Catching Up with L. Neil Smith
by Ari Armstrong, December 7, 2006
Introduction: L. Neil Smith's novel The Probability Broach is a favorite among many who favor free markets and limited government. Smith, a Colorado writer, is working on several new projects. So I thought this would be a great time to see what he's up to and what he thinks about things. I should note that Smith and I disagree about some important issues. Mainly, I have become persuaded by Ayn Rand that a government limited to protecting individual rights is essential for human well-being, while Smith tends to take more of a Rothbardian anti-government line. Yet Smith remains one of the more interesting residents of Colorado. His genuine love of liberty shines through in his work. My questions are in bold. Smith's answers (submitted November 25), while bold in substance, are displayed in regular type. I wish to thank him for his generosity with his time. -- Ari Armstrong
Let's cover a bit of background first. How long have you been writing fiction professionally? How did you get into this line of work? What was your first book? How many books have you written since?
Professionally? Well, I tried to write my first "book" in third grade. It was simply about a manned rocket counting down to blastoff, and the neighbors laughed at me. That was in 1954 -- I wonder how they would feel now, if they remembered it. In fifth grade, I adapted the movie The Conquest of Space into a puppet show which I put on for my class.
I started my first real adult novel, called The Goldman Project late in the 60s. I don't think it ever got beyond 100 pages, but it taught me a lot of things -- like the hardest thing in the world is the simple movement, as when you want a character to get up, cross the room to the mantel, pull out and light a cigarette, then go sit down again.
I wrote and tried to sell a few short stories in 1967, but they were rejected by every science fiction magazine then in the business. Around 1980, I sold those same stories to Judy-Lynn del Rey for her Stellar anthologies, and they became the Bernie Gruenblum time travel series and the basis for The Nagasaki Vector. I also wrote a couple of stories in 1974, at a very bad time in my life, and they would have been real pathbreakers, but I lost them in a flood we had in 1997.
In 1977, I had outlined a novel to be called The Constitution Conspiracy, but would likely have never written it except that I broke my foot in a Tae Kwon Do class, which sort of forced me to sit down and finish it. Along the way, somewhere, I changed the title to The Probability Broach.
Since then I've written 25 more books.
Briefly, how is it that you came to believe and advocate what you call the "Zero Aggression Principle?"
I first read of the idea in some Ayn Rand essay in the 60s, and I realized that it was an historically Great Thought, on a par with the Golden Rule, and greatly superior to Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative. It's an extremely simple notion, but its ramifications are unbelievably complex. I've spent my entire adult life pondering its various ins and outs, to the point that I've been described in print as one of the world's leading authorities on the ethics of self-defense.
I think your best known work is The Probability Broach, which has also been turned into a graphic novel with Scott Beiser. Is that also your favorite story (of yours), or is there another?
My favorite story right now is Ceres, which I finished last Christmas Day and for which I'm still seeking an agent and publisher or producer. TPB is my "firstborn" and occupies a special place in my heart, but I am also extremely fond of my two "worstsellers," Their Majesties' Bucketeers (a novel with not a single human being in it) and The WarDove, a story of war, murder, and unrequited love. Both were to have been trilogies, but they didn't sell well enough to justify the effort.
The complete graphic novel of The Probability Broach is being made available at no charge at bigheadpress.com. How is that working to promote sales of the print copy?
I don't know. You'd have to ask my publisher, Frank Bieser. Just now, we're working hard to increase the number of unique visits to www.BigHeadPress.com, and we'll know a little better how we're doing after that's been going on for a while. Pioneering advertisers should write to Frank at frankb**AT**bigheadpress.com.
Bigheadpress.com also makes available online the graphic novel, Roswell, Texas, "a sci-fi Western romantic comedy." Can you give us a rundown of the story and how you came to work on it?
This story has occupied a tremendous amount of my love and attention for several years now. It started as a text novel, a collaboration between me and Rex F. May, whom you and your readers know better as the cartoonist "Baloo."
Frank heard about it and wanted to do a webcomic, so I wrote the adaptation (I only finished it recently) and it's being serialized at www.BigHeadPress.com. Scott Bieser, who drew The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel and A Drug War Carol (among many other things) is doing the art, and Jen Zach, my daughter's best friend is doing the coloring. Throw in Scott's son Zeke, who does the lettering, and you've got a real family enterprise going.
The story itself turned out to be vastly bigger than I ever imagined, but it's basically a tale of a Texas that never allowed itself to be annexed by the United States, and what happens in 1947, when a UFO crashes near the west Texas town of Roswell.
There are a lot of historical characters in wildly different contexts than they're known for in this universe. Charles A. Lindbergh is the President of the Federated States of Texas. Malcolm "X" Little and Meir Kahane are Texas Rangers; their young commander is Audie Murphy. Fulton J. Sheen is the Pope, and John Nance Garner is a spymaster. The viewpoint character is an otherworld equivalent of Win Bear's father. And just wait until you meet the "little old widow lady" whose ranch the UFO fell on. I could go on. I never wrote anything with so many characters before. My next novel will have three (just kidding -- I think).
What's the future of Roswell? You mentioned the possibility of both a regular novel and a print graphic novel.
The latter will depend on the market, of course. As to the former, I have a publisher who has asked to see the novel, and I just sent him the proposal package the other day. Naturally, the way things work these days, we're hoping somebody will see Roswell, Texas and want to make a movie of it.
My own favorite story of yours is Pallas. You've finished the sequel, Ceres, but it has not yet been published. You have two more novels planned for the set: Ares and Beautiful Dreamer. Can you quickly take us through the basic premise of each?
Pallas is about terraforming and homesteading the second largest asteroid in the Asteroid Belt, as seen by Emerson Ngu, a little boy, half Vietnamese and half Cambodian, who has been brought there by his parents. We stay with him until he's an old man with many children of his own.
Ares (which I've just begun writing) will be the second volume of the series. It's about a young woman, Julie Segovia, who joins the Marines to avoid being charged with murder, and is sent to Mars to help quell what the East American government and the United Nations regard as a rebellion. Two of Emerson Ngu's grown sons and one of his daughters come to Mars for reasons of their own. Lots of sex, violence, and freedom politics.
Ceres is about Emerson's great granddaughter Llyra Ngu and her family. Her dad is the Chief Engineer of the Ceres Terraformation Project. Her mom is a scientist who runs what might be called an asteroid materials laboratory. Her grandmother is a beloved writer of anti-authoritarian children's books. Her figure skating coach is the daughter of two of the Martian colonists from Ares. The book's primary focus is on Llyra, who wants to skate competitively on Earth, and must travel from world to world to train in increasingly higher gravity.
Llyra's brother is an asteroid hunter, who captures various kinds and sizes of rocks for their mineral content, and collects special bounties on those that would have collided with Earth or any of the other Settled Worlds. In fact, the novel's major concern is how the human race might prevent "extinction level events" like the one 65,000,000 years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. This is a huge epic adventure, with lots of action, danger, shoot-em-ups, and several love stories.
I don't want to say too much about Beautiful Dreamer just now. I hope it will be to the 21st century what James Hilton's Lost Horizon was to the 20th. Imagine a "magical" world in which human strength is not additive, and it's impossible to initiate force. Imagine a dying old man finding his way to that world, where he regains his youth and his health and falls in love with the most beautiful woman imaginable.
I understand that you are interested in seeing both Broach and Ceres converted to film. Are you open to everything from feature to televised original? How much leeway are you prepared to offer the adapters of the story in making alterations?
I freely confess that what interests me most about movies and TV is the money. My family have stuck with me faithfully through thick and thin, and there's been way too much thin along the way for me to feel very good about myself. I guess I'd like them to have a house where you can swing a cat without braining the dog. For me, I want to live on a lake, as I did in my childhood in Texas. I also have a few inventions I'd like to see developed and a few songs I'd like to hear recorded.
In all of this -- especially having seen what Michael Mann did to my friend F. Paul Wilson's The Keep and the mess Paul Verhoeven made of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, I'm resigned to seeing my work misunderstood and screwed up. But it will be worth it if the income helps me write even more books. Bad movies are soon forgotten, but good books live forever.
My understanding is that TimePeeper is an old story idea of yours in which people from the future travel to our present. The political idea is that a future moratorium on new legislation prevents the passage of any new law but allows for the repeal of existing laws. What was the genesis of the story and its political idea, and what is the future of the project?
I conceived the idea for TimePeeper sometime in the early 80s, and it was the first and only movie "treatment" I ever wrote. It's about what would be high school kids in our culture (there are no real schools in theirs) who steal a small device that can go back in time and spy on history. They damage it and must somehow retrieve it from the past before the theft is noticed.
When Back to the Future came out, I thought the stories were too similar, and just tucked TimePeeper away, although I fiddled with making a short story of it.
As to the Moratorium, I'd like to write a whole series of stories involving that. I think the idea might hold some hope for making America into the free country it was supposed to be all along, and never quite was. I just signed a contract for a TimePeeper webcomic with Big Head Press last week, so I can happily say, look for it sometime next year.
We're both fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How did you get into that show? (Friends of mine finally persuaded my wife and me to watch it, and then we loved it.) Are you also a fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity? What else do you enjoy in modern pop culture?
We'd seen the 1992 Kristy Swanson movie, and were naturally curious about the upcoming TV series that came along five years later. Little did we dream that it would turn out to be ten times better than the movie, even without Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, and Peewee Herman.
Almost instantly, we were just plain captivated by the actors, the characters, the dialogue, and practically everything else about the series. "I laugh in the face of danger," says Xander early in the first season, "then I hide until it goes away." There was more raw talent in one episode of Buffy than you'll see during an entire week of network programming these days.
In fact, I'm planning to do an article sometime soon on what I see as the almost criminal waste that's being made of the talents of all the Buffy principals these days. Sarah Michelle Gellar is one of the finest actors working, and deserves to do more than crappy little slasher flicks. David Boreanaz is interesting on Bones, but seems kind of cramped. And there are no expletives disgusting enough to describe putting the incomparable Alyson Hannigan into a worthless situation comedy -- and as the fourth banana!
Asked directly about it, I have to say I am less enthusiastic about Firefly/Serenity than most of my friends. There are aspects of it I like a lot -- anything with Gina Torres and Morena Baccarin in it is its own excuse -- and other aspects I like less. Part of the problem, I think, is that Joss Whedon is, at heart, a "sensitive," politically correct California liberal -- listen to the commentary on the Buffy disks about guns -- and his heart just wasn't into the kind of basic hooliganry the series really needed.
I'm ashamed to say that these days I mostly watch all the various forensic series: CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI:NY, NCIS, Without a Trace, Cold Case, Close to Home, Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, and so on. The news series Shark, with James Woods and Jeri Ryan is very well written and acted. They are all at once fascinating -- like 21st century Sherlock Holmes stories -- and horrifying, when the "heroes" betray themselves as thugs who threaten people by destroying their property or promising to prosecute them under the Patriot Act. One episode of Criminal Minds even tried to set a limit on how many guns the Second Amendment allows you to own. Been meaning to write about that, too.
We also watch The Ghost Whisperer, although around here, it's known as The Ghost Plagiarist for its uncanny resemblance to Eliza Dushku's ill-fated series, Tru Calling, which was in many ways much better.
And you are working on or at least contemplating your own vampire story. I didn't take you for a fantasy/horror guy. What got you interested in this genre, and (without giving too much away) what is the "L. Neil" twist on it?
Somebody once said that in every "nuts and bolts" science fiction writer, there's at least one fantasy struggling to get out. Consider Heinlein's Waldo and Magic, Incorporated, or Jack Chalker's Diamond Worlds series, or Randall Garrett's magnificent Lord D'Arcy stories.
My own vampire story, Sweeter Than Wine, is a bit like the TimePeeper situation in that I conceived the notion of an "ethical" (non-predatory) vampire who is a detective, and even wrote a synopsis, only to have Forever Knight come out. So, I put it away until quite recently when a publisher learned about it and expressed some interest.
For a while, you were talking about a space club for kids. What was the idea there, and is it still a possibility?
You're talking about the Space Scouts, and the idea is still in play. It's just been harder to get people interested in it than I thought. So I'm going to do what I always do, write a novel that incorporates it.
It will be called Gerard, after the late Gerard K. O'Neill, who guided the design of the sort of habitat we first knew as L-5, and later on as Babylon 5. It's a children's book, and will tell the story of a little boy who wants to be a space explorer (he's a member of the Space Scouts) and gets to take a trip on a suborbital hypersonic jet, a space elevator, and a shuttle to an O'Neill colony where his grandmother lives. He'll probably visit a city on the Moon, as well.
And oh, yes -- the story will be very lightly set in my North American Confederacy universe and the "little boy" will be a young, sapient bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. Right now, the plan is to have the story appropriately illustrated by Jen Zach. It's going to be ... wonderful.
I happened to be in the District of Charlatans, and I stumbled across SpaceShipOne in the Smithsonian. What an awesome achievement. Still, space exploration and commercialization isn't taking place at the pace that many of us would like. What do you see as the future of space travel? What do you think is most likely to be the big breakthrough?
Abolition of all taxation and economic regulation. If people want space badly enough -- for themselves, not a bunch of elite, government approved superheroes -- and can be made to see that detaxifying and deregulating the culture is the "price," they'll know the right thing to do.
That pretty much sums up my activities at the present moment, although I'm about to launch what I hope will be a huge series of radio interviews, and perhaps end up with a radio show of my own in the end.
Why do I do it? Because I can't honestly imagine doing anything else.
Some argue that the Republicans got their asses handed to them because they've become big-spending Nanny Staters who promote things like tax hikes, welfare expansion, and smoking bans. Others argue that Republicans need to be more "moderate" -- i.e., more socialist -- to win political power. What do you see as the significance of the recent election?
Practically none. We're all a bunch of badminton birdies who just got batted from the Republican side of the court to the Democrat side. We'll eventually get batted back again, of course, unless libertarians can manage to do something about it. If your principal concern, like mine, is freedom, there's absolutely no discernable difference between the two "majors," and for all practical purposes, they're one big party -- the Boot On Your Neck party -- pretending to be two.
Some of us are worried about the rise of the religious right, which is increasingly pushing big-government "solutions" for social and economic issues. Do you share this concern, or do you think the big problems are coming from elsewhere?
I grew up in the Bible Belt -- not the buckle end, as the cliche goes, but the other end where all the holes are. You know what kind of holes. I don't mean to underestimate them, but if you laugh at these idiots enough -- show them up as the phonies most of them are -- they'll go away.
I'm concerned about another kind of religious fundamentalism: environmentalism. The Greenies have no more respect for scientific truth and individual liberty than the Goddies do. Both operate on faith, rather than fact. And neither of them has any qualms about dusting off the rack, the pincers, the Iron Maiden, and the red hot branding irons in order to see their mythology ensconced as beyond question.
I'm involved in state-level activism, with the idea that the mountain states (or interior west -- I mean to include Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana) are the nation's (and therefore the world's) best hope to reestablish a "beacon of liberty." What do you think of this idea? What do you think are the most successful strategies for renewing individual rights?
I agree with you about the "interior west," but don't forget New Mexico. I'm speaking at their LP convention again next spring about that very thing, strategy, and what I'm going to say is that we must offer people a future worth living for, worth working for, worth fighting for. We must offer people a future that both wings of the Boot On Your Neck establishment are afraid to have them thinking about. Libertarians must reassociate themselves with space exploration and settlement, and with massive life extension, as well. I think the Bush Administration, with their stem cell phobia, has demonstrated that the latter can only occur in a libertarian society.
Anything else on your mind that you want to discuss?
Just that the dead-tree versions of The Probability Broach and A Drug War Carol make lovely Christmas gifts and may be purchased at www.BigHeadPress.com. And that you ask exceptionally good questions. Thank you!