Which Fictional Universe Would You Rather Live In?

John Scalzi weighs in on a question that frequently causes scientifictioneers to pause and ponder. Which fictional world would you like to live in?


I asked a very similar question recently, but I am not as funny as Mr. Scalzi, so my take was more sober, analytical, and, uh, dull. I also asked a slightly different question: which fictional Utopia would you prefer to raise a family in? My not-so-subtle point was that most fictional Utopias are as about as inhabitable as Mars or Venus, that is, we could not live there without pantropy. I repeat it below, because frankly I don’t want a post about politics, a topic that in this week has grown dreary to discuss except as autopsy, to be my last post on Friday.

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Which fictional Utopia would you rather raise a family in? What are the drawbacks of the fictional utopia as presented in the book or story from which they come (if the author admitted of any)? What would the real drawbacks be if the author’s fictional world had to abide by the real rules of the real world?

Let me give a few personal verdicts, and I welcome you, dear reader, to give me yours. Please note that I am trying to remember books (some of which I read a LO-OO-ONG time ago) so if I have forgotten or taken something out of context, I welcome the reminder or the correction.

Corwin of Amber has offered, as a reward for services rendered, to walk you to one of several possible worlds in several possible universes.

Let us look at the obvious choices first:

The lovely girl ruler of Oz, Ozma, no doubt can provide for the happiness and joy of all her subjects, including tin men and talking scarecrows, cowardly lions and glass cats and patchwork girls and clockwork men. How she will provide for men like me is more doubtful. Because of the fairy magic that protects it, no one can die in Oz, and no one ages or suffers disease. The drawbacks are minor: if you bring your family to Oz, your children stop aging as of that moment, and will remain for uncounted chiliads of aeons whatever age they are now, moony teenagers, bratty tweens, babies eternally wailing and eternally needing diapering. You cannot die, but if you are cut to bits, each bit of flesh will remain perfectly alive and healthy for all of the endless weariness of eternity, which is just gross.

The Real Narnia, a land of unimaginable joy beyond the seas of glory, would also be a desirable place, but unfortunately you became too concerned with lipsticks and nylons and party invitations, forgetting and betraying the queenship once yours, you naughty, silly, wicked girl! Also, your brothers and sister were all horribly killed the trainwreck on that fateful day, so perhaps it is time for you soberly to examine your soul, go to confession, and listen once more for the mystic Horn that will summon you to your home. Corwin of Amber, of all people, is not about to walk into the Lion’s Kingdom: his feet would catch on fire. He would rather go out for a drink with Susan, who is quite fetching in her lipstick and nylons, as far as he’s concerned. For merely pragmatic reasons, let us leave the Country of Joy out of consideration.

The Garden of Eden is also a good choice, but the way seems to be blocked by an host of Cherubim with flaming swords that point each direction. The drawback again is minor: you have to be a man without sin, and you cannot eat of that one tree we all know you most want to eat from, and just because you were told not to. Also, anarchists and libertarians might have some formal objections to life in Eden. The sovereign is both omnipotent and unelected.

The Paradise of the Mohammedans suffers a like drawback, but has the advantages that the faithful get 72 dark-eyed virgins to couple with throughout eternity. Me, personally, since the question was where to raise a family, I might have trouble keeping a straight face while explaining to my teenage daughter who exactly these three score and twelve glancing-eyed round-hipped houri were, and why I own them, and why mother is crying.

So let us say Corwin can only bring us to natural worlds, not supernatural ones: science fiction, in other words, not fantasy or theology. Let us also confine our inquiry to political utopias, not merely to pleasant places.

Also we should note whether the Utopia has solved the secret of immortality (some have) and whether they have a law and custom of marriage (some do not). One reason why I mention this last is that, unlike most science fiction readers (the readership is overwhelming young men) I have a wife and a daughter, and I would fail in my duty as a father if I raised her in a young man’s idea of a utopia, where the career path for young women, no matter what else their accomplishments, seems always, for some reason, to include houri.

Here are some candidates in no particular order:


From the book FLOATING WORLDS by Cecelia Holland.

Earth of 4000 year hence is ruled by a permanent committee for the Revolution. Domed cities keep the municipal air within an otherwise pollution-poisoned and uninhabitable outer world. I start with this example merely because it was the first time, even as a child, I saw the drawback to the anarchist (in this case anarcho-communist) political philosophy.

The main character, Paula Mendoza, in the first chapter, falls into a dispute with a shopkeeper. A junkie stole a flute from her and sold it to a shopkeeper, who buys it in good faith for forty dollars. She asks its return; the shopkeeper offers to sell it to her for six hundred. Negotiations break down. She takes a week off work and spends her days sitting on the front door stoop of the shop and asking customers not to shop there, driving his business away. Meanwhile he throws water buckets on her, or has his people try to chase her off. Eventually she gets the selfsame junkie to sit on the doorstep taking drugs and spewing, which drives all the customers away, and the shopkeeper caves to her extortion, and sells her the flute for fifty bucks.

Even as a child I saw the problem with this system, or, rather, this lack of a system. Stealing from people who cannot afford to take a week off work is clearly the way to go.

Also, my impression as a child was that the main character was a pretty girl, and at least some customers turned away from the shop on that basis alone. So, stealing from unpopular and ugly people is also the way to go.

I am not sure why the shopkeeper did not hire a thug or two for less than the price of the flute to support his side of the argument (by rolling her in a carpet and throwing her off a bridge) or did not wait until he had lost six hundred dollars worth of business, and then destroy the flute in front of her eyes. I am vaguely under the impression that murder and assault were outlawed, but not theft and extortion.

In any case, the ugliness and gross unfairness of this method of solving disputes hung in my brain for at least four decades. It is practically the only scene I recall from the novel.

I admit I do not recall the details of the political economic system described. Whether it was lawful to hire someone to do your harassing and extortion for you I don’t remember being mentioned. One would assume a rich and charismatic man could get a gang of young toughs attached to his household by the generosity of his gifts, a sense of obligation and shared danger, and the reputation for justice and magnanimousness. The rich man would then be the same as Hrothgar of Hereot, or Beowulf of the Gaets, the ring-giver. Instead of handling the matter herself, Mendoza the anarchist would have gone to Beowulf and begged for justice, ripping her clothing and pouring ashes in her hair.

I do remember the main character girl confronting the Committee of Permanent Revolution (or some name like that) and chiding them for not maintaining the ideals of the Revolution, namely, overthrowing themselves. Rather than punishing her, the Committee likes her spunk and gives her a job! I may not be remembering it right, but that is my memory. The Committee acted totally arbitrarily and unfair, as did the girl, as did the shopkeeper, as did the junkie, and no one seemed to care whether the junkie killed himself in public with an overdose.

Verdict — I would not want to raise a family here merely because I would not want my daughter, even if she were as tough-as-nails as Paula Mendoza, to live in a place where the only recourse if a druggie steals her flute is to get selfsame the druggie to puke on the storefront of the guy who bought it in good faith. This utopia, as we can see, is one where Beowulf of Hereot would prosper, and not little girls.

Noted — No immortality or other particular medical advances. Public intoxication was the norm. No particular marriage customs: the main character whores around with men and women in a sexually enlightened fashion, and as best I recall this was a social norm, not a weakness just of that character.


This one is from THE CASSINI DIVISION by Ken McLeod.

The main character is once again a woman, once again hired by The Committee (of some sort, I forget the details) to act as a spy. The world is postindustrial and perhaps post-scarcity.

There are two scenes I’d like to mention. In one, the main character and another girl stand up during a transatlantic flight in the free jet and, without any prompting or reward, act as unpaid stewardesses for the other passengers, fetching coffee and tea and cleaning up baby messes and so on. They exchange jests about how unworkable the capitalist system of the old days used to be.

Even more impressive, the military is an all-volunteer service, with no ranks and no discipline, composed of people (selected by whom and by what means I know not) who just want to shoot things. They are given superfuturistic spacewarships with interplanetary range, and go off to negotiate (on whose behalf, I know not) with the transhuman intellects ruling Jupiter. What might happen when one shipcaptain might decide to start a war for any reason or no reason is not mentioned. How the ships are supplied might have been mentioned, but I don’t recall and I am not willing to reread it to discover.

Verdict — It does not sound like a bad place to live, but I am not sure about having superfuturistic warships just passed around first-come first-served. I sure as hell am not cleaning up the baby spew of someone else’s kid on the all-free all-volunteer transatlantic flights. You are on your own, Comrade Mother.

Noted — There was mental or virtual immortality for the Jovians, who had downloaded their brains into mainframes.


I have only read one of the books in this background, PLAYER OF GAMES by Iain Banks.

Like most Utopias, there is actually a Committee of some sort of A.I.’s called the Special Circumstances, who handles contact with foreign powers, and from time to time carries out military operations, assassinations, and whatnot.

The Culture itself is not described in that particular volume, except one side comment where a character mentions that all manufactured goods are free, and murder is legal, and is only punished by having a robot float around after you to prevent you from doing it a second time. Otherwise the murderers are free to go anywhere and do anything they like, but (the character hastened to add) murderers often would not be invited to parties among the best social circles.

I haven’t read the other books, and so I am not sure if the character was being facetious. Maybe the author was being facetious. In real life, on Earth, most murders are crimes of passion, and mostly men killing women in a jealous rage, or just a plain rage. When women kill, it is more often their own children than someone else’s. That is just the statistics. In other words, most people for most of their lives only need one murder. If the penalty for that is the social circles might or might not snub you, I would say if Arthur walks in while Guinevere is playing ride-the-beast-with-two-backs with Lancelot, he would be under more temptation to draw Excalibur and lop off both heads at once, than he would if he were a private citizen where Murder in the Second degree was a capital crime.

For people who neither murder nor are murdered, however, it does not sound like a bad place to live.

On the other hand, I noticed that the main character had a mansion, which, apparently, along with land and power, is a free good (land is not scarce because people can just build more. The character in his book lived on a mega-engineering plate, that is, a Ringworld segment); but I also noticed that he lent it to someone else to look after while he was away, and also expected it back when he returned. I wondered about the legality of a squatter just moving in, not because the squatter could not get a mansion for his own as cheaply as an American can get tapwater from a faucet, but only because the main character was a famous chessmaster, and it would amuse some people to live where famous people once lived, or even to tweak his nose. I don’t recall from the text if the mansion was a gift, a purchase, or assigned by The Committee.

I have heard other readers complain that the socialist utopia here is merely the godlike A.I.’s distributing goods to the human beings, their pets, whom they comb and care for the way ladies care for lap-dogs. This is hearsay: I did not see anything particularly like that in the book I read.

Verdict —But I admit I haven’t read the other Culture books, and PLAYER OF GAMES did not tell me enough about the Culture to render a verdict. Jury still out.

Noted — If I recall correctly (and it has been a while) the medical level included eternal youth. All subjects (or pets) of the Culture could if they wish have an entire pharmaceutical laboratory of mind-enhancing or mind-altering drugs build as special glands into their hormonal and nervous systems. Public intoxication was not only the norm, it was as ubiquitous as the Soma of Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD. There was no marriage custom, and copulation was a meaningless pastime.


From the book THE DISPOSSESSED—An Ambiguous Utopia— of Ursula K. LeGuin

Here, the utopian anarchists have departed from the cruel capitalistic totalitarianism of Urras and they live a life without possessions. They also have no names, except for random syllables assigned by computer, and no possessives: no one says the word “me” or “my.” There is at least one famine during the course of the book, and noJoseph and no Pharaoh to store and distribute gain against these seven lean years.

During the famine, food, which hitherto had been free to all comers, is now being horded and wasted, and rioters are storming railway graincars. I was too young to wonder why there was not a famine every year, since no one owned the farms, and workers who worked were fed as happily was workers who loafed.

I recall one scene where crying children are yanked out of sitting in the sunlight by the communal nanny (the child does not know his mother or father, of course) so that he will not develop any ego or possessiveness. The stupid self-righteous yet casual cruelty of that stuck in my memory.

Also, there is a scene where Shevet, a brawny manual laborer, beats up on Shevek, a mathematician, just because he is annoyed that they have a similarity of names. Even as a child I wondered why, if assault and battery were legal on the Anarchist utopia, Shevet could not beat up Shevek every single day. As a schoolboy I had seen children prey on each other in a like fashion, and also had bullies pick on me. I had never seen teachers and principals pounding each other in the face over some frivolous dispute, however, and I was not sure why that system had anything to recommend it.

Anarres is also run by some sort of Committee, which prevents Shevek from publishing his results in his own name, and which also gets his friend the playwright (who writes something critical of the Committee) into an insane asylum.

Marriage is both scorned and illegal. Instead of saying, ‘my wife’ a husband would say ‘the partner’ and the mating partnerships would dissolve at will. In other words, the men are not real men. Tarzan could not live in this place, nor could Zorro, and nor could James Bond, King Arthur, Mr. Frodo Baggins of Bag End, or any other hero of literature noble or simple. Adam and Eve from Milton’s PARADISE LOST would be lost here, and they are utterly without sin, fault or flaw—and if prelapsarian men cannot tolerate your utopia, it is ambiguous to say the least.

Verdict — You cannot raise a family well in a Utopia where you are cattle. You cannot raise a family at all in a Utopia where the family unit is outlawed.


From the TIMAEAS of Plato

Those of you who are familiar with this myth, know full well that Plato never meant any readers to take him literally. The Atlantis in the Timaeas is a literary invention, to give the hypothetical commonwealth in Plato’s Republic a place to stay. The place, in the Atlantic Ocean, at the time of the writing was off the edge of the map, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, that is to say, Neverneverland.

Those of you who have not read your Plato lately, like most intellectuals in democracies, Plato has a schoolgirl crush on (or a masochist fascination with) totalitarian dictatorships. His Republic has features like raising children in common without fathers, communal ownership of property for the military aristocrats (Custodians), and Nocturnal Councils who secretly decide who among the Helots are troublemakers, thus to be killed in secret, without trial. In other words, the Commonwealth of Atlantis is merely Sparta.

This one stuck in my memory because of the surprise. In my youth, I had heard rumors about the utopian commonwealth of Plato, and how it was supposed to be some sort of deep and insightful examination both of human justice and the human soul. Instead it was an excuse for a bunch of thugs to practice eugenics, and breed men like cattle, and kill them when they got out of line. I hope your soul is not run that way.

Note — Speaking only for myself, I am a technological snob. No matter how well-engineered the laws of Sparta might be, if the place does not have flush toilets and printing presses, electric lights and eyeglasses, leave it for another.

Verdict — You cannot raise a family well in a Utopia where you are cattle. You cannot raise a family at all in a Utopia where the family unit is outlawed.


From the book by Thomas Moore of the same name.

Moore proposes a system where groups of Puritans live in communal dormitories, something like Franciscan Monks. Despite what the name might imply to a modern man, this is merely a militaristic commonwealth run along Spartan lines, complete with magistrates (dubbed with fanciful names syphogrant, tranibor) and princes and senates and public councils. Like the commonwealth of Plato, there is slavery here, but only as a judicial punishment, or the fate of prisoners of war.

Noted — This is one of the few Utopias where everyone is sober and chaste: indeed, the Utopians allow for neither polygamy nor divorce, and to insure a wise match, the bride (as in modern America) must be over eighteen. I am not sure when the idea that humans should rut like weasels indiscriminately entered the vocabulary of utopian daydreams (I suspect, as with most insane yet unintelligent socialist ideas, it comes from Charles Fourier, but someone more knowledgeable is invited to correct me) but Thomas Moore wrote before those days.

Also, no flush toilets.

Verdict — You cannot raise a family in a Utopia where you are cattle.


Described in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein, and in other stories.

There is a multitude of planets colonized in the remote future of Heinlein’s future history, and advancements in psychology (basically General Semantics and Null-A thinking as in A.E. van Vogt, see below) have abolished the horror called war and the need for government. As best I can tell, everyone merely voluntarily respects each other’s property rights, and there is little or no confusion in specific cases as to what those rights are. There are leaders, persons trusted to make significant decisions, merely not formal leaders.

Noted — The medicine includes eternal youth, and the technology to create A.I.’s and download them into the bodies of houri, who then will copulate with you without benefit of marriage. The culture (or maybe the author) insists on bringing up children strictly and well, but marital arrangements are matter of personal convenience, handled like contracts, similar to “partnership” on Anarres (see above). The distinction between sexes is abolished: you ask someone out on a date even before finding out his sex, because kissing boys is just as much fun as kissing girls, and you can copulate (or whatever) on the first date.

Verdict — The place seems safe and law-abiding enough, and the corruption of morals, in terms of desecration of marriage, seems at least no worse than modern America. Me, personally, since the question was where to raise a family, I might have trouble keeping a straight face while explaining to my teenage daughter who exactly these three score and twelve glancing-eyed round-hipped houri downloaded from convenient A.I.’s were, and why I own them, and why mother is crying. At least there is no rampant intoxication as in some Utopias.


From the book the WORLD OF NULL-A by of A.E. van Vogt

At last, a real anarchy! Unlike the alleged anarchies of Holland’s Ruined Earth, McLeod’s All-Volunteer Earth, and LeGuin’s Anarres, on Null-A Venus there is no secret committee running things.

All humans there have undergone training in the non-Aristotelian logic system, and so have complete integration and control over their emotions. Like angels, they live without laws or the need of laws. Either by custom or common consent or tradition or because each and every last person on Venus was separately persuaded, the Venusians decide what professions to enter, they study the field, and make a wise decision, and abide by the vote of everyone else who has applies for the same job.

It is described in these words: “Everything is voluntary. Every man lives to himself alone and yet conjoins with others to see that the necessary work is done. But people can choose their own work. You might say, "Suppose everybody decided to enter the same profession?" That doesn’t happen. The population is composed of responsible citizens, who make a careful study of the entire work-to-be-done situation before they choose their jobs. For instance, when a detective dies or retires or changes his occupation he advertises his intention, or, in the case of death, his position is advertised. If he is still alive, people who would like to become detectives come to discuss their qualifications with him and with each other. Whether he is alive or dead, his successor is finally chosen as a result of a vote among the applicants.”

Unlike some of the other utopias here, there seems to be private property, skilled professions, and an institution of marriage. The laws are merely the consensus of opinion among detectives and other interested parties, and are not enforced because no one has the unhealthy mental impulses that lead to negligence, breach of contract, or crime.

Verdict — Well, here we have a winner! Who would not like to have his family raised among people so well behaved, sane, and public-spirited that they merely settle all public disputes the way a happily married couple or agreeable gentlemen in a refined yet friendly club settle differences of opinion between them, by talking it over?

My only problem is that I would not be allowed in, since I have not yet achieved the perfect self-control and utterly enlightened moral-mental-spiritual sanity of these perfected yet non-Aristotelian human beings. To paraphrase Groucho, I cannot join any utopia that would have me as a member.

I really cannot imagine my five-year-old being allowed in. Not only would he not participate in the discussion among the detectives, I don’t think he would even listen. He is not good at listening. He would just declare himself to be a detective, get a space-gun, and start shooting.


From the book ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand.

This is a self-described ‘Utopia of Greed’. The Objectivists here live by one formal rule: Each man swears by his life and his love for it not to live for another man nor have another man live for him. What distinguishes Objectivists from Libertarians is that there is also an informal set of rules, or principles, or, more accurately, a sense of life. Objectivists are paragons of rationality, and they hold that the rational life includes such virtues as self-discipline, self-esteem, self-actualization, self-reliance and other self-centered virtues. A libertarian, for example, must support the legalization of intoxicating drugs and spirits, but for an Objectivist the question would never come up: whether drugs or spirits were legal or not, the Objectivist is under a moral obligation not to live his life as a drunkard or a junkie. Whether or not other people ruined their lives with such materials would be a matter of sublime and Olympian indifference to him; so long as they show up at work able to do their jobs, all is well. If all is not well, the Objectivist merely ignores the drunk and his ruined life; he goes his way, and we go ours, and nothing need be said between them.

Now this indifference falls to bits if you are the mother or brother of the drunk, of course, or have some other bond of love or bond of obligation running to the fellow.

Noted — Unlike some Utopias, the Men of Greed seem sober and hardworking. Very hardworking. Since they are arch-Industrialists, every day would be a neverending Industrial Revolution: always the Roaring Twenties and never the Great Depression. They drink in moderation, and the antismoking harpies seem never to have descended on the Galt’s Gulch valley.

Flush toilets here! Unfortunately, you have to pay a dime each time you flush. Fortunately, the dime is gold, and no obscenely obese bureaucracy dares claim the power to leech your hard-earned cash of its value by monstrous Keynesian schemes of inflation.

Verdict — Another possible winner. I can think of worse places to live, if the set up actually functions as designed. If absolutely every commercial interaction of any kind is settled by a contractual letter of memorandum, then lawyers are in hog heaven, because there will be plenty of work. I am not sure I like raising kids in a place where everyone has to take an oath to forswear selflessness and charity and love. That sounds mighty similar to the oath taken by Albrecht at the beginning of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but, heck, I can ignore the Objectivists and their oaths with the same sublime and Olympian indifference to the irrational that they themselves practice.

Of course, when that handsome yellow-eyed philanderer John Galt tries to seduce my wife, I shoot him dead, by Thunder, since there is apparently no respect for marriage in this Utopia, and I would have to look after my own interests. Maybe I can get Reardon to machine-tool me a revolver out of his shiny new blue-green supermetal.




This is basically the America of the Articles of Confederation, where the automobiles don’t have license plates, and you can vote for "none of the above" in elections. The halls of Congress are kept cold and unpleasant, to hurry the lawmakers about their business so they do minimal mischief.  Basically the colonies agreed upon a compact (Similar to Robert Heinlein’s "Covenant" in his "Maturity of Man" scenes) that force can only be used in retaliation for invasion of rights, and that no government rules or laws bind anyone absent universal consent.

I remember one unintentionally hillarious scene where the evil "Hamiltonians" (as the Federalists, who are scheming and villainous Croquemitaine of the drama, are called) confront our heroes, and one Hamiltonian says that he is planning to arm and equip an army with the latest weaponry brought in from parallel (and much more warlike) dimensions, and merely have them arrive in New York harbour, and then invite them to camp on his, Hamilton’s private property.

Since the libertarians of Unanimous Confederate America have no coast guard, and since their poliitcal philosophy forbids them to have a Coast Guard or standing army, and since they have no laws concerning immigration, the army should be able to march ashore, unopposed–and as far as I could tell, go straight to the voting booth and pull the lever for Hamilton. The good guys were unable to articulate a reply. The author got out of the awkward moment by some unconvincing sleight of hand, such as by having the bad guy, instead of doing his perfectly legal invasion plan, whip out his shooting iron or jump out a window or something.

I don’t know much history, but I know enough to know that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient as far as overseas powers who otherwise would have been willing to treat or trade with us. The Colonies were heavily involved with overseas trade in those years, so the Spartan approach to trade (i.e. forbidding contact with outsiders) would have been ill keeping with the industrious ambitions of the colonials. But without a federal government, foreign powers scoffed that no one wanted to treat with a "beast of thirteen limbs and no head." The mere inconvenience of having to negotiate coinage, weights and measures at every state boundary line was daunting. Also, Smith does not mention how the Unanimous Confederation (which I assume included Thokk, the troll wife who refused to weep for Baldir) fared in their military engagements with the French during John Adams’ administration, the Barbary Pirates during Jefferson’s administration, or the War of 1812 during Madison’s administration. I would have been amused had Smith carried his theme to its logical extreme, and shown a world where the Louisiana Purchase was the private property of Thomas Jefferson and his heirs and assigns. 

Noted — Space travel, nerve regeneration, all that good stuff we would no doubt really have in real life had not the Industrial Revolution been chained and retarded by laws passed during the Wilson, Hoover and especially the FDR years. 

Verdict — A nice place to live, but the difficulties in raising kids there are the same as mentioned in the Heinlein and Ayn Rand utopias, which is a lack of moral backbone. Unlike Heinlein, who had a fetish for polygamy, and unlike Rand, who had a fetish for adultery, as best I can tell the Libertarians of Smith’s imaginary Unanimous America are decent settle-down domestic types. If the consensus of the populous supports marriage, the absense of laws to that effect merely means the consensus will not long remain, save by inertia: but during the years while it does, hey, not a bad place to be.

And if you don’t like it, you can always bring in an army of Hamiltonians armed with nukes and plague viruses, and not until you trespass onto someone’s privately owned road, highway, or railline, will the all-volunteer paid-by-donation-and-or-subscription Pinkertons and/or volunteer militia gather to open fire on you. But if you are law abiding, and living with a well armed Jihadist or Communist training camp between you and the Hamiltonian bivouoc, you should be safe as houses. (Safer than some places in Hamiltonian Welfare-Statist America I could name.)