Anders Monsen

Lost worlds and ports of call

50 works of fiction libertarians should read

Everybody compiles lists. These usually are of the “top 10” kind. I started compiling a personal list of individualist titles in the early 1990s. When author China Miéville published one entitled “Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read” in 2001, I started the following list along the same lines, but a different focus. Miéville and I have in common some titles and authors, but our reasons for picking these books probably differ greatly.

Some rules guiding me while compiling this list included: 1) no multiple books by the same writer; 2) the winners of the Prometheus Award do not automatically qualify; and, 3) there is no limit in terms of publication date. Not all of the listed works are true sf. The first qualification was the hardest, and I worked around this by mentioning other notable books in the brief notes. I mostly excluded shorts stories but included two plays, one of which appeared several thousand years ago. This is a personal list. As with any list there may be debate and questions of the compiler’s taste and sanity, etc. We read and enjoy fiction for a variety of reasons, but these books I believe are compelling for the spirit of liberty, which burns brightly within their pages.

Some of these books I last read decades ago, others very recently. They are ordered alphabetically by author, and mostly ignore the political beliefs of the author: the idea of liberty is one shared across the political spectrum. While some political philosophies clearly are at odds with individual liberty, names and labels change over time, and thus someone who considers themselves a socialist may end up writing a book that seems to counter certain views of socialism. Liberalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries is far closer to modern ideas of individualism than the idea of capitalism at that time.

Also, books have a life and soul of their own, often at odds with those of the author. Authors’ life experiences amidst certain world events also influence their fiction. As they fictionalize their experiences, thoughts and emotions bubble up into their fiction in ways they must see through to the end. Thus, you have the socialist writer George Orwell penning perhaps the greatest critique ever of socialism:Animal Farm. Once released into the wild, a book no longer belongs to the author, and must be judged on its own.

Poul Anderson — The Star Fox (1965) An oft-forgot book by the prolific and libertarian-minded Poul Anderson, a recipient of multiple awards from the Libertarian Futurist Society. This space adventure deals with war and appeasement.

Margaret Atwood — The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) A dystopian tale of women being oppressed by men, while being aided by other women. This book is similar to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here or Robert Heinlein’s story “If This Goes On—,” about the rise of a religious-type theocracy in America.

Alfred Bester — The Stars My Destination (1956) This novel is about a man adrift with no ambition, until he is abandoned in space and his pleas for help are ignored. He is filled with a burning sense of passion for revenge, propelling a raging torrent of events. Bester wrote vivid prose and strong characters.

Karin Boye — Kallocain (1940) A dystopian story about the use of a truth drug by a totalitarian world state to suppress rebellion. Grim and stark, this book falls into the group of early 20th century dystopias, many reacting to the rise of the totalitarian Soviet state.

Ray Bradbury — Fahrenheit 451 (1953) Long after every book has been digitized and those made of paper and cloth reside only in libraries, Bradbury’s classic novel about the destruction of books will remain relevant. The firemen in the book might be burning paper, but, in actuality, they try to destroy ideas and memories. The human condition tends toward rebellion in a desire for liberty, and thus a group of people react by striving to preserve those words and ideas. The theme of liberty appeared in other Bradbury stories, such as “Usher II” and portions of The Martian Chronicles and elsewhere.

David Brin — The Uplift War (1987) In Brin’s novel, mankind is deep in space and living on other planets, one of many gallactic civilizations. Not all of these populations view humans as worthy, and some launch a war to gain power over the humans. Yet, on the planet they invade lives a chimp population, which coexists with humans and is given full rights. Human and chimp resistance launches its own campaign, with consequences for both species. Uplift War deals with rights and liberties in subtle ways, and remains memorable for very realistic sketches of interactions between species.

Lois McMaster Bujold — Falling Free (1988) This novel explores rights and liberties of “manufactured beings,” genetically modified humans owned by corporations. This question persists in science fiction, from the clones in Philip K. Dick’s Do Anroids Dream of Electric Sheep to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or simians in F. Paul Wilson’s Sims. Bujold’s tale of the Quaddies deals well with the issue of rights and sentience.

Mikhail Bulgakov — The Master and Margarita (1938; translated 1967) A dissident in his own country, Bulgakov once wrote, “manuscripts don’t burn” after being forced by Soviet authorities to burn his own writings. This surreal tale weaves in magic, Satan, and the ever-present police state of the early USSR, analyzing the issues of good and evil amidst totalitarianism.

Edgar Rice Burroughs — The Gods of Mars (1918) Religion might be the opiate of the masses, but when pushed by the state, dissension often means death. This sequel to the more famous A Princess of Mars skewers blind faith. One doesn’t usually think of Burroughs, the author of Tarzan, the Pellucidar series, the Carson of Venus series, the many Barsoom novels, and a host of other pulp era action tales, as someone with political ideas expressed in fiction. Yet the vehemence with which John Carter expresses his hatred for the Therns and the aeon-long deception of the other Barsoomian races, makes this book a clear novel for liberty.

Philip K. Dick — The Man in the High Castle (1962) This novel about daily life under totalitarianism contains stories within stories, plots within plots, and characters pretending to be people they are not. A classic PKD book, it raises more questions than it answers. It presents an alternate America where Germany and Japan defeated the US and carved out and distributed large swaths of the world and beyond among themselves.

Cory Doctorow — Little Brother (2008) This recent publication shows the often cruel and arbitrary reactions of those in power when they see every hesitation as subversive activity. Although the ending’s call to action seems weak in response to the type of mindset related earlier in the book, Doctorow’s thoughts on resistance and control are highly relevant in our modern Patriot Act-world.

Joe Haldeman — The Forever War (1974) This book is an anti-war war story of human soldiers fighting an interstellar war against an alien race. Each time the soldiers return, time that spanned only years to them, in fact spanned decades or centuries on earth, an allusion to the psychological distance that war creates between the front and home. Considered one of the best, if not the best, anti-war war sf novels ever published, The Forever War is a must read.

Robert A. Heinlein — The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) Many books have tried to bring the revolution of 1776 into space and science fiction. None have succeeded like Heinlein’s seminal novel. Every book that follows is a pale copy struggling to differentiate itself in every respect, from hurling rocks through space to rebel AIs. This book is nearly the perfect fictional tale of rebellion, with superb characters, from Mike the AI, to the narrator, Mannie and his friends, Wyoh and Professor Bernardo de la Paz. Even the slightly cynical ending works.

Zenna Henderson — The People: No Different Flesh (1966) Along with companion novel Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, this novelized collection of stories deals with extraterrestrials living on Earth. A strong sense of individuality and cooperation runs through the stories. As a curious aside, this idea was made into a movie in 1971 starring William Shatner.

James P. Hogan — Voyage From Yesteryear (1982) Hogan’s views of dealing with power expressed in this novel owes a great deal to Eric Frank Russell and Ghandi: just ignore it and work around it, lure away the oppressors to your side by example, and the edifice of power will collapse. Hogan explored the same themes in other books and short stories.

Aldous Huxley — Brave New World (1932) New World is one of the other “classic dystopias” along with George Orwell’s 1984 that people often mention without having read it. In a one-world state with a tightly controlled economy and populace, babies are decanted, and everyone is happily socially conditioned. It’s a book that needs to be read often to remind us that there are people who actually see those aspects of control as beneficial, and try to secure the political will to impose such a society on the rest of us, a concept which might even exist in minor forms in places like North Korea.

Henrik Ibsen — A Doll’s House (1879) Hailed as an early “feminist” work, this book instead is pure individualism, exploring one person’s quest to free herself from arbitrary social rules and conventions. While hailed as a play about women’s liberation, Ibsen has gone on record that this play is about individuals’ freedom, since all individuals must be free to find their own place, and not have it imposed upon them.

Franz Kafka — The Trial (1925) No other work of fiction has dealt as adeptly with the mindlessness of bureaucracy, although the movie Brazil comes close. The protagonist stumbles through the nightmare into which his life has become after a seemingly innocent matter of confusion in court.

Ken Kesey — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) Although the movie and its performance by Jack Nicholson in the lead role is probably remembered more than the novel, this book is about institutionalized mental health patients, conditioned behavior, and the power wielded by one person.

Arthur Koestler — Darkness at Noon (1940) When new forces come to power, they first go after their enemies, then they begin to turn on themselves. Some learn this fact too late; others, like Koestler, live to tell the tale of their disilluionment. The book is set during the Soviet show trials of 1938, where former revolutionaries suddenly became enemies of the people, to be tried and killed or exiled (see Gulag). Upon publication, this book immediately was seen as anti-Communist. Soviet fellow travelers in the US hid the atrocities that took place, with Hollywood screenwriters working to prevent the story being adapted into a movie, rather than reveal the horror taking place. Adherence to an idea that people are abstract beings who need to fit into certain models of behavior replaced concern for fellow humans as individuals.

Victor Koman — Kings of the High Frontier (1998) A story about the space race writ on a private and massive scale. We’re seeing some of this happening right now, as more and more people look for alternatives to reach the wild black yonder. Koman, who won the Prometheus Award for his first novel, The Jehovah Contract, and again for Solomon’s Knife, writes perhaps the best novel ever published about the dream of getting into space. It’s a shame this novel never gained a wider audience. Kings of the High Frontier spins several threads about individuals seeking to reach the stars, much like the X Prize that saw Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne reach this milestone in 2004.

Dean R. Koontz — Dark Rivers of the Heart (1994) This thriller deals with asset forfeiture and other nefarious government actions. Somewhat dated today, and with an ending that requires suspension of disbelief, the first two-thirds of this book are prescient about what has become unextraordinary government surveillance and action more than a decade later.

Ursula K. Le Guin — The Dispossessed (1974) The left-anarchist classic that long was debated among LFS members finally received a Hall of Fame award in 1993. At times, some of the anti-anarchist ideas seem desirable to individualists, while some of the utopian aspects seem alien. Regardless, this book is an important work that explores one of the many options in free societies.

Fritz Leiber — Gather, Darkness (1950) More well-known for his Ffard and Mouser fantasy stories, Fritz also wrote sf, and this books deals with a technocractic future and a group of strange rebels.

Ira Levin — This Perfect Day (1970) A modern dystopia by the author of Rosemany’s Baby, a far more famous book. In the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, Levin sketches a bleak utopia founded on uniformity, where weather is controlled, people are drugged into obedience, and selfishness is punished, and one person wakes up and seeks to change his world.

C.S. Lewis — That Hideous Strength (1945) Third in the triology that began with Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet, this book takes place on Earth. There are hints of a police state in the takeover of a local village, and demonstrates the power of bureaucracy.

Sinclair Lewis — It Can’t Happen Here (1935) Possibly the first American dystopia, this book is about the rise of fascism in America in the 1930s. The novel is less memorable for the type of dictatorship that erupts (fascism vs. socialism vs. other) than for the fact that it happens in America, land of the free.

Brad Linaweaver — Moon of Ice (1988) Expanded from his Nebula finalist novella of the same name, an alternate history following WWII.Moon of Ice shows a radical alternate history where America slipped toward libertarianism, with a mixed bag of results, while Germany solidified its position through the development of nukes. Linaweaver later co-wrote (with Ken Hastings) an alternate history story set in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, Anarquia.

Ken MacLeod — The Stone Canal (1996) This book is the sequel toThe Star Fraction. While the former contained a libertarian enclave in North London, this novel debates libertarian ideas amid the Martian landscape. While no libertarian himself, MacLeod gave individualist ideas a fair hearing in his book, and also writes cracking good stories.

Alan Moore & David Lloyd — V for Vendetta (1985) This is the classic anarchist graphic novel. In a dystopian Great Britain, people are rounded up and killed, like in Hitler’s Germany for various “sins” declared by a conservative/fascist government. People are the subjects of terrible experiments, and out of those experiments rises a masked avenger seeking retribution and liberation. Darker than any Batman comic, the ambiguous and violent nature of the main character, V, may raise questions, as might his manipulation and mind control over his protogé Evey Hammond. Considering who created V in the story, perhaps that violence is an appropriate result.

George Orwell — 1984 (1949) An original dystopian novel, it is the source for such classic terms as Big Brother, Memory Hole, and more. Orwell’s other major work is the equally vital Animal Farm(1945). People still refer to 1984 today as the model of a dictatorship where everyone is watched, and people actually believe the story prevented this type of future from happening, when in reality it is already here, or at least in some part.

Terry Pratchett — Feet of Clay (1996) While another one of Pratchett’s novels won the Prometheus Award (Night Watch), and there are rich veins of anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic ideas in his other Discworld books, I believe that Feet of Clay hews closer to the libertarian ideals of individual freedom, and so I picked this book. Like the greater sf traditions of clones, robots, Quaddies, in Discworld there are ample opportunities to view certain types of beings as “lesser” and thus exploitable (this showed up again in Snuff, another recent novel). In this case, Golems are the ones in thrall, who find the chance to rise up and claim their own selves.

Ayn Rand — Atlas Shrugged (1957) Perhaps the most influential work of fiction ever written, this book virtually requires no introduction. For emotional appeal, the much shorter Anthem also is recommended. Some Rand fans point to her Soviet rebellion novel, We the Living, or even The Fountainhead as more accessible books. Yet, Atlas towers above these in scope and ambition.

J. K. Rowling — Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix (2005) The Harry Potter novels span many topics. The story of a boy who survived attempted murder by an evil wizard, grows up in a room under the stairs, and arrives at a school of magic as a famous eleven-year-old became a publishing phenomenon. Young Harry is a rebel, who breaks school rules in his quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. Some school rules, like sp,e in society, are often silly and arbitrary. Yet the fifth book in the series took a quantum leap in subversive action. The Order of the Phoenix pits Harry and his friends against the Ministry of Magic and its power-crazed representative, Dolores Umbridge. While the Minister of Magic hides his head in the sand regarding Voldemort, unconsciously aiding and abetting him by supressing any mention or preparation against Voldemort and his allies, Umbridge is the very epitome of bureaucractic excess. Will young readers absorb the lessons of questioning authority? Whether or not that happens, this book embodies well that lesson, in the personal costs of deliberate refusal to go along.

Eric Frank Russell — The Great Explosion (1962) How to resist authority without violence? In Russell’s satirical novel, we encounter an unsual society. Calling themselves Gands after a famous passive resister, they have a society based on cooperation and barter through obligations, or “obs.” Some of the passive resistance is echoed later in James P. Hogan’s works.

J. Neil Schulman — The Rainbow Cadenza (1982) Schulman’s second novel (after Alongside Night)tackles a difficult topic—women drafted to serve a time in sexual servitude, in a society where they are outnumbered by men. Schulman explores libertarian themes in a culture that accepts many of today’s socially controversial themes, yet he also makes the coercive selective service a key element of the novel. Both utopian and dystopian at the same time.

Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson — Illuminatus! (1975) Three books in one (Eye in the PyramidThe Golden Apple, and Leviathan) , this trilogy covers drugs, conspiracies, and sex. While perhaps somewhat dated as a 1970s novel, the books still contain many libertarian ideas and a vast sense of adventure and conspiracy, paranoia and wacky theories and actions.

Mary Shelley — Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) Long hailed as a book about the excess of science, this short novel bears within it the same germs of liberty as the character of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (and indeed, the creature at one point refers to itself as Frankenstein’s “fallen angel”), as Frankenstein’s creation struggles to come to grips with its existence. Dr. Frankenstein, trying to wrest the problem of death into creating eternal life, much like Prometheus wresting fire from the gods, encounters a side effect, which imbues his creation with a unique conscience. Shelley raises the question of will and the moral choices between good and evil. This book often is hailed as spawning both the genres of science fiction and horror.

L. Neil Smith — The Probability Broach (1980) A classic of libertarian science fiction and alternate worlds, The Probability Broach offers a libertarian utopia, matched only perhaps by Galt’s Gulch in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. What begins as a hard-boiled detective story slips sideways into science fiction, and turns into a non-stop tale of action, conspiracy, and politics. Smith followed up this book with several others in the series, such as The Gallatin DivergenceThe Nagasaki VectorThe Venus Belt, and a direct sequel some years later, The American Zone. Along the way he has written over 20 novels and remains the most libertarian sf writer ever. A graphic novel appeared in 2004.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn — A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich(1962) The Soviet Gulag remains a deep pit of despair in human history. Much like the zeks mined the pits of Kolyma and elsewhere in the harsh Siberian north for gold, writers have mined the Gulag experience for insight into the human condition. I debated whether or not to include more books from this era, such as Varlam Shalamov’sKolyma Tales, or Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and others, but for now I stuck with perhaps the most famous of them all, Solzhenitsyn’s short and stark novel about the day in the life of one prisoner, or zek. Soviet writers have a tremendous amount of real-life dystopian material from which they can create dark fiction.

Sophocles — Antigone (442 B.C.) Antigone is the oldest entry in this list, from almost 2,500 years ago.This play is famous for being one of the first ever published instances of an act of defiance against the state by an individual. It might be a stretch to claim Sophocles as a “libertarian,” but the seeds of individualism versus the state are present in this play.

John Steinbeck — The Moon is Down (1942) Written during WWII as a propaganda novel against the Nazis, this is a brilliant resistance novel, translated into languages of several of the occupied countries in Europe and declared illegal by the Germans.

Neal Stephenson — Snow Crash (1992) One of the best cyberpunk novels ever written, Snow Crash is snappy and inventive, and wildly anarchic. Private security companies handle previously monopolized state activity. America is Balkanized into various different societies, some almost anarcho-capitalist. A picaresque novel through a real and virtual world.

A.E. Van Vogt — The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951) “The right to own weapons is the right to be free.” So states the motto of the Weapon Makers, who see themselves as the permanent opposition to tyranny. This group exists as a way to preserve the right of individuals to defend themselves; they do not interfere with politics, except to help arm those who wish to defend themselves.

Jack Vance — Emphyrio (1969) Along with The Blue WorldWyst: Alastor 1716, The Faceless ManGold and Iron, and others, the theme of the individual at odds with conformist forces is often present in the works of Jack Vance. Yet none quite cover the acts of rebellion in an oppressive welfare-state-like society as much as EmphyrioEmphyriois the tale of a young boy and his father, and how casual acts of rebellion have grave repercussions that can lead to more radical acts of rebellion.

Vernor Vinge — A Deepness in the Sky (1999) The Peace War, “The Ungoverned”, Marooned in Realtime all might claim a place on this list, yet none are as fully realized in constricting liberty and command societies as A Deepness in the Sky. Through the alien Spider we see the search for individualistic, classic liberal ideas. Meanwhile a space-faring civilization employs a mind-control technique to force obedience and productivity. The dual plots come to a head around the Spider world.

T.H. White — The Book of Merlyn (1977) A sort of sequel to The Once and Future King, this book has two interesting chapters on very different societies, one, based on ants, the other based on swans. The former is a life-less, totalitarian society in which individuality does not exist. The latter, quite the opposite.

Jack Williamson — The Humanoids (1949) Originally published as a short story, and expanded into a novel and subsequent sequel (The Humanoid Touch), this book deals with consequences of mitigating risk, to smoothen the rough edges of life. The humanoids are robots built by an individual to help mankind. Ostensibly their mission is “to serve and obey and guard men from harm.” However, as they intrepret this mission, it takes on a whole new meaning, and the robots strive to protect man from every possible dangerous action, rendering most actions useless. Williamson takes aim at the dangers of benevolent protection, and shows this concept taken to its logical conclusion.

F. Paul Wilson — An Enemy of the State (1980) F. Paul Wilson has written non-political thrillers, horror, and other fiction, but his most explicit libertarian work also has the most libertarian title ever attached to a novel. This novel along with Healer and Wheels Within Wheels form the LaNague trilogy. Today Wilson is better known for his Repairman Jack series, with Jack as a sort of libertarian anti-hero. LaNague, on the other hand, is a full-fledged rebel agitator. Wilson’s Repairman Jack novels possibly take some inspiration from the KYFHO philosophy expressed by some libertarian-minded individuals in the LaNague books.

Yevgeny Zamiatin — We (1921) Another major dystopian novel, experienced in large part by the early Soviets (including the author), in which millions suffered and died as a consequence of communism. Set in a future world with a single state, total surveillance (people live in glass houses) and uniformity in appearance. This is the state visualized in Apple’s 1984 advertisement, via Orwell’s classic novel which borrowed so much from We. As in many other novels, love leads to rebellion, yet betrayal and defeat often fall upon those who try to rebel against an all-powerful state.

2 Comments

  1. An intriguing list, in some part because I’ve read more of them than I’d expected. But not enough of them (I can only handle so many dystopias per year).

    I know I couldn’t come up with my own list of 50, but I’m fairly confident that I’d have different choices for F. Paul, Rand, and Hogan. I’d probably choose some lesser-known authors too, simply in hopes of getting their ideas into more heads (I’m thinking primarily of my friend Shaun Saunders’ book “Mallcity 14”)…

  2. Hi Sunni,
    Thanks for the comment. So you’re not avidly following the current young adult dystopian trend? I could have included several novels from this genre, by authors like Lois Lowry, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Kristen Simmons, maybe even Suzanne Collins. There are a few novels I almost put on the list, like Cecelia Holland’s Floating Worlds, Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and others. Perhaps some day I will revise the list. The Wilson and Hogan books that I listed were some of their first that I read, and possibly more memorable for that aspect.

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