alternate history, libertarian-style

the probability broach and the american zone are a pair of libertarian science fiction books by l. neil smith. the first was released in 1980, the more recent (a sequel to the first) in 2001.

the central conceit in both books is that a device has been invented that allows movement between parallel universes whose history has diverged since the american revolution. (in the first book, it is between a more authoritarian version of the united states and a libertarian version of the same, with most of the action set in the libertarian version. in the latter, all of the action is in the libertarian version, but with more alternate worlds considered.)

the probability broach is much better than the american zone. neither book is bad, but neither book is all that great. as you might expect, the political posturing of both books is pretty ham-handed.

as science fiction with a futuristic bent (neither book is set in the far-future, but of course the libertarian version of the united states is further advanced than any of the alternatives), the book falls pretty flat. there are some clever ideas (monkeys and porpoises as characters and full citizens, a historic site layered in a plastic coating to preserve it, and the use of dirigibles for transport), but the realization of the world just feels like it has more gaps than that of something like down and out in the magic kingdom.

there are some aspects to the books that are just unforgiveably atrocious:

  • not only do characters occasionally indulge in a wordy political diatribes, but the first book has the gall to both apologize for doing so and congratulate itself for doing so in the span of a few paragraphs. (character delivers speech. says "sorry for going off like that." other characters say "no, that was great!" i roll my eyes.)
  • the second book pulls out frequent pop-culture references, trying to score gratuitous points off things like celebrities with less-than-fully-realized political ideas. the first book is stronger for focusing more on less contemporary political figures.
  • the second book is still explaining references to the first book in the very last chapters, even when the same references have already been made earlier in the book.
but i guess you'd be gratified to know that it fits the same vaguely, if not overtly, misogynistic bill as most science fiction.

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