It’s all happening

By skepticlawyer

I’m not usually given to quoting Bill Lawry around these parts, but the last week has been somewhat…busy. For good reason, though.

First, the Cato Institute published the entirety of my ‘Author’s Note’ from Kingdom of the Wicked, where – in an attempt to avoid having my writing horribly misinterpreted – I set out how I’d gone about writing my second novel, and why. The piece represents a fairly considerable piece of craft, and I’d like to pay tribute here to both Legal Eagle and Lorenzo, who read and edited multiple early revisions with a view to helping me hone it to the greatest extent possible. Cato’s introduction runs as follows:

Regular readers of Libertarianism.org may recognize Helen Dale as a recurring contributor to the site—but long before she started writing here, she was an award-winning author of fiction.

Writing fiction that feels “real” can be a tricky thing. For a fictional world and the characters in it to seem true to life, they have to behave like the real world behaves and as real people do. Authors, for that reason, have to have a theory of how the real world works, about how real people behave—even if that theory is implicit—that they can draw on to answer questions about how their fictional world works and how their fictional characters behave in it.

Humans famously disagree about how the world works—about their theories of sociology and economics, for example—and those disagreements are by nature political disagreements. This means that at least to some degree, fiction is political.

I don’t mean to sound naïve about the issue of authorial intent. Perhaps it’s better to say that a text has an implicit politics, rather than asserting that the text’s author shares those politics. But in the piece that follows—the “Author’s Note” from Helen Dale’s new book Kingdom of the Wicked—we have an author giving us a peek behind the curtain into her thinking. She tells us she deliberately constructed her story’s world while relying on a set of beliefs—about history, the law, and economics—that she describes as belonging to the classical liberal tradition. I feel confident in saying, then, despite not yet having read the book myself, that the implicitpolitics of Kingdom of the Wicked, the text, are probably quite similar to the explicit classical liberalism of Helen Dale, the author. It’s perhaps fitting, in light of that, that she wrote the book while in receipt of a three-year scholarship from the Institute for Humane Studies at Oxford University in the UK.

That’s what a piece about the process of creating a work of fiction is doing on a site dedicated to libertarianism.

Now read what I wrote.

Next, Hoover Institution at Stanford University economist Dr Mark Koyama decided to take an interest, writing what is probably the most thoughtful, erudite, and probing review of anything I’ve ever published in my 20+ year career in writing. This review proceeded to go utterly, utterly viral – first drawing the attention of Tyler Cowen at famed economics blog Marginal Revolution, and thence propagating all over the internet. Professor Cowan later linked to my Cato Institute piece (which gave Cato’s servers a bit of a workout) and also – indirectly – enriched me and my publisher via Amazon/Book Depository sales. Dr Koyama’s review is a thing of wonder, and I strongly recommend it, even if you’ve already bought and read Kingdom of the Wicked.

This question – could Rome have had an industrial revolution? – is prompted by Kingdom of the Wickeda new book by Helen Dale. Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended.

Indirectly, however, Dale also addresses the possibility of sustained economic growth in the ancient world. The novel is set in a 1st century Roman empire during the governorship of Pontus Pilate and the reign of Tiberius. But in this alternative history, the Mediterranean world has experienced a series of technical innovations following the survival of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse, which have led to rapid economic growth. As Dale explains in the book’s excellent afterword (published separately here), if Rome had experienced an industrial revolution, it would likely have differed from the actual one; and she briefly plots a path to Roman industrialization. All of this is highly stimulating and has prompted me to speculate further about whether Rome could have experienced modern economic growth and if Dale’s proposed path towards a Roman Industrial Revolution is plausible.

Finally – and closer to home – I wrote a piece for The Spectator on my recent Australian author tour, with all its attendant strangenesses. In it, I’ve tried to put in one place just how it is to be a writer who doesn’t fit on the accepted political spectrum, and who doesn’t adopt fashionable causes:

Author tours are funny things, especially when unexpected. 12 months ago, I’d given up on getting Kingdom of the Wicked published. I’d run through three publishers. All had acquired cold feet for a range of reasons, some silly (‘you’re too controversial’) and some genuine (‘other authors will leave our list if we publish you’). I was living in the UK – having left both Senator Leyonhjelm’s employ and Australia after the 2016 election – consulting, copywriting, and writing columns for the Speccie. If I were known at all, it was as Speccie house classical liberal, not as a Miles Franklin Award winner. Enter, stage left, Matt Rubinstein and Michael Wilkinson with an offer of publication. It’s all been a bit sudden. Walking past bookshops and seeing both my novels in display windows is frankly discombobulating.

The overseas acclaim and sales are gratifying, and the sense that economists appreciate their discipline being taken seriously and treated with generosity in fiction notable. I didn’t set out to write a ‘economics and literature’ novel, but I did set out to write a ‘law and literature’ novel. That said, I do pair legal and economic thinking a great deal, and if I belong to a jurisprudential ‘tradition’ as such, it is law and economics, coupled with a strong side-serving of legal positivism.

Photo is a Roman sculptor’s take on the Egyptian deity Anubis from the Vatican Museum. To this day I suspect he was pissed or high on the tools – Romans tended to like their faces sculpted accurately, even if the artist got to sculpt or paint something weird for the sitter’s body.

One Comment

  1. kvd
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Goes without saying – but I will anyway – that I wish you all success with this and the follow-up SL – but I’m intrigued by a throwaway in your “Author’s Note”:

    The Antikythera mechanism is a thing of wonder, but it is also little more than a clockwork executive toy; no wonder the great lawyer Cicero had one.

    I’ve not read that anywhere else and, since it’s been a continuing fascination of mine, I wondered what source you could refer me to for that statement? Anyway, all the best – and very nice to see you resurfacing here.

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