Fiction Review: An Enemy of the State, by F. Paul Wilson.
Content warnings: The one severe bad word used humorously is a far smaller sin than the moral message of this book.
The line between fiction written for a message and fiction written with a message is fine indeed, but An Enemy of the State is an admirable example of usually achieving entertainment rather than propaganda. Not perfectly, but sufficient for me to enjoy it without agreeing with the author’s views.
I would hope not to assume the opinions of an author simply by reading his fiction, but An Enemy of the State is so blatantly anarchocapitalistic that I don’t know how it could be written by anyone except an anarchocapitalist. The plot is exclusively based on the truth of the economic predictions of an arch-libertarian philosophy. Chapters are often headed with quotes in support of anarchocapitalism, if not from real books then from the fictional books of the “Kyfho” philosophy. The dialog tends to be on how the anarchocapitalist view of things are right, or alternately how other views are wrong. Small pamphlets fictionally written by the protagonist against the Imperium (and government in general) can be found regularly spaced before chapters. The title alone refers not the hero being an enemy of the Outworld Imperium (though he is), but to the very concept of the State itself.
Yet the author’s skill shows in that the book does not become a novel-lecture. Our hero, Peter LaNague, is not a mere eidolon of anarchocapitalism taken flesh to fight empires. He has flaws, great doubts, and he makes mistakes. He has a family, and he finds himself torn between fighting the “good” fight and staying with his wife and daughter. “Moral” dilemmas trouble him; at the beginning he is unsure whether his first decision to order a death is the right thing to do. The author avoids the trap of making the “right” option automatically and automagically work out so that the dilemmas are true dilemmas, even if the moral foundation in question is sand.
This quality of humanized characters is spread across the whole novel. The emperor Metep VII is more incompetent than evil, and he does not pick the automatically worst option like a search algorithm to maximize villainy. The asteroid magnate Eric Boedekker has motives beyond his immoral (Kyfho-wise) profit, and his cooperation with LaNague does not result in a tearful conversion to Kyfho. This humanization is not a complete success, however. The violent revolutionist Broohnin varies between a caricature and an outlet for the hero to explain the goodness of all that is Kyfho. But again, the author’s skill is seen. LaNague’s attempts to convince Broohnin, and even how he defends his continual attempts despite the increasing evidence of it being a pointless effort, humanize them both.
Anarchocapitalism does succeed in marring the plot, in part because Anarchocapitalism is critical to the plot. The Outworld Imperium, aside from the fault of being a capital-S State, has committed the sin of switching to fiat money as legal tender. Worse, the Imperium has used deficit spending and welfare to buy the votes of the unproductive classes. But these enormities are not the reason for generations of LeNague to plan revolution. Oh, no. Rather, the inevitable impending collapse of the Imperium will lead to the Imperium going to war with the independent gold-rich Kyfho planets of Tolive and Flint to rebase its currency. Even if the Kyfho survive, it’s said, the other interstellar power of Earth would step in through the ashes and conquer all human civilization. Therefore, Peter LaNague must cause the doomed Imperium to implode early to save his homeworld.
Confusing? This strange workaround is required to appease Kyfho, (short for “Keep your ____ Hands off!”) Since it is only “moral” to intervene in someone else’s business when one’s own self-interest is at stake, Peter LaNague may not free the tax-oppressed citizens of the Imperium out of the kindness of his own heart (though it cannot be said he is heart-less). But as Anarchocapitalism must prophecy that the economy of the Imperium is doomed anyway, and this prophecy must be true, the plot is drained of much tension, like King Canute ordering the tides to do what they were already going to do anyway.
The setting feels oddly underpopulated. The emperor (actually an elected position) seems more like a mayor than a dictator, and action outside of the capital city is almost non-existent. Weird worlds and fantastic technologies are present, but not focused on. This, too, I blame on Anarchocapitalism, for if economics become the only thing that matter, then everything is reduced to its purely economic significance. The author avoids another trap of giving the “good guys” too much power: of the only wonders unique to the Kyfhons are the ninja-skills of the Eastern Kyfhons and the empathic trees of the Western Kypho. There are, of course, some almost flawlessly competent revolutionary scheming on the Kyfhon part, but you have to grant the protagonists something.
It is the flaws of Anarchocapitalism itself which most conflict with the fictional quality of the book. Peter LaNague is told to remember “Above all else: Kyfho.” This extreme idealism of the revolution is contrasted with the revolution itself, which involves putting many hands on many things belonging to other people, such as stealing taxes in many new and interesting ways to dump on the masses from above, or, as in the beginning, ordering an assassination outright, That assassination, by the way, is to kill another assassin who would kill the emperor therefore causing a different revolution that would not end well for the Kyfhons. Again, the nature of Anarchocapitalism requires making Kyfhony excuses for the plot.
The other, more ugly nature of Anarchocapitalism is a kind of gnostic contempt for the unenlightened.
There are no Kyfhon missionaries, and while LaNague does try to convince Broohnin, there is much LaNague openly says he is keeping secret, and some of those things are not mere strategic details. This is fine for a story but terrible for a philosophy, and in this book the distinction is blurred. If the economic forces guarantee, like the dooms of pagan Fate, the downfall of this or that, there is no need to keep any secret. But this is not quite believable to the human mind as a story, for it is evident in the world that many economic sins have not brought about the immediate judgement of the Invisible Hand. The alternative is that Kyfho is not a god but a magic, a power available for the great men to wield solely for their own good, and the lesser to despised and forgotten for their just failures.
For in the very end, the mask of Anarchocapitalism comes off. Here I spoil the final twist, because this review would be incomplete, otherwise.
LaNague succeeds in overthrowing the Outworld Imperium, and yet he does not succeed. The masses who have so supported him because of his giving them stolen cash (an inadvertent irony, I’m sure) at last refuse to create the Federation he envisions, but instead a mockery. They exchange these fruits of Kyfho for Kyfholmost, and the State returns with a different name. And that name is his, for they do not even keep their hands of that.
I believe it is the author’s honesty which leads to this ending, which itself shows the grand flaw of Anarchocapitalism. This god that cannot be tamed by any number of central planners in the world is itself incapable of compelling obedience. This very philosophy that claims to give freedom from other people is shackled to the dependance on other people allowing that freedom. Anarchocapitalism is a religion with a final battle but no guarantee of a final victory. Perhaps the boot will stomp on a human face forever, because the masses will not permit it otherwise.
There perhaps is a faint hint of pagan nobility in this, but only a hint. The pagans had no need for Kyfho. (What god from what myth kept his hands off anything?) It is what I would call the stage of the decay of the mind, or what Fr. Seraphim Rose called Realism. Anarchocapitalism is a philosophical Tower of Babel, a construction of ideas to attempt to create absolute truths from relative truths, and therefore from nothing. Realism fails when reality fails to cooperate, and then it becomes sheer insanity. Ideas that may have worked fine for factories do not work when turning everything into factories. That reason the masses reject Kyfho cannot be comprehended by Kyfho, and so the book ends tragically… for Kyfho.
Verdict: One least bittern. I enjoyed it, at least.
I have always been inspired by the story of Fredrick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to become a renowned orator and author. His is not the story of a man who was second-rate, shooed into the spotlight only for his relative accomplishments compared to his past. What use would that be? No, he was not merely any random speaker, but Fredrick Douglass, a name that survives to this day in history books, no matter how often it is skimmed over.
A shameless plug for someone else.
I have seen, and admittedly indulged in that fan activity I will call the Fact Checking Game. It goes like this: First, you take some work of fiction, particularly a popular one, and you find some fascinating idea or claim it has. Then you deconstruct it with real world logic, checking all the facts and invariably coming up with an unrealistic or at least implausible conclusion. At this point, bemoaning that the creator did not think of this may commence. As a sequel, you can find some plausible counterpoint, and argue with the proponents of the former conclusion until the cows come home.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing.