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America in
Chains

THINKING ABOUT CHARACTER July 27, 2010

For the next few days I will be carefully rereading my 1993 novel
_Pallas_, which I didn’t know at the time would become the foundation
for the four-volume “Ngu Family Saga” I’m in the middle of writing
now.

I’m doing this because Phoenix Pick will be rereleasing _Pallas_
in a few weeks and it’s necessary to check the proofs. It’s actually a
little more complicted than simply reading the book. This time, my
lovely and talented wife Cathy is reading the proofs to me from the
computer, while I follow along in the original TOR hardcover. If we
discover a discrepancy, I sing out, she makes the change, and we move
on.

It’s actually a lot of fun — at least for me. _Pallas_ is one of
my favorites among my own books, and I’m unreasonably proud of it. It
was my first journey to a world I wish I were living in, one in which
I have spent, and will spend, a lot of time. I probably won’t live
long enough to see it myself, but my great hope is that, by making
that world attractive enough, someday my readers will help make it
real.

Anybody listening out there?

Getting to hear it read to me by the woman I have loved and lived
with for 30 years is just too sexy and wonderful for words. Getting to
watch her relive each moment of the story is equally enjoyable. My
writing — _The Probability Broach_ — won me my bride in the first
place. It’s good to be able to remind her — see her remind herself —
that I’m still the wordslinger she fell in love with back when we were
young.

We all want to be heroes in the eyes of those we love.

Wait’ll she reads _Ceres_!

I’ve written about _Pallas_ before, most recently in an essay I
called “Pallases in the Air”, which appeared in Number 571, the May
23, 2010 edition of _The Libertarian Enterprise_. In that piece, I
pointed out that the story — which revolves about the terraformation
and settlement of the second largest body in the Asteroid Belt — is
rooted in the homesteading experiences of my own immediate ancestors
here in Colorado, and in the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the
1970s.

In philosophy and spirit, it’s the first novel of the Tea Party
movement.

But what surprised me — shocked me, really — this time through,
was the characterization of the novel’s principal villain, former
United States Senator Gibson Altman. Based loosely on another former
senator, Gary Hart — the very model of a wine-and-cheese-consuming,
Volvo-driving, bedwetting “progressive” douchebag — Altman was once
his party’s next choice for the White House. He’s a former senator
now, owing to a massively public sexual indiscretion. He’s been exiled
by his party to the Asteroids until he can be rehabilitated — or
forgotten.

We first see Altman watching “his” peasants returning from the
fields for their evening meal. He’s been given control of a United
Nations agricultural commune wedged onto an otherwise laissez-faire
capitalist Pallas through a regrettable loophole in its founding
documents.

I tried hard, in my portrayal of Altman and his thoughts, to
communicate everything I’d learned — and figured out — about the
minds of left-wing politicians and their supporters, and I won’t
repeat myself here. What startled me was that the character standing
on the verandah in the twilight could as easily have been Jimmy Carter
or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama. In fact, as Cathy read on, I almost
had to shake my head to keep from visualizing Barry in the place of
Gary.

Most of my readers, libertarians and conservatives, won’t have any
difficulty agreeing with my observations concerning the “progressive”
mind. I expected vehement disagreement, though, from the left. I never
got it. What I got, instead, in reaction to what I had believed was
the best, depthiest, most-developed villain I’d ever written, amazed
me.

Cardboard. Nothing but another flat, characterless, cardboard
badguy. I only got this reaction from one individual, but it was
somebody who was important to me. It fascinated me then and it still
does. It eventually gave me greater insight into the minds of our
adversaries — the enemies of individual liberty — than I’d ever had
before.

What had happened was that there was perhaps a 90% congruency,
point-for-point between Altman and my critical friend. I’ve made too
much of this in the past. He may be liberal, but he’s the best person
he knows how to be. I like him respect him. But he couldn’t see the
parts of Altman’s character that were similar to his own — he blanked
them out, as Ayn Rand would say — and all that remained was …
cardboard.

Most of us, I think, libertarians and even most conservatives,
have carefully constructed our own lives, our own personalities, brick
by brick, through a lifelong, difficult, often painful conscious
effort. Ask any one of us why he (or she) takes the position he does
on a given issue, why he prefers to patronize one business over
another, why he prefers a particular type and brand and model of
self-defense weapon, and he will probably respond in terms of ideas,
thoughts, and words, even when the topic is highly subjective and
aesthetic.

Ask any liberal or “progressive” the same things, and before she
(or he) faints dead away at the self-defense question, will respond in
terms of her (or his) feelings. I’m far from the first individual to
make such an observation, but let’s take it a step further. What we
are dealing with, in this circumstance, is a fundamentally unexamined
life.

An unexamined life leads its owner to wander tragically through an
unknowable world in a constant state of mental, moral, and emotional
confusion, ending — except by occasional chance — in disappointment
and humiliating failure. It is the first prerequisite to that deep and
bitter self-hatred which is the principal innermost motivation of all
collectivists.

There is a way to trust your feelings, but that’s a topic for
later.

Comments

1. Ken Holder - July 27, 2010

Hammer. Nail. Nail-head. WHACK!

Drove that sucker flat.

2. Neale (spelled the right way) Osborn - July 27, 2010

Neil- My 2nd favorite LNS novel, and not just for Emerson’s boss. It re-inforces my thoughts on what it means to be an individual. Favorite? TPB, of course. That was the novel where I learned just what I was, and that got me one of MY best friends.

3. Tomas - July 28, 2010

Amazingly flat I’d say, the tired old plot that is. Any time you want to learn from a lifelong and unabashed liberal, send your questions my way.

4. Neale (spelled the right way) Osborn - July 28, 2010

Tomas- we don’t want to listen to more liberal crap, thank you very much. I hope Neil declines your offer to ruin his works.

5. El Neil - July 28, 2010

A “lifelong and unabashed liberal”, you say?

Given the squalid condition in which this civilization finds itself — created almost entirely by liberal policies — I’d call that a contradiction in terms. Only somebody who is deaf and blind, and therefore can’t look around at the mess they have made, could remain “unabashed”.

Be abashed, Tomas, be very abashed.

Now go away and read three or four of my books. Once you’ve begun to acquire an education, we’ll visit again.

Not before.

6. W.Edwin Hinds IV - July 28, 2010

@Tomas

“The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

Liberal is just another word for the former. It has been tried, control, and it has failed to live up to even the lowest standards set fourth by those who would inflict their imagination upon our reality through force of arms and other more subtle (yet no less disgusting) means.

@El Neil

It is not surprising that your friend viewed Altman as a cardboard cutout and not a real character. He could not recognize the very characteristics that are present in his own psyche as being exceptional and thus worthy of note. Collectivist viewpoints are not exceptional or original in any sense, and the people who emotionally invest in that perspective are like an empty pizza box whose only soul is the grease stain staring back at them.

7. R.D. Bartucci - July 28, 2010


When referring to the modern “milk-and-water socialist” (a hat tip to wargames designer Greg Costikyan, who wrote this explanation into the designer’s notes for his game *Pax Britannica* in 1985), I have made a conscious decision to employ the term “Liberal” with capitalization and quotation marks.

In the 19th Century, the word “liberal” came into usage to denote someone who defended the rights of the individual human being against violation by the officers of civil government, and I really do not think that it is proper to accord the collectivists of the American left – who started calling themselves “progressives” in the late 19th Century and then “Liberals” in the early 20th Century – the use of this word without the conscientious maintenance of appropriate caveats.

These sons of bitches are the antithesis of genuinely liberal thought and action, so much so that those of us who are “classic liberals” – in the sense, for example, that Friedrich von Hayek uses the word in his book *The Constitution of Liberty* (1960) – have had to fall back on the term “libertarian” to avoid precisely that sort of confusion which America’s socialist totalitarians have striven to impose.

What Mr. Smith must understand about these “Liberals” (socialists, welfare state authoritarians, progressives, fascists, or whatever in hell they’re calling themselves this week), both in reality and in his carefully construction of the character of former United States Senator (and United Nations apparatchik) Gibson Altman is that they are uniformly creatures of cliche.

The best representation of a real-life person like Gary Hart or Harry Reid or George McGovern or Barry Soetoro (insofar as I’ve been able to determine, he never did change his name back to “Barack Hussein Obama” after being legally adopted in his childhood by Lolo Soetoro and entering school in Indonesia under his new and presently proper appellation) must always be seen as “cardboard” because none of these people are what anyone can honestly consider “human.”

This is not simply an effort to objectify those whom Mr. Smith so eloquently describes as “Stupid, insane, or evil. Or all of the above. Your choice.”

It is that they lack something of that spark of plain common decency which identifies a particular packet of Homo sapiens DNA as truly “human” in the eyes of another truly human individual.

To be a “Liberal,” one must necessarily deny the intrinsic validity of each individual human life among the thousands and millions of people all around him. The “Liberal” – to be a “Liberal” – must have both intellectually and subconsciously committed himself to the consideration of all other members of his species as a *Lumpen*, a great mass, without any genuine distinguishing characteristics which the “Liberal” need truly bother himself.

Think about it for a moment. Were you the crewman responsible for the survival of the passengers crowded in an already overladen lifeboat, and you saw Nancy Pelosi swimming toward the gunwales of your boat, would you hesitate, gazing into her sharklike eyes, to put the blade of your oar into her face and shove?

There is something in the “Liberal” which the truly human person almost instinctively recognizes as “not human.”

Like any other sociopath (and I encourage the reader to look into the DSM IV definition of this disorder and compare it against the qualities of each and every ascendant “Liberal” politician, pundit, and bureaucrat), each “Liberal” shares with his fellow “Liberals” characteristics of personality such that any accurate depiction of the “Liberal” in fiction must inescapably seem like cliche.

In *Anna Karenina*, Anton Chekov opened with one of his most famous lines:

“Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Well, it’s that way with the “Liberal.” Like other kinds of sociopaths, every “Liberal” is – at base – just like every other “Liberal.”

Those of us who are not “Liberals” are (as you’d expect cantankerously anti-socialistic people to be) each a moral individualist in his own idiosyncratic way.

To the extent that the pathological “Liberal” is capable of producing art of any kind, consider how they depict the characters which they wish to use as ideal and wonderful and praiseworthy examples of their own political advocacies.

Are these not entirely “cardboard”?

8. Charles Fuller - July 28, 2010

The final paragraphs of your essay remind me of what a former girlfriend said about me…
“Charles, if you were any more introspective you’s be a feedback loop.”
Guilty as charged.

9. El Neil - July 28, 2010

Once, during a bad break in my life, I went back to Florida to visit my old high school sweetheart after ten years. She’s the young woman I eventually based Sedrich’s first love on, in _The Crystal Empire_ (new Phoenix Pick edition available from Amazon.com), and the summer I describe in the book is the last summer we spent together.

Regrettably, my visit was one of those “you can’t go home again” episodes, and a dismal failure in every possible meaning of the words, so grim I’ll probably never use it in my fiction.

One of the things she said about me was how introspective I was. Well, I’d always been that way, and the events of the previous decade had only intensified it. Basic qualification for a writer/philosopher, I figure. Apparently she thought it was a bad thing.

People change, people change. And our perceptions of them change, as well. I guess that, without knowing it, I’d mistaken her for for my future enamorata, Cathy.

10. al perez - July 28, 2010

Don’t get me started on my first great lost love. The story there is almost something out of a bad it’s a small world anecdote.
I will always value her friendship, and I have learned a lot from her on how to be a decent person, but we grew into people who could never be happy together romantically.
It’s a hell of a story, of course.

11. The Mage at the Heart of the Castle - July 28, 2010

“It’s a hell of a story, of course,” said Albert.

“Then put it in your first novel,” Neil replied. “It’s what they said in _Fame_ (the wonderful movie, not the lame-ass TV series): ‘You must remember this feeling and use it in your work.”

12. R.D. Bartucci - July 29, 2010


I doubt that it is possible for the working writer – the person who expects to identify himself with what he writes, and to live in a world where that identification obtains – to be entirely disclosing of all the hellacious stories in his own life.

The most private things in our lives are kept private for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is our perception (right or wrong) that the revelation of these things would evoke such disapproval from those around us as to make it impossible for us to continue intercourse with them.

The value of anonymity (and pseudonyms) in publishing has been demonstrated again and again. It must be borne always in mind that John Locke – physician and philosopher – was politically entangled in the Rye House Plot during the Stuart Restoration, and had to flee to the Netherlands lest he be arrested by the King’s officers and hanged like the rest of the men who resisted Charles II and his brother.

It was during his exile as a fugitive that he composed his *Two Treatises* (from the second of which our Declaration of Independence was largely cribbed), and yet even after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and his return to England, Dr. Locke had to publish these conjoint works anonymously lest he be arrested by the servitors of King William and Queen Mary.

It must be observed that his personal anti-monarchical sentiments were damned dangerous to him, and he knew it.

The writer who must get a living for himself and his family cannot generally afford to be too self-disclosing. It is not uncommon that we do not discover until long after some authors’ deaths – and then only imperfectly – that there were such eccentricities in their characters (I’m thinking particularly of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson ["Lewis Carroll"] and J.M. Barrie) as to have most probably seen them ruined as Oscar Wilde had been, and even permanently incarcerated as “sexually dangerous predators” under presently obtaining statutes and regulations.

And then we would not have had either *Alice in Wonderland* or *Peter Pan*, would we?

I consider the life of Robert A. Heinlein (and hope to stay alive long enough to read both volumes of William Patterson’s forthcoming biography). While those of us familiar with his published corpus know that he did not disapprove of personal peccadillos which were scandal to the jaybirds throughout his life, I would not be at all surprised to learn that he was a very private practitioner of lifestyle choices which could well have rendered him incapable of getting a living as a writer had they become widely known at any time during the period 1939-1980.

How many parents and librarians would have purchased his Scribners’ juveniles had knowledge of Mr. Heinlein’s enjoyment of nudism (let alone the possibility of his “open marriage” sexual practices) come to their attention?

I say this not to denigrate Robert Heinlein (because I do not believe that the old man ever once did a single damned thing to violate the rights of anyone, or the dignity of any person innocent of malevolent action) but to press the point that the living writer is severely constrained in terms of what he can and cannot draw upon in his own life for incorporation in what he puts into prose.

While almost all human beings are capable of reason, only a very small minority of ‘em are in any way describable as “reasonable.”

13. al perez - July 29, 2010

There are of course incidents and themes of value from personal experience that can be used as raw material.

“It was a stupid misunderstanding. The cops knew it, I knew it. They laughed. I laughed. They laughed, and I laughed again. Then they put the handcuffs on me. They were still laughing, I wasn’t.

“They cut me loose right away, so I think it’s funny. It was still a big pain in the neck. Taught me that knowing how to get arrested without provoking the gendarmerie to beat the crap out of you is a vital life skill.

“Of course, some cops don’t require that much provocation.”

Personal experience. Nothing too embarrassing, and most people have this experience or one similar (or else I’m hanging around the wrong bunch). Hopefully most learned the same lesson.

14. Eli - July 29, 2010

Woo hoo. Pallas back in print! Are you or Phoenix Pick going to issue a version for any of the current e-readers? I need a new copy for my shelf cause I’ve worn the binding off the first one I owned, and your books are some of the few I’ll give up shelf space for, but I really would like to have a digital copy for my nook.

15. El Neil - July 29, 2010

Thank you, Eli,very much. Your enthusiasm is bracing. I am assuming that _Pallas_ will receive the same treatment from Arc Manor/Phoenix Pick as my other books so far. They’re all available for Kindle and several other electronic media. I don’t know the details (I still read ‘em the old fashioned way, although I’m all for the new ways, too) , but you might check out their website which you can find by simply putting their name in your browser slot.

AM/PP sells through Amazon.com. More and bigger surprises are coming. I can hardly wait until I’m free to tell you about them.

16. al perez - July 29, 2010

A friend told me that she divorced her husband over the character flaw that caused him to cheat on her. Not for cheating, but the character flaw that led him to cheat. Maybe she would have kept him if he had cheated for another reason? It is worth noting that his second wife divorced him over an affair, apparently she didn’t get it that a man who would cheat on one woman would cheat on another.
A local politician pushed for a strong crackdown on adult businesses back in the 1980′s. Apparently she was concerned that men would get “perverted” ideas from going to porn shops, act them out with their secretaries and break up their families.
Interestingly she was her husband’s former secretary and former wife.
There are many combinations of virtue and vice that shape our characters. Without certain faults I’d be a better person, but that person wouldn’t be me. How a person acts out their combination of strength and weakness, lives up to their virtues and resists or succumbs to their vices determines if they are good or evil.
I’ve always wanted to see if Senator Altman outgrew his faults with the extra years Emerson Ngu gave him. Maybe when all the Ngu family saga comes out we’ll see.

Meanwhile as El Neil advised and as I hinted in an earlier post, I will definitely incorporate the story of true love, personal growth and reunion in at least one novel, maybe others. Maybe I’ll even get it accepted somewhere.

In the meantime, I don’t think Altman was one dimensional. I do think that his virtues and vices were warped by too many years of too much power.

17. al perez - July 29, 2010

Former wife should be second wife.

18. Ward Griffiths - July 30, 2010

I’ve never cheated on any of my wives. It helps to communicate. And to have an agreement (including a veto option, I’ve used it twice, never had it used on me, I’m not as pretty) about other partners.

All three of my marriages have been “open”. The first was a polyandry in which I was not a legal member, the second was a legal monogamy, the current is also, but outside relationships are not a problem. My first wife is now widowed by her second legal husband (the best friend I ever had) and I intend to remarry her after a year and a day pass (no, I don’t plan to divorce, I did polyandry for a while, I’ll give polygyny a shot until my heart explodes).

As long as a wife of mine insists that her lover wear a rubber, I don’t worry much (I tend to marry lapsed catholics, even though I’m an atheist raised southron baptist). She’s got plenty more love to give to me. (And maybe some fresh dirty jokes). I am not and will never be a monogamist. (Nor a monarchist, despite Stuart LaJoie being one of my favorite characters in _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_).

19. al perez - July 31, 2010

You have just invented a new definition for a true scummy person, someone who could find a way to cheat in a polygamous open marriage. I have not decided if such a person is higher than a congressperson but lower than a dishonest lawyer or above both in the level of morals.
Of course I’m sure no one reading this is capable of such moral turpitude, especially members of my usual suspects list.

20. Rich Demanowski - July 31, 2010

Interesting thoughts about the unexamined life. I’ve pretty much found that very thing is true of all liberals/progressives who are shocked by the ideas of individual liberty. It’s why I hate talking with them – they can never articulate why they believe something, because they just plain don’t KNOW why.

As Jef Mallet so eloquently said, “An opinion should be the result of thought, not a substitute for it.”

21. Twitter Trackbacks for L. Neil Smith at Random » THINKING ABOUT CHARACTER [bigheadpress.com] on Topsy.com - July 31, 2010

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22. Rich Demanowski - July 31, 2010

@R.T. Bartucci Re: corruption of the word “liberal”

I would point out that one of the fundamental tactics of all progressives is the clandestine re-writing of the dictionary.

The collectivist mindset is not capable of using language in a precise and concrete way. They are not capable of saying what they mean, or meaning what they say. It’s one of the fundamental principles that Ayn Rand points out so well in Atlas Shrugged – the only people in that story who can be taken literally at their word, the only ones who say what they mean and mean what they say, are those who (at leas mentally) reside in Galt’s Gulch.

One of my favorite lines from Babylon 5 is in the scene where Londo has returned to Centauri Prime as head of the new government after the assassination of the Emperor. Durano, the head of the intelligence/spy division engages him in a private conversation about the death of Londo’s lover, a dancer. Londo takes offense when Durano calls her a “dancer”, in the kind of tone that a Victorian-era “gentleman” might use to refer to a stripper or a prostitute.

Durano’s response to Londo’s outrage is simply: “I was merely being specific. In my experience, if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say.”

23. al perez - July 31, 2010

It is my experience that when a movement is constantly relabeling itself there is one of two things happening. The first is that they’ve managed to give themselves a bad name and need a new name to operate under. The second is that they are trying to make their enemies look foolish. “Hell. you don’t know our name, how can you tell what we’re for or against?”

Most history books taught that Mauve Era Progressives pursued a mix of liberal and conservative views, were after pragmatic solutions and not idealogues. The implication is that the current bunch is not “really” leftist, and that conservatives are too bound by ideology to deal with needed change.

Never mind that all they did was take the word socialist off their ideas after it stopped being a good word and changed it to liberal and are now doing the same from liberal to progressive.

Hell, one of these days I may vote for a socialist candidate just to applaud he or she having the balls to run as what he or she really is.

24. R.D. Bartucci - July 31, 2010


Rich Demanowski had written:

“The collectivist mindset is not capable of using language in a precise and concrete way.”

Most particularly, they don’t use language in any precise ABSTRACT way, either. They use concepts as bafflegab, false flags, the old handwave and dazzle-’em-with-bullshit business. Nothing else.

Whenever I’ve found myself dealing with “Liberals” (i.e., socialists, fascists, “social welfare” statists, progressives, New Dealers, New Frontier types, Great Society gropers, share-the-wealth poverty pimps, whatever disguise they’re fan-dancing behind at the moment), I’ve noticed that an analysis of their positions and arguments have always lacked logical validity.

You dig into their bullshit, and there’s no THERE there. Tautologies, circumlocutions, fallacies, highfalutin’ vacuities, but nothing – ever – substantive.

Gawd, but have you ever DEBATED one of these inflamed assholes? It’s like mingling necrophilia and forcible rape. You fuck ‘em good and proper, but not only are they incapable of resistance; they’re not even sufficiently functional above the tentorial membrane to be aware that they’ve been fucked.

Except when it comes to graft, extortion, and violence against the innocent, the “Liberal” is in most politically significant ways decoupled from reality. I have used the psychological term “sociopath” to characterize these specimens, and have done so advisedly. Look up the diagnostic criteria in DSM-IV or ICD-9 and tell me I’m wrong.

As human beings, they can only be viewed with contempt.

But like any other kind of rabid vermin, they are quite dangerous, and must always be treated as such.

25. al perez - August 1, 2010

Seems to me that what you is sayin’ is that them liberal characters ain’t got none.

26. Dana Majewski - August 3, 2010

Pallas was the first book by L. Neil Smith that I read. I found a signed first edition of the book in the discount pile at Crown Books in Laguna Niguel, California some time in the ninety’s. I don’t know if is really Neil’s signature.

I liked the book so much that I went back and bought all the rest of the copies that they had to give to friends that I thought would enjoy it like I did. None of the other copies were signed. I’m looking forward to getting the new edition.

27. Paul Koning - August 16, 2010

Yes, “Pallas” is a fine book. And “Ceres” a very worthy sequel.

I still want to build a Ngu Departure some day…