essays

Mar 1, 1980

Adolescent Dystopia

“Art is revolution, and art can best serve revolution by remaining true to itself.”

Alongside Night, by J. Neil Schulman, Crown, 181 pp., $8.95.

HERE IS A BOOK THAT seems to have everything, a science fiction disaster novel with an important, original, and timely subject: the destruction of America by runaway inflation. It is acclaimed by leading authors, from Poul Anderson to Anthony Burgess. Moreover, it has an explicitly libertarian theme: the inevitably detrimental effects of statism. Unhappily, what Alongside Night, by J. Neil Schulman, does not have is credible characters or a convincing plot. It may be good propaganda, but it is bad melodrama.

Science fiction, at its best, is a literature of ideas. All too often, it consists almost exclusively of ideas: as if a mad scientist designed the human body, giving it a brain (theme), but no skeleton (plot) or heart (flesh and blood characters). Like too much bad science fiction, Alongside Night has imaginative ideas, inadequately fleshed out.

Schulman envisions a future New York in which inflation, wage-price controls, and the collapse of government services have led to the development of a burgeoning countereconomy. It is a 1999 filled with Blues, brownies, vendies, tziganes, Gloamingers, Tasers, Project Harriman, and the Genghis Khan—that is, respectively, (1) hastily engraved New Dollars resembling, and worth about as much as, Monopoly money; (2) Harry Browne-outs who head for the hills with their rifles and survival foods; (3) federal tokens replacing dimes and quarters that have been “greshamed” out of exchange; (4) gypsy cab drivers; (5) religious fanatics who believe that God is a human, on earth “at this very moment,” but unfortunately suffering from amnesia; (6) nonlethal, purely defensive, electrical-dart paralyzers; (7) a black market lunar mining venture a la Heinlein; and (8) the latest rage in New Barbarian fashion: a coat of metallic-silver leather, trimmed with long black monkey fur.

Some of Schulman’s bits of fancy are refreshingly witty, but one suspects this “novel of 1999” just may be a parody of contemporary society. Cinema cabarets showing continuous-run Humphrey Bogart or Marx Brothers movies have replaced most dinner theatres, stand-up comics, and dance bands, thanks to the nostalgia craze and the proliferation of videodiscs and wall-screens. Popular television series include Presidential Healer, about a President who cures his subjects by faith-healing, and Hello, Joe–Whaddya Know?, the adventures of a gorilla named Joe—the product of primate educational research—who becomes a philosophy professor.

But Schulman’s greatest flair is for the creative projection of future libertarian institutions. He imagines a black market so diversified that an entire chain of secret shopping malls—variously styled Aurora, Autonomy, Auction, Austrian School, Aum, etc. (AU being the acronym of the Agorist Underground as well as the chemical symbol for gold)—has grown, forming, quite literally, an underground economy. These hidden agoras, or marketplaces, offer a bustling labyrinth of unusual facilities where countereconomic traders meet to do business: No-State Insurance, The Contraband Exchange, Identities by Charles (makeup and disguises), The American Letter Mail Company (Lysander Spooner, founder), and The G. Gerald Rhoames Border Guard and Ketchup Company (a “cannabist” or marijuana salesman). Unlike the very worst sort of polemical novel, in which the action freezes while the characters expound upon the author’s philosophy, Alongside Night presents its libertarianism embedded in the very fabric of daily life:

“To applaud a work of fiction only for its libertarian values is to betray those values by swelling the sphere of politics until it engulfs the sphere of esthetics.”

Fifth Avenue at night was even busier than in daytime—Each night… the avenue was closed off to all motorized traffic except the electric patrol carts of Fifth Avenue Merchant Alliance—and FAMAS had justified the privilege. By totally ignoring any nonviolent, noninvasive behavior—no matter how outrageous or vulgar—and concentrating exclusively on protecting its clients and their customers from attacks and robbery, FAMAS made Fifth Avenue a safe haven from the city’s pervasive street violence. Anything else went, from sexual displays of every sort to the street merchandising of neo-opiates or—for several hours, at least, your own personal slave….

Nor was this discouraged by the avenue’s property owners. They knew it was precisely this atmosphere that attracted their customers. Neither did the city government interfere; its own OTB gambling casinos on the avenue were one of the city’s few remaining reliable sources of revenue—and more than one city council member had secret business interests in the enclave…. As a result, Fifth Avenue had evolved into the center of the city’s nightlife.

Yet Schulman’s libertarian landscapes remain only painted backdrops since the hero of Alongside Night, Elliot Vreeland, fails to come to life. And a multitude of ingenious little touches, no matter how imaginative, do not add up to one absorbing tale, when the story itself is inherently implausible. Sad to say, as an aspiring, futuristic political adventure thriller, Alongside Night is a beautiful still life.

For one thing, Elliot is a two-dimensional character. We don’t know more, or care more, about him at novel’s end than at its beginning. Schulman shamelessly manipulates his hero, resorting to that tired old sf trick of making him an Elliot-in-Wonderland: a conveniently wide-eyed, wet behind the ears innocent that hack authors use to Show and Tell the ABC’s of their illusive worlds. Believe it or not, the son of a world-famous free market economist, a student to whom “economics is … a hobby,” doesn’t seem to know the first thing about elementary libertarianism! Sophisticated science fiction tries to make the familiar strange and the strange (to the readers) familiar (to the characters). By contrast, Alongside Night is a doubtful world in which the natives act like tourists, shocked by the familiar institutions and customs of their own time and place!

We are also expected to swallow a story so contrived it depends on a series of unlikely coincidences. Elliot, a senior at a classy Manhattan prep school, is catapulted into the forefront of a revolutionary conspiracy when his family disappears, abducted by the State, and Elliot sets out to find them. One day he’s turning in homework assignments on “The Self-Destruction of the Capitalist System;” overnight he’s transformed into a savior of free enterprise.

He’s in all the right places at all the right times. Thrust by “accident” into a Citizens for a Free Society rally, Elliot becomes the catalyst for a riot that prompts EUCOMTO (the new laissez faire European Common Market) to stop the exchange of New Dollars for eurofrancs, a move which in turn ushers in the fall of the American State. If only current libertarian demonstrations had such impact!

In short, Alongside Night is impossible to take seriously as adult literature. But wait. That’s it! An adult couldn’t take this melodrama seriously … but maybe an adolescent can. Put yourself in Elliot’s place for a moment. Imagine. Your own high school is exposed as the national headquarters of an anarchist conspiracy! Your hated teacher is unmasked as a government agent, sent especially to spy on you! Your best friend proves to be the son of the guerrilla leader of the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre! Your girlfriend—Lorimer, the very first woman you met in the Agorist Underground—turns out to be the daughter of the villainous chief of the American secret police! To top it all off, your own father is acknowledged by the whole world to be the Last Best Hope for Mankind—and you are his Last Best Hope!!

What we have here is a typically hyperinflated adolescent wet dream. Elliot acts out a Walter Mitty wish-fulfillment fantasy easily shared by today’s generation of latently libertarian teenagers: young people fed up with compulsory public schools and a corrupt government, suspicious of the establishment, and looking for answers. Alongside Night is an unconsciously written juvenile science fiction novel, an attempt to portray that archetypal rite of passage, in which a boy becomes a man. Only this can make sense of the adolescent characterization, the melodramatic plotting, the sophomoric humor, the awkward, embarrassed sex. It is just the kind of truly subversive, socially redeeming literature that young people—the younger the better—need.

Alongside Night also has the dubious honor of being the libertarian movement’s first roman a clef. Elliot’s father is a Nobel Prizewinning free market economist and staunch supporter of a not-very-limited government, famous for an unreadable technical treatise on 1920’s economic history and notorious for his monetary theories, who persists in holding radical libertarians at arm’s length while naively advising the State in a doomed attempt to reform it. In fact, Dr. Martin Vreeland bears such a suspiciously close resemblance to a certain real-life economist that Schulman finds it necessary to disavow any such resemblance in his preface.

Coincidentally, I should note that Milton Friedman’s high opinion of the book is prominently featured on its back cover, along with lavish acclaim from Jerry Pournelle, Poul Anderson, Thomas Szasz, and Anthony Burgess. Reading between the lines of their praise confirms the novel’s defects; more important, it reveals a major deficiency in recent libertarian literary criticism. What they don’t say is at least as significant as what they do say.

For example, Szasz suggests: “It might be, and ought to be, the Atlas Shrugged of the 80’s.” Here is an intriguingly ambiguous statement. Is it an esthetic comment or a political endorsement? If the first, it is difficult to surmise Szasz’s meaning, since he has never told us his opinion of Atlas Shrugged, or for that matter, any of Rand’s works. To be sure, the two novels can be equated. Both dystopias present the collapse of civilization and demonstrate its collectivist cause. Each novel contains a Galt’s Gulch or Agorist Underground to which hardcore libertarians can repair. Finally, of course, both novels are libertarian. I suspect it was this latter similarity that caught Szasz’s attention. Certainly, he could not have been making a literary comparison of the two novels. If he had, Szasz could have come to only one conclusion: Atlas Shrugged will be the Atlas Shrugged of the 80’s.

Burgess’s reflections are even more revealing: “It is a remarkable… story, and the picture it presents of an inflation-crippled America … is all too acceptable. I wish, and so will many novelists, that I, or they, had thought of the idea first.” I also wish Burgess had thought of the idea first. Judging from A Clockwork Orange, his superbly stylized and brilliantly plotted classical liberal/humanist masterpiece, Burgess, unlike Schulman, has the artistic genius and maturity to take the original idea and libertarian ideology of Alongside Night and fashion something wonderful from it.

Let us not confuse a good idea—or a good ideology—with a bad novel. The critics of Alongside Night have let their enthusiasm for the premise and polemics of Schulman’s novel carry away their objectivity. In their haste to encourage any sign of libertarianism, however remote, in the popular culture, they have only succeeded in confounding esthetics and politics.

This novel is being acclaimed not for its artistry, but for its ideology. It is being recommended not because it is literature, but because it is libertarian. Surely, the concept of “libertarian” art is as wrong-headed as the concept of “libertarian” checkers or “libertarian” physics. There is only winning at checkers or losing at checkers, reasonable science and pseudoscience, good art or bad art. Alongside Night is bad art, a failed science fiction novel which threatens to come to life, but never quite succeeds.

Conversely, the critical response to this novel is a living horror story, a true Frankenstein haunting the libertarian movement. There is something monstrous here, something more than the usual libertarians playing literary politics—what Jeff Riggenbach has described (in the March, 78 LR) as the inevitable tendency of any movement to engage in “the publishing, reviewing, promoting and advertising of each other’s books.” No, the Frankenstein I fear is the politicization of art—what I once disdainfully described (but no more!) as the Marxist disease.

If libertarianism is anything, it is the stubborn refusal to submit to that most pervasive and destructive trend of our time, the politicization of society. Libertarians, of all people, ought to be extraordinarily sensitive to the truth that once politics becomes the measure of all things, then not only art, but all values—liberty also—suffer. Hence to applaud a work of fiction only for its libertarian values is to betray libertarian values, because it is to swell obscenely the sphere of politics until it engulfs the sphere of esthetics.

In our pursuit of one necessary value—human freedom—we should not disown our need—not as libertarians, but as human beings—Tor personal and social values beyond politics. We must grant art its own terms and its own standards, never imposing on it a narrowly conceived political standard, libertarian or otherwise. Libertarians must value art, if they value it at all, for the delight it (potentially) offers, never using it merely as a means to the end of our own ideological goals. To vindicate art for our own sake is not to vitiate libertarian politics or the value of libertarian revolution. As Herbert Read, anarchist and art critic, explained long ago:

It is not that art is incompatible with revolution—far from it. Nor do I suggest that art has no specific part to play in a revolutionary struggle. I am not defending art for art’s sake…. Art as I have defined it is so intimately linked to the vital forces of life that it carries society toward ever new manifestation of that life…. Art is revolution, and art can best serve revolution by remaining true to itself.

This is the decade libertarianism will become a popular fad. F. Paul Wilson ends his Reason review of Schulman’s novel with the hope it sells 20 million copies. It may well happen, but I hope not. In the long run, bad melodrama makes for poor propaganda. Indeed, Schulman’s implausible plot and unconvincing characters could have the unintended effect of confirming the American public’s worst misconception of libertarianism: that it is a utopia that can never be brought down to earth as a practical way of life for real people.

Yet Schulman, a 26-year-old longtime libertarian activist, does have talent. For a first novel, Alongside Night is impressive and imaginative, if inadequate. Schulman’s second novel (now in progress) is The Carnal Commandment, about a future draft of women. Here’s hoping it will be of such literary worth that even if it weren’t libertarian, it would merit recognition in these pages.

Michael Grossberg is a Friend of the Prometheus Awards Committee which judges the best libertarian science fiction of the year.