The story is simple: I first heard about Matthew Alexander’s libertarian sci-fi debut, Withur We, while lurking and sort of participating in the forums at mises.org. I read the first two chapters of the free online version and checked the perfect reviews on Amazon — and, after consulting some tea leaves (drinking coffee) and tickling chicken entrails (cutting and marinating some fowl flesh) — I emailed him to do an interview. He responded and even offered to give away three signed hard copies of his book. Read the interview and then sign up for the contest, but only after tossing a virgin or two into a volcano (making sure your Compaq is plugged in).
Since you are a first-time novelist, what made you decide to make your first book Withur We? What were some of your motivations?
Matthew: Withur We is my first published novel, but I wrote a few when I was a youth. Growing up I read fantasy almost to the exclusion of anything else. It wasn’t until I developed a love for cinema that science-fiction became my primary interest. At the time I began writing Withur We, my experience with science-fiction in literature was limited to a handful of novels. I am in the process of expanding this experience.
I think science-fiction is a great format for a libertarian author, and when I made the decision to novelize my beliefs – shortly after I came out of the closet as an anarchist in January of 2005 – I never had any question about what genre it would be. There were, as you can imagine, a multitude of details to work out, but the genre was not one of them and was never second-guessed.
On the Withur We site, it’s mentioned that the protagonist, Alistair Ashley 3nn, isn’t an eloquent public speaker. As an introvert, that interested me. Without revealing too much of the plot, what were the reasons for giving him this characteristic?
Matthew: Part of it was the necessity of making a human character. It seems that people with high aptitudes in certain areas pay for it with deficits in other areas. The classic example is the genius mathematician who can’t tie his own shoes. Alistair has intelligence that is well above average and is also physically gifted to an extreme degree. I needed a character with high aptitude in these areas to write the novel, but I didn’t want to make a Marty Stu, as they are called (although I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time). Alistair has deficits in other areas, one of them being a fear of public speaking.
On another level, there is something going on here that encapsulates frustrations I feel as a libertarian. Alistair cannot get people to listen to him, at least not outside his circle of family and friends. But he does finally find himself in a position to make a difference with his actions. The physically gifted warrior/philosopher cannot sway the masses with pretty speeches, but he can teach by example, and that is what he does.
One of the dangers, I think, of fiction — especially science fiction — is that you can present any theory or idea as the most favorable, because you can “game” the fictional universe to your favor. Were there times when you thought that you were making the characters too good or too bad, or the general writing too preachy? How did you reconcile that with writing a good science fiction story?
Matthew: An excellent point. As for the characters, I was determined not to make another Atlas Shrugged, a novel I adored but which does have flaws. I never felt that Ayn Rand was fair to characters she disagreed with; I actually like some of my socialist characters (Gregory Lushington comes to mind). There are two people I would describe as thoroughly evil; the rest are, I hope, various shades of gray.
Preachiness is another concern in a novel whose protagonist preaches his morals and philosophy. The characters with whom I disagree defend themselves commensurate with their innate ability to do so. Let’s face it: socialists can be good debaters and however wrong I imagine them to be, they usually can preserve their dignity in an argument. Alistair does not ride rough-shod over his opponents. Once or twice they even leave him a bit tongue-tied. I hope that this effort to be fair to all my characters allows me to preach what I believe – generally through Alistair – without making the novel itself preachy.
As for “gaming the universe” – a good term – I think I created a pretty hostile environment for libertarianism. Without giving away too much, I’ll say that Alistair does not waltz over his enemies and create libertopia.
I’m fairly new to Austrian economic theory, and there’s a lot to learn (and unlearn). How would you describe it to someone like me? Don’t be afraid to say “anarchy”…
Matthew: Austrian Economic Theory and anarchy are certainly related, but not all anarchists are Austrians and not all Austrians are anarchists. The Austrians have a different approach to epistemology, meaning a different approach for getting knowledge. Mainstream economists usually try to imitate the hard sciences, while Austrians approach economics a bit more like philosophy. We hold as axiomatic the insight that human beings have goals and act to meet those goals. We hold it as axiomatic because the very act of disputing it would itself be proving the axiom correct. This is the one, truly a priori part of Austrian Economics. We also recognize that while a physicist is dealing with matter, forces and energy, an economist is dealing with a decision making unit, and therefore the economist cannot always, or even usually, imitate the way a physicist approaches his problems.
There is so much more to it, but that is the fundamental difference. It’s not that we reach difference conclusions – there are times when we somewhat agree with the supply-siders, for instance – it’s how we come to our conclusions. Our approach is radically different.
In your opinion, what aspect of Austrian libertarianism (private property, little/no government, voluntary/contractual society, etc.) is the most prevalent in Withur We?
Matthew: The one idea I would like the reader to come away with is that all relationships should be voluntary. When a society, which is made up of individuals and their relationships with each other, bases its relationships on coercion, rather than consent and private property, it can destroy itself and other societies.
What do you do for a “real job”?
Matthew: I do a lot of work with immigrants, originally as a Spanish interpreter but my role has expanded of late. Much of Withur We was written during the down time waiting for clients.
Are there plans for a sequel?
Matthew: Indeed there are, although Withur We was conceived as a stand-alone novel. The plot for a sequel practically writes itself, I would say. However, my next book, which I am almost ready to start writing, is not going to be the sequel.
EDIT: Contest is now closed but there are still bananas at your local grocer.