Sunday, November 4, 2007

Imagining an Ideal World

It was J.R.R. Tolkien who made the distinction between what he called "the Primary World" and "Secondary Worlds." The Primary World is the real world in which we all live, and there is only one of it. Secondary Worlds are worlds that writers create in their stories. It amazes me there are an infinite number of them.

If the writer is good enough to create a fully realized world, and readers imaginative enough to suspend their disbelief, they can temporarily become absorbed in that Secondary World, and in a sense, "live" in it. If people can become absorbed enough in a Secondary World, it can be for a while more real than the real world. Such is the power of imagination.

Sometimes Secondary Worlds are good places in which to live, and sometimes they are not. The unhinged Karl Marx created his own private Secondary World. When it was implemented in the Primary World, the result was perhaps the most hellish catastrophe humanity has known. That shows us the power of the (blasphemous) Word made Flesh. Or, as Richard Weaver wrote in his famous book of the same title, Ideas Have Consequences. It also shows us that imagination is not a trivial thing, something to be smiled at and suited only for children.

One of the curious things about the difference between the Primary World and Secondary Worlds is that the first one is inherently imperfect, or to use a religious term, "fallen." Secondary Worlds aren't necessarily fallen, although most are in various degrees. But they are almost always more ideal than the real world, which is a good thing, because it allows the reader to imagine what a better world might be like.

A libertarian world, for example, is as close to an ideal world as there can be. However, being an ideal world, it doesn't (as of yet) exist totally in the real world. It does exist in bits and pieces in reality. But in many ways it is a Secondary World, one that someday might be completely implemented in the Primary World.

How does one learn about the libertarian world? By reading about fully realized libertarian universes. Alternate universes, if you will. That's one of the things Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard did: they spent their lives imagining fully-realized libertarian worlds, and wrote about them in the hope others would read of them and be convinced of the truth of their positions.

As Richard Feynman so perceptively noted, "...there are new generations born every day...there are great ideas developed in the history of man, and these ideas do not last unless they are passed purposely and clearly from generation to generation."

The difference between the Secondary World of someone like Marx, and those of Mises and Rothbard, is that the latter understood human nature and economics, which is why their worlds, made real, would be an infinitely better place than Marx's.

If what is imagined conforms to reality, the effects can be world-changing for the better. Einstein imagined what it would be like to ride a beam of light. His imaginative discovery forever changed the 20th century. Perhaps that saying, "The truth shall set you free" means what it says.

A few hundred years before, Adam Smith imagined what his economic theories would be like in reality. His resulting book, The Wealth of Nations, also changed the world forever. Both Einstein and Smith vividly imagined Secondary Worlds, so much so in Smith's case that while walking at night, absorbed in thought, he at least once fell into a ditch.

For some reason which I don't quite understand, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers tend toward the anarchist/libertarian side. The greatest writers, such as Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad, tilted toward conservatism, although they weren't at all fond of government. The worst writers, like Marx and Charles Fourier (who was one of the founders of leftism) are almost exclusively leftist. There is a lesson in that somewhere. Perhaps we can learn it from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in his Leftism Revisited: "Madness is very often a combination of cold reason and fantasy severed from all reality."

Nearly every libertarian I know has been profoundly influenced by the late Robert Heinlein. His The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a libertarian society on the moon, is often mentioned by them. I was very much influenced at the age of 13 by A.E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, which illustrated the importance of the Second Amendment in defending liberty against the tyranny of the State. Other people I know were equally affected by Eric Frank Russell's, ...And Then There Were None, about a society which had discovered a fool-proof way to defend itself against invaders.

Van Vogt showed me a fully-realized world, and after finishing the novel, I knew the State cannot be trusted, will always try to oppress people, and that they must always be armed to protect their liberty. My mind has never changed since that day, and it never will. I clearly saw in my imagination what van Vogt's Secondary World would look like in reality. As some were bonked on the head by Heinlein, I was bonked by van Vogt.

Some of these science-fictional Secondary Worlds are very good--sometimes great--places to visit. Peter S. Beagle, understanding this, once made the comment he would go to Middle Earth "like a shot," although I personally could do without the Orcs. Visiting such worlds, for some people, makes them understand what the word "gratitude" truly means.

Today, two of the best-known libertarian head-bonkers are James P. Hogan (Bug Park) and L. Neil Smith. Smith's first (and possibly most famous) novel is The Probability Broach, published in the late '70's. The libertarian (and very funny) cartoonist Rex May, who draws under the name Baloo, said he became a libertarian after reading the novel, as did some others I know.

Instead of having to stumble around for years from book to book, idea to idea, wondering what is true and what is not (and not finding it in the vast wasteland of the public schools, including college), all one has to do is read one good novel about a fully-realized world, and the truth of it cannot be denied. Perhaps one might not agree with everything in it, but one will not go away from such books unaffected.

The writer Vernor Vinge, for example, said of The Probability Broach: "Contained ideas I wish could be shouted to the world, ideas that come from the American heritage of freedom and which could bring still greater individual liberty, greater technical progress." I've never seen anyone say this about a college economics text. Or any college textbook.

Smith, who has written over two dozen novels, currently has on the market a new graphic novel version of The Probability Broach. The tale is of one Win Bear, a Denver detective on the trail of a murderer. He accidentally stumbles into the Probability Broach, which is a portal to many different alternate universes (this makes them Tertiary Worlds, since we have an imaginary world within an imaginary world within the real world. As I stated, imaginary worlds, for good or bad, are infinite).

Some of these alternate universes are similar to our own; others are shockingly different. At least one is libertarian, and that is one that Win Bear visits. He finds everyone carries a gun, and that what are "public" services in our universe are instead offered by private businesses in this one. There are also talking gorillas in the Senate, not to mention Ayn Rand being President. Dolphins can talk, too, and best of all, there are what I've wanted since I was 12 -- flying cars! What a world!

The novel reminds me a bit of Michael Crichton's writings, who is known for writing books full of both action and information. Heinlein did the same thing in Starship Troopers. The Probability Broach makes a good case for the arming of all civilians, and an even better case against the usefulness and friendliness of the State.

The book is about what America could have been, and what is should be. It's about going back in time in the writer's imagination and setting the switches right, ones set wrong right at the beginning of this country's existence.

Is it a perfect novel? No. It's a bit dated, since it was published so long ago. But it doesn't really matter. I thought it was still very much reading, and I think most people will, too. It is a novel everyone, whether a libertarian or not, should read. I think it is especially suited for those between 11 and 14, which are the prefect ages to run across imaginative, action-filled, informative novels like this one.

The art is in this book is just gorgeous. It's drawn by Scott Bieser, a cartoonist and illustrator who spent more than a decade creating computer game graphics, then later turned his efforts towards graphic novels in 2002. His first book (which I have read and highly recommend for the amazing drawings) is A Drug War Carol (with Susan W. Wells).

It's too bad The Probability Broach has never been made into a movie, even one made for TV, one that might appear on The Sci-Fi Channel. That would give it even more exposure, and therefore more influence. And that would be all for the good, for everyone.

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