Libertarian SciFi Book Review: Wĭthûr Wē
Every so often a book comes along that truly makes you appreciate writing as a subject; one that truly captures the imagery that we see and feel in our lives when we so often lack the time for reflection.
Wĭthûr Wē is such a book. Yet, such a recommendation doesn’t quite do it justice because its beautiful imagery is only a backdrop for a rich libertarian narrative and struggle of ideas.
Wĭthûr Wē is set several centuries in the future. We never learn the exact year but late in the book we discover that it must be the 28th century. Humans have colonized a small portion of the galaxy – perhaps a thousand light years across – but have yet to discover any alien civilizations. Only the three million year old Ruins on the planet Kaldis provide any proof that non-human intelligence exists, or at least existed once, in the universe.
Alistair Ashley 3nn, the main character of the tale and mouthpiece of Rothbardian philosophy, has just returned from his tour of duty on Kaldis, a human colony at war over their form of government. His experiences have obviously marked him, because those who knew him before he left remark on how different he now is, both physically and emotionally. Alistair has prepared well for his return to Aldra, his home planet, and its tightly regulated – and therefore wĭthûring – economy. Through a clever, and very sci-fi, technique, he smuggles instructions for making black market medicine and sells them to black market merchants. He demands gold, not the easily inflatable Aldran Credit which is nothing more than a bit of electronic information stored on a magnetic strip.
Alistair, who has disavowed the 3nn which the government tacked onto his name, was taught the principles of libertarianism by his grandfather who died while he was “off” on Kaldis. He returns angry at the atrocities he has seen and his anger only grows when he sees how much further towards serfdom his home planet has travelled in the four cycles (years) since he has been off. When his father’s home is stolen by the government in an Aldran version of eminent domain, he uses the money from his medicine sale to begin his own private rebellion. He begins by burgling the house of the politician who stole his father’s home, bitterly noting as he leaves that most people would consider Alistair the thief, and not the politician.
Part I is principally the story of rebellion, and the author uses it to show how oppressive government can be. Near the end, Alistair is captured, imprisoned and ultimately sent away to a prison planet
It is in Part II where we are shown an alternative to government, how things could be in a society where all relationships are voluntary and no single entity monopolizes security, law enforcement and arbitration. Alistair continues his rebellion against tyranny on Srillium, the prison planet, but this time there are no highly advanced, organized institutions of government terror, nor any long-standing loyalty to these corrupt institutions. Alistair is able to advance further in his cause than when he was on Aldra by establishing his own security and arbitration company. People begin to see things his way when they see the fruits of their labor. It is here they finally begin to understand his radical libertarian position.
Part III, the shortest part in the book, brings together many of the elements which have been developed throughout the story. Many of them have to do with science, many of them with economics and politics, and though there is no apparent connection, they all come together in one final statement about the evils of government, the initiation of aggression and the vital importance, if humanity or any intelligent species is to flourish, of the free market and voluntary relationships.
For many, a work of fiction becomes a bookshelf trophy, something that you clean but never quite have time to read (I believe it was Mark Twain who said that a classic is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read). This author sympathizes with such a plight. Time is always scarce and thus leisure-time is even scarcer. Each book inevitably carries an opportunity cost. But what if I were to tell you that your libertarian education cannot be completely filled only by our wonderful works of nonfiction? The reader must truly see these brilliant ideas in dialog and narration in order to identify with them; there is nothing as equal.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is truly inspiring to watch a free society being built from the ground up and the applications of non-monopolistic arbitration are equally inspiring. There is one scene in particular, from chapter 62, that gives a good example of free market security and arbitration in action. It begins with Alistair explaining the new job to one of his employees.
“The key difference from your perspective is that no one is forced to pay for our services,” Alistair explained to Taribo while the latter sat across from him at the table in the hut. “If we don’t please people, I go out of business and you lose a job.”
“I understand this, my friend,” said Taribo with a disarming smile.
“I know you understand, but have you pondered the implications? You told me you were in the military.”
“Then you need to relearn things. This is not going to be like anything you have ever done or ever seen before.”
“Customer service,” was Alistair’s simple reply. To Taribo’s raised eyebrow, he responded, “You have to be polite to people. We have to make people want to hire us, because if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. Every incident needs to be handled with an eye towards making all parties satisfied with the outcome. It won’t always be possible, but that is the goal. Everyone needs to be treated with respect, patience, politeness, and a smile… Everyone is either a customer who deserves our respect or a potential customer who deserves our respect. This isn’t a state police force and it sure isn’t the armed forces. We don’t want to lose anyone’s business.”
A grin sprouted on Taribo’s face, and by the time Alistair finished it bloomed into a full smile accompanied by a delighted laugh.
“Customer-friendly police!” he chortled without derision.
“That’s how it has to be,” said Alistair, a grin of his own forming.
“I like it. Customer-friendly!” Taribo laughed again. “I will arrest you politely.”
“And everything else politely.”
“We are the polite police!”
“Can you manage that?”
“They are only one letter different: polite and police.”
“Close in spelling,” Alistair agreed.
“It was an ironic coincidence until now.”
Later, Alistair pronounces a man guilty of severely beating another man, and Taribo is called to administer the punishment.
“Mr. Bernhard Rachmann, it is my opinion you assaulted Mr. Yusuf Hassan. You turned a heated argument into a physical assault with a smaller man who could not defend himself and who had no desire to engage you in combat. I am declaring you guilty.”
Bernhard rolled his eyes.
“Mr. Hassan, do you wish to grant Mr. Rachmann any clemency?”
“What is clemency?”
“Do you wish to forgive all or part of the punishment?”
“I want the full punishment,” insisted Yusuf with a defiant look at Bernhard.
“There’s not even a jail here,” spat the other with dismissive arrogance, and he folded his arms even tighter to his chest.
“Mr. Rachmann, we don’t anticipate needing to use a jail very often. We offer a different service here, and now we are going to deliver the justice Mr. Hassan has paid for. First of all, you have physically assaulted Mr. Hassan without his permission. This action on your part is a declaration that you consider such violence permissible. As a first course, Mr. Hassan has the right to do to you what you did to him, or to hire someone to do it. Taribo will be doing the honors today, unless Mr. Hassan wishes to do it himself.”
“He’s bigger,” Yusuf declared with an encouraging nod to the muscular West African.
“Wait a minute… what the hell are you talking about?” For the first time Bernhard’s tone betrayed some alarm.
“They’re going to beat the hell out of you, stupid ass!” Yusuf barked.
“What the fuck!?” Bernhard yelled, rising from his stool. “You can’t do that!”
“Mr. Rachmann,” said Taribo, “we regret we cannot allow you to leave now that Mr. Ashley has given the pronouncement. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you and ask you to remain seated until directed otherwise.” Taribo finished with an expression of satisfaction.
Bernhard stared for a moment at Taribo’s hand which pointed to the stool he had just vacated. Eyes wide with fright and taking rapid breaths, he considered the large men before him, most of them even larger than him, and sat back down.
“It is demonstrably untrue that we cannot beat you, Mr. Rachmann,” Alistair said with the flat tone of a lecturer. “Just as you beat Mr. Hassan, we can beat you. Whether or not this is a proper course of action is, ultimately, Mr. Hassan’s decision, but you certainly have no room to argue you should be treated more gently than you treated Mr. Hassan.
“In our justice system, after a neutral party determines guilt, the aggrieved party determines the punishment, the maximum permissible extent of which the perpetrator himself determines at the moment he commits his crime. You determined the type, intensity, duration and amount of the beating the moment you delivered such to Mr. Hassan. While you wait for your beating, Mr. Mpala will consult with Dr. Lushington so that an accurate punishment may be administered.”
In what was a supremely satisfying reaction for Yusuf, Bernhard’s lips quivered and his cheeks lost their color.
“But that is just the beginning. We beat you with the permission of Mr. Hassan, a permission he received from you when, by your actions, you declared such things permissible. But when you beat Mr. Hassan, you acted without permission. In other words, our beating is a response and yours was an initiation. The pain to follow is a consequence of your own actions, but the pain Mr. Hassan must endure is unjust, something he should never have had to go through in the first place. You will therefore be made to pay a fine upon which interest will accrue for every moment it remains unpaid. This will be compensation for Mr. Hassan’s unnecessary suffering.”
Bernhard’s jaw, already wide open, threatened to drop to the floor.
“If you refuse to pay the fine, your property will be taken from you and its title transferred to Yusuf until the debt is cleared. If you do not have property enough to settle the debt, and if no one will lend or give you their property to help you, you will be forced to work off the debt. However, in such a case that you refuse to pay the debt on your own, we will be forced to charge you for the trouble of having to force you to work off the debt. This will only make it more expensive, and the accrued interest will be much greater as well. You may at any time, of course, reach an agreement with Mr. Hassan to settle the debt, both the money or property owed and the beating.”
It was not entirely clear whether Bernhard fully comprehended what was happening, but he had realized that, short of a sudden desire to be merciful on the part of Yusuf, he was going to be severely beaten and then would have to pay a fine on top of that. The shock on his face morphed into pleading as he looked at a gloating Yusuf Hassan, and then quickly became anger as he gripped the edge of the table and stared down at the floor.
“You can’t do it!” he hissed. “I never hired you! I’m not part of your… damn… shit!”
“Mr. Hassan is our client; that is all that matters.”
In the end, there was nothing Bernhard could do. He was taken to a holding area next to the hut. He waited there while Taribo spent a few minutes in discussion with Gregory, whose manner and glances towards Alistair betrayed his disapproval. When he felt ready, after Yusuf again declined to forgo the beating in favor of clemency or a monetary settlement, the West African soldier came for Bernhard, guarded by Miklos and Ryan, and led him to a tree with a rope tied around its trunk. A crowd gathered for the spectacle, and excited chatter ran through. There were a few voices expressing disapproval, more that expressed their enthusiasm, but mainly it was a neutral sort of curiosity and excitement.
“If you’d be so kind as to raise your arms,” said Taribo as if he were a tailor.
Bernhard, numb with disbelief, raised his unsteady arms and Taribo tied the other end of the rope around his abdomen and then again around the tree, leaving the Austrian firmly secured to its base. The man’s stoic visage shattered as fear overcame him.
“It is better to stand still for this sort of thing,” suggested Taribo in a chipper tone. “If I miss a target body part because you try and duck, it only means I have to hit you again until I get the target. Are you ready?”
Bernhard was not listening, and when Taribo drew back his hand the man cringed.
“Wait!” he implored Taribo. “Wait! I don’t want this. I’m sorry I… I didn’t mean it.”
“We understand this is unpleasant for you,” Taribo said in a voice to calm a crying child. “We wish there were another way, but we have to remind you that Mr. Hassan did not want to be beaten either. Hopefully, in the future, this sort of thing will be unnecessary.”
With the terror still shining in Bernhard’s eyes, Taribo readied himself to commence. The crowd, tense like fans before a kickoff, hung on his drawn fist. Bernhard gritted his teeth to stop the chattering, looking helplessly for support from the onlookers. Then, the first punch landed like a blow from a sledgehammer. The resultant cry of pain was cut short by a left to his midsection, and the beating was under way. It was a methodical and precise beating, controlled, with Taribo taking care to position himself just so, or to turn Bernhard’s head or lift his arms so that all blows landed on their targets. By Taribo’s furrowed brow one could see him counting punches, checking off body parts that received their due and proceeding to the next. A rough piece of stone was scraped over Bernhard’s left side, from his ribs to his ankles, and in the end Taribo grabbed hold of his ample chest hair and ripped it from his body, finally leaving him slumped and nearly senseless, held up only by the rope binding him. When this was untied, Bernhard fell to the ground where he weakly moaned.
“On behalf of Ashley Security & Arbitration, I would like to say that we hope no such action will be required in the future,” said Taribo, breathless, as he rubbed at his sore knuckles. His chest heaved from the exertion and sweat drenched his body and soaked his clothing, but he was nonetheless exhilarated. “Furthermore, we must warn you against any reprisal against Mr. Yusuf, on whose behalf we have acted with justice today.” Taribo paused to gulp in some more air. “We’d like to offer you our services which, you must agree, are quick and effective. We aim to make any violation of our customers’ property rights an unthinkable proposition, and we encourage you to take advantage of our protection. Your score with Mr. Hassan is well on its way to being settled and, that being the case, we can accept you as a client with the full right of property like anyone else. Your fee for service will be higher than others, of course, due to this precedent and the increased likelihood of intervention it entails.”
There are many episodes like this throughout the book, demonstrating libertarian ethics, non-monopolistic security and arbitration, and Austrian Economics. All of these are woven into a science fiction setting and a larger, epic story that I think any libertarian can enjoy.
I highly recommend it as a look into a possibility, if we don’t shed the shackles of government, of wĭthûr wē, the human race, could be headed.
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Matthew Alexander conceived Wĭthûr Wē as a platform for demonstrating Rothbardian, Natural Law libertarianism as well as sound principles of Austrian Economics, similar to how Atlas Shrugged was a platform for Objectivism.