In attempting to get a political message across in a book, many authors can fall into the trap of sacrificing story to emphasize the message in a way that pulls the reader out of the narrative. Political tracts such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are often hindered by characters stopping to speak directly to the reader, long-winded sections espousing political philosophy that halt the flow of the story, and mostly being just plain boring in their depiction of the author’s ideal society while neglecting to create a compelling setting or narrative. Even classic acclaimed books such as George Orwell’s 1984 can be guilty of this. However, The Probability Broach attempts to avoid this by making the story enjoyable and somewhat ridiculous. Author L. Neil Smith freely admits The Probability Broach is a political tract about libertarianism, but says he didn’t want to make it a boring one. Instead, Smith “was determined to make it a political tract as full of sex, violence, and general silliness as [he] could cram in between the serious bits.” And to be fair, it works, at least in the updated graphic novel version. While The Probability Broach was originally published in 1980, it was recreated as a graphic novel in 2006. This is the version I read, and it is very silly but nonetheless an enjoyable read.
The Probability Broach starts out as a dystopian murder mystery, with Denver detective Edward “Win” Bear investigating the murder of a prominent scientist. The scientist also happens to be a member of the “Propertarian Party”, this universe’s version of the Libertarians. Of course, the world Win Bear comes from is not exactly our world’s United States. Win’s America is much more authoritarian. Car ownership require such strict licensing that the bicycle or buses are the main mode of transport for most people, proprietary secrets have been made illegal and Coca-Cola executives are being arrested for not divulging the soft drink’s formula, and the Supreme Court has approved government seizure of Disneyland for “retroactive” tax evasion.
During the investigation of the murders, Win discovers that the state or federal police are trying to cover up the murder, and goes to Fort Collins to investigate a lead while throwing the federal agents off his trail. It turns out the victim was a physics professor at Colorado State University. While investigating the professor’s lab, federal agents break in and Win has a shootout with them, before escaping into what looks like a fire exit. However, it’s actually a portal to the North American Confederacy in a world that has become a libertarian paradise! Win meets his counterpart there, Ed Bear, and together with Ed’s neighbors they unravel a conspiracy by Win’s government and an evil secret society of followers of Alexander Hamilton to invade Ed’s universe and destroy the peaceful libertarian utopia that developed.
While that premise is somewhat ridiculous, it is at least a good story for a conspiracy thriller. The art of the comic is good, and the actions sequences are well paced, while the more expository scenes are spaced out enough so the story doesn’t slow to a crawl. Also for a utopian society there is a good amount of world building and the alternate history aspect is done well enough for a political tract. The point of divergence that creates the libertarian world is one that actually rarely comes up in early American history. In 1791, one of the early insurrections against the United States began as the Whiskey Rebellion. When George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton levied a tax on whiskey in order to pay off debts from the independence war, farmers in western Pennsylvania rose up against the government. The Whiskey Rebellion lasted for three years with intimidation of tax collectors in the area, until a federal militia led by Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee was sent to quash the insurrection. There were no casualties, but the rebellion was one of the first acts of enforcement of the new Constitution after it replaced the Articles of Confederation. In The Probability Broach, the Whiskey Rebellion flares up after Swiss financier Albert Gallatin convinced the rebels not to disband and convinced Lee to march on the capital. George Washington is killed for treason, the Articles of Confederation are restored, and Gallatin is elected the second President of the United States, which later expands into the North American Confederacy.
As a political tract, I can look past many of the more implausible elements of the setting, especially in the libertarian utopia world. The North American Confederacy had Thomas Jefferson convince the nation to end slavery in the 1820s, had a Cherokee as president in 1840, and has also had Harriet Beecher Stowe and H. L. Mencken as presidents. The technological advances of the society are also highly advanced. Machine guns were invented in the 19th century, and by the 1980s when the story takes place fusion power is common, medical regeneration and organ cloning exists, and colonies have been established on the Moon, Mars, and in the asteroid belt. Additionally, because it is a utopia built on libertarian principles, society is quite different from what we are used to. Things like fingerprints and license plates are completely unknown. Nearly everyone carries a gun, dagger, or some sort of weapon with them at all times. With little to no government in this society, security is handled by private companies and court settlements are essentially handled by suing and counter-suing with a judge agreed upon by both parties presiding.
All of the above parts of the setting I can accept as part of the society The Probability Broach is trying to portray. It’s a political piece at its core intended to promote a libertarian ideology, and the setting reflects that. However, sometimes The Probability Broach ventures so far down this path and becomes so ridiculous that I start to wonder if it isn’t actually a satirical piece. For example, as part of the technological advancement, simians as well as dolphins and whales have been proven sapient and fitted with devices allowing them to speak. These animals are given full legal rights in the North American Confederacy, and a few of them are major characters in the story. Even with the advanced technology and a supposed society that has ended racism, that goes too far into the realm of implausibility for me. There are also parts where the principles of libertarianism are taken to a satirical extreme but without a hint of irony. One of the more recent presidents of the North American Confederacy is “None of the Above”. Also, when the Hamiltonian Society threatens to bring soldiers from the authoritarian universe into North America armed with atomic weapons, the Continental Congress states that they can do nothing about it. Preventing the soldiers from coming in would violate the Confederacy’s policy of open borders, and stopping them from bringing in nuclear weapons would violate the freedom to import weapons and the right to bear arms. It’s at these points that even the principles of a libertarian society are stretched beyond reasonableness and into the realm of parody. These moments, and others depending on how willing you are to suspend your disbelief, unfortunately detract from the otherwise interesting world-building.
Even though parts of the story are beyond egregious in how far they take libertarian values, The Probability Broach is still an enjoyable read and I would recommend reading at least the graphic novel version. It’s a well done action thriller, and the political exposition is nicely pared down so it doesn’t drag down the story like it might in prose. The alternate history behind the setting is also well constructed despite its implausibility. Many of the brands mentioned in The Probability Broach are in fact real life obscure or defunct brands, and the map of the North American Confederacy provided has some original changes that make sense given the history but that I have rarely seen elsewhere. For example, because of the much better treatment of native Americans in this history, the Cherokee capital of New Echota becomes one of the largest cities in the South in place of Atlanta. For a political tract, The Probability Broach is actually a good story with an original setting that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and ultimately I would say it’s worth a read. It can be read at the publisher Big Head Press’s website here.