The Probability Broach
|Original review author:||SmashLampjaw|
|Webcomic name:||The Probability Broach - As of late June, 2017 most of the comic has been put behind a paywall.|
|Author:||L. Neil Smith and Scott Bieser|
|Start Date:||Oct 10, 2006? (see Background section)|
|End Date:||Same as Start Date|
|Genre:||Action sci-fi anarcho-capitalist propaganda (and admittedly so)|
|Defining Flaw:||Flaying your suspension of disbelief alive, then wearing its still-dripping flesh like a coat while giving you alternate-history lessons.|
This webcomic was brought to our attention on the forum. Being that it came from the often-reviewed Big Head Press, it took very little time to confirm the webcomic was batshit crazy. Since I'd done a few reviews on leftists' political comics already, and this webcomic was on the right and science-fiction, I volunteered to crack it.
As far as webcomics go, this one is special. It was originally drafted in the mid-70's and eventually published as a print comic around 1980. It was republished as a webcomic in 2006, so it is drastically different in a lot of ways from the usual fare published in the webcomic medium.
The webcomic starts out much saner than you might believe from the review up to this point. For four chapters its a typical bleak future science fiction mystery. References to openly-authoritarian Socialism are everywhere. However, the webcomic does a good enough job at "show don't tell" that it doesn't feel like someone on the street handed you this thing on a poorly-xeroxed pamphlet, with a 50% off coupon for Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness tucked inside of it. Then chapter 5 happens. From that point on it's lectures, alt-history, and making the reader ask, "What the fuck?" out loud.
Story and Plot
A cop named Edward 'Win' Bear from a dystopian future is flung into an alternate-reality utopian future, where anarchy has somehow resulted in a paragon economy.
Said utopia Anarchtopia features clinical immortality, a fantastically clean environment, and talking apes instead of black people (what the fuck?). To his credit, the author did say he wanted to write something insane. He succeeded.
Welcome to the alternate 197X, where anarchy-with-property-rights has created an immaculately clean world where everyone picks up after themselves, presumably to avoid getting gunned down in the street by right-minded citizens for littering. Oh, and the streets are lengths of live grass because everyone drives hovercrafts (what the fuck?), in a world where anyone can drive anything and no government exists to waste money on something that absurd. All drugs are legal, but the topic of what happens to addicts in this untaxed, ungoverned world is curiously omitted (see: gunned down by right-minded citizens). Unregulated medicine has lead to traveling doctor/nurse/masseuse "healers" walking around with technology that doesn't even exist 40 years since it was published, as well as houses with standard-issue surgery rooms with programmable walls and self-healing windows (what the fuck?).
The initial forays into anti-government rhetoric sound like natural dialog, setting the reader up to wrongly believe it's going to stay that way. Likewise, did you wonder how this came about? Not really? Great, let's endlessly talk about that! The landmarks of their history are supposedly intellectual achievements instead of wars and revolutions, even though almost every landmark mentioned in the comic relates to wars and revolutions. Anarchists won the Alamo, the Whiskey Rebellion, a civil version of the Civil War with "words instead of bullets" (barring the assassination attempts), the Moon Wars of the 1950s (what the fuck?), and defeated the Prussians a couple times along with the Russians.
The story continues with trying to solve the mystery of who tried murdering Win, with a few kidnappings, murders, and a nuclear conspiracy thrown in, all resolved with a build-up ruining probe ex portalia. There was so much insanity I had to cover part of the story in the Writing Review to avoid having to repeat myself. The whole thing is a crazy ride full of anti-government rhetoric that ends with the statement "anything is possible if you're free" and truly means anything.
The art is far more technical than stylized. It is serviceable to the story, with good attention to anatomy and perspective (most of the time, at least). Action sequences were drawn adequately well. There's not a lot to criticize or compliment beyond that. What does deserve a lot of mention is how well this comic does at show-don't-tell before it devolves into alt-history discussions. So many comics on this Wiki fail spectacularly at using the artwork to convey information that it's almost jarring to finally have a counterexample wind up here.
Let's start with page 1. Everyone is bicycling (gas shortage) but our cop has a car (government has seized all remaining gas). He's complaining about how bad his day is in dialog, but we can tell from the reflection of his eyes he's a beaten man and these complaints are neither new nor noteworthy. He's also got one of those shitty dash light-sirens instead of mounted ones, so there's a good chance every corner that can be cut to save a penny is getting cut. He's sweating profusely, so either he's got his car off while idling to save gas or his AC is broken.
Page 2 features a flayed man (must have gotten me subliminally, because I wasn't even thinking of it when I wrote the Defining Flaw) being drained for butchering. The dialog is limited only to confirming it is cannibalism rather than ritual killing. Additional bicycles to confirm we weren't seeing a marathon on page 1; they're easily going around a city bus, indicating it's not in use and implying the city can no longer afford to run them. Outside shot of his car shows more signs of cost cutting in that there's not a shred of identification on it. While it's possible that means it's his car, the total absence of any sign privately owned cars exist makes this unlikely.
Page 3: More bicycles, going different directions so you're absolutely sure there isn't a marathon. We finally see other vehicles, but they're all law enforcement and medical. So far we haven't seen a single person who looks anything other than miserable. The other cars do have markings, so either they're holdovers from when the department could afford paint, or the protagonist has an unmarked car and my earlier thoughts were drivel. Hard to say either way, because I don't think Win could look more like a police detective than he does now, and unmarked cars aren't useful when only government agencies can have cars in the first place.
Page 4: Not a lot of visual clues, though we see another unhealthy-looking man.
Page 5: The Feds show up, in noticeably clean uniforms with a new, noticeably clean van. This shows us the authoritarian federal government spends what it hoards on itself first. It also shows us how much the government values its enforcers. While Win didn't have AC and was sweating profusely in page 1, Oscar has clearly not been forced to suffer in the heat. He looks ugly as shit, so we know he's a principal antagonist (fuck those guys) and he represents the political opposite of this work (FUCK THOSE GUYS WITH BARBED WIRE).
Page 6 is just a buffet of decay and disrepair. The attention to detail is staggering, from bushes that died because no one could afford to water them in front of the building to the signs of untreated foundation damage in the already shitty looking hall. Everything about it screams surrender and death. Meanwhile on page 7 we see the Propertarian's office looks immaculate; these people have not given up and are a bulwark against this decay.
You could take every spoken word out of this comic and still get the gist of the dystopian setting. The inverse happens when Win comes to in chapter 5... at least before the alt-history lessons begin.
The writing, like the art, is technically competent. There's a lot of planning that went into this thing, which you'd expect since it was a print comic before it was republished as a webcomic. As for the problems, where do I begin? Oh, right. Chapter 5.
It's not so much that The Probability Broach is a propaganda comic that depicted its side's political dominance as producing a perfect world. All propaganda does that. It's the sheer insanity of its perfect world goes far above and beyond the fever dreams of anything else I've seen. I don't even have to comment on how retarded it is to believe anarchy could lead to some of this because nothing could lead to any of it. Just when your suspension of disbelief has recovered, they get shattered by a chimpanzee-run Mexican restaurant.. or supermodels and dolphins as physicists... or anarchist presidents... or flying malls... or killer whale senators... or cannon travel... or a hot blonde wanting to blow this guy...
As for the political views, I'm still not a fan of making that a part of the review (except for the truly crazy/awful stuff), but highlighting internal contradictions is always fair game. The Probability Broach has a pretty huge one.
A core argument in this comic is that you wind up with an idyllic civilization when the citizens themselves deal out what passes for the law personally or break the law at their own risk. It's hammered home with things like police being replaced with private security run by apes (what the fuck?), highly advanced burglar's tools being legal but fingerprinting being a violation of rights, and disorganized shunning (instead of prison/execution) somehow being so effective that unrepentant criminals leave for deadly asteroid work instead of just remaining criminals in Anarchtopia or moving to another country on Earth. There are no prisons and a surprising amount of private bureaucracy to support an anarchist legal system. There's even a two page long "silenced by The Truth" speech that's cringe-inducing regardless of if you agree with its content.
So wouldn't it make sense --in this comic built upon the idea that governments are always tyrannical and that the best justice system is citizens defending themselves-- for the resolution of the main conflict in this webcomic to be citizens killing someone trying to install tyranny? It almost seems stupid to ask, because it's such an inevitable outcome given everything building up to it story-wise and philosophy-wise.
Well, it doesn't happen. It so spectacularly fails to happen it's unreal. A would-be tyrant practically announces he will be bringing in nukes and soldiers from the dystopia to conquer Anarchtopia. This is something the comic explicitly states is illegal. He does so in the middle of an assembly room filled with the entire anarchist government (what the fuck?) and spectators who, like everyone else, are armed to the teeth. They've all been horrified by footage of what these bombs do. Also, this would-be tyrant is the head of a wildly unpopular group (the Hamiltonians) who have historically fought wars to conquer Anarchtopia.
Naturally nobody thinks to just execute him on the spot. It occurs to nobody that literally no one will prosecute them if they simply kill all the Hamiltonians present who they outnumber by about 12,000 to 1. A gun duel followed by a gunfight occurs in the middle of this situation in the assembly hall, so it's not like this is some kind of magic "Gun Free Zone" that actually works. Instead of taking the screamingly obvious action, everyone's paralyzed by some bizarre interpretation of their own principles that keeps them from violating the tyrant's right to attempt to fulfill an announced plan to kill millions. Why can't they? Because he doesn't have a nuke yet.
Instead of the comic resolving the conflict with a philosophically-consistent action a deus ex machina kills the antagonists. I can only speculate that this abortion of writing at the end was out of some fear of setting up an argument this comic was advocating frontier justice, even though the situation was almost an SFP-level of imbalanced.
L. Niel Smith is a Libertarian science fiction author. Unlike most webcomic authors, he doesn't really have an audience to interact with. Big Head Press doesn't even have a comments section. That eliminates a lot of the usual webcomic author drama.
His Wikipedia entry has some interesting facts on him, like that he ran for the Colorado legislature in the late 70's and only managed to gather 1500 signatures in a Presidential bid in 2000. I feel we were all robbed of quality entertainment for his failure to run against Bush and Gore.
This webcomic is a must-read for anyone thinking of making political propaganda. It's easy to assume that you're not shooting yourself in the foot as long as you avoid strawman arguments or limit how often you have a character beaten into silence with The Truth™. Reading this will help you to realize that even focusing on the positives --like your crazy, never-going-to-happen idea of utopia-- won't make you any more likely to convert a single reader. On the other hand, at least it'll be less grating than being a mouthy bigot towards everyone who disagrees with you.