Lois Tilton 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 â€“ 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.Â Â 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 â€“ 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.