January 16, 2005

Freedom Among the Asteroids

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor

L. Neil Smith's Pallas

L. Neil Smith's original fiction shows the influence of Ayn Rand, as well as his own long involvement with the Libertarian Party; and none of his novels reflect this so clearly as Pallas.

This story of finding freedom is set on the commercially-developed asteroid, Pallas. It opens in a collectivist compound on that planetoid, the Greeley Union Memorial Project. Emerson Ngu (pr. "New") is a thorn in the sides of the project overlord, Senator Altman, and his UN goons. Ngu was enrolled in the project as an infant, when his parents signed their rights, his rights,and those of his children over to the project in exchange for passage to "the opportunity of a lifetime" on Pallas.

After they arrived, they discovered a wall between them and the Pallatian opportunity, and learned they were destined to be plantation serfs under the whips and batons of the UN troops.

The police are like parents. They're not really interested in justice, they simply want quiet.
 —Mirelle Stein, The Productive Class
Young Ngu, though, doesn't want to be a field worker on the Project. An irrepressible entrepreneur and inventor, he gets into trouble as a child for selling refreshments made from oranges discarded from the Senator's "big house", and scrabbles together enough components to make his own crystal radio. That's how he discovers the real Pallas, and determines someday to fly over the wall to freedom.

When Emerson Ngu does finally escape from the Project, he finds a culture strange and wonderful to him. Pallatians are expected to carry a gun—to go without one is to be "socially nekkid." They have each signed the "Hyperdemocratic Contract," a simple 7-point document that lays out the entire legal structure of the planetoid, with libertarian minimalism. And strangest of all to Ngu, they are all carnivores, eating far more protein in a single meal than he has had in a year on the Project.

This philosophy allies with Ngu's own abilities and beliefs, as he sets out to remake his world. He puts together a simple crystal radios locked on the single station, and arranges to smuggle dozens of them into the Project. He invents an easy-to-construct pistol, and builds his factory within walking distance of the Project to lure assemblers from amongst their number. His plan is to arm the serfs, and promote insurgency. Finally, he invents a simple way to get around, and in so doing, puts the final nail in the Project's coffin.

You are what you eat—which sort of accounts for vegetarians, I guess.
 —Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy, Hunting and Humanity
If Ngu is the ideal of the capitalist, his opposite number at the Project, Senator Altman, is the quintessential collectivist, who means to rule well, but (make no mistake), means to rule. Altman is a cosmic remittance man, described as a kind of amalgam of President Clinton and Senator Kennedy; Altman has been exiled to the Project after a particularly steamy sex scandal.

At first, Ngu is a minor nuisance to Altman, who believes he can simply have the "minor child" returned to the Project and his parents. He learns that Pallatians don't consider an emancipated person paying his own way as a minor, regardless of his age. The Senator tries to have Ngu's broadcast advertising shut down, and loses that lawsuit as well. He tries organizing competing industries, but loses his shirt. At last he resorts to "the last refuge of the incompetent" and hires thugs to kill Ngu and his family.

Emerson Ngu, meanwhile, has not been simply resting, waiting for the next attack. He meets two of the founders of Pallas: Mirelle Stein (obviously patterned after Ayn Rand) and Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy (a reflection of Robert Ardrey, who wrote The Hunting Hypothesis, and Raymond Dart, the South African anthropologist whose theories Ardrey popularized).

Smith has done an excellent job of portraying the heroic (and human) in Ngu, Stein and Drake-Tealy. And like the villains of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Altman shows the venality and petty nature of their opposition. It's a novel to re-read whenever your perception of the edges between them starts to blur.

An interesting note in the back-story: the UN has been booted out of the US, and is now located in Sri Lanka.

Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.]

Posted by Vanderleun at January 16, 2005 10:01 PM
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