Detroit

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I was born and reared in the state of Michigan, and its affairs remain very interesting to me. I regard Detroit’s bankruptcy as the virtually inevitable result of events I’ve been witnessing throughout my life.

First there was the triumph of modern labor-management relations, which kept the price of labor sky-high, as long as junky cars could be unloaded on a market largely free of good-quality foreign goods. With the help of union-friendly politicians, labor disputes were settled amicably, usually with an enormous increase in benefits for labor. When there actually was a strike or layoff, which happened so rarely that it was regarded as a kind of natural disaster, challenging the existence of God, Michiganians were treated to constant interviews with baffled assembly-line workers, who informed the 10 o’clock news that if this thing continued for even a day longer, they couldn’t meet the mortgage on the house at the lake, and they might even have to sell the boat. It was hard, really hard, to meet the payments on three cars. As for savings, who could keep money in the bank, considering all these expenses?

Such were the rewards of unskilled labor. So why should anyone learn any skills? Then came the nervous collapse of both labor and management, once genuine competition took hold.

But something else had happened, simultaneous with the monopoly of the Big Three automakers and their inseparable companion, the United Auto Workers. This was the triumph of Great Society liberalism and the new class of managers and planners who purveyed it. Many of the big chiefs came from auto company management. Remember Robert McNamara? He’s a sample. These people demonstrated that they could be failures in civic planning as well as business planning. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, they backed every sorry, money-losing civic improvement project they could think of, applying social engineering to the city’s problems. You can guess how well that worked.

Tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes.

The logical product of the Great Society was the flight from Detroit of everyone, white or black, who could possibly escape and buy a home in the suburbs. The city’s population went from 1,850,000 (1950) to 701,000 (2010). The escapees left behind them an inner city that was poor in productive workers but rich in people who voted for a living. The natural product of that was a chronically corrupt political class, keeping itself elected by class warfare and racial resentment.

Now the city of Detroit is so poor that it is letting large areas of formerly choice real estate go back to the fields and forests. It is arranging not to keep the streets open, not to keep the power running in whole sections of the city. The people I feel for most are the African-American families who have hung on, kept their modest houses and modest jobs, survived the violence and criminality of their neighbors, and now find that their own jealously guarded homes are to be abandoned by the city they struggled to keep in operation. Looking down Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Élysées of the Midwest, I see block after block of emptiness — or worse: wonderful early 20th-century housing, places to live that would be worth a fortune to almost anyone, anywhere else, but that are now hopelessly derelict.

I suppose that most people understand these things, in general. But one factor that should be emphasized, and almost never is, except in a way that contrasts with the truth, is the influence of that mundane but vicious thing, the tax. It is oft lamented that Detroit’s taxes can’t keep up with its expenditures. The problem is that the taxes existed at all.

Right now, Detroit’s municipal income tax is 2.4% for residents and 1.2% for nonresidents who work in Detroit (if that be not a contradiction in terms). Before 1999 these taxes stood at 3.0 and 1.5, respectively, and were authorized by a special provision in the state tax law allowing cities with populations of more than 600,000 (of which Michigan has only one) to exceed the statewide cap of 1.0 and 0.5%. In 1999, Detroit began slowly and minutely reducing tax rates in accordance with a deal, politically extorted from the state, that gave the city a whopping special subsidy from the revenues of Michigan as a whole.

I say “special,” not just because Detroit was getting a deal that, say, Muskegon didn’t get, but because Michigan had already, for many years, been subsidizing major Detroit projects and institutions — something that did not prevent Detroit politicians from erecting giant signs in front of them, bearing their own names.

Anyhow, in 2011, which is about the time when the probability of a Detroit bankruptcy became common talk in Michigan, the Detroit income tax represented about $230 million out of the city’s $1.2 billion general fund revenue. This means that the average man, woman, or child connected with this impoverished town was somehow generating over $1,700 in revenue for the city alone, about $330 of it from income taxes. Overlapping with the income tax, of course, are many other taxes, including property taxes, which generate several hundreds of millions of dollars and would generate more if the owners of half the land parcels in the city were still paying their property taxes, which they aren’t.

Then there’s the income that the city gets from government-licensed gambling and, ah yes, the income it gets from corporate taxes. In 2012, the city council doubled the corporate income tax rate, taking it from 1 to 2%. The excuse was a threatened 10% pay cut for municipal workers. “I can't in good conscience,” said one council member, “ask city employees to give back 10% and not ask the corporate community to share in the sacrifice by raising their taxes." Oh. OK. I see the logic.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan has been cooperating with Detroit in attempting to create a new stadium for the Red Wings hockey team, a stadium that, its advocates insist, will generate “as much as $1 billion in economic development over 30 years.” It won’t, of course. People will just keep driving into Detroit to see the games, then driving out again. But over the same 30-year period, the taxpayers of Michigan will have to pay $444 million for bonds to subsidize this scam. Let’s see . . . if there were a billion dollars of economic development (over 30 years, of course), and it were highly profitable (which it won’t be), it might possibly earn, say, 10% on investment, which means an average profit of maybe $22 million a year (it can’t all happen at once), from which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan would receive, in taxes from the grateful beneficiaries of their subsidy, something less than $1 million a year.

So that’s the way — not bread and circuses, but welfare and hockey. Isn’t there an old saying about castles being erected on the ruins of cottages?

The more Detroit taxed, and the more Michigan taxed and subsidized, the worse things got. And continue to get. But why oh why? Because, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago in The God of the Machine, tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes. The things it builds may simply be dead weight, from an economic point of view, and will therefore have to be supported by continued taxation. Or, more likely, they will be institutions devoted to extracting yet more money from the productive members of society.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir.

These may be institutions such as the welfare industry. These may be institutions such as Detroit race politics, which long defended and empowered every crook in the city government, so long as he or she was an African-American, and is currently demanding that Detroit’s debts be “canceled,” thus neatly averting the consequences of bankruptcy. Or these institutions may be government-“stimulated” businesses, erected by subsidies and continually devoted to extending them.

But two things are certain. The beneficiaries will not “give back.” And they will never, never be the productively working black, white, or Asian population of anywhere. These are the people who are tricked into voting for the money-extraction industry, told that more taxes are needed to support the schools or the police or the fire department or something, or defeating the hated Republican Party, and then, mysteriously, find that every increase in taxes is turned into more guns aimed against them.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir. If you had any thoughts along those lines, the social history of Detroit will show you that it isn’t. The illness has also been blamed on mysterious “changes” in the auto industry. That’s not the cause either. Business and labor that aren’t on the take from subsidies — subsidies in the form of bailouts, friendly legislation, and noncompetitive labor laws, all of which the Detroit auto industry got, and fattened on, and sickened on — can “change” without doing grave damage to their communities. And the illness has been blamed on “massive corruption,” as if corruption could be massive without the profits it derives from laws and taxes.

Enough. Just look at who’s taking money from whom.




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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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