The Probability Broach: Novel Review
The Probability Broach, an alternative history novel about a libertarian utopia, was written by L. Neil Smith and published in 1979.
I think The Probability Broach is the only libertarian alternative history novel. I suspect it’s also the only alternative history novel ever written by a presidential candidate (Smith twice ran for President of the USA, without excessively troubling the electoral count).
The Probability Broach: Title
The title is a reference to the tear in reality that enables the protagonist to travel to the alternative world. The characters call it “the broach”.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
The Probability Broach: Logline
When a cynical cop investigating a scientist’s murder accidentally transports himself to a libertarian utopia, he teams up with his alternate-history self to stop a conspiracy to invade and destroy his new homeland.
(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)
The Probability Broach: Plot Summary
Warning: my reviews contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1987, and the USA is a totalitarian state in the grip of an energy crisis.
Whilst investigating the murder of a physicist, policeman Edward ‘Win’ Bear is targeted by assassins. Trying to escape them, he accidentally uses the physicist’s lab equipment to travel through a ‘broach’ between worlds.
Win finds himself in the ‘North American Confederacy’, this world’s equivalent of the USA, which appears to be far more technologically advanced. He also notices that everyone carries firearms, even children. He quickly realises that he is not in the future, but an alternative world ‘sideways’ from our world.
Win decides to find his alternate-world self, ‘Ed’ Bear. He survives another assassination attempt after Ed and his neighbours, Clarissa Olson and Lucy Kropotkin, intervene.
Whilst recovering in the care of Clarissa, Win learns the history of the world from Lucy.
In the world of the North American Confederacy, there was a second American Revolution in 1791, soon after the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. The rebels executed George Washington as a tyrant and the country returned to the original, much less centralised, Articles of Confederation.
Albert Gallatin became President of the Confederacy, a government which was almost powerless, with no taxation power or control over trade or money. The Confederacy became wealthy and technologically advanced, which Lucy credits to the lack of taxes and government, an ideology known as ‘Gallatinism’.
The Native American tribes joined the Confederacy. It also abolished slavery much earlier and more easily than the USA. The Confederacy wasn’t involved in any other wars either, as there was no centralised government to declare war. Instead, propaganda broadcasts have spread the message of Gallatinism across the world, causing most of the world to adopt similar policies. Chimpanzees, Gorillas and dolphins are also citizens of the Confederacy, and the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt are all colonised.
As Win is nearing recovery, a group of assailants attacks the house. Win and Lucy fight them off and take a prisoner who tells them that a man called John Jay Madison hired him.
Win and Ed break into Madison’s house, search it and find three film canisters. The films show Madison contacted the USA’s government through the broach. Now, they plan to open a broach large enough to send nuclear weapons through, which will enable them to conquer the Confederacy.
Win meets a dolphin physicist, who explains that the Confederacy invented the broach that Win inadvertently travelled through. The dolphin contacted the physicist in the USA, who Madison then murdered. Madison tried to have Win killed to stop him investigating the physicist’s murder.
War of the Worlds
Soon afterwards, Madison kidnaps Ed and Clarissa.
Win and Lucy attend a meeting of the Continental Congress and try to pass a motion declaring an emergency. After they explain the threat, Madison also addresses Congress. He points out that the Confederacy has no laws against importing or owning any sort of weaponry, including nuclear weapons. It seems like there’s nothing the Confederacy can do to stop Madison and the USA from destroying it.
Win and Lucy [blackout] rescue their friends and track Madison to a small town. There, they attempt to interfere with Madison’s broach. During this operation, Win unintentionally causes the broach mechanism to collapse. The subsequent explosion kills Madison and his supporters. [/blackout]
Having [blackout] prevented the plot to destroy the Confederacy, Win stays in the alternate world, and marries Clarissa. The Continental Congress authorises an interdimensional propaganda campaign, hoping to foment a Gallatinarian revolution in the USA and so de-fang their enemy.[/blackout]
Finally, Win works out the exact change that led to the alternate world: a single word being added to the USA’s Declaration of Independence.
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
The Probability Broach: Analysis
The Probability Broach has a Conspiracy plot (see Spy Novel Plots), though a slightly unusual one.
The ‘Conspiracy’ Plot
- Witnesses an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or infiltrated by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Discovers who the Antagonists are.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
The plot of The Probability Broach lacks plausibility, logic and motivation, but it does kinda work, because it has a lot of momentum. Stuff happens. People get murdered, there’s lots of shootouts and chases and confrontations. Still, it’s pretty thin stuff.
The characters in The Probability Broach are, at best, stock cutouts.
All the characters are either libertarians, and therefore awesome, or anti-libertarians and therefore mustachio-twirling villains. And most of the good (i.e. libertarian) characters come across as nothing but mouthpieces for the author, there purely to explain how great libertarianism and guns are.
Also, I really wasn’t sure what the point of the talking chimps, gorillas and dolphins was. I guess they were just there to make the story more ‘sci-fi’, as they were even less developed than the human characters.
If I was charitable, I’d describe Smith’s style as ‘adequate’. Uncharitably, he writes like the love child of Raymond Chandler and Ayn Rand. The Probability Broach is a pulp adventure that stops every few pages to beat you over the head with how great not having a government is. It’s not as bad as Ayn Rand, but well, nothing is as bad as Ayn Rand, except perhaps L. Ron Hubbard.
However, it’s readable enough. Although there’s a lot of lecturing the reader about how great libertarianism is, each didactic section is relatively short and followed by another shootout.
So, the characters are weak, the story is pretty thin and the writing itself is mediocre. So why am I even reviewing this novel? Well, because its literary quality is not really the point. The point of novels like this is to put forward a vision. Alternative History is a literature of ideas. It can illustrate and explore. If done well, alternative history can put forward an interesting thesis.
Would no government and guns for everyone actually lead to utopia? God no. Still, it’s fun to examine the hypothetical, and really, isn’t that what alternative history is all about?
Is The Probability Broach an Alternative History?
The Probability Broach is partially an example of paleofuturism, being written in the late 1970s, but being set in 1987. However, the Confederacy of the novel has a proper alternative history with a point of departure.
Despite this, the depiction of the Confederacy is more reminiscent of a fantasy world or utopia. In the Confederacy, there’s no war, no racism, no slavery, no violence, no poverty, no one failed by the system, etc. etc.
The Confederacy is a lovely place, but it’s a complete and utter libertarian fantasy, not a realistic alternative history. (see What is Alternative History?)
What’s Wrong with Writing a Utopia?
Nothing. There’s a long tradition of writing novels about utopias. The point is to portray life in a different culture. From that point of view, The Probability Broach is worth reading. You don’t have to agree with libertarianism to engage with the ideas, and it’s certainly a novel that will make you stop and re-examine your preconceptions. It might even give you a better understanding of what libertarians think.
If we think of The Probability Broach like that—as a way to examine an unusual point of view—then great, but we need to remember it’s not a look at the issues, it’s propaganda. There’s no even-handedness or, in the end, honesty. A debate might have been enlightening. Some acknowledgement that a libertarian society might have the odd problem would have been honest. There would be no protection for the weak, and wealth disparity would be extreme, for two obvious examples.
Instead, even something as unlikely as a world with individual possession of superweapons having next to no violence is presented with a straight face. And what could possibly go wrong when you arm toddlers? You won’t find out by reading The Probability Broach…
If Smith had compared the real world with the Confederacy even, it might have been more interesting. But he straw-mans our world into a totalitarian hellhole instead. Why anyone would rather live in the USA of the novel rather than the Confederacy is hard to imagine. Who would ever choose the hellhole over the utopia? This also means the bad guys have no discernable motivation.
Libertarian and Gun Propaganda
So, this is the problem: The Probability Broach is propaganda, but it’s not even very good propaganda, because it’s too heavy-handed. I’ve seen Smith described as “Robert Heinlein but without the subtlety”, which isn’t far off. Smith wouldn’t recognise subtlety if a toddler shot him with it.
The trouble is, people don’t like being banged over the head with blatant, one-eyed propaganda that even an unarmed child could see through, but that’s all Smith has. All he really proves that in fiction you can make anything, however implausible, happen. Which brings us to the sex scene…
The Sex Scene
I found the sex scene unpleasant. Largely because Clarissa throws herself at the protagonist exactly when you might expect (during the happy ending) after them barely interacting during the main plot.
Given that the rest of the novel is authorial wish-fulfilment, I suspect that meeting a libertarian woman who was inexplicably enthusiastic about blowing him several times a night was another of the author’s implausible dreams…
The Prometheus Award
And finally, The Probability Broach won the Prometheus Award in 1981. Which sounds pretty cool until you realise that:
- The Prometheus Award is for libertarian propaganda.
- Smith established the Prometheus Award.
So really, it’s not much different from me creating the “Graeme Shimmin Award” for the best novel written by people like me and then my friends handing me the inaugural award.
God help us, there’s nine of the beasts. Smith sure was in love with his utopia.
The Probability Broach: My Verdict
The best libertarian-wish-fulfillment alternative history novel ever… but that’s not saying much.
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