J. Neil Schulman’s 1979 novel, Alongside Night, depicts the sort of Dystopian future that leaves you shifting a bit nervously in your chair while reading.
Dystopian is the opposite of utopian. It refers to an imaginary place or time in which the conditions of life are terrible, usually as the result of government oppression, nuclear war, or some other cause of acute deprivation; George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm are classic examples. Set in New York City circa 2000, Alongside Night is not merely dystopian but also prophetic. That’s where the shifting comes in.
Indeed, the economic and political backdrop of Alongside Night so closely resembles today’s society that, in 2010, the author announced his intention to sue the United States government for copyright infringement. He stated, “The United States government — both the executive and legislative branches, aided by the courts, have stolen the entire premise — and a lot of the plot — of my novel!”
Decades before today’s fiscal crisis, a brash young Schulman foretold an America plunged into economic collapse by government spending and the monetization of debt – that is, the drastic inflation of the money supply. The result: soaring prices, foreclosures, unemployment, bankruptcy and a disastrous devaluation of the dollar. America’s streets are ‘occupied’ by the homeless and owned by gangs who recognize no authority but their own. As government attempts to grip its power, the nation edges toward revolution.
I remember that brash 23-year-old author from decades ago when he brought Alongside Night to the parties at my apartment in Los Angeles. The novel was then a manuscript-in-progress. Reading aloud in the spare bedroom turned library, J. Neil kept guests spellbound by a society viewed through the eyes of his 17-year-old protagonist. Elliot is the son of the Nobel Laureate economist Dr. Martin Vreeland, who is targeted by government for advocating Austrian economics. It is a time when government calls its critics “terrorists” and imprisons them without due process or other Constitutional niceties.
Vreeland goes missing. Evading the law himself, Elliot must find his father who has a key role to play in the redemption of America. Accompanied by his best friend and an intriguing girl who carries a pistol with a silencer, Elliot enlists the aid of the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre, which aims at using counter-economics to overthrow the government. (I remember applause in my apartment when the Cadre was introduced.) The free market has become an underground culture and a vehicle of rebellion. Its power to free human beings and to reignite life within society is vividly portrayed.
It was a truth J. Neil lived for himself. In the 1970s, a remarkable phenomenon emerged in Long Beach, California: Anarcho-Village. This was an apartment complex filled with committed anarcho-capitalists with Samuel E. Konkin III and J. Neil at its continuing core. While SEK3 pounded out the theory of counter-economics in his Libertarian Manifesto, J. Neil brought it to life through Alongside Night. Although the novel has earned many awards and accolades, the one I prefer is its recognition as a founding ‘document’ of the now booming Agora movement.
But the word ‘document’ elicits images of dust and dullness. Alongside Night is anything but… J. Neil combines the style of Robert Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’ – still my favs of Heinlein’s work – with the political and economic acuity of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. He delivers the “thinking man’s” thriller…or the “thinking woman’s.”
As a member of the latter category, I have a criticism of Alongside Night. The book cries out for a sequel to reveal the details of an agorist system that is no longer counter-economic but the system along which society functions. Alongside Night is rich in themes that deserve a book-length treatment of their own. Hmmm…rather than a sequel, a series?