L. Neil Smith photo
Photo by Cathy L.Z. Smith

L. Neil Smith Interview
Conducted by Ernest Lilley

Feature Book: American Zone
Feature Reprint: Probability Broach
Author's Site: L. Neil Smith

Also: 
Editorial License: The Men That Don't Fit In
More Anarchy: The Watch by Dennis Danvers


Before I read The American Zone and The Probability Broach, I was expecting a Marquis of Queensbury sort of scrap about the merits of more or less government. Silly me. Here it is. Complete, unexpurgated, vitriolic, pure quill L. Neil Smith. 

SFRevu: A while back, a mutual friend at Tor said you'd be happy to do an e-mail interview. At the time I was suckered in by the picture of an airship floating across the cover of The American Zone and the thought of an interview with a smart, thoughtful libertarian. By the time I finished TAZ I was scared to death of what that might unleash. You don't do anything by halves, do you?

LNS: Well, you know I'm one of "Heinlein's Children", and I believe that "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing". I also think we're up against a threat of losing western civilization, not to Communism or the Third World, but to the kind of creeps generated by Harvard and Yale, and Georgetown, and so on, creeps who try to make you think there are two, fiercely-opposed political parties, but who actually represent exactly the same opinions and interests.

The Clintons and Bushes of the world have gotten a long way with their program, which is essentially to erase the American Revolution from history and turn us into the sort of sensory-deprived tax-serfs portrayed metaphorically in The Matrix. If there was ever a time for half-measures (and I don't believe there ever was), it's long over. It's time for very plain talk and no fancy dancing at all.

SFR: Was The Probability Broach the first thing you wrote, or just the first novel? Who was your first editor, and what kind of relationship did you have?

LNS: Somewhere in the Darkest Reaches of my garage (unless it was destroyed in my basement by the Flood of '97) there are about 100 pages of a novel I began in the mid-60s called The Goldman Project. Terrible, of course, but it taught me many basic mechanics of writing fiction, simple things like getting a character up off the couch and across the room to the mantle to take a cigarette from a pack, light it with a kitchen match, enjoy that first, long, satisfying drag, dispose of the match in the fireplace, and go sit on the couch again.

About the same time, I wrote half a dozen short stories that were rejected by every SF magazine editor in the Known Universe. So I began writing magazine articles, instead, and didn't return to fiction for a decade. Ironically, three of those stories were later accepted for anthologies by my first book editor's boss -- she'd rejected them ten years earlier; it's hell to be ahead of the times -- who also bought a novel based on the stories.

My relationship with my first book editor began very cordially. After seeing TPB into print, I settled down comfortably on the "options treadmill", grateful to be a full time productive novelist. He'd call me a couple times a week and we'd talk about everything there was to talk about. I thought I had a friend.

But New York publishing -- I gather that Hollywood is even worse about this -- has a peculiar habit of buying into you because you're fresh and original, then, sooner or later, spending all their time and effort trying to make you over until you're just like everybody else. My editor's boss was famous for writing essays about why there's no place in SF for humor or sex -- two strikes against me right there -- but in my case, it was politics.

My editor's boss had also told my agent I could be a great writer if I'd just give up "all this libertarian nonsense". I assumed she was the culprit when snips were made, here and there, to my Tom Paine Maru, amounting to about 40 pages of material, all of it political. I wasn't shown the result until I got page proofs, by which time it was too late. I was told, magnanimously, that I could buy the novel back. But any mid-list writer will tell you how generous an offer like that is to somebody who's already spent the advance on rent and groceries.

It turned out my editor was at least equally to blame. That -- plus one more book already completed and in the pipe -- was the last I ever wrote for him. (Gratifyingly, when his boss passed away and he took over the imprint, its market-share, which had been about 50%, judging from rack pockets in grocery and drug stores, slid to about 10%.) The irony is that he wasn't -- as humorist P.J. O'Rourke put it -- a "bedwetting liberal", but a conservative. I learned a lot from that. It's a major reason I'm so hard on them in my nonfiction.

SFR: Was writing TPB fun, easy, or like doing your own appendectomy? How do you write? By getting up at 6 AM and writing 500 words a day (Hemingway's way) or in nonstop bouts locked in a small room with endless cups of coffee (Raymond Chandler's recipe).

LNS: For me, every novel is different. I don't actually recall much about writing TPB. It was my first, and I suspect that the novelty of the process made it more fun than anything else. Also, although I'd already outlined it, I wrote it, essentially, because I'd just closed an unsuccessful business, had broken a foot in a Tae Kwon Do class, and lived in a two-story house.

I've always approached writing as if it were "honest work", and often point out that an ethical plumber or a competent auto mechanic is a far greater asset to civilization than any novelist you'd care to name. Talent is largely a myth. The only real quality of character writing books requires in persistence.

When I have a contract, or I'm writing columns, I get up at 6:30 AM, fix coffee, see my wife off to work, and start work, myself, by about 8:00. I work until I break for lunch time, then go back to work until about 5:00. I'd be embarrassed only to produce 500 words -- less than two pages. It's usually more like 1000 to 2000. In recent years, I use my laptop in the upper row of bleachers at the ice rink where my daughter practices for competition and my wife moonlights as a guard.

I respect Chandler in many ways. I love his books. He said, "When in doubt bring a man with a gun in his hand through the door." He also said, "The only salvation for a writer is to write." I've leaned hard on both of those ideas over the years. But I can't write like him. I'd burn myself out and never write again. Anyone who wants a career as a writer and works like that is a self-destructive idiot.

SFR: When did you discover SF? What was the first book that really caught your imagination?

LNS: At the risk of dating myself, I'd always loved SF in the movies, on TV and the radio. I saw Destination Moon and War of the Worlds, and When Worlds Collide in first run. I watched Captain Video and Tom Corbett Space Cadet, and I especially loved the "Tomorrowland" episodes on Disneyland. A little later, when I lived in Canada, I listened avidly to Charles Chilton's Journey into Space on the BBC. It not only mentioned Heinlein, but it put music to "The Green Hills of Earth" which has haunted me ever since. I owe a lot of Forge of the Elders to that show.

I guess I defy what passes for "marketing wisdom", in that the first SF book I ever read was Murray Leinster's Forgotten Planet, a thoroughly grownup old Ace Double. I didn't get to "Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars" and Tom Swift Jr., and the "Commander Stories for Boys" annual until a little later. Leinster is almost forgotten himself, these days, which is too bad. He was a great workhorse of a writer. Forgotten Planet was a wonderful pioneering work about terraforming, a subject I write about a lot these days and want to write a lot more.

SFR: Why is it always Heinlein? What does RAH have that speaks so loudly to so many SF readers. I speak from personal experience, having fallen under the "Admiral"'s thrall at an early age.

LNS: While claiming to write only for "grocery money", Heinlein was an indispensable mentor to me. More than anything, he wrote a lot of "rite of passage" novels in which he set standards I felt obliged to live up to. He was also fearlessly experimental. Beyond this Horizon (see our review) is about dueling and eugenics and social credit theory. Stranger in a Strange Land was adopted by the hippies.

But by the time he got to Friday (and maybe before that) he was a thoroughgoing libertarian. He was also a subtle thinker. Having to hear someone like Chip Delaney, as I once did, ignorantly denounce the Old Man for racism and militarism (in  Starship Troopers, which is all about stringently controlling the military, and in which the principal character is not white) was almost as disgusting as watching a movie of the book rooted in Paul Verhoeven's similar inability to read and think clearly.

SFR: What SF author did you read that's farthest away from your own political perspective, yet still is someone you respect? (I note Asimov and Clarke on your list of influential authors, and neither of them could be considered to be Libertarian.)

LNS: Farthest away? Probably Harry Harrison. I love his "Deathworld" trilogy, and I'm just crazy about A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!. Harrison, like Dashiell Hammett, is fun to read as he wrestles with the fundamental problem all socialist storytellers have to confront: action-adventure heroes are individualists. How does a collectivist writer deal with that? Harrison makes them discredited people or shady characters or criminals, like Gus Washington, Jason diNalt, and Slippery Jim DiGriz. Absolutely terrific.

SFR: Lando Calrissian? How did you wind up writing Star Wars novels, and did you have any fun doing it? Did you manage to make Lando "your kind of scum, fearless and inventive?" Who's your favorite Star Wars character?

LNS: I was asked by Del Rey Books on behalf of LucasFilm, Ltd. In retrospect, it was fun to have done it, but I had two sets of editors and sixteen weeks to write three books -- except that, by the time two sets of editors finally approved my outlines, I had nine weeks left, during which I ate, slept, wrote, and did nothing else. A good aspect is that I did it on a typewriter in one draft, something I knew Rex Stout and Robert Heinlein could do, but never knew I could do, too.

My LucasFilm editor was horrified by The Probability Broach and I was ordered to keep politics out of the Lando books, but by the time they were through messing with me, burning up my time and imposing a lot of silly rules on me, I decided that I'd make the books as political as I could until the editors squeaked. That's why Lando is an anarchist and free trader.

Not surprisingly, except for Vuffi Ra, my own character whom I wish I was free to write about again, my favorite character is Han Solo, very similar to Lando, really, and also -- because the series is constructed on a moral inversion -- the only "goodguy" in all of _Star Wars_ who isn't a chronic, habitual, pathological liar.

SFR: How did you get into this libertarianism thing?

LNS: You mean "all this libertarian nonsense"? Heinlein prepared me, course. By the time I was 15, I'd read all of his writings. Then Ayn Rand hit me like a ton of bricks and I became a fairly obnoxious young Objectivist for a while.

I was, however, guilty of the unrandian heresy of having a very surrealistic sense of humor -- I was also very heavily into folk music -- and that, plus a wonderful individual named Robert LeFevre (you know him as Prof. Bernardo de la Paz from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) put me back on track. Later on, knowing Karl Hess helped a lot, too. I still consider myself an Objectivist and I always will, but as Bob said, if you aren't having fun, what's the point?

SFR: What's the difference between libertarians and anarchists? (I've heard that libertarians are anarchists on the gold standard, but have no idea what that means.)

LNS: It's just a joke. Government money -- junk money, paper currency and base metal coins -- is a tangible manifestation of a politician's lies. You know how to tell if a politician is lying, don't you? His mouth moves. Everybody, all across the political spectrum knows that, and they also know that gold is the safest kind of money to have.

LeFevre used to say that anyone who claims to be a libertarian and _isn't_ an anarchist is fooling himself; he's just a weird sort of Republican. I'm inclined to agree with that. Libertarianism is about self-ownership, which, I'm increasingly convinced, is incompatible with the very concept of government, which subsists by depriving us at bayonet-point of our self-ownership, and then giving us back little bits and pieces -- of what was ours to begin with -- in exchange for political good behavior.

SFR: How many North American Confederacy books have you written so far? I haven't read The Venus Belt, which I gather is out of print, but it sounds like fun. What's next on the burner?

LNS: Well, let's see ... there are The Probability Broach, The Venus Belt, The Nagasaki Vector, Their Majesties' Bucketeers, Tom Paine Maru, and The Gallatin Divergence, all originally published by Del Rey and mostly out of print. I'd love to do an unexpurgated edition Tom Paine Maru, but nobody in Publishingland is listening.

Tor republished The Probability Broach a couple of years ago and have just brought out a new and beautiful trade paperback edition. Then there are BrightSuit MacBear and Taflak Lysandra, published by Avon more than a decade ago. And most recently, The American Zone, fresh out from Tor and every bit as beautiful. It's a book I started seven years ago and predicts how evil politicians might try to use an event like September 11 to enhance their power at the expense of everyone else's freedom.

I've always planned two sequels to Their Majesties' Bucketeers and five to BrightSuit MacBear. The trick is to find a publisher with enough intelligence and courage to take the chance in a flat market. Got any recommendations?

SFR: I was asking myself why anarchist societies (a possible oxymoron) don't occur spontaneously, but looking around I suspect that they do ... they just don't last more than the five minutes it takes for someone to decide they want to tell somebody else what to do. Can, and does self-government spring up?

LNS: Anarchist societies don't exist because people have always mistakenly believed that government and civilization are synonymous. They aren't, any more than leeches and circulatory systems are. Governments are parasitical structures feeding off the productivity of private individuals. That's all they are, that's all they ever have been.

Another way to look at government is as a protection racket, promising to protect you if you pay up, and demonstrating that it's them you need protection from if you don't. It's a scam more than 6000 years old. It works because it's easier for a bandit to steal or destroy what you've built, than it was for you to build it. Introduce an idea like democracy, and you think you're better off because you're told you get to choose the bandit.

SFR: Your books are full of insidious agents of more government trying to ruin the perfect state of the free Confederates ... does that mean you think folks will always fight anarchy, or just that it makes a more interesting book. Some folks seem to want other people to run their lives ... shouldn't they be allowed to? What's to keep warlords and zealots from deciding to take over?

LNS: What's to keep warlords and zealots from deciding to take over? I'd say that's what's happening now, especially since the government, under Clinton and now Bush has decided to toss the rule of law out the window. My North American Confederates are different from real people in only one respect: they know the value of their freedom. I wish real people were like that, and that's what I work toward every day.

As for those who want their lives run for them, they're products of the public school system and network television. Most of them don't understand the benefits of doing it any other way. Would they like to be ten times as rich as they are now, which they would be if they were free? Would they like to live to be 1000 years old, which they'd have a crack at in a free society? Sure they would -- even though mass media and government schools have labored for decades to minimize the perceptible contrasts between free and non-free societies -- and it's my job to teach them all about that.

SFR: You've said that Heinlein influenced your work, and taught you some principles that you've expanded on. For all that, it seems that his libertarianism was pretty mild by comparison. In _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, they may have aspired to self-government, but really all they contrived was local control. What did you think of "Coventry" where RAH put all the malcontents in one place and immediately had them start taking advantage of each other?

LNS: If I reach further than the Old Man, it's because I'm standing on his shoulders. I owe him and Rand and others like H. Beam Piper and Bob LeFevre and Murray Rothbard a solemn (and occasionally silly) duty to hold the banner higher than they could in their time. Those who come after me and stand on my shoulders must do the same or there wasn't any reason for the struggle.

But never forget that everyone sent to Coventry was a criminal, including the viewpoint character who thought he was entitled to back up his nasty political opinions with his fists. All societies -- whether you'd call them anarchies or not -- require basic operating principles to work. Libertarians suggest the Non-Aggression Principle, under which no one has a right to _start_ a fight. I'd be satisfied to spend the rest of my life in a society in which the Bill of Rights was energetically and stringently enforced just like the highest law of the land it happens to be, and that's what I've been proposing for about nine years, now.

SFR: What do you think the next century holds for individuals and societies? Will we reach for the stars? Will we do it as individuals, corporations or nations? Will religious fundamentalists overrun civilization? Will we have any fun?

LNS: I'm pretty good at predicting things (the collapse of the Soviets, digital watches, the Internet, laptop computers, and in some sense, September 11), but in general I don't know what's going to happen next, any more than you do. I purpose to make this century the Century of the Bill of Rights. If we succeed in that, we'll have everything we ever wanted -- virtual immortality and the stars.

If we don't succeed -- and it doesn't matter whether we lose to religious fundamentalists (you'd probably be surprised to learn how many of them are on the side of freedom), a fanatical leftist freak show like the Clinton Administration, or faceless drones in suits and ties like the Bush Administration -- if we don't succeed, nobody but looters and butchers will ever have any fun again.

It's pretty much your choice.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu