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Libertarian SF

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

A political movement (see Politics) originating in and largely confined to the USA, libertarianism is a form of anarchism – or "minarchism", the desire for an extremely limited state – which emphasizes (nonviolent) competition rather than the voluntary cooperation proposed by the older strand of anarchist thinking, as exemplified by the writings of such theorists as Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) or, in the sf field, by Ursula K Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974). The libertarian branch is generally characterized as a "right-wing" type of anarchism (in the sense that the [traditional] anarcho-syndicalists are "left-wing") through the premise that voluntarily entered contracts are the only form of social interaction that can be literally enforced (as opposed to, for example, state taxation as a way of funding a democratically elected government). A common libertarian assumption is that, in the absence of government intervention, the free market will bring about almost unlimited growth in available Technology and personal wealth, thus solving any problems of human poverty. These views are frequently associated with a belief in "positive thinking" and a fundamental Optimism about human potential.

Uniquely among political movements, many of libertarianism's most influential texts have been by sf writers. Books from both inside and outside the genre which strongly affected the early development of the movement include Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957), most of the early works of Robert A Heinlein (up to, and culminating in, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress [December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966]) and, to a lesser extent, C M Kornbluth's The Syndic (December 1953-March 1954 Science Fiction Adventures; 1953). These works could be said to be "proto-libertarian" in nature – a description which applies particularly to Rand, founder of the allied Objectivist philosophy. Explicitly libertarian fictions, with their characteristically detailed alternative societies and economic systems, did not begin to appear until the 1970s, with the publication of J Neil Schulman's Alongside Night (1979) and the Illuminatus! trilogy (1975) by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. This trilogy – along with associated texts such as the Schrödinger's Cat books from 1981 – probably represents the best of libertarian sf. Other recent novels of significance have been F Paul Wilson's An Enemy of the State (1980) and the long series of mildly comic adventures by L Neil Smith beginning with The Probability Broach (1980). Authors currently writing from a libertarian perspective include Melinda Snodgrass (the Circuit trilogy), James P Hogan (notably in Voyage from Yesteryear [1982]), Victor Koman, Brad Linaweaver, Victor Milán, Jerry Pournelle and Vernor Vinge.

The Prometheus Award and Prometheus Hall of Fame Award are given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society for, respectively, the best libertarian novel of the year and the past novel most worth retrospective attention. While nonsympathizers may be repelled by libertarian sf's frequent concentration on adventure rather than character, its sometimes casual attitude towards violence, and its loose association with the principles of Social Darwinism, the libertarian writers themselves might argue that they have made a genuine and deep-felt commitment to their vision of human freedom. It seems likely that the influence of the movement within sf will grow. [NT]

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