Sunday, January 18, 2009

Defending ALONGSIDE NIGHT

In the past week or so, I’ve heard a couple of young anarchists offer comments on J. Neil Schulman’s 1980 agorist novel Alongside Night. Neither were disparaging, but both remarked that the book is “just okay,” “coulda been a lot better,” and that a truly great agorist novel is still to be written. I agree with them on the last point. But overall, my gut reaction is to defend Schulman’s book enthusiastically, to come out punching.

You see, when I first read Alongside Night some 28 years ago, it re-radicalized me. I’d been in the libertarian movement since high school, but I’d grown discouraged, first with the watered-down anti-statism of the Libertarian Party and then with the lack of oomph in the movement itself. While seeking philosophical renewal at a libertarian conference, I met Samuel Edward Konkin III for the first time and left with an armload of goodies, including Sam’s New Libertarian Manifesto, back issues of New Libertarian magazine, plus Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night. I loved Konkin’s stuff, but Neil’s novel really put it all together for me. And as a longtime reader and fan of Robert A. Heinlein, I appreciated what Neil had done with his book; Alongside Night is the sci-fi agorist “juvenile” RAH himself would have written if he’d been called to do so.

Granted, Neil Schulman and I haven’t been working out of the same playbook for more than a decade. But I think Alongside Night still stands as the Atlas Shrugged of agorism, the first and (so far) only novel to detail the revolution SEK3 talked about. It’s radical, it tells a good story, and it’s the perfect little book to pass on to friends when they greet your ideas with creased brows.

I’ve probably read Alongside Night a dozen times since the early ’80s. Each time, it recharges me. If you haven’t yet read it, let me recommend it to you.

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2 Comments:

At 2:27 AM, Anonymous Axel said...

The 'Atlas Shrugged' of agorism? Well, quite so, but this is a double-edged praise...
Both novels always reminded me of the Soviet literature of the 20s and 30s: the characters are black-and-white, clothed specters of ideology; you know from the beginning that 'the good cause' will prevail.
Having a 'message' and disguising it with a plot is not the best way to good literature...

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous J. Neil Schulman said...

Wally,

First up, thank you. I warmly appreciate your kind words.

Coming up on the 30th anniversary of Alongside Night's first publication on October 16, 1979, I've been thinking a lot about Alongside Night of late. In fact, I recently completed a screenplay adaptation of the novel I've been working on for many years, and that script is now looking for the funding so I can make it my second feature film.

It took the experience of writing, directing and working with Kent Hastings to edit Lady Magdalene's before I finally felt able to extract elements from, and update where necessary, my first novel.

Not to sound pompous but I feel a little bit the way Aldous Huxley did later in life when he looked back at Brave New World, which he also wrote as a young man. It's hopeful that the more polished writer one might have become can be a good critic of the younger writer one has been.

Alongside Night went through eight drafts. It was rejected 17 times, accepted for publication twice before its its first publication, and bought by two paperback editors for reprint. Its seventh draft was given a detailed critique by Jerry Pournelle which I used as the basis for its eighth draft -- the one published in 1979. And, for its 20th anniversary edition in 1999, I updated a few peripheral elements.

Alongside Night is a sparely written thriller with a libertarian theme. One of the things I made sure of while editing and rewriting was to make sure it was not a "message" novel like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, B.F. Skinner's Walden II, or even Atlas Shrugged which -- like the 19th century Victor Hugo novels Rand adored -- stops the plot so the characters can speechify.

I was guided in my construction by the Heinlein YA novels -- as you point out -- but I was as much guided by Arthur Hailey in novels like Hotel and Airport as how to bring out information the reader needs to understand what's going on without weighing down the story with exposition.

It was my first novel. When I look back at it, as a more experienced writer, what I see so much is not what I put in but what I left out because I didn't have the experience to know how to put it in. A novel about the collapse of the United States uses a pinhole lens -- the POV of a 17-year-old boy -- as its way of telling the story. If I were to approach the challenges of telling that story fresh today, I would have found myself writing a much more expansive, multi-viewpoint novel.

But the novel I wrote in the mid-70's works perfectly as the basis for a movie script, since movies have so much smaller a canvas than a novel.

The virtue of Alongside Night is that it makes for a good movie. That's also its limitation as a novel -- and the limitations of the 20-something writer who made it his first novel.

Here's the good news from this older writer's standpoint. I edited it so tightly that it holds up even three decades later. It's more timely today than at any time since its original publication.

And as I look on the web and see that Samuel Edward Konkin III's original contributions to libertarian thought are being taken seriously today by libertarian scholars and activists to a level never achieved during his lifetime, I'm awfully proud to be the fellow that was privileged to play Ayn Rand to his John Galt, and introduce his vision of a possible way to a libertarian future to a world that needs it today more than ever.

Neil

 

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