The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith 
List Price: $15.95 
Paperback - 320 pages (December 2001) 
Orb Books; ISBN: 0765301539
Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Interview with: L. Neil Smith
Feature Book: American Zone

Author's Site: L. Neil Smith

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

The next time you see a well dressed chimp carrying a sidearm, you'll know that one of you has been through a probability broach. Ask him for me how things are back in the Confederacy, L. Neil Smith's anarchist alternate universe, and the location of this and several other of his books. It always seems like a nice place, a Hienlienian wonderland...but like all wonderlands I think it needs someone behind the curtain to actually make it work. I'd be delighted to find out I'm wrong though, but you'll have to read the story to decide for yourself. Fortunately, it's a good story.

First published in 1979 as L. Neil Smith's first book, The Probability Broach has garnered numerous libertarian awards and fans in the two decades since, without losing any of its appeal. 

Tor has brought it out to keep the sequel, The American Zone (see our review), company and that's a good thing from a variety of perspectives. First off, it's an great romp through alternate realities with a story that stands on the shoulders of Robert Heinlein (that's Admiral Heinlein in Smith's Alt-U) and Raymond Chandler, among others, but which never makes you doubt that you're hearing the voice of L. Neil Smith, freedom monger.

Denver Police Detective "Win" Bear starts out in a universe like ours...but a tad further to the left of the dial. Private cars are outlawed as ecologically irresponsible, as are air conditioners and a host of other "conveniences", while the governmental police force gains more and more power every day. Win works for the city though, and when responds to a homicide on his city's streets, he's impressed by the gumption shown by the victim, as the broken glass and blood trailing away from the scene show that the getaway car didn't getaway clean.

Then Win is pulled off the case from higher up, undoubtedly by the heavy hand of Sec Pol, and if that's not enough to get his dander up, watching his boss get mowed down in broad daylight surely is. Since he never officially got off the case, his boss not filing any paperwork before his demise, Win puts himself back on it and takes off to find out what the not-so-timid Dr. Meiss had gotten himself into before checking out.

It turns out that Meiss was into some interesting stuff. First off, he was a Proprietarian (we'd probably call him a Libertarian in this universe) in a world where government rules with a heavier hand that we're used to. Secondly, he'd been working for the government, at least until his political views prompted the university to revoke his grants. Fortunately for him, or maybe not, the private sector had been happy to pick up the tab and fund his experiments, which led him to build a doorway into a parallel universe. A universe which just happened to be a Proprietarian's dream come true, where everyone has equal rights under the law, though there are darn few laws worth mentioning. Just a lot of folks respecting each other's freedom, and just about everyone packing a sidearm. Even the chimps and dolphins. 

Win stumbles through the dead doctor's doorway and wanders around trying to figure out what happened to him, providing us with an excellent opportunity to learn all about what fun life could be if only we didn't have government to deal with. Science, medicine, transportation, handguns...all far more advanced than anything we're likely to see in the next 20 years. Oh, yes and there are lots of folks heading out to the Asteroid Belt to try their hand at prospecting, or taking up residence on Luna or Mars.

Win finds an unlikely benefactor on the other side in the person of his alternate counterpart, and the two of them share enough to work well together, while differ enough to broaden their scope. The other Win Bear is a detective too, though a private eye, and confused as to why a city would keep a police department anyway.

What makes the book fun is its cast of characters, which Smith thoughtfully brings back in his new book, The American Zone

Along with his doppelganger, a gorgeous healer named Clarissa (evidently Smith's an E. E. Smith fan as well) and a cantankerous neighbor named Lucy Kroptokin (who was once married to Peter Kropotkin, a famous anarchist in our universe, and the central character in Dennis Danver's The Watch, reviewed this issue also) Win has to figure out why folks in at least two universes seem to really want him dead, and why his SecPol nemesis has turned up in paradise.

And whether he even wants to go home.

I enjoyed the heck out of the ride that Smith takes us on, even though I found myself shaking my head every other page over what I have to consider political wishful thinking. Like many SF fans, I'd love for the free wheeling universe he's constructed to be realizable, but it seems to me  that whenever government disappears, thugs or zealots step in and set themselves up in their stead. Giving everyone a gun might make for a peaceful society...and a much more sparsely populated one too. Or it might not. 

There's a Robert Heinlein short story that bears reading as counterpoint to this fine tale. In "Coventry", society maintains a region of wilderness in which they dump social misfits, folks who can't abide the orderliness of civilization, and have broken enough laws to make that clear. The main character having opted against psychological treatment to adjust himself, declares himself on of the "Men That Won't Fit In" and has himself sent to Coventry. When he gets there, he's set upon by organized bandits and stripped of everything he has. Not the idyllic collection of space respecting loners he imagined at all, but bands of ruffians. 

Regardless, after reading The Probability Broach, I had a harder time taking the right of government to tax and control the population for granted. I've always believed that less government is better than more, and L. Neil Smith's first book certainly forced me to drag out some old ideas and shake the dust off them.

You can jump in with the new book, but I'd start here where the story and the fun, begins.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu