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Guns, Scifi, and Electronic Publishing:

an Interview with J. Neil Schulman

by Alberto Mingardi

J. Neil Schulman is the author of the libertarian science fiction novels Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza. But one of his most recent and interesting works is Self Control Not Gun Control (Centurion Press, 1995) in which he proposes a re-writing of the Bill of Rights, in the tradition of H. L. Mencken's proposed Constitution for the State of Maryland. It is also a deeply personal book which will leave you with something to remember and discuss.

Long a proponent of digital publishing, Schulman has followed the curve of technology from email to the World Wide Web, resulting in his current commercial endeavor Pulpless.com. He discusses all of this in the following interview.

As others have chosen economics or philosophy to communicate libertarian values, you've chosen the entertainment and science fiction fields. After years of writing and publishing, what's your personal and political perspective?

I have been writing both fictional and nonfictional treatments of ideas since the beginning of my writing career. However, my first commercial successes were for my novels Alongside Night and The Rainbow Cadenza, and Twilight Zone episode "Profile in Silver"; I did not have commercial success for my nonfiction until my book Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns and [the] following book, Self Control Not Gun Control.

My political philosophy is fundamentally unchanged since I began writing three decades ago: I'm a libertarian who believes that freedom is both moral and practical, and the coercive state is neither. However, I have come to the conclusion that debates about the social institutions which are used to implement a free society are less important than that people desire to be free in the first place. I would prefer a society in which all social relationships are voluntary and contractual, and I have described how such institutions could come about and how they could function in my two novels. But, in my view, if people desire a free society, even a form of government based on initial coercion (such as a constitutional republic) could provide the basis for a free society. In that I differ from many of my colleagues, in particular my political-philosophy mentor, Samuel Edward Konkin III.

Because I see institutional questions as less important than education and propagation of libertarian political philosophy, I have gone from being a non- voter to a voter; and occasionally participate in electoral campaigns with activism and even contributions.

My fundamental philosophy is small-o objectivist, with Robert A. Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, and Ayn Rand (in chronological order) as my fundamental influences. I was an atheist until I was around thirty; then an agnostic for several years; and I now have a firm conviction of the existence of God. But I consider myself a freethinker, and do not participate in any organized religion, or identify with any particular faith.

What was the influence of thinkers like Murray Rothbard or David Friedman?

Both Murray Rothbard and David Friedman have been important influences on my thinking, but for different reasons. Murray Rothbard served to educate me on both the fundamentals of the Austrian School of free-market economics, and libertarian thought in general. David Friedman has always been good at showing how theories lead to contradictions and paradoxes when they are put into practice.

In what sense was Samuel Edward Konkin III your mentor?

Samuel Edward Konkin III ("Sam Konkin," "Sam," or "SEK3" for short) was one of the first self-proclaimed libertarians I ever met. At the time we met I had started a libertarian group on the campus of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York (BMCC, CUNY) and Sam was a graduate student at New York University (NYU), where Sam published a libertarian newsletter, NYU (New) Libertarian Notes. By the third or fourth issue, Sam had dropped the "NYU" from the title and had put me on the masthead of what was now a monthly magazine called New Libertarian Notes. It started out as a mimeographed newsletter with a circulation of about fifty copies. Within a few years, it was a typeset and offset-printed magazine with a circulation in the hundreds.

Sam published my first fiction and my first libertarian nonfiction. We also spent a lot of time together, and our discussions served as a primer for me in modern libertarian thought. As one of his editors and fellow college activists, Sam brought me along to libertarian discussions and conferences. It was Sam who introduced me to Murray Rothbard (I mean that literally; Sam and I audited one of Rothbard's economics classes at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute together) and got me to read books such as Ludwig von Mises' Human Action and Rothbard's Power and Market. Sam and I also attended weekly meetings at Hunter College where recordings of the "Basic Principles of Objectivism" lectures by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were played and discussed; it was Sam who also kept me informed about conferences where I met Robert LeFevre, David Friedman, etc. And, it was Sam who both got me into, and out of, the Libertarian Party, between 1972 and 1974, as part of his Radical Caucus.

It was Sam's theories about "agorism" and "countereconomics" which became the theoretical background for my novel, Alongside Night, and that is why I dedicated that novel to him.

Why do Americans have to defend the 2nd Amendment right to carry guns, regardless of the attacks of liberal intellectuals?

The rights to life, liberty, and property as a practical matter require the right to self-defense. In a world in which, as a practical matter, there is both macro violence (100 million deaths-by-government this century, nationalizations of property, invasions, etc.) and micro violence (murder, robbery, burglary, assault, and rape), individuals who do not take affirmative steps for the defense of themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors are victims.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does not create either a right of self-defense or a right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of individual and social defense. Those rights are fundamental to all people, regardless of the politics of their country. However, the Second Amendment kept government from disarming the people of the United States for a long enough period that even today, at least half the households in the United States keep a private arsenal of firearms. In spite of a high violent crime rate (but highest where gun-conrol-laws are the strictest), the fact that the American public is so well- armed has prevented the sort of mass-exterminations, invasions, and periodic coups that have plagued Europe, Asia, and Africa this century. America has one of the most stable political systems in the world, and the strongest reason for this is the deterrent effect that any potential American Lenin, Hitler, or Castro would have to contemplate: defeat the military and civil police forces, and the people themselves are still well-armed and capable of resisting.

How do you look at the phenomena of under-18 work?

I'm opposed to work at any age.

We have spoken about rights for persons. What's your position on rights for animals?

I've written an article on the topic of "rights for animals" titled "The Illogic of Animal Rights," which can be read on my website at http://pulpless.com/jneil/aniright.html.

My position is that rights adhere only to self-conscious beings who are capable of laying claim to them. I will recognize the rights of any animal which demonstrates a level of self-consciousness that it is capable of communicating its claim of rights to me.

In terms of environment, anything inanimate either is, or can become, the property of, self-conscious living beings. On this planet today, the environment I am primarily concerned about is the human habitat -- the "anthroposphere." Inanimate things have no purpose or rights other than to serve the purposes created by living, thinking, feeling beings.

Some examples?

The only being of which I'm aware that is capable of making a claim to rights is homo sapiens -- human beings.

Walter Block says that we have to privatize the whales, for example, as well as some other species which have been on the earth longer than humans and have property rights.

Since whales can't claim rights on their own behalf, they need an appointed guardian. Property rights work as well as anything for this guardianship.

Let's talk a little about Pulpless. Where did you get this revolutionary idea?

My interest in electronic publishing came about in 1987 as the result of my frustration, as a book author, with the existing book publishing industry. I had written two novels which were being acclaimed, and neither one had been marketed well enough to earn out its advance. The paperback reprints were marginally promoted, and also weren't selling well enough to justify keeping them in print. My proposals for new books were being rejected. I was winning awards and good reviews, but the publishers either didn't or couldn't sell my books well enough to let me make a living as a book writer.

But I wasn't alone. In researching the problems authors were having in getting their books published and marketed, I discovered that many of the problems I was experiencing were endemic and epidemic to the publishing industry.

Today this problem is the problem of the "mid-list" and the "back-list" book. If a book isn't marketed as one of the twenty or so fiction or nonfiction books each season which is intended to compete for bestseller shelf space, it's an economically submarginal proposition for an author to make a full-time living writing books. Editors can buy houses and take out mortgages, book authors cannot. Whether you want to put it in Randian terms about the exploitation of the creators, or in Marxist terms about the exploitation of a class of workers, either way: the people upon whom the publishing industry is based are the worst paid of anyone in the production and distribution chain.

With this as the problem, I started looking into alternative forms of book production and distribution, and finally settled upon electronic publishing as the most likely to have the potential for solving these problems. In 1987 I wrote an essay titled "Here Come the Paperless Books!" and published it in the Science Fiction RoundTable on GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange). After about another year's work, I was able to start my own electronic publishing company, SoftServ Publishing Services, Inc., and begin the SoftServ RoundTable on GEnie. SoftServ published books that were delivered as digital files, by email. We were the first company in history to deliver books by established authors such as Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison by modem.

The SoftServ Roundtable closed after a year because of censorship issues with General Electric management; and for another two years, SoftServ operated as an independent dial-up BBS service, the SoftServ Paperless Bookstore. But the technology wasn't yet up to the point of making paperless books comfortable to read and economically competitive with printed books.

It wasn't until the advent of the World Wide Web and the Netscape Navigator web-browser, which could integrate text and graphics through HTML coding, that distribution of electronic editions started to rise above the threshhold of profitability. That's when I started Pulpless.Com, to take up where SoftServ had left off.

Victor Koman's meganovel, Kings of the High Frontier, distributed by Pulpless.Com, is the first commercial success in this field, having sold over 500 copies and earned the author over $1200.00 (US) so far; in addition it's won a major literary award (the Prometheus Award for 1997) and major endorsements and reviews. After two years of availability in only the Pulpless.Com edition, the book is now available as a hardcover from Final Frontier Books. This is the first case in history where hardcover publication is a subsidiary right of digital publication.

I expect that in the next few years, the combination of digital distribution and handheld bookreading devices will make digital publishing fully competitive with traditional bookstore sales of printed books; and the distribution problems which have plagued authors will be gone.

In another year or two, I expect that publishers will no longer be in control of book publishing. That power -- and earnings -- will start being controlled by authors themselves.

Finally, J. Neil Schulman as viewed by J. Neil Schulman?

"I used to be God, but I'm not at the moment."


Alongside Night

The Rainbow Cadenza

Profile in Silver and Other Screenwritings

Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns

Self Control Not Gun Control