Books by Smith, L. Neil

Smith, L. Neil. The American Zone. New York: Tor Books, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87369-7.

February 2002 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Blade of p'Na. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2017. ISBN 978-1-61242-218-3.
This novel is set in the “Elders” universe, originally introduced in the 1990 novels Contact and Commune and Converse and Conflict, and now collected in an omnibus edition with additional material, Forge of the Elders. Around four hundred million years ago the Elders, giant mollusc-like aquatic creatures with shells the size of automobiles, conquered aging, and since then none has died except due to accident or violence. And precious few have succumbed to those causes: accident because the big squid are famously risk averse, and violence because, after a societal adolescence in which they tried and rejected many political and economic bad ideas, they settled on p'Na as the central doctrine of their civilisation: the principle that nobody has the right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason—much like the Principle of Non-Aggression, don't you know.

On those rare occasions order is disturbed, the services of a p'Nan “debt assessor” are required. Trained in the philosophy of p'Na, martial arts, psychology, and burnished through a long apprenticeship, assessors are called in either after an event in which force has been initiated or by those contemplating a course which might step over the line. The assessor has sole discretion in determining culpability, the form and magnitude of restitution due, and when no other restitution is possible, enforcing the ultimate penalty on the guilty. The assessor's sword, the Blade of p'Na, is not just a badge of office but the means of restitution in such cases.

The Elders live on one of a multitude, possibly infinite, parallel Earths in a multiverse where each planet's history has diverged due to contingent events in its past. Some millennia after adopting p'Na, they discovered the means of observing, then moving among these different universes and their variant Earths. Some millennia after achieving biological immortality and peace through p'Na, their curiosity and desire for novelty prompted them to begin collecting beings from across the multiverse. Some were rescues of endangered species, while others would be more accurately described as abductions. They referred to this with the euphemism of “appropriation”, as if that made any difference. The new arrivals: insectoid, aquatic, reptilian, mammalian, avian, and even sentient plants, mostly seemed happy in their new world, where the Elders managed to create the most diverse and peaceful society known in the universe.

This went on for a million years or so until, just like the revulsion against slavery in the 19th century in our timeline, somesquid happened to notice that the practice violated the fundamental principle of their society. Appropriations immediately ceased, debt assessors were called in, and before long all of the Elders implicated in appropriation committed suicide (some with a little help). But that left the question of restitution to the appropriated. Dumping them back into their original universes, often war-torn, barbarous, primitive, or with hostile and unstable environments after up to a million years of peace and prosperity on the Elders' planet didn't make the ethical cut. They settled on granting full citizenship to all the appropriated, providing them the gift of biological immortality, cortical implants to upgrade the less sentient to full intelligence, and one more thing…. The Elders had developed an unusual property: the tips of their tentacles could be detached and sent on errands on behalf of their parent bodies. While not fully sentient, the tentacles could, by communicating via cortical implants, do all kinds of useful work and allow the Elders to be in multiple places at once (recall that the Elders, like terrestrial squid, have ten tentacles—if they had twelve, they'd call them twelvicles, wouldn't they?). So for each of the appropriated species, the Elders chose an appropriate symbiote who, upgraded in intelligence and self-awareness and coupled to the host by their own implant, provided a similar benefit to them. For humanoids, it was dogs, or their species' canids.

(You might think that all of this constitutes spoilers, but it's just the background for the Elders' universe which is laid out in the first few chapters for the benefit of readers who haven't read the earlier books in the series.)

Hundreds of millions of years after the Great Restitution Eichra Oren (those of his humanoid species always use both names) is a p'Na debt assessor. His symbiote, Oasam Otusam, a super-intelligent, indiscriminately libidinous, and wisecracking dog, prefers to go by “Sam”. So peaceful is the planet of the Elders that most of the cases Eichra Oren is called upon to resolve are routine and mundane, such as the current client, an arachnid about the size of a dinner table, seeking help in tracking down her fiancé, who has vanished three days before the wedding. This raises some ethical issues because, among their kind, traditionally “Saying ‘I do’ is the same as saying ‘bon appétit’ ”. Many, among sapient spiders, have abandoned the Old Ways, but some haven't. After discussion, in which Sam says, “You realize that in the end, she's going to eat him”, they decide, nonetheless, to take the case.

The caseload quickly grows as the assessor is retained by investors in a project led by an Elder named Misterthoggosh, whose fortune comes from importing reality TV from other universes (there is no multiverse copyright convention—the p'Na is cool with cultural appropriation) and distributing it to the multitude of species on the Elders' world. He (little is known of the Elders' biology…some say the females are non-sentient and vestigial) is now embarking on a new project, and the backers want a determination by an assessor that it will not violate p'Na, for which they would be jointly and separately responsible. The lead investor is a star-nosed mole obsessed by golf.

Things become even more complicated after a mysterious attack which appears to have been perpetrated by the “greys”, creatures who inhabit the mythology and nightmares of a million sapient species, and the suspicion and fear that somewhere else in the multiverse, another species has developed the technology of opening gates between universes, something so far achieved only by the now-benign Elders, with wicked intent by the newcomers.

What follows is a romp filled with interesting questions. Should you order the vegan plate in a restaurant run by intelligent plants? What are the ethical responsibilities of a cyber-assassin who is conscious yet incapable of refusing orders to kill? What is a giant squid's idea of a pleasure yacht? If two young spiders are amorously attracted, it only pupæ love? The climax forces the characters to confront the question of the extent to which beings which are part of a hive mind are responsible for the actions of the collective.

L. Neil Smith's books have sometimes been criticised for being preachy libertarian tracts with a garnish of science fiction. I've never found them to be such, but you certainly can't accuse this one of that. It's set in a world governed for æons by the principle of non-aggression, but that foundation of civil society works so well that it takes an invasion from another universe to create the conflict which is central to the plot. Readers are treated to the rich and sometime zany imagination of a world inhabited by almost all imaginable species where the only tensions among them are due to atavistic instincts such as those of dogs toward tall plants, combined with the humour, ranging from broad to wry, of our canine narrator, Sam.

July 2017 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Ceres. Unpublished manuscript, January 2005.
I read this book in manuscript form; I'll add the ISBN when it is published. An online plot summary is available.

January 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Down with Power. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61242-055-4.
In the first chapter of this superb book, the author quotes Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”, describing himself as being “a libertarian minus the crazy stuff”, and then proceeds to ask precisely what is crazy about adopting a strict interpretation of the Zero Aggression Principle:

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim. (p. 20)

The subsequent chapters sort out the details of what this principle implies for contentious issues such as war powers; torture; money and legal tender laws; abortion; firearms and other weapons; “animal rights”; climate change (I do not use scare quotes on this because climate change is real and has always happened and always will—it is the hysteria over anthropogenic contributions to an eternally fluctuating process driven mostly by the Sun which is a hoax); taxation; national defence; prohibition in all of its pernicious manifestations; separation of marriage, science, and medicine from the state; immigration; intellectual property; and much more. Smith's viewpoint on these questions is largely informed by Robert LeFevre, whose wisdom he had the good fortune to imbibe at week-long seminar in 1972. (I encountered LeFevre just once, at a libertarian gathering in Marin County, California [believe it or not, such things exist, or at least existed] around 1983, and it was this experience that transformed me from a “nerf libertarian” who was prone to exclaiming “Oh, come on!” whilst reading Rothbard to the flinty variety who would go on to author the Evil Empires bumper sticker.) Sadly, Bob LeFevre is no longer with us, but if you wish to be inoculated with the burning fever of liberty which drove him and inspired those who heard him speak, this book is as close as you can come today to meeting him in person. The naïve often confuse libertarians with conservatives: to be sure, libertarians often wish to impede “progressives” whose agenda amounts to progress toward serfdom and wish, at the least, for a roll-back of the intrusions upon individual liberty which were the hallmark of the twentieth century. But genuine libertarianism, not the nerf variety, is a deeply radical doctrine which calls into question the whole leader/follower, master/slave, sovereign/subject, and state/citizen structure which has characterised human civilisation ever since hominids learned to talk and the most glib of them became politicians (“Put meat at feet of Glub and Glub give you much good stuff”).

And here is where I both quibble with and enthusiastically endorse the author's agenda. The quibble is that I fear that our species, formed by thousands of generations of hunter/gatherer and agricultural experience, has adapted, like other primates, to a social structure in which most individuals delegate decision making and even entrust their lives to “leaders” chosen by criteria deeply wired into our biology and not remotely adapted to the challenges we face today and in the future. (Hey, it could be worse: peacocks select for the most overdone tail—it's probably a blessing nakes don't have tails—imagine trying to fit them all into a joint session of Congress.) The endorsement is that I don't think it's possible to separate the spirit of individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism from the frontier. There were many things which contributed to the first American war of secession and the independent republics which emerged from it, but I believe their unique nature was in substantial part due to the fact that they were marginal settlements on the edge of an unexplored and hostile continent, where many families were entirely on their own and on the front lines, confronted by the vicissitudes of nature and crafty enemies.

Thomas Jefferson worried that as the population of cities grew compared to that of the countryside, the ethos of self-sufficiency would be eroded and be supplanted by dependency, and that this corruption and reliance upon authority founded, at its deepest level, upon the initiation of force, would subvert the morality upon which self-government must ultimately rely. In my one encounter with Robert LeFevre, he disdained the idea that “maybe if we could just get back to the Constitution” everything would be fine. Nonsense, he said: to a substantial degree the Constitution is the problem—after all, look at how it's been “interpreted” to permit all of the absurd abrogations of individual liberty and natural law since its dubious adoption in 1789. And here, I think the author may put a bit too much focus on documents (which can, have been, and forever will be) twisted by lawyers into things they never were meant to say, and too little on the frontier.

What follows is both a deeply pessimistic and unboundedly optimistic view of the human and transhuman prospect. I hope I don't lose you in the loop-the-loop. Humans, as presently constituted, have wired-in baggage which renders most of us vulnerable to glib forms of persuasion by “leaders” (who are simply those more talented than others in persuasion). The more densely humans are packed, and the greater the communication bandwidth available to them (in particular, one to many media), the more vulnerable they are to such “leadership”. Individual liberty emerges in frontier societies: those where each person and each family must be self-sufficient, without any back-up other than their relations to neighbours, but with an unlimited upside in expanding the human presence into new territory. The old America was a frontier society; the new America is a constrained society, turning inward upon itself and devouring its best to appease its worst.

So, I'm not sure this or that amendment to a document which is largely ignored will restore liberty in an environment where a near-majority of the electorate receive net benefits from the minority who pay most of the taxes. The situation in the United States, and on Earth, may well be irreversible. But the human and posthuman destiny is much, much larger than that. Perhaps we don't need a revision of governance documents as much as the opening of a frontier. Then people will be able to escape the stranglehold where seven eighths of all of their work is confiscated by the thugs who oppress them and instead use all of their sapient facilities to their own ends. As a sage author once said:

Freedom, immortality, and the stars!

Works for me. Free people expand at a rate which asymptotically approaches the speed of light. Coercive government and bureaucracy grow logarithmically, constrained by their own internal dissipation. We win; they lose.

In the Kindle edition the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition includes real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's not as convenient as when index citations are linked directly to references in the text.

October 2012 Permalink

Zelman, Aaron and L. Neil Smith. Hope. Hartford, WI: Mazel Freedom Press, 2001. ISBN 0-9642304-5-3.

March 2002 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. The Lando Calrissian Adventures. New York: Del Rey, [1983] 1994. ISBN 0-345-39110-1.
This volume collects together the three Lando Calrissian short novels: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka, originally published separately in 1983 and now out of print (but readily available second-hand). All three novels together are just 409 mass market paperback pages. I wouldn't usually bother with an item of Star Wars merchandising, but as these yarns were written by one of my favourite science fiction authors, exalted cosmic libertarian L. Neil Smith, I was curious to see what he'd make of a character created by the Lucas organisation. It's pretty good, especially as a gentle introduction for younger readers who might be more inclined to read a story with a Star Wars hook than the more purely libertarian (although no more difficult to read) The Probability Broach (now available in a comic book edition!) or Pallas.

The three novels, which form a continuous story arc and are best read in order, are set in the period after Lando has won the Millennium Falcon in a card game but before he encounters Han Solo and loses the ship to him the same way. Lando is the only character in the Star Wars canon who appears here; if the name of the protagonist and ship were changed, one would scarcely guess the setting was the Star Wars universe, although parts of the “back-story” are filled in here and there, such as how a self-described interstellar gambler and con artiste came to be an expert starship pilot, why the steerable quad-guns on the Falcon “recoil” when they fire like World War II ack-ack guns, and how Lando laid his hands on enough money to “buy an entire city” (p. 408).

Lando's companion in all the adventures is the droid Vuffi Raa, also won in a card game, who is a full-fledged character and far more intriguing than any of the droids in the Star Wars movies. Unlike the stilted and mechanical robots of the films, Vuffi Raa is a highly dextrous starfish-like creature, whose five fractal-branching tentacles can detach and work independently, and who has human-level intelligence, a mysterious past (uncovered as the story progresses), and ethical conflicts between his built-in pacifism and moral obligation to his friends when they are threatened. (The cover art is hideous; Vuffi Raa, an elegant and lithe creature in the story, is shown as something like a squared-off R2-D2 with steel dreadlocks.) Now that computer graphics permits bringing to film any character the mind can imagine, Vuffi Raa would make a marvelous addition to a movie: for once, a robot fully as capable as a human without being even remotely humanoid.

The first novel is more or less straightforward storytelling, while the second and third put somewhat more of a libertarian edge on things. StarCave of ThonBoka does an excellent job of demonstrating how a large organisation built on fear and coercion, regardless how formidably armed, is vulnerable to those who think and act for themselves. This is a theme which fits perfectly with the Star Wars movies which occur in this era, but cannot be more than hinted at within the constraints of a screenplay.

August 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Lever Action. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2001. ISBN 0-9670259-1-5.

March 2002 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil and Scott Bieser. The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9743814-1-1.
What a tremendous idea! Here is L. Neil Smith's classic libertarian science fiction novel, Prometheus Award winning The Probability Broach, transformed into a comic book—er—graphic novel—with story by Smith and artwork by Scott Bieser. The artwork and use of colour are delightful—particularly how Win Bear's home world is rendered in drab collectivist grey and the North American Confederacy in vibrant hues. Lucy Kropotkin looks precisely as I'd imagined her. Be sure to look at all the detail and fine print in the large multi-panel spreads. After enjoying a couple of hours back in the Confederacy, why not order copies to give to all the kids in the family who've never thought about what it would be like to live in a world where free individuals entirely owned their own lives?

January 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil, Rex F. May, Scott Bieser, and Jen Zach. Roswell, Texas. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9743814-5-9.
I have previously mentioned this story and even posted a puzzle based upon it. This was based upon the online edition, which remains available for free. For me, reading anything, including a comic book (sorry—“graphic novel”), online a few pages a week doesn't count as reading worthy of inclusion in this list, so I deferred listing it until I had time to enjoy the trade paperback edition, which has been sitting on my shelf for several months after its June 2008 release.

This rollicking, occasionally zany, alternative universe story is set in the libertarian Federated States of Texas, where, as in our own timeline, something distinctly odd happens on July 4th, 1947 on a ranch outside the town of Roswell. As rumours spread around the world, teams from the Federated States, the United States, the California Republic, the Franco-Mexican Empire, Nazi Britain, and others set out to discover the truth and exploit the information for their own benefit. Involved in the scheming and race to the goal are this universe's incarnations of Malcolm Little, Meir Kahane, Marion Morrison, Eliot Ness, T. E. Lawrence, Walt Disney, Irène Joliot-Curie, Karol Wojtyla, Gene Roddenberry, and Audie Murphy, among many others. We also encounter a most curious character from an out of the way place L. Neil Smith fans will recall fondly.

The graphic format works very well with the artfully-constructed story. Be sure to scan each panel for little details—there are many, and easily missed if you focus only on the text. The only disappointment in this otherwise near-perfect entertainment is that readers of the online edition will be dismayed to discover that all of the beautiful colour applied by Jen Zach has been flattened out (albeit very well) into grey scale in the print edition. Due to the higher resolution of print, you can still make out things in the book edition which aren't discernible online, but it's a pity to lose the colour. The publisher has explained the economic reasons which compelled this decision, which make perfect sense. Should a “premium edition” come along, I'll be glad to part with US$40 for a full colour copy.

January 2009 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Sweeter than Wine. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60450-483-5.
A couple of weeks after D-Day, Second Lieutenant J Gifford found himself separated from his unit and alone in a small French village which, minutes later, was overrun by Germans. Not wishing to spend the rest of the war as a POW, he took refuge in an abandoned house, hiding out in the wine cellar to escape capture until the Allies took the village. There, in the dark, dank cellar, he encounters Surica, a young woman also hiding from the Germans—and the most attractive woman he has ever seen. Nature takes its course, repeatedly.

By the time the Germans are driven out by the Allied advance, Gifford has begun to notice changes in himself. He can see in the dark. His hearing is preternaturally sensitive. His canine teeth are growing. He cannot tolerate sunlight. And he has a thirst for blood.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, Gifford has established himself as a private investigator in the town of New Prospect, Colorado, near Denver. He is talented in his profession, considered rigorously ethical, and has a good working relationship with the local police. Apart from the whole business about not going out in daytime without extensive precautions, being a vampire has its advantages in the gumshoe game: he never falls ill, recovers quickly even from severe injuries, doesn't age, has extraordinary vision and hearing, and has a Jedi-like power of suggestion over the minds of people which extends to causing them to selectively forget things.

But how can a vampire, who requires human blood to survive, be ethical? That is the conundrum Gifford has had to face ever since that day in the wine cellar in France and, given the prospect of immortality, will have to cope with for all eternity. As the novel develops, we learn how he has met this challenge.

Meanwhile, Gifford's friends and business associates, some of whom know or suspect his nature, have been receiving queries which seem to indicate someone is on to him and trying to dig up evidence against him. At the same time, a series of vicious murders, all seemingly unrelated except for their victims having all been drained of blood, are being committed, starting in Charleston, South Carolina and proceeding westward across the U.S. These threads converge into a tense conflict pitting Gifford's ethics against the amoral ferocity of an Old One (and you will learn just how Old in chapter 26, in one of the scariest lines I've encountered in any vampire tale).

I'm not usually much interested in vampire or zombie stories because they are just so implausible, except as a metaphor for something else. Here, however, the author develops a believable explanation of the vampire phenomenon which invokes nothing supernatural. Sure, there aren't really vampires, but if there were this is probably how it would work. As with all of the author's fiction, there are many funny passages and turns of phrase. For a novel about a vampire detective and a serial killer, the tone is light and the characters engaging, with a romance interwoven with the mystery and action. L. Neil Smith wrote this book in one month: November, 2009, as part of the National Novel Writing Month, but other than being relatively short (150 pages), there's nothing about it which seems rushed; the plotting is intricate, the characters well-developed, and detail is abundant.

October 2015 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. The WarDove. Culver City, California: Pulpless.Com, [1986] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-027-4.

December 2001 Permalink