not use up their environment and move on.

  17. Matt Jarpeon 09 Aug 2007 at 7:39 am

    ‘I, for one, would like to see a list of the books that comprise “Libertarian SF”. ‘

    This list of Prometheus Award winners is a good place to start. There are some great books here, some not so great.

    I like hearing about all the different ways people can live together. If SF can’t explore all these often impractical social constructs then what’s it good for?

  18. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 8:26 am

    Just so, Matt. This is exactly what SF should be doing.

    There are quite a few works on the Prometheus list I haven’t read, but some that I have and do recall enjoying because there is more to them than heavy-handed Message.

  19. Matt Jarpeon 09 Aug 2007 at 8:50 am

    So I guess it’s safe to say that what you’re scalding here are the dregs of the subgenre? Ken McCleod has won the Prometheus several times and his stories are brutaly realistic about the downside of individualism.

    Of course I wouldn’t mind getting myself on that list someday.

    The prize is one ounce of pure gold. Gold! Not lucite, not an electroplated rocket, but gold! Not that I would mind the rocket, either.

  20. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:03 am

    Yes, it would be pretty safe to say that.

    My real target is the “live free” meme – the assumption, that I suspect is not always thought through, that space is an environment particularly well-suited to a society free from regulation, when it seems to me that, all other things being equal, it would be more regulated.

  21. Craig J. Boltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:33 am


    You seem to have two fundamental confusions underlying this essay: (1) libertarians are against rules (2) free resources are synonmous with political freedom.

    (1) is clearly untrue, since even the most extreme type of libertarian, the “anarcho-capitalist,” is always worrying about what the rules of social interaction should be. The difference between the libertarian attitude toward law and the fascist attitude is that libertarians believe [along with Locke, Jefferson, and Thoreau] that there is much more of a moral duty to obey rules [e.g., laws] that emerge from below rather than being imposed from above. The fascist believes “the law’s the law,” and the law of the stronger is the law of nature. The common law, as opposed to the statute or code, is, for instance, a relatively libertarian way of making law.

    (2) is also untrue, and is a typical Marxian confusion. The person who lives under a bridge and the person who lives in a mansion in the same society are equally free or unfree IN A POLITICAL SENSE, in that they are subject to the same set of formal laws.

    Now you may not like a definition of “freedom” based on such “abstract formality” rather than “realities,” but, if not, consider the alternative. The rich man has more alternatives to enjoy than the free man because he has more wealth and income. In a “market society” MOST wealth and income result from the use of resources to better satisfy consumer wants [“better” than your competitors, that is]. Hence, under that sort of system [which apparently you find reprehensible], command over goods and services comes from service to your fellow men. The alternative is allocating goods and services according to criteria like (1) family connnections, (2) connections with those in power, (3) first in line, (4) membership in a favored cultural group or race, etc. Do those sound better to you? There is no third alternative. You can’t waive your magic wand and make everything free and abundant just because that would be nice, and the historical record is that the more a society moves away from market allocation and toward allocation by command the poorer it becomes.

  22. Stacyon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:59 am

    David – I’m not at all surprised SF has come up with all those techie solutions. But if you substitute robots telling you what to do – my smart car stopping me from backing over an ex-husband – how are you living free? I think that’s trading human influence for robot influence, and I don’t understand (not being particularly libertarian) how that would be acceptable if the concept is not ever being told what to do by anybody. I’m not really trying to argue, but to understand, when I see a big flaw in the reasoning.

  23. David Louis Edelmanon 09 Aug 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Stacy: After a certain point it becomes a semantic argument. “Libertarians never follow rules, except the rule that states that they never follow rules — so they do follow rules after all! Doesn’t that make them hypocrites?” Well, no.

    Besides which, as Craig ably explains above, libertarianism doesn’t mean never following rules and doing whatever you want. I think you’d call that anarchy. You might better phrase libertarianism as “Everyone should be able to do what they like, as long as it doesn’t impinge on the rights of other people to do what they like.”

    Hey, and no problem even if you are arguing. I’m a Jew. I like arguing. :-)

  24. Lindenon 09 Aug 2007 at 12:08 pm

    Craig — I’m afraid I’ve debated the point with “natural law” libertarians and found the laws they think are invalid turn out to be the ones they don’t like. Funny coincidence, that.

    Ivy — I told my friend that right now I can go about my everyday business without a gun in my hand. I wouldn’t find it an improvement to live in a world where I had to.

  25. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Craig, what I said was that “free” has a double meaning – that is, one word with two different senses, which is quite the opposite of synonymous. What often happens in such cases, though, is that people conflate the different meanings and blur the differences.

    As for rules, I think it’s clear that the SFnal libertarian has more respect for rules that derive either from the imperatives of physics or from contractual agreement than rules derived from bureaucracy. It is still the case that space is by its nature an environment where strict rules of either type will be required. My point is that there is nothing inherently free about space – to the contrary.

    But it is not libertarianism as a philosophy that I am primarily addressing, but the peculiar variety of it that seems to be driving certain works of science fiction, which do not, in these cases, present the theory in the best possible light.

  26. Treyon 09 Aug 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Interesting post.
    Something that this brings up is Charles Stross’ Iron Sunrise. Why? Because the protagonist Wednesday Shadowmist is re-settled in a human society that was settled by libertarians and space enthusiasts, in an asteroid belt, by the Eschaton – either to prove a point, as a joke or both.
    Without a doubt, its not a very libertarian society.

  27. Constance Ashon 09 Aug 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Makes one think about Westerns too, in these terms.

    It’s always been that inherent contradiction (among other inherent contractions in Westerns) that the wide open frontier is there for us to settle, but that settlement involves cooperation — much, much ‘collective’ action — communities, and thus laws, which is in conflict with the outlaw and the Romantic Solitary.

    Didn’t the western kind of create the concept of the ‘outlaw’? Usage was always overt that the outlaw was the Bad Guy, the Villain, the No Gooder, to be defeated by collective action, if only by hiring a Really Good Romantic Solitary.

    Love, C.

  28. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 1:48 pm

    I haven’t read the Stross book.

  29. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 09 Aug 2007 at 2:08 pm

    I think part of the trouble here is that we’re looking at the difference between mythic “freedom” and actual “freedom,” not that anyone has agreed on what actual freedom is. For example, you are free to marry whomever and whatever you choose, and as many of them as you like, with whatever rites and rituals you deem appropriate–except having said marriage recognized by the state is a bit trickier.

    Anyway, I think part of the reason why SF is getting all the freedom business is because it allows all the old explorer and frontiersman stories to be told again. Moreover, it allows stories to be told of folk visiting foreign lands and getting their ya-yas out without it getting back to folk at home at lightspeed. The old line “Thou hast fornicated. But that was in another country, and besides which, the wench is dead” started to fall apart with the advent of the telephone, but now we have YouTube. It takes interplanetary travel with poor phone reception to tell such tales now.

    That also touches on one of the freedoms that space would still hold: the freedom to cut past ties and reinvent oneself without small town gossip and childhood baggage. That’s a big part of the pirate stories, the military stories, the explorer stories and so on. Obviously you’re not remarkably free on a pirate ship, in the military and so on, but “free of” certain other things? Oh yes. And I think that’s a lot of the freedom that’s being talked about.

  30. Charleson 09 Aug 2007 at 2:24 pm

    This topic makes me look back at Logan’s Run and wonder just what they heck are they all supposed to do now that their bubble world has been shattered?

    The “Dead at 30” rule certainly establishes something to break away from, be it to another planet or to another civilization and seems like a similar catalyst to the topic of this thread.

    Yet, from a story standpoint, in looking at the repercussions of breaking away to “Live Free!”, as abhorrent as the “Dead at 30” rule is, one has to wonder about the repercussions on those people who are suddenly thrust out into a world that has no societal rules. While I really enjoyed the Logan’s Run movie, it didn’t even bother to answer this. The movie ended just when the next chapter of the story was about to start.

  31. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Kevin, that’s a good distinction, between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. Besides “free for the taking”.

  32. Anders Monsenon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:07 pm


    There are many variations of libertarianism, and enough libertarian sf novels out there (or novels appreciated by libertarians but written by people of different persuasions), that to list certain examples to support your thesis might be been helpful. You make certain general statements I find hard to locate in libertarian sf. I’ve edited a newsletter about libertarian sf for many years, and while I’ve read some bad libertarian novels, I’ve read a lot of great ones, and lots of terrible and great sf in general.

    1. Libertarians don’t tend to believe freedom means everything without cost. See for example Robert Heinlein’s statement, There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL). Usually the opposite is true, that people who dislike the free market believe things should be free, forgetting the costs must come from somewhere (usually taxes or higher prices, or opportunity costs from lost choices). There are probably eight or nine different meanings of the word free. You cannot make a simple analogy between cost and lack of coercion.

    2. Libertarians are not necessarily anti-society, or closet Robinson Crusoes. French classical liberal economist Frederic Bastist believes humans are social by nature, whereas Rousseau (non-libertarian) bemoaned the fact that mankind had left utopia to form societies. Individualism is not atomism – libertarians believe in a voluntary society.

    3. Libertarians have not abandoned Earth to the collectivists. Many libertarians believe that space is a worthy goal, because we should not leave all eggs in one basket, for one thing. Certainly getting into space is something we should strive for, and believe that sitting around and waiting for government to get us into space is futile. In that case Burt Rutan should retire at once.

    4. Some libertarian fiction examples. L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, an alternate history novel set on Earth. Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, set on Earth and in space. James P. Hogan’s Voyage to Yesteryear. Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal (MacLeod is a Trot, but writes favorably about the free market). Eric Frank Russell’s classic, The Great Explosion. Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. F. Paul Wilson’s An Enemy of the State. See also the recent novel by Adam Roberts, Gradisil. It deals with getting into space, and creating a new and free ‘nation’ in space. It may contain some libertarian elements, but then again, Roberts may just be taking a concept like David Louis Edelman mentions in terms of his fiction, and running with it; the libertarian aspects may be incidental, or just happen to fit the story. See for more titles.

    Sure, some political novels are preachy. Not all libertarian novels contain endless speeches. But let’s rip particular books if they deserve it, and not paint libertarian sf with a wide brush.

  33. Maryon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:10 pm

    The problem with the “air should be free” is that, in fact, air was NOT free, it would never be free, and if someone decreed that it would be free — there would be none left. People have to be rewarded for doing things that you want done.

    Of course, this does leave the question of what happens when children reach the age at which they can start paying off the debt from growing up that their parents refused to pay.

    Me, I always thought libertarianism might work splendidly for sterile immortals.

  34. Lois Tiltonon 09 Aug 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Anders – other commenters have pointed out the Prometheus award list as a source for superior libertarian SF [although I am reluctant to be too free with the term “great”].

    These are ideas that deserve serious speculation, and sometimes get it.

  35. Laurieon 09 Aug 2007 at 11:14 pm

    The first thing I thought of upon reading Lois’s article was that this stuff sounds like it falls somewhere between Cinderella and Survivor: Alpha Centauri.

    Cinderella breaks away from the oppression of her fascist step-sisters and goes to live Happily Ever After amongst the pristine wilderness of a virgin world, away from the predefined role of second-class step-daughter and the social strictures which dictate that marrying the prince is the only way for such a person to have value. There’s probably some singing mice warbling about personal freedom, and animated blue birds help her spear some hapless alien herbivore while she expounds upon the virtues of a voluntary society.

    Maybe I just have a strange sense of humor. 😉

    Although I generally find singing mice more plausible than most Libertarian ideals, it may be that I haven’t given it a fair shake. I am going to have to check out this Prometheus award list. I agree that the ideas could very well be interesting to explore if properly done.

  36. joshua corningon 10 Aug 2007 at 12:29 am


    There are many variations of libertarianism

    And Lois has failed to describe any of them.

  37. joshua corningon 10 Aug 2007 at 12:31 am

    The problem with the “air should be free” is that, in fact, air was NOT free, it would never be free, and if someone decreed that it would be free — there would be none left. People have to be rewarded for doing things that you want done.

    Of course, this does leave the question of what happens when children reach the age at which they can start paying off the debt from growing up that their parents refused to pay.

    Me, I always thought libertarianism might work splendidly for sterile immortals.

    Libertarians also have three heads, terrible manners and eat small children

  38. Lois Tiltonon 10 Aug 2007 at 9:12 am

    Joshua – this blog would not be the right place for a dry philosophical article on the varieties of libertarianism.

    My subject here is a particular theme I have observed in some SF works that promote their own sort of libertarian speculation of life in space.

  39. Laurieon 10 Aug 2007 at 9:24 am

    Joshua – You can flame me instead of Lois, she was fairly respectful. I trotted out the singing mice, after all.

  40. Charleson 10 Aug 2007 at 11:41 am

    Hmm, I’ve checked out the Prometheus awards list.

    I haven’t read a single one of their Best Novel Award Winners. But I have read most of their Hall of Fame Award Winners.

  41. Lois Tiltonon 10 Aug 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I liked the Vinges and the original version of the Flynn.

  42. Lois Tiltonon 10 Aug 2007 at 9:05 pm

    The notion of the solitary individual as epitomizing freedom, while useful as an illustration, is not really the emphasis in libertarian SF. The most usual concern is forming a new society on libertarian principles, with the maximum of freedom of action for the individual members.

  43. ehjoneson 12 Aug 2007 at 1:36 am

    This is in response to Miriam’s comment:

    When I read this article, Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was the first thing that came to my mind as well. But I have to differ with you on the point you made about it. I actually remember the book quite fondly, despite its (to me at the time) odd political slant.

    The point wasn’t that the Loonies were constantly plotting against one another. It was the opposite. Their society had evolved, out of necessity, into one where the citizens were naturally self-reliant. People were polite to one another, and all of the “rules” that a government would put into place, like where and how you could live, or even the required safety rules of living on the moon, were not so much rules as necessities of life. The people were polite to one another, and people believed firmly in live and let live. Yeah, the guy got tossed out of the meeting for saying air should be free… because that was a ridiculous proposal. It was a fact of life that air was in short supply, and there was no way to get it free from the supplier (Earth), so why even suggest it? The plot point about the guy being a spy was meant to illustrate that the spies at the meetings were there to not only spy, but cause trouble, which he tried to do with his free air suggestion.

    But the thing about it is, this was Heinlein’s idea of how a society might evolve with no one really regulating things in such a life-and-death kind of situation, like living on the moon. And I learned later in life that the society he came up with had a very libertarian slant. There were no laws, but there were accepted societal norms. No one was forced to live by them, but a person’s word was his bond; if someone agreed to something, as in the “trial” that was held where the protagonist was the judge, then they were bound by it, and thus by his decision… because they chose to be. If someone put others in danger, then they were likely to be taught a lesson by their fellow citizens, not because it was the law, but because it needed to be done. If a family unit worked better with a multiple marriage, be it a wife and several husbands, several husbands and a wife, or an even mix of wives and husbands, then that’s what your family unit ended up as. And it was stressed quite often in the book how such a bizarrely free society could still have everyone being so polite, hard working, and helpful simply because it HAD to be that way.

    I’m not a libertarian, and in truth, neither was the Luna society in Heinlen’s book. And I can’t imagine that a society like that would every actually develop, or be allowed to develop by the government that spawned it. But I have to admit that at the time I first read it, the concept of TANSTAAFL and of people living together and working to make their lives better in a frontier kind of way appealed to me. The way everyone took the tenets of live and let live, be polite, and if you want something you have to work for it, really made an impression.

    Well, that, and the whole multiple wives thing. What can I say, I was 13.

  44. joshua corningon 12 Aug 2007 at 2:07 am

    My subject here is a particular theme I have observed in some SF works that promote their own sort of libertarian speculation of life in space.

    Actually you observed fascism and incorrectly retitled it libertarianism.

  45. ehjoneson 12 Aug 2007 at 2:24 am

    Fascism – a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

    Libertarianism – a political school of thought advocating the maximizing of individual rights and minimizing the role of the state.

    Yep, they’re so similar, I can see how you could be confused and think that she was talking about fascism, particularly with all that repetition of the phrase live free, and all the talk about individual freedoms and whatnot.

    (My apologies to the board, I should know better than to respond to a flame post, but that last comment was so asinine I just felt the urge.)

  46. Lois Tiltonon 12 Aug 2007 at 8:51 am

    The thread on Heinlein is interesting. There is no doubt that the libertarian attitude towards rules which derive from the necessities of physics is different.

    Much libertarian SF seems to be a type of utopianism. And the problem with utopias is human nature. Heinlein assumed a degree of rationality that human nature isn’t able to supply, even under evolutionary pressure.

    Another assumption is consensus. Libertarian utopians seem to assume that everyone in their colony will be in agreement on both ends and means – they may have signed a contract to that effect – but I think it’s unrealistic to assume they’ll stay that way.

    To maintain this consensus, it would require not only an original selection of colonists committed to the libertarian principles, it would require strict limits on immigration as well as expulsion of dissidents. And this sort of thing tends to lead to a government.

    In the Kirinyaga stories, the eutopian colonists all agreed to live according to the Kikuyu tribal customs, but still, someone had to be the Enforcer. By the end of the series, even most of the original colonists were in revolt, as well as their descendants, who had never agreed to the terms.

  47. Charleson 13 Aug 2007 at 10:11 am

    By the end of the series, even most of the original colonists were in revolt, as well as their descendants, who had never agreed to the terms.

    It is in our nature for someone to come along and ask: Why?

    No matter the intentions of the original settlers in these stories, someone will come along — either from outside or from within — who will question the way this settlement is run.

    Take M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” for example. The society they built to shelter themselves from reality will have a hard time surviving once its founders are gone. Ivy’s blindness is the only thing that protects their way of life. If someone else had gone and seen civilization the impact would destroy the life the “Elders” built. And I cannot imagine that — once healed — Lucius will not go to see for himself.

    Someone is going to come along, whether with good intentions or bad, and forever alter the society that is built in these Live Free! stories.

  48. Lois Tiltonon 13 Aug 2007 at 11:47 am

    Another good example!

    You can’t force people to be “free”. You can’t put a society in stasis forever. Imposing or enforcing any set of norms on a society that no longer accepts them is the antithesis of freedom.

  49. miriamon 13 Aug 2007 at 10:18 pm

    ehjones – Yeah, it’s been a long time since I read the Heinlein novel, so I probably don’t remember the details correctly. But I seem to recall that the duplicitous double-crossing free-air activist made his “air-oughtta-be-free” pitch privately to Our Hero and his girlfriend, not at a meeting, and that Our Hero took it upon himself to boot Free-Air out of their party of three just because he was so morally offended at the very notion…subsequently his girlfriend stomped away, disgusted at Our Hero’s high-handedness (thouth they made up later).

    Of course later on it was shown that Free-Air Activist was actually a stealthy assassin spying on Our Hero, vindicating Our Hero in his judgement of the guy. Quite aside from any political consideration, that bugged me simply as a bad plot point. If Free-Air Activist was a smooth-operating chameleon slyly maneuvering himself to kill Our Hero at a vulnerable point, the very LAST thing he ought to be doing is getting into a political argument with him, spewing out offensive views that endanger his already precarious position as a member of his group. To me it looked like Heinlein rather clumsily manipulating his plot to make his hero look good.


    Yeah, the guy got tossed out of the meeting for saying air should be free… because that was a ridiculous proposal. It was a fact of life that air was in short supply, and there was no way to get it free from the supplier (Earth), so why even suggest it?

    Yes, it does seem quite ridiculous. But it’s a colony…what if you take into account that people are born there, often children of poor people, who under the above description, by no choice of their own are born into air debt, deepen it with every breath they take and so pretty much belong body and soul to the air supplier long before they can earn anything on their own? Doesn’t seem quite fair to enslave people so.

    One could also apply your argument to health care on Earth. It is a fact of life that medical care is quite costly; usually the suppliers (doctors, nurses, other professionals, the manufacturers of specialized medical tools and parts) don’t just give their goods and services away. But a person suggesting universal health care isn’t usually kicked out of places summarily; that would be rude. He may be argued with and disagreed with, but that in itself recognizes some validity to his point of view; because in most modern culture it is considered barbaric to passively let someone bleed to death (or die of an infarct, or whatever) when something can easily be done about it. And yes, a hospital will try to recoup its costs, but if a person is genuinely too poor to repay, the hospital generally ends up writing it off, simply because it is not cost-effective enough to get blood out of some turnips. I think that the need for air is one of those fundamental needs that might be considered by some too pressing to deprive people of, no matter the profit motive.

    I just think that all the marvelous future technologies mentioned earlier – the i-pod brain implant, the in-case-of-death reboot – all sound lovely, but like any technology, it would end up in the hands of a priviledged few, and to paraphrase Ursula K. LeGuin, “and then the very rich will be even MORE different from you and me.”

  50. Lois Tiltonon 14 Aug 2007 at 9:16 am

    miriam, you drive right to the main point about libertarian SF, or any fiction. Telling a good story well has to come first. Heavy-handed manipulation of the plot or characters to promote any ideological Message makes for bad fiction.

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