A Review of “The Ungoverned” by Vernor Vinge

Imagine you are Lieutenant Will Brierson of the Michigan State Police, a private security organization that provides protection to a wide swath of subscribers all throughout the anarchistic Ungoverned lands in what used to be the northern United States. Imagine you are faced with an unprecedented invasion into land owned by your subscribers from an army of “The Republic of New Mexico.”

On the one hand, the invading force has massed more men, tanks and aircraft than are available in all the ungoverned security companies combined. On the other hand, these are your subscribers being attacked and you’ve never defaulted on a contract before.

What do you do?

This rather intriguing scenario is the set-up to one of the more controversial pro-liberty short stories written in the past few decades.

Vernor Vinge, hard Sci Fi grandmaster and author of mind-bending post-singularity novels A Fire Upon the Deep and Marooned in Realtime covers a lot of philosophical ground in his short story The Ungoverned.

From presenting a fairly detailed snapshot of a well-functioning anarcho-capitalist society to dealing (much more controversially) with private ownership of nuclear weapons, he strikes a fine balance between story and exposition.

Though clearly written from an anarcho-capitalist perspective (he states in the postscript “It is something I think could really work”) Vinge doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the virtues of zero government. No Randian, 68 page speeches here.

Instead, he shares his characters’ ideologies with more subtle asides (one character critiques the New Mexican Republic with, “You do practice conscription, don’t you?”) and in details that move the plot along. This keeps the story fast-paced without being dumbed down; quite a feat.

The characterization in The Ungoverned is a tad more spotty. The protagonist, Will Brierson, is developed only far enough to allow the story to progress. While he is clearly meant to be an everyman, a vehicle allowing the reader to view the exotic society of a functioning anarchy through his eyes, Brierson’s lack of memorable defining traits hurts his effectiveness in this regard.

Much more interesting are the characters of Kiki Van Steen and Jake Schwartz. Kiki’s mixture of youthful exuberance and practical know-how make the mental image of a gangly, 14 year old girl excitedly rushing off to war not at all discordant.

Her counterpart, the lawless “armadillo” (he subscribes to no police services) Jake Schwartz, is never even met by the reader in the story. Yet his character not only allows for the story’s climax, but is brilliantly illustrated by third-hand hearsay and the ripple effects of his actions on the rest of the characters in the story.

In all, the caliber of the writing, tightness of the story and novelty of the ideas presented by Vinge make reading The Ungoverned a no-brainer for anyone interested in the proposition that less government = more freedom.

This anarcho-capitalist short story, along with 16 of his other (just as good, even if not explicitly libertarian) short stories can be found in Collected Works of Vernor Vinge. The novels which form the background of The Ungoverned, and explore Wil Brierson’s character a little more, are The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.

You can also read The Ungoverned for free online, here.

And for more on anarcho-capitalism, I suggest you head over to this illustrated video of David Friedman’s quite convincing case for a stateless society.

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Former content marketing director and current libertarian novelist, wargamer, and bacon-recipe-tinkerer. Connect on Twitter or at my author website, JPMedved.com.

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1 Response

  1. November 9, 2020

    […] the main character of Vinge’s excellent, Prometheus Award-winning ancap short story “The Ungoverned“) to find out who the killer […]

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