Ceres by L. Neil Smith

Ceres by L. Neil Smith

Ceres, a finalist for the 2011 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel, is the latest opus from noted libertarian author L. Neil Smith, best known for The Probability Broach.  As you would expect from Mr. Smith, Ceres is a treasure trove for the liberty lover, a work that could only come from an uncompromising libertarian.  Nearly every page has some sound libertarian principle or perhaps a new twist on libertarian ideas that the reader may not have considered before.  For instance, we know that government is coercion, an institution organized around this principle, but have we considered the role of agriculture in the development of the State?  Was it perhaps our settling down into permanent communities that allowed for the contraction of that particular disease?  Right or wrong, it’s food for thought and worth considering.  Ceres is filled with such things.

The story takes place in the 22nd century and follows the lives of characters connected in some way to the terraforming of Ceres, the planetoid – now called a dwarf planet — and largest object in the main asteroid belt.  Most of the protagonists belong to the Ngu family, and those that don’t are close friends.  Llyra Ayn Ngu is a figure skater born on Pallas, an object in the asteroid belt even smaller than Ceres.  She goes to Ceres to acclimate her body to its greater gravity, and from there moves to the Moon, and thence to Mars and finally to Earth, where she dreams of ice skating success.

The different sections of the book are named after the gravity of each body, whether it’s one tenth gee, one sixth, one third or one gee.  Given this, we might call Llyra the main character, although her brother Wilson gets just as much attention.  Nevertheless, Llyra’s goal and struggle to achieve it are the only constants in the novel, present from the opening chapter to the end.  The rest concerns the various interests of the Ngu family and friends, often when in conflict with the environmentalists who seek to stop human expansion into space and the sullying of the environment as they see it.

It is beyond dispute that L. Neil Smith is a dedicated libertarian.  He has spent many hours of his life pouring himself into prose, seeking to spread the libertarian ethic and philosophy for the betterment of mankind.  However, just as, in a debate, a libertarian stands a better chance of convincing if the other party genuinely likes him, so too does a book stand a better chance of convincing in proportion to how much it charms the reader.  One might make a few suggestions in the interest of getting the most out of Ceres.

The manuscript could do with a good polishing, the kind an experienced editor can give it.  There are numerous words that are out of place in the text, typos and momentary lapses of concentration no doubt.  There are also other more perplexing mistakes, such as outright misspellings (the word ‘benevolant’ appears more than once) and typos of the sort that leave, for instance, a silent ‘b’ in the word different.  I imagine that Ceres surpasses the 100,000 word mark by a substantial margin; this is too much effort invested in a story not to use a spellcheck.

There are a number of curious uses of language, some of them incorrect, such as the common ‘try and’ instead of ‘try to’.  Others give the sensation of notes played out of key.  Some examples include, “… the billionaire genius who had caused Pallas to be terraformed” (‘terraformed Pallas’ is just fine, or ‘funded the terraforming of Pallas’),  “the car surged forward smoothly” (smoothly and surge don’t work well together),  “was not quite wide awake” (I understand ‘not quite awake’, but ‘not quite wide awake’?), “for slightly more than two hours” (if it’s only slightly more, why don’t we just round down to two hours?),  and the unwieldy “this time, there was a dress code to compel compliance with”.

Author and libertarian L. Neil Smith

Cosmetics aside, there are some improvements to be made to the meat and bones.  Every single solitary individual in Ceres, from Llyra herself to bit parts with one line of dialogue, is extensively described as soon as he is introduced.  This description will come no matter what action or conversation must consequently be delayed and is frequently followed by a paragraph of the character’s backstory, even if they make no further appearance in the book.

These constant interruptions do to the story what traffic jams do to a commute.  I cannot see the benefit of so much physical character description and backstory; omitting it would be akin to privatizing those clogged highways.  To give one example, Chapter Six consists of some of the environmentalists meeting and deciding on a course of action.  It is 3,132 words long, but it is only in the last 414 that they get to their agenda.  The first 2,718 words are largely unimportant dialogue that one suspects is merely there to give a character a first line so that a detailed physical description may follow.

Apart from the above, one occasionally comes across sequences that do little to advance the plot, or might benefit from a new perspective.  For instance, instead of a scene of a character thinking about what he did or plans to do, give us the scene of him actually doing it.  Whittle away the unimportant stuff so that the central conflict — the environmentalists vs. the terraformers/libertarians — can better stand out.  When something important does happen, find the most interesting perspective and way to tell it.

There is plenty of interest in Ceres, which can be read for free online, both for the libertarian and sci-fi enthusiast.  Terraforming, asteroid hunting and the mechanics of figure skating in low gravity are just some of the elements around which a libertarian tale is woven.  However, Ceres gives the impression of a first draft, both for its spelling errors and its scenes that, in movie terms, either need to be reshot or get tossed to the cutting-room floor.  In my opinion, the novel is a draft or two and an editor away from its best form, and such a work of libertarian fiction deserves to find its best form.

1.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

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