Science Fiction

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In this episode of the Libertarian Tradition podcast series, part of the Mises Institute’s online media library, Jeff Riggenbach makes the case that Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian science fiction novel, We, belongs in the libertarian tradition.

You can also read the transcript below:

When we think of the libertarian tradition, we tend naturally to think of political philosophers and economists of the past. But surely one part of the libertarian tradition belongs to novelists and other fiction writers.

In earlier podcasts in this series, I’ve already discussed two such figures: Ayn Rand, whose 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, is, arguably, one of the half-dozen most important libertarian works of the 20th century, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the professor of philology at Oxford whose giant fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings, published just a few years before Atlas Shrugged, is arguably the most culturally influential single novel published in English in the 20th century.

This week, I’d like to talk about a writer whose level of influence has been much more modest, but whose indirect influence has nevertheless been considerable. Regular listeners to this series know what I mean by indirect influence. I gave an example of it just last week, when I discussed the life and career of Isabel Paterson. Paterson’s libertarian classic, The God of the Machine, has never reached a wide readership, but, thanks to the effort of her protégé, Ayn Rand, Paterson herself has influenced millions of readers who have never even seen a copy of The God of the Machine.

The writer I’m talking about today wrote a novel in which a citizen of a totalitarian state of the future meets a woman and becomes obsessed with her. He begins a forbidden sexual affair with this woman, meeting with her illicitly in a very old part of the city where the intrusive gaze of the all-encompassing government doesn’t seem to penetrate. Through his relationship with her, he becomes involved in the organized underground opposition to the all-encompassing government — an opposition he had never previously realized existed at all. Ultimately, he and the woman are caught, imprisoned, and tortured. In the end, he is sincerely repentant of his crimes and is completely devoted to the all-encompassing government that has done him all this harm.

A familiar story, no? Can you tell me what novel I’ve just described? Ah, I see a hand in the back of the room. Yes? “George Orwell’s 1984,” you cry out confidently. And your answer is correct, but only as far as it goes, which is, perhaps, not quite as far as you thought it would.

That is a description of the plot of 1984, which was published, as we all know, in 1949. But Orwell adapted the plot of 1984 from another novel, one originally published 25 years earlier in 1924. That earlier novel was entitled, simply, We. It was the work of a not-very-well-known Russian writer, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Zamyatin was not very well known outside Russia when We was first published, and he was still not very well known in the West 25 years later, when Orwell published 1984. He remains not very well known in the West to this day.

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Blade Runner
Blade Runner

There are many elements of science fiction that find their way into stories that are not science fiction. Many times, enthusiasts of the genre will try to claim these works as part of the family. Atlas Shrugged and 1984 are examples. The same thing happens, only more frequently, with noir. Sometimes, the mere presence of a morally ambiguous protagonist is enough for a piece to be so labeled.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, however, is a rare work — quite possibly unique — that may fit both bills. While perhaps not classically noir, there is no denying a strong noir presence, and its science fiction credentials are beyond question, what with the flying cars and androids, called replicants, and off-world colonies. As a devotee of both genres, I quite naturally am a fan of the director’s third film, but watching it is an experience both frustrating and pleasant. It is a good movie, but not the great one it could have been.

Alien, Scott’s second feature, is a masterpiece whose best form made it to the silver screen. One simply cannot imagine a better version. Blade Runner, however, is a movie whose perfect version was never realized, whose potential was never reached. That mirage of the ideal Blade Runner intrudes on my thoughts every so often, and I find myself reaching for the DVD, thinking that perhaps this will be the viewing where I get it, where I notice that missing part or make that important connection.

It never works out that way. As usually happens in life, experience trumps hope. The movie simply is not as good as it ought to have been, and the reason is the plot. This is all the more tragic given that Philip K. Dick, in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, had already provided a first-rate plot that was later diluted over multiple drafts of the screeenplay.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is probably Philip K. Dick’s most famous work, given that it was turned into one of the most respected science fiction films of all time. I do not hold to the absolutist opinion that the book is always better than the movie, but after one read of the book and many viewings of the movie, I am inclined to say that, in this instance, the book is at least as good and in some respects is better.

Rick Deckard, along with numerous other unfortunate souls, has been left behind on Earth, an unhealthy wasteland from which anyone of means has migrated. He is the number two man assigned to retire rogue androids who try to pass themselves off as human. The androids, however, prefer to remain alive.

Deckard makes a modest living, but when the number one guy is nearly killed by an android, he assumes the responsibility to retire a group of six of them, seeing in the job an opportunity to make some much-needed cash. Insert canned line about things not going as planned. Insert second canned line about the job being more than he bargained for.

As I expected, the clownish dialogue and behavior, unnecessarily detailed descriptions and lengthy back stories injected into scenes immediately after a character’s introduction — the slipshod method by which so many authors introduce and develop their characters — is absent. Instead, we meet people who feel and act real, and we come to know them as we would anyone else: by how they act, what they say, and what is said about them. They move about in an exotic land but act in accordance with their human goals and abilities.

What I found surprising was how good the plot was. There is a satisfying quantity and variety of dramatic interactions, various obstacles to overcome, a sufficiently grand and tense third act… everything an eager reader could hope for. I did not expect a poorly wrought narrative, but given some of the difficulties I found in The Man in the High Castle, I thought that maybe character and setting were Dick’s strengths, not plot. The movie, as good as it is, strikes one as underplotted, and I assumed this was due to a deficiency on the book’s part.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

It has been a long trip. Twenty-two weeks, sixty chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue. With this week’s installment, John Hunt’s Higher Cause finally comes to an end.

We had a lot of adventure, saw a lot of character and relationship arcs, experienced some mystery and intrigue, and all the while saw a libertarian society in operation. It struggled to survive in the midst of statism, full of dedicated men who not only believed in a libertarian philosophy but were willing to live it and work hard to achieve it. It would be nice to see more works of this sort.

The books virtues, as I have mentioned before, are the imagination that went into the concept and the overall grasp of a story arc. The writing is generally solid and Hunt manages to competently weave together a rather complex tale.

It is my opinion that the dialogue could be improved and that certain sections of the prose could be deleted to good effect. At times, there was a tendency to over-explain things.

In addition to the above, and with the story now behind us, there are other aspects I would like to point out as needing strengthening. For starters, the separate story strands could have been synchronized a little better. For most of the novel, they complimented each other and crisscrossed back and forth quite nicely, but things came loose a touch at the end.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

It is my opinion that John Hunt’s greatest strength as a novelist is in his overall design of the story. This is particularly true when it comes to setting things up in one chapter to get a payoff in another. The last dozen or so chapters have been all about payoff, realizing returns on investments made in earlier chapters. In this the penultimate installment, we see as good a display of his careful planning as we have yet seen. A seed planted way back in the beginning of the book finally bears fruit as a twist to end the installment.

To begin the installment, we saw the conclusion of the cliff hanger from last week. I truly had no idea where he was going to go with it, but his resolution was clever and made sense. Things have, in the main plot line, pretty much come to a close, barring some unforeseen surprise in the next chapter.

One supposes that the last segment will be an epilogue that brings to a close the other plot line, the one about The Bounty, which never quite merged with the central story about The Island and its enemies. This is going to be a bit of a problem for the book. There is nothing about The Bounty story that needs connecting to The Island’s libertarian story. This is not necessarily bad, by any means, but it seems that the two are not going to ever truly be connected, except geographically. It is an odd choice, but The Bounty was never as fully developed and intricate as the rest of the plot. Leaving it to the side, as has been done, makes it feel unnecessary, like a story line that did not need to be there. Judgment must be reserved until the end, but right now it feels like The Bounty story could have been a separate book, maybe a sequel. The present one might have been better without it. We shall see.

As I said, the main story seems to have pretty much concluded. There are some final character moments we are going to need, especially involving Elisa and Petur. And something will have to be done to justify the inclusion of The Bounty in the story. And, of course, we must see how the British decide to handle things if they are to be the mafia institution that oversees The Island. Just one more week, and all will be answered.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

Higher Cause is a bit of a mixed bag this week. The final showdown continues, but there is an aspect to it that fails to convince. The action and the tension remain, but some of the maneuvering with respect to international law does not strike this reader as very plausible. However, there are two very good moments, one of them being what is probably the novel’s greatest cliffhanger.

The standoff with Mexico reaches what seems like a climax, only to redouble in suspense just a short while later. All in all, this final showdown has been an up-and-down affair. Just when the reader thinks one faction has an advantage, the tables get turned. I expect they will turn again, though how this is going to happen after the aforementioned cliffhanger is beyond me.

There have been a number of things I have criticized in these reviews, all having to do with how information is conveyed to the reader. There has been tell when there should be show. There have been moments when something already understood is explained at length. Sometimes, things that we do not need to know yet, or even really should not know yet, are told to us. All three kinds of these “information problems” are on display in this installment.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

Higher Cause #19 continues the entwining of separate story lines that began in earnest in the previous installment. There are three more chapters, with all the action being on or around The Island. The situation is at its most dire as we enter, but the good guys get a lucky break and suddenly their opponents’ hand is not as strong as it was. At the very least, they have been given a chance.

One of the key elements Hunt has used throughout the novel is the planting of mystery. Many seeds have been sown along the way, some of which sprouted and were further tended to. Now, as we near the end, we are starting to get a lot of payoff from the harvest. As far as timing goes, I think it was handled well.

One of the reveals, however, may be problematic for other reasons. The entire backstory has not yet come out, so final judgment must be withheld, but one of the enigmas we have encountered in the book is beginning to strain my credulity. At this point, it seems like some license was taken with plausibility in order to set up the mystery, but perhaps a future installment will set me straight on that.

Act Three is well under way and must resolve itself in the next ten chapters or so, unless a cliffhanger and a sequel are in store for us. It has been a pulse-pounding finale so far with more to come. And we know that perhaps the greatest mystery of all, the one that was prepared for us as early as the prologue of the book and has been developed repeatedly since, has yet to play a role. The author has done a good job of masking his intentions with it, because though some possibilities as to how all this will play out occur to me, there is no obvious or unavoidable scenario to make the book too predictable.

We shall have to wait to see.

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