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L. Neil Smith's
Number 581, August 1, 2010

"The definitive Nero Wolfe"

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Thinking About Character
by L. Neil Smith

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Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

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 complicated 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.

First published at Mr. Smith's blog "L. Neil Smith At Random" "L. Neil Smith At Random"

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Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels. Links to Neil's books at are on his website


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