L. Neil Smith is one of the most uncompromising writers of libertarian science fiction today. In addition, his works have lots of spectacular, and reasonably well worked-out, speculative ideas. He has turned out many enjoyable books; unfortunately, they generally don't rise above being enjoyable to being really memorable. Forge of the Elders is characteristic Smith: lots of fun, heavy-handed in its political views, and not as satisfying as one could wish.
In the late 21st century, the American Soviet Socialist Republic sends three ancient Space Shuttles to investigate a strange asteroid, called 5023 Eris. The humans find it inhabited by a bizarre collection of intelligent species from alternate Earths. There are dinosaurs, sea scorpions, centipedes, and arachnids. The Proprietor belongs to the race called the Elders, the oldest intelligent species on any version of Earth. In spite of his resemblance to Cthulhu and his rather Lovecraftian name -- "Mister Thoggosh" -- he is, as he says, "quite an ethical being." On all the Earths represented on this asteroid, the prevailing economic system is an anarchic form of capitalism based on the principle of non-initiation of force. This is quite a shock to the travelers who have been educated under Communism, but in time almost all of them come to accept it, except for a small KGB contingent.
There is one human in Thoggosh's operation, an arbitrator named Eichra Oren. He is descended from an ancient, advanced civilization which we haven't yet discovered because it is now buried under the Antarctic ice. Because of his profession and his intermediate position between the non-humans and the Americans, he has to deal with a variety of difficult situations -- and does so, with style. Nearly as interesting as Eichra Oren is his companion, a wisecracking, cybernetically enhanced dog named Sam.
The story includes several murders to be solved, conflicts between the travelers and the Earth government (including a nicely written space battle), and an investigation of the mystery of the asteroid itself. Toward the end the book piles one new idea on another, as if Smith was trying to fit everything he wanted to say into an allotted word count. In the last three pages Smith reveals an unexpected connection to another of his novels; anyone who isn't familiar with his other work will be saying "Huh?"
Smith loves puns and allusions, and uses them with the slightest excuse, particularly when Sam is talking. Some of them are distinctly anachronistic. Would a person living almost a hundred years from now, who had grown up under a government that had suppressed much of America's pre-Soviet culture, be familiar not just with Star Trek but with James Blish's Spock Must Die?
While it doesn't directly affect the quality of the book as a novel, I should also comment on Smith's philosophy. His justification for capitalism and individualism is ultimately based on evolution; he (through a multitude of characters) argues that the variety and self-reliance created by capitalism give species the best chance of long-term survival. This means that people should be individualistic not for their own sake as individuals, but for the good of the species. This is really a collectivistic argument, and offers little to oppose the ways in which dictators have sought to improve the gene pool.
If you like libertarian space opera, you'll probably enjoy this book; but don't expect Atlas Shrugged in space.
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This review last revised on August 5, 2001
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