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Book Review: The Probability Broach

Book Name: The Probability Broach
Author: L. Neil Smith
First Published:1980
Prometheus Award for Best Novel Winner: 1982

L. Neil Smith started life as an Air Force brat who traveled with his family all over the United States, never settling in any one place. He was interested in music, languages, science and history. His love of sharpshooting in competition began through a joint program of the National Rifle Association and the Boy Scouts. His path to the rank of Eagle Scout was paved with “more sharpshooter bars than I can remember”.

The young L. Neil Smith was interested in music. His first “real” job was that of a banjo player at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and he was the leader of several small garage bands including the “Shady Grove Singers”, “The Roughriders” and the “Original Beautiful Dreamer Marching Jug Band”.

He preferred to read science fiction more than any other genre and was influenced by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, and Isaac Asimov. The two most influential writers he read were Robert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand. Smith recognized the connections of libertarian ideas between these two authors and these ideals guided him toward his own philosophical and political beliefs.

His readings led to political activism. In 1972 he joined the Libertarian Party. There he was influenced by the libertarian teacher Robert LeFevre which helped to cement his ideas. Later he would serve on the Libertarian national platform committees in 1977 and 1979. Smith ran for President of the United States twice on the Libertarian platform, once in California and again in Arizona, but both times he gained only a tiny fraction of votes.

In 1977, Smith felt frustrated by the course of American politics and wanted to help produce change. He began work on a science fiction novel, originally entitled The Constitution Conspiracy, where he thought to do for libertarianism that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for Abolitionism or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward did for socialism. This project was picked up by Del Rey in 1980 and became the alternate history and science fiction novel The Probability Broach, the first of 21 novels published by the author thus far. While it did not have the impact on society that Smith had hoped for, it is still considered one of the better examples of a libertarian utopia.

In 1979, Smith created the Prometheus Awards, a writing award to honor libertarian fiction. An independent panel was selected to pick the winning novel and the prize offered was a gold coin, then worth $2,500. Due to the cost of the award and lack of formal organization, the Prometheus Awards fell into limbo the following year. In 1982, the Libertarian Futurist Society revived the Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel of the year and they started a second annual award called the Prometheus Hall of Fame which is designed to honor classic libertarian fiction. The prize for both awards is still a gold coin, representing free trade and free minds, mounted on an engraved plaque. Starting in 2001, the offered gold coin is now a full ounce in weight. L. Neil Smith has won three Prometheus Awards down through the years, each time selected by independent panels.

Currently, L. Neil Smith is still interested in sharpshooting, being a lifetime member of the NRA, and plans to resume competitive shooting as he finds the time. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife Cathy and daughter Rylla. He continues to write novels and political essays about libertarianism and remains a political activist.

The Probability Broach is the first novel of a series set in an alternate history, the so-called Gallatin Universe, where a libertarian society has formed on the North American continent, and is known as the North American Confederacy. The story opens when Officer Edward William “Win” Bear, an officer of the Denver Police Department in an United States that is controlled by an anti-business, federalist government. Officer Bear is assigned to investigate the murder of physicist Vaughn Meiss, who has been shot down for mysterious reasons. His investigation leads him to the scientist’s unusual lab where an “interdimensional conduit” projects him into a new and confusing North America. In this alternate universe, a change in the wording of the US Constitution has given rise to an alternate world that reveres self-reliance, the encouragement to carry firearms by all citizens, and the recognition of all sentient life as citizens, including gorillas, dolphins and chimpanzees who live along side humans as equals. As Win learns about this new world, we the reader are also introduced to its new customs and ideas of freedom.

Win tracks down his counterpart in this alternate universe, a gumshoe named Ed Bear, and together they work to solve the case of Meiss’ murder which they learn was part of a “Hamiltonian” forces plot to take over the North American Confederacy. As they travel to warn the NAC Continental Congress of the pending threat, Ed and healer Clarissa Olsen are kidnapped, leaving Win and congresswoman Lucy to reveal the pending plot and then to rescue their friends. In the end, the evil Federalist Hamiltonians are routed, Gallantinian interests are restored, and happy endings ensue.

I happened upon The Probability Broach when it was first published in 1980 in my local book store and still own my first edition paperback copy to this day. It was L. Neil Smith’s first novel and I feel that it is the best of the North American Confederacy Series that followed it. Interspersed between the action of gun-toting gorillas, dolphin scientists and various duels are conversations about life in an Libertarian style utopia and the right to carry firearms. The Probability Broach is a thinking reader’s novel, one that presents ideas about a new society, wrapped up in a fun adventurous read about an “alternate history” that came about due to a single word change in the US Constitution.

One of the main functions of science fiction, in my view, is to offer up new ideas of how life might be like under a different political system or different culture. Sometimes those new ideas are horrifying, dystopias where humanity is unable to escape from the thumb of an oppressive government, but other times they make you stop and think that perhaps things could be different in a more positive way. The Probability Broach, whether you agree with Libertarian ideas or not, is certainly a novel that will make you stop and re-examine the way we do things and give you a better understanding of what Libertarianism is in general. I recommend this novel on that basis, as a way to discover new concepts while enjoying a fun, alternate history, science fiction story.

The Probability Broach Book CoverNorth American Confederacy series:

The Probability Broach (1980, unexpurgated edition 1996, graphic novel 2004)
The Nagasaki Vector (1983)
The American Zone (2001)
The Venus Belt (1980)
Their Majesties’ Bucketeers (1981)
Tom Paine Maru (1984)
The Gallatin Divergence (1985)
Brightsuit MacBear (1988) [first in new series set in NAC universe]
Taflak Lysandra (1989) [second in new series set in NAC universe]