Tor's Worlds without Death or Taxes: When Is a Mainstream Publisher Also an Anti-Authoritarian Propagandist? When It Publishes Science Fiction

By Mangu-Ward, Katherine | Reason, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Tor's Worlds without Death or Taxes: When Is a Mainstream Publisher Also an Anti-Authoritarian Propagandist? When It Publishes Science Fiction


Mangu-Ward, Katherine, Reason


HIGH IN Manhattan's famous Flatiron Building you'll find the headquarters of Tor Books, the most successful science fiction publisher in the world. The Flatiron is a monument to mad Belle Epoque futurism, with a wedge shape that makes right angles rare. Inside Tor's cramped office, drifts of books cover every horizontal surface and most of the vertical ones. The mind boggles at the destruction that could be wrought here by a dropped match, let alone a misfired laser gun.

Tor publishes between 110 and 120 new original rifles each year, routinely topping the science fiction bestseller list compiled by the industry magazine Locus. For 20 years running, it also has won the highly respected Locus Award for the best science fiction publishing house. This year Tor earned yet another distinction when its authors claimed all five finalist spots for the Prometheus Award, the annual prize for best science fiction novel of the year handed out by the Libertarian Futurist Society.

So is this the most successful libertarian propaganda venture in modern history? Publisher and founder Tom Doherty denies any ideological agenda. "First comes the story," he says. His only stated goal is to "do a story in a way that's honest."

Science fiction has long served as a kind of mad scientist's basement lab for testing out different political, economic, and social arrangements. Tor's success suggests that science fiction's commitment to meditations on the importance of human freedom remains strong, as mainstream writers borrow more freely from the once-ghettoized genre, indulging in science fiction-style hypotheticals that probe both the outer limits of and existential threats to liberty.

"Libertarianism is very much part of the intellectual argument of science fiction," says longtime Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. "It's impossible to be a part of the argument of science fiction without engaging both broad libertarian ideas and also specifically the whole American free market intellectual tradition."

Science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, a self-described civil libertarian whose Tor titles include the brilliantly paranoid young adult novel Little Brother, suggests why science fiction writers think so much about alternative worlds. "It's completely unsurprising that people who, you can imagine, aren't at the top of the pecking order in high school would turn to science fiction," says Doctorow, who is also co-author of the wildly popular geek blog Boing Boing. "The people who write it have often not been beneficiaries of the authoritarian system. They're the people who don't fit in exactly, and if you always rub up against social constraints, you're the kind of person who's wilting to sit down and have a good hard think about whether this is the best way to do things."

Two decades after the death of the trailblazing author Robert Heinlein, the connection between science fiction and libertarianism remains strong, continuing to yield fascinating results. Some of the most interesting are coming out of Tor Books.

Tom Doherty, who started out as a salesman of cheap paperbacks for Pocket Books, founded Tor on his birthday in the spring of 1980. (Tor is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "summit" or "peak" This image also provides the imprint's logo.) Doherty was publisher at the time of the science fiction imprint Ace but decided it was time to strike out on his own. That first year Tor shipped just four books, and two were movie tie-ins: Flash Gordon and Popeye. The new publisher announced his arrival in earnest in 1981 with Psychotechnic League, by libertarian favorite Poul Anderson, and picked up its first Prometheus Award in 1982 for L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach.

The American public is pretty bright, and they will buy things that are good," Doherty told Locus in 2003. "A lot of the story of Tor," says Nielsen Hayden, "is Tom Doherty refusing to be only a science fiction and fantasy line.

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