Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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A Novel Attracting Attention

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Blythe is the debut novel by John Kramer. Because it has received considerable praise and interest from readers across the philosophical spectrum, but especially among libertarians, Liberty’s entertainment editor, Jo Ann Skousen, interviewed Kramer about story’s themes and popularity. Set in a nondescript village in an undisclosed time period, it begins with the strange disappearance and reappearance of several local residents wracked by a strange disease and marked by a strange branding. When the story’s title character, Blythe, is led into an underworld kingdom that proves to be the source of the disease, she must find a way to survive while her love interest, Aaron, must find a way to rescue her.

* * *

JAS: Blythe is set in a timeless and nameless world that is familiar in its human relationships and topography, yet unfamiliar in its lack of technology and its Dantean underworld located just outside the city. It could take place in the past, or in a postapocalyptic future. What were you trying to accomplish with your setting and character conflicts?

JK: It was a challenge to write Blythe in a way that was timeless; as you correctly point out, the story could be taking place today or it could have taken place 600 years ago or it could take place in the future. The only temporal reference is to Dante. But for that, Blythe is truly a timeless tale and that was important to me because its themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness. Readers are used to being told stories with concrete facts — with recognizable places, set in a specific time and with detailed descriptions of the characters. Blythe is purposefully light on all of that, and once the readers figure out that they have the control to create this world and these characters in their own minds, it is empowering for them. I remember watching a video of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for the first time, back in the 1980s. I was so disappointed by the casting of John the bartender and other characters. They were nothing like the characters my mind had conjured. Outside of what I considered characteristically essential observations, many of the details in Blythe will be created by the reader.

Blythe's themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness.

JAS: Your title character, Blythe, is an artist who uses her own blood in her work. Art has a specific healing and protective power in the story. You’re a painter as well. Is Blythe the character with whom you most identify?

JK: I admire Blythe and her growth throughout this story. Even in her true-to-life frailties, she manages to hold herself to a high standard. But there are other characters I identify much more closely with, most specifically Augustus. Throughout this story, Augustus never speaks; he acts. And he always acts in a way that helps his good friend Aaron. That’s my kind of person. He was modeled on Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, who in the entire Bible never speaks a word. He just does the right thing to look out for those he loves even when it seems like a fool’s errand. And Joseph’s actions, like those of Augustus, are essential to the story’s outcome.

JAS: For me, the best part of the book is the thought-provoking aphorisms containing libertarian ideas — sentences such as “Every manmade disaster begins when one man thinks for another. However benevolent they begin, the ultimate outcome is tyranny” and “Take liberties you shouldn’t and you’ll find your liberties are taken from you.” It reminds me of reading Emerson’s journals, which he relied on frequently as a source for his essays. What is the source of the quotable passages in your book, and how did you use them in creating the story? Did you collect them first and build the story around them, or did they rise of their own volition out of the story-writing process? Which are your personal favorites?

The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three

JK: Emerson has a special place in my life. I lost my father when I was two, and my Uncle Joe, who was a surrogate father, urged me time and again to read Emerson’s essay on “Compensation.” When I finally had the maturity to read it, it hit home, both in the sweep of its message and in its unique and memorable turns of phrase. I’ve since read all Emerson’s essays four times or more and I hope to never stop reading them over the course of my life. Both Emerson and Benjamin Franklin inspired me to create unique, true, carefully crafted, and memorable turns of phrase throughout Blythe. Nearly all of the quotes and all of the poems are my own creations. The quote that most closely reflects my aspirations and actions is the one I used as Blythe’s one-line prologue: “One of mankind’s greatest sins is inaction in the face of injustice.” The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three. I’m grateful to have worked over the past 25 years at an organization that allows me to turn that insight into action on behalf of individuals whose rights are being violated by the government. I can’t think of a better way to earn an honest living.

JAS: Blythe has been described as a story that defies genre. It focuses more on its themes of love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption than on traditional story tropes. Your protagonist, Blythe, is strong, willful, talented, and independent. Her love interest, Aaron, is also strong, loyal, and likeable. Through a series of choices — some hers, some Aaron’s — Blythe ends up inside a dark and despotic place where she and a growing number of villagers are imprisoned, perhaps forever. Blythe doesn’t seem to belong there by the rules of traditional forgiveness and redemption tales — unlike Edmund, for example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she hasn’t deliberately chosen an evil path, hasn’t harmed anyone, and in fact she does whatever is possible to avoid harming others. In terms of your story trope, why is Blythe confined to this prison, and why does she need forgiveness and redemption? Why isn’t Aaron held equally responsible for his actions leading to her capture? You mention betrayal in the story; who has betrayed whom?

JK: I concluded a poem many years ago with the lines, “We are bound to make mistakes, but it’s what we do from there that can bring us back to God, and the life He wants to share.” We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better. Like Blythe, we can even have the self-awareness to point this out to ourselves as we are doing it, but we sometimes still continue to move in exactly the wrong direction, often at the urging of people we know we should not trust. That is what Blythe experiences. And following someone in such a way never leads to a good or happy place or experience. We should trust our instincts. Once Blythe is drawn into that other world, she not only has to figure out how to survive but how to preserve the better angels of her nature. When she enters, she is a broken person inside, but this new and threatening place acts as a crucible of sorts, purifying her, and — even as it works to destroy her — helping to make her good and whole. We are all individually responsible for what we do, and Blythe is not immune to that fact. So Blythe escalates Aaron’s betrayal, and, in that twist, she is betrayed by her rival, who herself is betrayed to an even greater extent. The lesson here is that when we ratchet up what we know is wrong, it only makes our lives and our worlds a worse place to be in. By recognizing and living up to the power of forgiveness, we can improve not only our own lives, but the world around us.

We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better.

JAS: You subtly suggest that evil is contagious, or at least that it loves company, when those who want to leave their imprisonment and return temporarily to the outside world must bring someone back with them or else suffer an agonizing, torturous death. Eventually whole communities succumb to the underworld. Is this a metaphor for social and political philosophies that seem to spread like a virus from person to person? Or is it a demonstration of the destructive power of peer pressure? Or am I reading something into this that wasn’t intentional?

JK: So many forces in this world are contagious: evil inspires more evil, but courage, love, and forgiveness can and should also be contagious; it merely requires an individual to stop, even in the midst of harm, and say, “No. I won’t continue or expand this harmful cycle. I am going to be the one to change this trend.” I grew up in a home with a lot of joy, but there was also a lot of hair-trigger violence. I knew it was wrong even as I was seeing it happen, and I vowed to myself that it would not happen in a home I would make my own someday. Each member of my family would feel safe in our home. My nephew, who stayed with us for a summer, described our home as “relentlessly positive.” I like that humorous description. It is what I’ve worked to build. We are free to pursue destructive paths, but all we’re left with when we’re done is destruction. On the other hand, one can decide to be a positive force. Others are looking for those examples, especially in our world today. And when one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme. Misery loves company, but so does joy. What you read was certainly a purposeful choice on my part with this story.

JAS: Is it significant that most of the early victims who succumb to the plague you describe are young men? Your description of the mysterious pustules that cover their bodies, the phlegmy cough, the wasting away, and the incurable nature of the disease reminded me immediately of the 1980s, when young men began wasting away and dying from an inexplicable and incurable form of pneumonia that eventually became diagnosed as the final symptom of AIDS. Eventually the connection between the kingdom and AIDS becomes explicit in your story. What is your point with this part of the story, and how does it fit with the underlying theme of choice and accountability, love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption? Did you mean to imply that sex outside of marriage is inherently evil and needs to be punished? Do you agree with the 1980s statement made by several orthodox Christian leaders that AIDS was a punishment from God? Why is HIV at the center of this Dantean world?

When one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme.

JK: You caught a commonality that has slipped by a lot of readers, certainly on the first time they read Blythe. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, its victims were largely limited to young gay men — social outcasts who operated outside of society’s mainstream. It wasn’t until AIDS crossed the gender line that suddenly the vast majority of people and especially the media started to take notice. Blythe follows this same turn of events. Complicit in this during the AIDS crisis, and in my novel, were those in authority who saw what was transpiring, but who said nothing publicly and did nothing officially because they didn’t agree with the life choices of those individuals. It was not, however, their place to pass such judgments, and they did so with disastrous effects across entire swaths of our world. In art, as in life, such errors in judgment must be paid for, which indeed is the case for one of the authority figures in this story who allows this plague to rise and take hold. For a time, it makes his life easier, but he pays very personally and in many different ways he could never have anticipated.

And just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere, typically in what were once their homes.

To be clear, because some have asked me: I do not believe HIV is a punishment for sinful choices. (One ancillary character suggests that, but the more central and more persuasive character refutes that belief.) Ending up in the underground kingdom may happen as a consequence of the choices characters make or others make for them, but I do not see it as a punishment for the choice. To me there is a difference between a consequence and a punishment; the latter implies God’s judgment, and I don’t believe God would will that on His own creations; the other team would. As you once put it in an exchange with me, natural consequences are not divine punishments; God doesn’t make bad things happen, but He allows natural consequences to occur.

Just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere.

JAS: The separate world of captivity you created for Blythe and the others is unusual in that the inhabitants are able to see and speak with their loved ones on the outside. I was reminded of Eurydice, alive and aware even after death, while Orpheus pleads with the gods to free her from the underworld. Blythe isn’t scary like a horror story and it doesn’t have the tension of a spy thriller or the panic I imagine of hell. In fact, this kingdom you create seems more like a leper colony than a prison. What was your intent in allowing this kind of ongoing communication between the villagers and those held captives in that kingdom?

JK: The structure of the kingdom and of this story is based on HIV/AIDS, and how it operates and how it spread throughout our society. So, in this sense, those who are infected with HIV are, by necessity, separated in many ways physically from those they love. They can be present and communicate with each other, but there is that separation, which provided some of the more poignant moments involving Blythe and Aaron — calling out and responding to each other across that vast separation that could only be crossed if Aaron forfeited his future — a line Blythe would never allow him to cross.

JAS: I noticed many traditional Christian morals and values within your story. Do you consider this book to be a Christian allegory?

There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We need to stop apologizing.

JK: Blythe is a Christian libertarian work of literary fiction and yet it has been rewarding to hear from agnostic and atheistic readers who are inspired by Blythe for its focus on human freedom and self-determination.

One reader recently came up to me at a conference and said with a great deal of excitement: “This is the book I’ve been looking for! I’ve never understood why you couldn’t have both faith and reason. That’s what I’ve felt in my own heart — I can be led by both.”

I couldn’t have agreed with her more. There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We — and I’m speaking as one of those people — need to stop apologizing. Both philosophies, when properly practiced, should reinforce the dignity of each person, when they act as free and responsible individuals.

We can and should be driven by reason. We should use the good sense that God gave us. Our reason should be nurtured and cultivated, and within our lives we must discern if what our faith leaders are saying and doing conforms with our personal knowledge of God and what he wants for us and our world.

And we should likewise nurture and cultivate our spiritual life. I’ve seen so many genuinely miraculous things in my life — here in the physical world — that cannot be explained by reason alone; they can only be explained with faith and trust in a Higher Being who loves us.

That combination of reason and faith — continually considered in such a way that it drives you to demonstrate love for those around you, hope for the future, and an ever improving and freer world — that should be the end result. This, I believe, is what God wants for us. As one character said, “Too much reason limits man to the physical world and blinds his imagination to the greater things that may be. But too much faith blinds him from curing the human suffering in this world. Men with too much faith accept suffering; they expect it and even seek it out.”


Editor's Note: Interview on "Blythe," by John E. Kramer. Freedom Forge Press, 2017, 420 pages.



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Bound for Destruction on the Queen Mary

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During the last weekend in April I attended the second annual meeting of StokerCon.

Before you ask what StokerCon may be, I have to confess that I didn’t “attend” in the sense of “pay to attend” or “sit through any of the sessions.” I attended only as a person who suddenly discovered that StokerCon was going on all around him.

It began when my friend and I checked into our cabin on the liner Queen Mary — the Queen Mary that has, since 1967, been tied to a dock in Long Beach, California. It’s a fascinating vessel, and the idea that you can rent a room on it is marvelous in itself. But my subject is not the QM. It’s the mob of people in black t-shirts and black and red badges that we encountered in the ship’s lobbies and corridors, a crowd that was growing when we arrived on Thursday, swarmed on Friday, and did not depart until late Sunday afternoon.

Contemplating the convention’s logo, I looked at my friend with a wild surmise.

You don’t pay much to attend a StokerCon — you can get by with as little as $99 for (early) registration and, I think, $119 a night for your room — and you evidently get your money’s worth. There are lectures, receptions, product displays, and constant opportunities to meet and mingle with like-minded people. The whole ship was involved in the life of the group.

But what, you insist on asking, is StokerCon?

My friend and I had various ideas about that. Was there a railway union that still called itself the Stokers, just as the Teamsters still call themselves the Teamsters? Was this a convention designed not for people who prepare food but for people who stoke up on it? (A lot of the attendees were, indeed, very hefty.) Or were we meeting the constant players of some videogame we’d never heard of?

At last came the light. Contemplating the convention’s logo — a stylized, perhaps intentionally spooky, version of a house or castle — I looked at my friend with a wild surmise. The Con got its name from a man named Stoker — Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Con was about horror fiction.

I was right. According to itself (and I have no reason to disagree) “StokerCon is the annual convention of The Horror Writers Association (HWA), the premier organization of writers and publishers of horror and dark fantasy.”

In addition to sessions on such topics as “The Nuts and Bolts of Publishing Your Own Comic,” “Unraveling the Dark, Mysterious, Twisted World of Online Marketing,” and ”How to Write Awesome Dialog,” StokerCon offered parties, book sales even larger than those at libertarian conventions, and readings by a ton of authors (none of them known to my friend or me). All about the production of Horror. And all proof that Adam Smith was right about the division of labor.

One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright.

The crowd was evenly split, male-female, with all ethnicities represented; and there were fair numbers of black women, though for some reason no black men (as far as we could see). Plenty of tattoos and strange millennial hair, but a good representation of retired people and folks who looked like librarians. In fact, there was a strong emphasis on libraries and librarians throughout. A few Stokers came dressed as stock horror characters — Death with a Scythe was my favorite — but I don’t think they kept it up during the entire event; even Death took a holiday. Looking for some common feature of the group, my friend said “strident voices,” and it was true that many, including librarians, had never mastered the indoor range of decibels. But that’s how we learned a lot, without paying any cash.

One thing we learned is that “universities” throughout the English-speaking world are cashing in on the evidently widespread desire to write horror fiction. If you want to do that, you will have no trouble finding classes, evening classes, summer classes, and online classes in the art of scaring people. One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright. Clearly, few of the people who shipped on the Queen Mary that weekend were burdened with extra funds; I’d put the average annual income at $55K, and the median income from literary sources at a straight $55. And from one point of view, that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of genre fiction — detective, romance, western, horror, whatever — is and always has been junk. As a matter of fact, most fiction has always been junk. The more Stokers there are — the more writers there are — the more junk is going to be produced.

But here’s the thing. The feature of this group that was even more common than strident voices — the feature that was, indeed, universal — turned out to be happiness. Moods ranged from smiling contentment to shrieking hilarity, but there were no unhappy ghouls or goblins.

A good time was had by all, except people like my friend and me, who were always getting trapped in some public space with mobs of intrusively cheerful people. Yet when Sunday night rolled around, and we were sitting in the bar by ourselves, we sort of missed the Stokers. They didn’t leave us desolate, but they left us with a little less to talk about. A little less to have fun with. They were . . . something. They were not nothing. As much as I dislike the fact that everyone in America now describes himself as a member of some “community,” these people had actually created a community for themselves, and they were enjoying it, and they were doing no damage to other people (beyond the occasional shattered eardrum). And if that isn’t good for America, I don’t know what is.




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Trust the Beauty, or Risk the Beast?

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While flipping through the channels I recently came across the 2004 remake of The Flight of the Phoenix. It led to the obvious question: why remake a perfect movie?

Sure, the original (1966) was filmed in black and white, but so was Citizen Kane. I frankly think the black and white cinematography contributed to the bleakness of the landscape and the hopelessness of the crash survivors. The remake is contrived and uninspiring, with no redeeming value beyond its color film. Why mess with perfection?

I asked myself the same question this week while watching two recent remakes of classic films that coincidentally share a theme: Beauty and the Beast and King Kong.

The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for the female lead.

Do we really need another version of King Kong? Perhaps it was useful to remake the original 1933 black and white version that starred Fay Wray as the beautiful actress Ann Darrow who tames the heart of the beast. Masterpiece though it was for its time, its stop-action animation is laughably jerky for modern viewers. A makeover with modern special effects made it more accessible to the common audience, although film aficionados believe the original’s distance from verisimilitude helps to make it mythic.

The 1976 version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange updated the script as well as the special effects, trading the film director for an oil magnate (Charles Grodin) and the Empire State Building for the World Trade Center. The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for Lange’s character, the actress Dwan.

The 2005 version with Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Jack Black as the director Carl Denham was spectacular, improving upon the technical quality of the film (and the acting) while returning to the original 1933 setting, the original storyline, and the original climax atop the Empire State Building. Watts was especially luminous in the role of the ingénue “whose beauty killed the beast,” and her tenderly flirtatious scene with Kong in Central Park, where so many romantic comedies have been filmed, was poignant and lovely.

This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

That should have become the definitive update of King Kong; there was no need for another. But here we are with Kong: Skull Island, and a quite different story. In each of the earlier versions, King Kong is captured, transported out of his wilderness habitat, and put on display as an entertainment spectacle, with an awe-inspiring chase scene culminating atop the world’s tallest building. By contrast, the latest version takes place entirely on Skull Island, where the hapless protagonist is not an entertainment impresario but a geologist and monster hunter who has enlisted the US Army as a protective escort. The girl (Brie Larsen) is a photographer, not an ingénue; the antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) is a colonel, not an oil magnate; and Kong is not a lovesick tyrant but a benevolent king who has been risking his own life and safety to protect his subjects — the other creatures who inhabit the island — from a colony of evil underground lizards. Instead of trying to capture Kong and take him to civilization, these explorers and their escorts are trying to escape the island. The movie is often reminiscent of Jurassic Park with its numerous “Eww!”-inspiring deaths in the jaws of prehistoric creatures munching humans like appetizers.

While the 1976 King Kong asked us to view women as airheads and petroleum corporations as villains, Kong: Skull Island invites us to contemplate important political and social questions. What business does the US military — or scientists and anthropologists, for that matter — have going into other lands, guns a-blazing? How can we tell the good guys from the bad guys in a culture that’s foreign to us? Who should shoulder the blame when we get it wrong? How can we best transform enemies into allies? When is it right to defy authority? This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

Another new film based on the beauty and the beast dichotomy is, well, Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 cartoon that was the first animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in the feature film division — it’s that good. The score for both films, written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is sublime. I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear. It is a perfect film.

So why remake the animated Beauty and the Beast? As it happens, this “perfect film” was a remake too. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action film is a magical fairy tale less known to American audiences because it is French. The story is more true to Madame La Prince de Beaumont’s book, in which a father asks his three daughters what they would like him to bring them when he goes into town. The two older girls ask for jewels and dresses, but the youngest wants only a rose. This later becomes significant, because the beast, whose spell can only be broken by true love, realizes that a girl who loves nature instead of material goods could see past his ugliness and recognize the goodness inside him.

I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear.

Cocteau alludes to several fairy tales in his film: Belle is the Cinderella who must clean while her sisters play; she’s the Snow White who can see into a magic mirror; her bedroom in the Beast’s castle is a garden like Georgina’s boudoir in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Instead of animated special effects, Cocteau uses creative costuming to suggest that humans have been transformed into furnishings, and his lack of explanation adds to the magical effect. But this is a grownup fairy tale, not geared toward children. It’s sensuous and seductive. Leaving Belle’s room, the Beast drags his hand lingeringly across the exposed breast of a statue. Belle, lying on her bed, caresses the mirror on which she sees the Beast’s face. Cocteau’s direction is deliberately unrealistic and balletic, adding to the otherworldly effect. It is a beautiful, magical film, made all the more magical by the ambiguous ending — has the spell been broken and are they going to live happily ever after in his kingdom, or have they died and gone to heaven? The hissing swans in the stream where Belle finds the Beast near death suggest the latter; in mythology, swans and rivers are a symbol of “crossing over” to death.

During the past 30 years, Disney Studios successfully adapted many of the best-loved animated stories, including B&B, for the musical stage. Now they’re in the midst of adapting 20 of those animated films to live-action format. Perhaps the studio heads foresee a time when animation won’t be as appealing to children; perhaps they simply realize that releasing a new version of an old favorite is guaranteed box office gold. Indeed, the new B&B earned $357 million worldwide in its first weekend alone, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down as mothers who were little girls a generation ago flock to the theater with their broods for a sweet spoonful of nostalgia.

So — is it really that good? Half a billion dollars worth of good? The music is just as wonderful, and a new song written for the Beast when Belle leaves him to rescue her father provides a deeper character development for him. The supporting characters who have been turned into household furnishings by the witch’s spell are richly drawn and charmingly voiced by such seasoned actors as Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Audra McDonald. But as the voices of household furnishings, they aren’t actually live action, are they? They’re simply animated in a different way. And it works wonderfully, especially when the furnishings return to their human forms and we recognize them with the same spark of joy as if they were departed relatives returning from the dead.

Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two.

However, Belle (Emma Watson) is a disappointment in many ways. Known for her role as Hermione in the eight Harry Potter movies, Watson is believable as an asexual bookworm but not as the buxom beauty who could capture the interest of the town’s lecherous and superficial Gaston (Luke Evans). Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two. Anorexia simply isn’t a good look for the most beautiful girl in town. By contrast, Brie Larsen, who plays the beast’s love interest in Kong: Skull Island, has a natural, healthy, unaffected beauty that would have been perfect for Belle — the girl whose very name means “beautiful.” Surely in all of Hollywood, with a film budget of $160 million, the casting director could have found a more believable actress to carry this film. Or maybe anorexia is a good look in Hollywood these days?

Watson’s singing voice is weak, and her speaking voice is cloyingly irritating with its contrived and officious accent. (I suspect she needed elocution lessons when she was cast to play Hermione, and was too young to make it feel natural.) For the Harry Potter movies the haughty, artificial accent works — Hermione is a schoolgirl trying to be noticed in a boys’ world, and her bookish intelligence successfully counterbalances her waiflike stature. By contrast, Belle’s most significant character trait is her independence — her refusal to bend to society’s expectations. The artificial accent belies that determination to be true to herself.

To return to my original question: this may not be a “tale as old as time,” but it is a tale as old as film — the story about whether to trust the beauty of a classic film or risk the beast of a remake. Had I never seen the originals, I would probably have loved both these films. Kong is an exciting adventure with well-drawn characters, and the music of B&B soars, despite the weakness of Belle. Perhaps each generation needs its own version of the classics, updated to reflect the social concerns of the day: the feminism of the ’70s, the corporate greed of the ’90s, the military overreach of today. Cocteau’sB&B, made at the end of WWII, alludes to the bestiality of war and the humanizing effect of a woman’s influence: the Beast’s hands smoke when he kills his prey, but the narrator assures us, “A young maiden has the power to tame the beast in a man.”

Cocteau opens his Beauty and the Beast with the statement, “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.” Moviemakers wield that same kind of mythic power. Perhaps that’s why I prefer the classics among films: they speak to a mythology and social discourse that were current in my youth, and continue to resonate for me today.


Editor's Note: Review of "Kong: Skull Island," directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Legendary Entertainment, Warner Brothers, 2017, 118 minutes; and "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Bill Condon. Disney Studios, 2017, 129 minutes.



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Rose Wilder Lane Takes Another Bow

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Rose Wilder Lane fans should not miss Susan Wittig Albert’s new book, A Wilder Rose (Persevero Press, 2013). The book is written as a novel but is really novelized biography. It focuses on Lane’s life in the 1930s, when she went to live with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and rewrote her mother’s manuscripts as the Little House books.

I didn’t grow up with those books and have read only the first one. I have read William Holtz’s biography, The Ghost in the Little House, (University of Missouri Press, 1993; see Liberty, Mar. 1992, p. 51), which explained how Rose transformed her mother’s oral-tradition stories into commercially valuable fiction. I can’t vouch for everything in Albert’s new book, but the Rose she presents — and this is written in the first person — sounds very much like Rose’s voice.

Albert has a chapter on Rose’s brief romance with Garet Garrett, a writer I know very well. I can vouch for the fact that the Garrett in A Wilder Rose sounds like him. Some of his statements in the book are right out of his letters to Rose.

Albert’s novel is mostly about relationships: between Rose and her mother, between Rose and her seven-year companion, Helen Boylston, between Rose and a boy she took under her wing, John Turner, between Rose and Garet, and most of all, between Rose and her writing.

The later Rose became an enemy of the state. She did this by not signing up for Social Security and not making a lot of money the state could tax.

Rose wrote for money. Despite her pinched upbringing, or maybe because of it, she was a spender, not a saver. When she had money she went on trips and enjoyed herself. She paid for the education of John Turner, and of Rexh Mehta, a boy she had known in Albania. She built her mother a stone house and brought electricity to their hardscrabble farm. The rewriting of her mother’s unpublishable drafts was partly motivated by a desire for her mother to have money so that Rose would not feel obligated to give her so much of it.

The central event of A Wilder Rose is mother and daughter agreeing, after struggle and face-saving, that Rose would rewrite the Little House manuscripts without credit or disclosure. Another theme is Rose’s incessant desire to shake free of the need to earn “cash, cash, cash,” and write about the ideas she cared about, all the while she was spending money on the people she cared about.

At the end of the 1930s Rose Wilder Lane did shake free of financial obligations and write what she cared about. Her 1943 polemic, The Discovery of Freedom, has made her a historical figure for libertarians. It is not, however, an achievement that much interests biographers, who are attracted much more to the story of the unsung ghostwriter of the famous Little House books.

The later Rose became an enemy of the state. She did this by not signing up for Social Security and not making a lot of money the state could tax. She no longer wrote novels or thousand-dollar stories for the Saturday Evening Post. She did write some things, but there was less of a market for them and her output declined. She was no longer famous.

There is not much in Albert’s book about her life after 1939.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Wilder Rose", by Susan Wittig Albert. Persevero Press, 2013, 302 pages.



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Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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Stealth Stars

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The Stealth Star motto is, “Safety does not exist, but courage does.” While I sit in my space pod, about to land on what the Concord of Trading Star Systems has designated as Rediscovered Unknown Planet Omega 12774, I repeat that motto to myself, because I cannot afford to feel any fear right now. Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking energy from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles. The planetary scan of Omega 12774 showed signs of electronic technology, but no star ships or long-range communications. It is possible that the humans of this planet might have that unpleasantness which every Stealth Star loathes: a mix of technological progress and political retrogression which is the precondition for hostile soldiers capable of taking on our star technology.

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below. I open my pod and see a vast stretch of stagnant brown fields around me. The brown extends outward in all directions, like a sea of mud. A few faded, half-alive trees sprout in the distant horizon, their frail green branches sagging down like the skin of an old woman. I am several miles from the perimeter of what showed up as the largest collection of life-forms on the planetary scan. My hope is that it is the capital city; I also hope that the leaders of this society’s social cooperation (assuming that the natives cooperate, and have leaders) will reveal themselves as kind, benevolent, freedom-loving organizers who will welcome the opportunity to trade with other planets — there’s nothing wrong with being naïve enough to wish for good luck, is there? I set my visual scanner on long range and begin to run toward the city on my technologically enhanced legs.

Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking it from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles.

I come to the top of a hill and the city is spread out before me. It is not what I had expected. The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages. The wooden buildings have thatched yellow straw roofs, a few squat structures are built from red stone bricks, and various open squares dot the streets. The city blocks are broken up by narrow unpaved dirt roads laid at random. Humans, hundreds of them, bustle about in the streets, and a crowd of people fills some sort of marketplace beneath rainbow-colored tents on the western side of the city — but the goods they are trading appear to be live animals, mainly chickens, pigs and goats, as well as bags of corn and wheat, and the most valuable goods up for sale are small iron tools or jewelry made of glass and crystal. The people are dressed in clothes that are little more than rags. The colors are dull shades ranging from midnight black to smoke gray. These people are emaciated, dirty and haggard-looking, their skin stretched tight across hungry bones and their eyes sunken into their faces. I see no energy, no excitement, no smiles. Nowhere do I see anything resembling electronic technology — but wait!

At the far side of the city, on the other side of a series of building-covered hills, I can see a massive stone castle. Its shadow cuts across the city like a knife. I see glittering red lights emanating from the small windows in the castle’s upper towers — bright lights, unmistakably electric lights. I run a visual scan and see that the castle is full of technology; there are laser guns mounted on turrets around the castle’s outer walls, the scan detects the electromagnetic outline of super-computers, and small nuclear generators are buried in the castle’s lower levels. So! This civilization is ruled by someone who takes the technology for himself and gives nothing to his people. I sense that a conflict between the Stealth Stars and the ruling power inside that castle is inevitable.

I use an optical mirage device to make my star armor look like peasant’s rags, and I descend into the city. The computer in my brain quickly decodes the language of these people, which is derived from the Post-English that was spoken in this part of the galaxy before the Apocalypse. I walk into a building with a sign above the door proclaiming “Bet’s Inn and Tavern.” Inside I am greeted by an attractive young woman with long blonde hair that shimmers as though it were made of gold; her healthy glow has not been dampened by the dirt in her hair or her missing teeth or the numerous stitches desperately holding together her moon-gray dress.

“Hello, good sir. A traveler, are we? Yes? Well, if you’ve got the gems to pay for it then there ain’t no better place than Bet Matil’s Inn and Tavern. A bed and a good meal will be three blue gems, yes? And you, well, have the gems? Good, good!”

“I am from distant lands,” I say to this woman, presumably Bet, “and I would like to talk to you, to educate myself. What is the name of this city, and this land? And who lives in that castle? I might like to visit there and meet the leaders of your city.”

Three men sitting at a nearby table playing some form of dice game hear me, and the men laugh heartily.

“Don’t no one gets to go into that castle, what?” one of the men says with a grin. He has a long copper-red beard and a face so round and red that it reminds me of an apple. “Nobody,” he continues. “That castle is the home of our beloved leader, Prince Regisoph. That’s the Prince’s Tower, Tower Regisoph. This city is Rej, and our lands and farms, as far as the eye can see, that’s Rej too. Where do you come from, good sir, the fairy tale lands across the ocean, not to know this? One of the fair folk, are you?”

“Rej” appears to mean “power,” and “Regisoph” “wise and powerful.”

“I’m a human being, same as you,” I reply in a friendly tone. “So, this Regisoph is a Prince? And his father is King, I presume?”

“Father?” one of the men says, and they explode in raucous, wheezing laughter. This man who just spoke smiles at me with mirth; his teeth are yellow and rotten. “Prince Regisoph has been Prince for hundreds of years. It’s been so long that nobody around here can remember the time before he ruled. Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends. You rolled a four so you owe me four, Jerem!”

“He has ruled for centuries? Then the Prince is not human?” I ask. No known alien species inhabits this part of the galaxy. And anti-aging technology capable of extending human life beyond 150 years is virtually impossible for people at the level of technology detected by my scan of the castle.

“Oh, he’s human, all right, although no one really knows for sure since he never comes out of the Tower and the public isn’t allowed to go inside his Tower. We haven’t seen him for over a hundred years,” Bet says. “But everyone knows that he’s human.”

“The Prince remains hidden,” I muse. “And what makes him such a great man, in your opinion? What is it about his rule that is so enlightened?”

“The Prince’s greatness?” Bet replies. There is a strange intensity in her pale grass-green eyes, a look of glowing exuberance, and I suddenly realize to my horror that she is proud to be among those ruled by her Prince. “Why, he’s made everyone equal! We all get the same number of gems at the start of each month, as our allowance, regardless of how much work we did, so that the farmers up north can’t hog all the gems just because they produce so much and we artisans and shopkeepers and innkeepers of the south aren’t so lucky. We get our gems, and we trade them during the month, and then at the end of the month they go away and we get a clean slate and a new set of gems. Some of the ones up north grow mighty rich in the later weeks, but it all goes away — pow! — it all goes up in smoke at the end of the month. It isn’t fair for the north to be rich while the south lives in poverty. Why shouldn’t we take their gems away from the northerners, at least after they’ve had an entire month to play with them? They say that equality is a great thing, so why shouldn’t the north suffer along with us southerners? Why shouldn’t I share my pain with you and with everyone else? We are all given enough gems to buy the things we need to survive — and really, do we need any more than that? The Prince’s way is better than the unrestrained greed of our ancestors, or so the legends say. And if you can’t trust the Prince and his wise men’s legends then who can you trust?”

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below.

“Um, yes, the Prince certainly seems to be wise,” I reply in a voice that hides my revulsion. So, the land of Rej is ruled by a technology-hoarding tyrant named Prince Regisoph who has enacted a scheme of socialism to keep his peasants from acquiring enough wealth and technological progress to challenge his rule. The people live in misery and poverty and filth, while the Prince (and his soldiers, I’m sure) have all the benefits of modern medicine, entertainment, and the other wonders of electronics — and the Prince’s propaganda has his people believing in the justice and virtue of being ruled. These people seem like good-natured, hearty folk, who could prosper and trade with the rest of the galaxy if they were allowed to know the miracles of capitalism and free trade. But for the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it? To be a Stealth Star you really do need to have a death wish.

Bet tugs on my arm. “Come, good sir, I’ll show you to your room. And what did you say your name was, by the way?”

“Anth Benj,” I reply, translating my name into its rough equivalent in the Rejian language.

“Anth,” she says, as if to see how my name feels upon her lips. She guides me up a narrow, creaking wooden staircase and into a small room with a straw mat for a bed on one side across from an open window. A warm, soothing wind is blowing in from outside. The window has a view of a few wooden hovels across the street, but above it I can see a wide cloudless emerald-green sky with four white-gray moons visible. Then Bet motions for me to sit down on the bed, and I comply. She smiles at me with a strange, mysterious, purposeful look.

“I listen better than those men down below, and I can tell that you’re not keen on the Prince,” Bet says. “You might be dressed like a Rejian, but your face don’t look like us and your voice don’t sound like us. You are . . . different. I know you must be an ambassador or herald from the lands beyond the ocean, sent to parlay with our Prince. But before you go storming into the Tower, there’s something about the Prince that you should know.”

I am shocked that this woman so easily decoded my disguise. The Rejians are surprisingly clever. We can always use clever people in the Concord, and there are special jobs reserved for people who can think and analyze new situations quickly. In fact, when I look at Bet I can almost picture her cleaned and clothed in the crisp white uniform of a star pilot. But then I smell the odor of horse manure wafting in through the window and the daydream fades.

“What?” I ask.

“There is no need for you to hate the Prince, Anth Benj, because, you see, I am Prince Regisoph,” Bet says.

“I think I’m having a translation problem. Say that again?”

“That’s right. I am the Prince,” Bet says. “So please, don’t oppose me. I am willing to listen to you. Rej can reach an agreement with the lands beyond the ocean.”

“How is that possible?” I ask. Could I have been so lucky as to stumble upon the ruler here, so that I can duel her one-on-one right now?

The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages.

“I keep my identity a secret, but I am the ruler who sits in the Tower,” Bet says. “I rarely even enter the Tower now, but my desires are the law in Rej. So stay in my city for a while and see what it has to offer, and look at our good things and what works before you condemn me for my problems and my flaws. Quick to judge is quick to die, as the wise men say. Don’t be reckless in changing everything to suit the tastes of some strangers from across the sea.”

“Well…” I say. “Then I assume that you know where I really come from?”

“Yes, of course,” she says. She heads for the door, but then looks back over her shoulder and gives me a coy smile. “You come from the fairy world beyond the ocean. I serve chicken stew for dinner at the eighth chime, so be sure to come down, Anth. I look forward to seeing you!” Bet vanishes down the stairs.

This is weird! Is Bet really the Prince, or do these people have some sort of psychological complex in which they become insane and identify with their ruler? I must learn more. I search the rooms next to mine, and in another room I find one of the men who had been playing dice downstairs, the man with the apple-red face. He sits at a table, counting his winnings from dice — a set of small gemstones, some green and some blue, and one red. He holds the red gem in his hands, a look of intense pride lighting up his eyes.

“Excuse me? May I come in?” I ask.

“Ah, the stranger!” the man says when he notices me. “My fellow traveler. I am Jerem, and yes, come in, come in, more is happier! I too am a stranger in this city, you know. I am from a northern farm, here to sell our chickens, but, ah, yes, lady luck, what? Lady luck has blessed me as much as the chickens! It seems so wrong that these gems will all be gone so soon, so soon, so soon . . .”

“Yes, it is a shame,” I agree.

“Shame, yes, but it is what we want, after all,” Jerem says. “I feel greed, yes, but it wouldn’t be fair to all the other good people for me to own too many gems and for them to have none. Wouldn’t be right.”

“Yes,” I say, continuing to observe the brainwashing effect of the Prince’s propaganda. “Speaking of which, could we talk about the Prince? I have some more questions that Bet didn’t quite answer.”

Jerem’s eyes become secretive and shifty. He coughs nervously. “The Prince? Why would you want to talk about the Prince with me? It’s not like I am the Prince in reality and I pretend to be a farmer.”

“No, of course not,” I say. Then a thought occurs to me. I do a quick visual scan of Jerem with the scanner implanted in my left eye, and my fear is confirmed: a small neuro-computer is implanted in Jerem’s brain with an internet feed broadcasting to a remote signal. I adjust my scanner to scan through the walls and sweep the entire building, and everyone here, all the Rejians, have brain jacks. But they seem oblivious to the computers in their brains, just as they seem ignorant of all the technology in the Prince’s Tower. What is going on here?

"Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends!"

“Well, what? What? You seem like an honest chap, so I have a confession to make,” Jerem says, and my scanner detects activity in Jerem’s brain computer. “I am the Prince. Yes, I am Prince Regisoph. Best not to hide it. But don’t tell my wife, she’d be furious. Anyway, this is my city and my land and my Tower, and I’m bloody well proud of it. So don’t mess it up. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

I say goodbye to Jerem and return to my room, sit on my uncomfortable bed, and think things over. Clearly this used to be a society of sophisticated electronic technology. But their ruling class, led by someone named Prince Regisoph, took away all of the technology, barricaded themselves in the Tower, and left the people to starve in poverty. In order to ensure that the public would not revolt and storm the castle the Prince installed computers in all the peasants so that he could centrally control their thoughts and preempt any dissidence. The neural interference from the Prince’s brain computers manifests itself as the peasants’ insane belief that they are really in control of the society, that they are the Prince. The rulers in that Tower are absolutely, incorrigibly evil. I cannot tolerate the thought. I must set the people free.

You don’t become a Stealth Star unless you have a love of freedom that burns like a wildfire, unflinching bravery in the face of the unknown, and a mastery of modern star technology — and also (I am afraid to admit) a tendency toward performing acts that border on suicide. Because when the Stealth Star Corps sends you out as the spy-scout on a mission to see what has become of the humans on a rediscovered planet that hasn’t been heard from since the Interstellar Apocalypse, 10,000 years ago . . . you might never return.

We Stealth Star scouts explore to see if newly rediscovered planets have evolved economic and social freedom or decayed into tyranny and dictatorship, and to evaluate whether the newly explored planets might become trading partners and join the Concord. Some of the time the humans are peaceful and happily sign up with the Concord — but most of the rediscovered planets are primitive and barbaric. I lost my best friend Charl when he was dropped onto a planet that turned out to be the home of a society of cannibalistic cyborgs. I also led the team of Stealth Star soldiers who wiped that planet out after Charl’s final broadcast warned us that the cyborgs were developing star ships and planning to become space pirates. I am primarily a scout but I do have experience as a warrior.

Stealth Stars are spies and soldiers, but we’re not an army. We are not affiliated with any government, and we are staffed entirely by volunteer recruits. We believe that everyone has the right to freedom. The interplanetary trade associations (mainly the Concord but also some of the smaller groups) donate to us happily enough, because we keep space clear of the space pirates and planetary dictators who like to blockade trade routes. But our real motive is not economic; it is political. We aim to spread the ideals of freedom to every planet so that everyone can enjoy the reality-given rights of life, liberty, and property. Our critics within the Concord call us crusaders, but we believe that every war we fight is a war of self-defense. We are like soldiers hired by oppressed peoples to free them from dictatorship, except that we work on credit and take payment once they join the Concord. No, they didn’t actually tell us that they wanted us to rescue them — but how could they while their voices were silenced by their rulers? We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

I send a long-range communication to the local Stealth Star mother ship and wait for night to fall. Soon the city of Rej is enshrouded in darkness and illuminated only by the four pale moons and a nearby constellation of stars in the night sky. I set my star armor in stealth mode and sneak up to the outer wall of the Prince’s Tower. With the protection of my stealth mode and its cloaking device the castle’s cameras cannot detect me as I scale the outer walls. I use a laser-razor to cut a hole in the stone wall and slide myself through.

The inside of the Tower is as amazing and resplendent as the city below is ugly and base. The place is a spider’s web of interconnecting rooms and hallways, and each room is filled with banks of super-computers from floor to ceiling which blink with constantly changing red and blue lights. The rooms buzz and crackle with electrical energy. Floating guard robots hover up and down the halls with laser rifles at the ready, but the guards cannot see through my stealth cloak and they float past me, oblivious. I see no humans anywhere in these rooms. I scan the area and detect the largest source of electromagnetic energy, which I assume is the central control station where the leaders will be. It is at the top of the highest tower.

For the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it?

I snake my way up the various stairs and ramps that riddle this Tower, and eventually I reach a set of double doors. Their gold lettering proclaims “Prince Regisoph.” My scan reveals that the door is made of solid plastic-steel laced with synthetic diamond — difficult to make and impossible to cut. Clearly the Prince does not want to be interrupted by unexpected company. It is a shame for him that Stealth Star technology is up to this challenge and I am about to ruin his day.

I clamp an antimatter mine to the double doors and retreat around the corner of the nearest hallway. The mine goes off; the physical matter in the doors is destroyed by the antimatter and implodes into nothingness. I run down the hall, exit stealth mode and enter attack mode, and draw a laser gun in each hand. I am about to face the worst military power that the Prince has to offer. If I die, my death will be worthwhile. I switch on my attack scope and activate the cameras in the back of my head so I can see in three hundred and sixty degrees. My body armor can withstand most armor-piercing rounds and my lungs have implants to filter most poisonous gasses, but there is no telling what deviltry the Prince may have waiting. I run into the middle of the room, my heart racing and my nervous system at its peak, ready to fight and willing to die . . .

There is no one in here.

“Hello?” I ask.

“Hello,” a strange, hollow, mechanical voice answers.

I look around and see that the word “Hello” is lit up on a large computer monitor on the far side of the room. A huge bank of super-computers fills the other side of the room — the electromagnetic activity I picked up. But my scanner detects no human beings. I am alone.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I am the Project Prince Regisoph computer interface operating system. Please state your identity, user.”

This society was able to achieve what we of the Concord, even with all our scientific marvels, could not: artificial intelligence. “So, you are Prince Regisoph!”

“Negative,” the computer replies. “User, are you an integrated user with a damaged integration device? Please state yes or no.”

“Integrated? What do you mean?”

“Invalid response. Background presentation loading. Please wait.”

This computer is not talking as if it could think. It is speaking like a mindless automaton. What in the Universe is going on here?

Suddenly the screen is lit by the image of an old man dressed in fancy green robes. “Greetings, people of the future,” the image says.

His robe is various shades of deep green, and he wears a spiked crown glittering with accents of diamonds and gold. He has a triumphant, fanatical gleam in his little brown eyes, almost like a young man recently converted to a new religion, but his face is aged with the wrinkles of years of thankless toil. “I am Grego, Prime Chancellor of Rej — or, at least, up until now I was, as soon there will no longer be any need for me. It is to be hoped that nothing has gone wrong and we have created the utopia we wished for. But to meet any problem that may arise, we are encoding this message explaining Project Regisoph, so that repairs can be made by people who understand the plan.”

“What plan?” I ask. But of course the recording of Grego cannot hear me.

“In order to create a truly democratic society we must have a system that counts the votes of the public’s desires and enacts the will of the people into law. Our politicians have become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient, so we are automating the process of politics. As an infant, each human will be fitted with a mental interface connection. The interface will examine the person’s desires and count them as one vote. The Tower computer will tabulate all votes from the integrated brains of the voters, and the robot drones will then act out and enforce whatever is the political desire of the majority. If the people want capitalism, then there will be capitalism; if they want socialism, then the Tower will provide socialism. If the people want all the technological advances that we have discovered then technology will be distributed; but if they grow weary of technology and long for a simpler, more natural era, then technology will be taken away from them.

We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

“The system has no limits and will do whatever the public wants it to do. We leave it to the people themselves to decide the substance of the ideal society. We today are merely giving them the procedural form of that ideal. For all our faults, at least we will know that the people will get what they desire; the world of tomorrow will be what everyone wants.”

This is ghastly. Bet and Jerem and all the others really are Prince Regisoph — but it now seems apparent that if everyone is the ruler then everyone is the slave. Democracy is a Concord ideal, but only a republican democracy in which the rights of individuals are held sacred and inviolate against the will of the majority. The Rejian people want their stone-age socialism, so they get it, but what they want is bad for them. I laugh for a minute, realizing the irony: the socialist dissidents within the Concord often complain that they know what’s best for the planetary citizens and that therefore the socialists should make everyone else’s economic choices for them — yet here I am thinking with absolute certainty that I know what is best for the Rejians and I should make the choice of capitalism for all of them. Still, irony aside, that is what I believe — isn’t it? I had thought that I wanted to kill Prince Regisoph. But Prince Regisoph is Bet Matil. I want to save her, not kill her. So what do I really want to do?

“Computer, deactivate. Terminate Project Regisoph.” It’s still my job as a Stealth Star to bring freedom to the planet. This is worth a shot.

“Negative. Project Regisoph can be terminated only by a majority vote of the integrated users. User, you have been identified as a threat. Activating protection procedures.”

My calm is immediately replaced by panic: the walls slide open and swarms of guard robots rocket into the room. I drop attack mode and return to stealth. The robots lose me on their scanners and can’t detect me. They sweep across the room and go right past me. I consider shooting a missile into the Regisoph super-computer control center, but I hesitate . . . there are probably backups throughout the Tower, and my sensors detect self-destruct nuclear mines hidden in the command center that, once activated, might destroy the entire city, or continent.

But what really stops me is this: if the people want to be ruled by Prince Regisoph, if that is actually what the majority of Rejians desire, then I could raze the Prince’s Tower to rubble and they would simply rise up and build another Tower in its place. Maybe you can’t force people to be free when they want to be slaves, any more than you can force a people to be ruled when they insist upon freedom and give their lives to win it. The battle for the freedom of this people will be won out there, out in the streets and in the minds and hearts of individual men and women, not here in the Prince’s Tower. Prince Regisoph will die once the Stealth Stars convince the people down in that city that capitalist freedom, ownership of property, and free trade are superior to their socialist nightmare. It’s my new job to educate the Rejians about the happiness that comes from trade and technology. To try, anyway. I had thought that when the Stealth Stars liberate a planet, we give the people precisely what they want — but now, in retrospect, I realize that the truth may be a bit more complicated.




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Independence Forever

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I like independently published books. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have been published in that way. No, I haven’t abandoned HarperCollins or Oxford University Press, despite their manifold and great errors of taste, judgment, and simple common sense. But there are lots of books that have fascinated me that could never have appealed to the trendy recent college graduates who function as “editors” in the normal publishing firm — young people who know what they like, and it isn’t very much.

Could Jane Austen get Pride and Prejudice published today? Not by one of them. Not with that weird opening of her book. Imagine, she actually starts out by saying:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. “But it is,” returned she, “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Nope, that would be a nonstarter at HarperColliins. But I would read a book like that, any time I found one.

With these thoughts in mind, I was delighted to discover a new novel by Liberty author Russell Hasan, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus. A creepy Eye, spells that can turn light into knives, people with special skills that put them in danger from "normal people," technology that might, in the wrong hands, substitute for humanity, the drama of growing up, the contest of the self-described "have-nots" against the "haves," the intransigence of individual choice — what more could a libertarian novel reader want?

Well, he or she might also want wit, humor, a warm grasp on the mundane world (in this case, the world of adolescents), and, in a fantasy novel, a plausible but dramatic relationship between the mundane and the fantastic. All these Rob Seablue has. The obvious influence of Ayn Rand has not prevented Hasan from doing things his own way. I can't tell you more about that way without spoiling the plot for you, but the book is ingenious throughout and most ingenious at its end — ingenious, I might add, without losing plausibility. Actually, the story continually becomes more plausible, as well as more exciting.

This first novel belongs, to an unusual degree, to its author, who is his own publisher. You can say the same thing about William Blake, you know.

Rob Seablue is available, like almost all other books in the wide, wide world, from Amazon — in ebook format readable on Kindle or any PC, Mac, or smartphone using the Kindle app.

Another recent independently published book that I believe will interest Liberty readers is Philip Schuyler’s The Five Rights of the Individual. I’m not sure that I agree with Schuyler about all elements of his theory of rights. For one thing, I think that all rights are ultimately one, and behold, he has five! But that’s close enough, and I don’t think that many libertarian readers will quibble about the point.

What I especially like about Schuyler’s book is the rich context — historical, social, moral, and psychological — in which he places his rights theory. He informs us, for instance, that we live in an historical era in which the US government “makes 350 pages of new laws each day” — and if you don’t think that entails a gross violation of rights, then you’re a bloodless political “scientist” who cares about theories, not about where they lead. I found Schuyler’s commentary on the psychological and cultural formations that support or destroy individual rights especially interesting. And thank God, his book is clearly and engagingly written — something you can’t say about 99% of university press publications on this subject and its conceptual neighbors.

I would be very remiss if I didn’t remind readers of Liberty that another of our authors, Gary Jason, recently published a fine collection of essays, many of which first appeared in these pages. His book is an encyclopedic account of political, economic, and cultural issues that confront libertarians and classical liberals (but it’s much more fun than an encyclopedia). Gary’s beat is everything from the environment to the movies, and you can never predict what will interest him. I don’t always agree with Gary, and strangely, he doesn’t always agree with me. But I always learn something from what he writes, and as I turn the pages, I always look forward to seeing what he’ll do with his material. That’s the effect of a real author.

When I was a student, eons ago, if I ever laid eyes on a libertarian book I clutched it to my bosom, fearing it would be the last one I found. Times have changed. Today, libertarian ideas are actually discussed on TV! But good books are still . . . well, they’re still not exactly common. The three books I’ve mentioned are very good books, and as independent in thought as in their means of publication. Take a look at them.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus," by Russell Hasan (Amazon Digital Services, 2012, 230 pages); "Dangerous Thoughts," by Gary Jason (XLibris, 2011, 632 pages); and "The Five Rights of the Individual," by Philip Schuyler (iUniverse, 2012. 287 pages).



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