Review- Smith, “The Probability Broach”

L. Neil Smith, “The Probability Broach” (1979) – A friend of mine who is a recovering “anarcho-capitalist” tried reading this, a depiction of an alternate-history free market utopia and one of the flagship works of libertarian scifi, during the height of his belief in its ideology, and couldn’t get through it, he found it was so bad. Well, now that I’ve read it, I can understand why. Boy howdy, was this a stinker.

A twist on one of my usual disclaimers: I’d love to find really batshit visions I disagree with explored in writing, and I’m not a stickler for plausibility in alternate history stories. I mean, I sort of am for myself, because I think it would be interesting to get a really rigorous, critical-historical take on the exercise, but I’ve obviously not accomplished that. Actually good alternate history stories like “Fire on the Mountain” and especially “The Man in the High Castle” have historical dynamics in their backstories that don’t really wash. But that’s all right. Alternate history stories are, naturally, more about us than about the past or it’s possibilities.

So it’s not really the implausibility of either the world Detective Win Bear goes to, not the one he leaves behind, that bothers me, though the patterns of implausibility in both cases indicate larger problems, like that the author is a dumbass ideologue of a dumb-assed ideology. Win Bear (he’s a Native American, always good to have them on side when you’re trying to make some fatuous settler point) works for the Denver PD in a 1987 that sucks pretty hard, because it’s a conservstive libertarian fantasy of what they thought Carter-Mondale style liberalism was doing to the country. Everyone’s broke, you can’t smoke, maybe some other stuff that rhymes, bureaucrats everywhere, etc. Win has to investigate a murder of a physicist, then some people try to murder him, then of course the physicist was doing alternate world stuff, so he winds up in an alternate world. No one knows about cops, or Denver, in this alternate world! People are happy, and also, for some reason, chimpanzees and gorillas are people and they’re happy too! Everything is privatized, no one pays taxes, everyone is armed.

Do I sound tired to you at this point of the review, dear reader? That’s because I am. The problem with this book was less the world building and more just the complete shit quality of the prose, characterization, plotting, and exposition. Exposition is often a problem in scifi, and especially alternate history, so that’s relatively forgivable. Win has a tendency to get shot, and so while he’s healing up, he has people tell him about the alternate timeline he’s in. The “point of divergence” is that Albert Gallatin, known in our world as an ethnographer (i.e. had a creepy fixation on Native Americans) and Secretary of the Treasury, sides with the Whiskey Rebellion against George Washington’s efforts to enforce tax payments. They win, kill Washington, and almost literally everything is hunky-dory from that day onward. No more constitution (and I will say it is refreshing to encounter an American winger who doesn’t slavishly worship that document, not that what he wants is better), no more taxes, really no more government. Jefferson (!) fixes slavery with moral suasion. The Native Americans gladly sell their land (?!) to western settlers and assimilate. Canada and Mexico join up, voluntarily. The only problem is that followers of the exiled Alexander Hamilton, arch-governmentalist, occasionally show up and do a terrorism, and that provides what skeleton of plot exists in this book.

I would say some of that stuff — especially about race — borders on the offensive, and the offensively stupid. But that’s not really why the book is so bad. It’s an ideological Marty Stu story, which is the real problem. The expression “Mary Sue story” comes from fan fiction, where it was common for writers to insert idealized, flawless versions of themselves on the bridge of the Enterprise or whatever (and it was gendered- women writers were called out for it more often, even though the male equivalent, the Marty Stu, was probably just as widespread if not more so). That’s one of the sad things about really thoroughgoing, join-the-party stockpile-gold libertarianism- the only meaningful conflict they understand is, basically, “normal people versus busybodies.” This is probably one of the reasons why libertarians so often become bigots and fascists- the explanation to the question “of libertarian paradise is the default, why does it exist nowhere?” can very easily become “the Jews, duh,” because it’s not like there’s any other good explanation of what binds “the busybodies” together, especially if you explicitly reject class analysis. It’s one way in which libertarianism really is “classical liberalism” — that ideology’s refusal of conflict and tragedy, well after most liberals got the memo that “freedom” can’t fix everything and adapted.

That’s tragedy, maybe, but “The Probability Broach” is farce, and not a funny one. Statist terrorists keep trying to mess stuff up, both in our world and the libertarian paradise, and keep failing. They’re meant to be extraordinarily dangerous, but are also ludicrously incompetent- after all, if they were competent, they’d be libertarians, right? Compounding this, Smith is a terrible action writer. It’s an art, writing action scenes, and one Smith hasn’t learned. He mostly substitutes gore and endless gun pedantry (he is, of course, a gun pedant, the creepy kind who talks about defending women, when he also delights in depictions of women being harmed, because of a lack of guns, of course) for an ability to write action. It’s a detective story in which no detecting takes place, just bad guys falling into the hands of Win and his new alternate universe friends.

I gotta say, I never expected to find myself wishing I was reading Ayn Rand. But at least she could inject some passion into her work, whatever her many failings as a writer and thinker. Smith can’t even manage that. His writing has the tone of the asshole at the end of the bar who’s figured everything out so hard he never has to do anything, never leaves his hometown or does anything with his life because it’s all bullshit anyway. Give that asshole free reign of his resentments and a very odd historical education, and you’ve got this book. *

Review- Smith, “The Probability Broach”

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