Travis Corcoran’s acceptance speech for ‘The Powers of the Earth’

Travis Corcoran

Travis Corcoran won the Prometheus Award for his excellent novel, The Powers of the Earth. He couldn’t make it to the Worldcon for this weekend’s awards ceremony, but here is the text of his acceptance speech, read by Chris Hibbert. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.

This vision of science fiction is under attack by collectivists, and hard SF and libertarian SF are being pushed out of publisher lineups and off of bookstore shelves.

Very well. We have intelligence, we have skills and we’re not afraid of hard work. Let’s rise to this challenge!

The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

. . . But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government – they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

Thus we get to one of the most important themes of The Powers of the Earth and its sequel, Causes of Separation: the concepts of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The tri-chotomy was first codified in an essay—titled “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States”—by economist Albert Hirschman in 1970.

An aside: I love that this essay was penned while Americans walked on the moon.

Hirschman argued that when a vendor or government fails to deliver, people can either remain loyal, can speak out within the system, or can exit the system.

The problem we Americans have in 2018 is that there is no more frontier. Like the engineers in Christopher Priest’s “The Inverted World”, we moved west until we hit an ocean, and that has been our doom.

When there is a frontier, it is impossible to deny that the pie is growing. Want a farm? Go hack one out of the forest. Want a house? Go build one.

Once the frontier is gone, value can still be created ab initio. The pie is not fixed. For the price of a cheap computer you can create a novel or a software package. With a $100 video camera you can be a garage Kubrick. With a free Craigslist ad you can be a dog-walking entrepreneur.

. . . But the closing of the frontier made it easier for the collectivists to argue that the pie is fixed. And—worse yet—it made it impossible for the rest of us to get away.

We’d all love to live in David Friedman’s polycentric legal system, Robert Nozick’s meta-utopia, Moldbug’s patchwork, or Scott Alexander’s archipelago – a place where each of us could live by rules we choose, and people who preferred another set could live by those… but we can’t, and that’s for one reason and one reason alone: the collectivists who can’t bear to let anyone, anywhere, be ungoverned.

Totalitarian ideologies – Nazism, Communism, Islamofascism, Progressivism – all subscribe to the Mussolini quote “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

The Nazi sees any area not under Nazi control as a threat.

The communist sees any area not under communist control as a threat.

The Islamofascist sees any area outside of Dar al Islam as Dar al-Harb—a populace to be subjugated.

Collectivists sees anything not under collectivist control as a threat—and as an opportunity.

A threat, because areas not under collectivist control always work better. It is no accident that just as the Soviets jammed broadcasts from the west, Nazis outlawed American music, Chinese built a Great Firewall, so too do progressives shadow-ban free voices on Twitter and Facebook and expel people from conventions.

An opportunity, because of what totalitarians do when they see a patch of freedom: they try to take it over. “All within, nothing outside”.

When the patch of freedom is a state, we get the long march through the institutions, as outlined by communist Antonio Gramsci and refined by communist Rudi Dutschke. First they become teachers, then they influence the students, then they take over the courts . . . and then it’s not too long until some O’Brien is holding up four fingers to some Winston Smith, crushing out the last of the wrongthink.

When the patch of freedom is a subculture the mechanism is different—it’s discussed in the brilliant essay “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” by David Chapman.

One core attribute of totalitarians is that they don’t create, they steal. And because they steal, they are both confused by and hate those who do create. As Barrack Obama said “You didn’t build that.” As the internet meme says: “You made this? <pause> I made this.”

Since the first Worldcon in 1939 science fiction has been a libertarian territory under attack from authoritarians. Futurian Donald Wollheim was a communist, and argued that all of science fiction “should actively work for the realization of the . . . world-state as the only . . . justification for their activities”.

Wollheim failed with his takeover in 1939—he was physically removed from Worldcon—but he started a Gramscian long march through the institutions, and it worked. In the current year conventions, editors, and publishing houses are all cordy-cepted. The sociopaths have pushed the geeks out and have taken over the cultural territory.

“You made this? <pause> I made this.”

When the state tries to take your home, they come with guns, and you have to fight them with guns, if at all.

When a subculture tries to take your home, they come with snark and shame and entryism . . . and you fight them by making better art.

The bad news for us libertarians is that the cities we built have fallen. The publishers? Gone. The bookstore shelves? Gone.

But what of it? We have Amazon, we have print on demand, we have Kickstarter.

And, most importantly of all, we have the vital heart, the radiant core of science fiction: we can tell great stories about ornery individualism, about competent men and women using skills and hard work to overcome challenges. This is the one thing the collectivists can never steal from us, because it is antithetical to their nature.

There is not an ocean in front of us, dooming us to captivity—there is only sky. The frontier is still open.

Onward!

What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?

A bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford. (Creative Commons photo). 

By William H. Stoddard

The Prometheus Award has been given annually since 1982, and the Hall of Fame Award since 1983. All through the twenty-first century, lists of four to six finalists have been announced for each award. And for much of that time, online comments on the nominations and awards have often questioned their rationale.  There have been comments suggesting that the awards could go to virtually any book, or to winners that have no libertarian content, or indeed are actively opposed to libertarianism.

“Virtually any book” is an exaggeration. There are any number of compelling books whose themes aren’t political: The Island of Dr. Moreau, At the Mountains of Madness, and Ringworld are all examples. Even past winners of the Prometheus Award have written such books, such as Michael Flynn’s brilliantly tragic The Wreck of The River of Stars. There are also books written from viewpoints opposed to libertarianism, such as Star Maker or the Foundation series. I think it’s safe to say that none of these could have been a Best Novel nominee, or can be expected to be a Hall of Fame nominee.

On the other hand, it’s long established that our awards go to the book, not the author. There’s no list of official libertarian authors, or of unacceptable antilibertarian authors. A work can be considered if it attempts to envision a free society, or to show a path that might lead to increased freedom, or if it shows the dangers of authoritarianism as such, or deconstructs an earlier work based on antilibertarian assumptions. Prometheus Awards have gone to authors such as Ken MacLeod (several times!), Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton because our members agreed that they had something important to say to us about these topics.

But on the gripping hand, exactly what it is that marks a work as of libertarian interest, or disqualifies it from being considered that way, isn’t always clear to nonlibertarians. (For that matter, libertarians may disagree about this; our juries have some lively private discussions each year!) So I’d like to discuss one of our recent honorees, a work whose admission to the Hall of Fame evoked an unusually large volume of questions: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

On one hand, I’ve seen a number of comments to the effect that there’s nothing in The Lord of the Rings that’s relevant to libertarianism, or to political philosophy of any sort. That seems a surprising statement! This is, after all, a novel about a magical device that grants the user power over others, and particularly the ability to take over and control other magical devices; that is an invaluable tool of conquest and domination; and that also is dangerously addictive to the user. In fact, the One Ring is a modernized version of Plato’s parable of the Ring of Gyges, an ancient legend about the corruption of power. It’s hard to imagine a premise for fantasy better adapted to make a libertarian point. Despite Tolkien’s disclaimer of “allegory” and overt messages, the applicability is there.

It’s also worth noting that the Shire, the home of the novel’s hero and his friends, is a much freer society than is common in fantasy. It has a mixed government, part aristocracy and part commercial republic, but its only important functions seem to be police (and concerned more with strayed beasts than strayed hobbits) and the mails; it’s really quite a good fit to the old idea of the “minimal state.” Tolkien’s description of it seems to owe something to independent Iceland, in which several libertarian writers have found inspiration.

Later in the story, the Shire gets taken over by outside intruders, who propose to modernize it, and who set up a system of “gatherers and sharers” who, as one resident of the Shire says, do a lot more gathering than sharing. Tolkien doesn’t push the reader’s face into it, but this episode looks a lot like a socialist takeover, and like many such takeovers, it leaves the Shirefolk both poorer and less free.

On the other hand, some commenters have thought that The Lord of the Rings had elements that were clearly and obviously opposed to libertarianism. More than one commenter, in particular, has pointed to the accession of Aragorn (or “Strider”) to the throne of the reunited kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, taking it that monarchy is obviously at odds with libertarian ideas.

Many libertarians are anarchists, and rule by a king is obviously opposed to anarchism. (Tolkien, incidentally, expressed sympathy for anarchism in one of his letters.) But so is rule by a voting majority, or any other sovereign entity. How bad a given monarchy is depends on what sort of rule the monarch engages in; a good monarch can be a lesser evil than a bad popular government.

On the other hand, many libertarians are not anarchists, but supporters of constitutional government that respects people’s rights. And in a libertarian view, the important rights are “life, liberty, and property”—freedom to think for oneself, to express one’s thoughts, to form relationships, to trade and produce, and by doing so to sustain one’s life and happiness. The right to vote is a less important issue, and would be even less important if government were barred from violating the primary rights. What’s important is that rights and law are prior to government, and that rulers should be restrained by them. A democratic majority unrestrained by law, and doing anything it pleases, is unlibertarian; a king ruling under law—as was assumed in much of the medieval writing that Tolkien studied—need not be. And Tolkien showed Aragorn acting as such a king, and moreover, not asserting the right to rule through superior power, but asking the people of Minas Tirith to consent to his rule. It’s especially notable that Aragorn makes a point of preserving the rights of the Shire, that happy near-anarchy, to maintain its own laws and customs, to the point of not himself crossing its borders.

In other words, the element in The Lord of the Rings that seems incompatible with libertarianism for many readers is less so than it appears. It’s arguably incompatible with democracy, but democracy isn’t a primary value to libertarians; democratic majorities have too often voted to take away rights that libertarians want to preserve. It seems that some readers, not very familiar with libertarian ideas, may have assumed that libertarians must agree with them, instead of finding out what libertarians think. And one of the goals of the Prometheus Award and the Hall of Fame is to provide a list of works that will help people find that out—among which The Lord of the Rings is a good example, offering many ideas congenial to libertarian thought, but not by any means the only one.

Literary snobbery at the ‘Paris’ Review

Johanna Sinisalo holds her Prometheus Award. (Photo by Ryan Lackey). 

The Paris Review has a new article up, “How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country,” which purports to tell the story of how Finnish writers have acquired an international reputation.

But the article’s author, Kalle Oskari Mattila, seems to be determined to make sure that neither the science fiction community nor the Prometheus Award will receive any credit for the growing attention to Finnish writing.

The article includes a photograph Johanna Sinisalo and a brief description of her novel, The Core of the Sun. But it doesn’t mention that she received the Prometheus Award in 2017 for the book — likely the first time the award has gone to someone who isn’t an Anglo-American author.

Similarly, the article leaves out the fact that Sinisalo was one of the guests of honor for the first-ever Finnish worldcon in 2017, which drew 7,119 people. Sinisalo was given her Prometheus Award at the convention, and the award helped demonstrate that she was a guest of honor on her merits, and not just because she happens to be Finnish. The worldcon was one of the biggest ever in terms of attendance and certainly helped shine a spotlight on Finnish writers.

I thought this sort of literary snobbery had gone away but the “Paris”
Review (actually published in New York) apparently wants to take it into the 21st Century.

— Tom Jackson

Harlan Ellison has died

Harlan Ellison (Creative Commons photo)

Award-winning author Harlan Ellison has died. He was 84. Wikipedia biography here. 

Ellison won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2005 for his short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” He made a gracious video to thank us. 

The Los Angeles Times has posted a long obit. And John Scalzi wrote a nice piece for the same paper. 

 

 

 

Review: Avengers: Infinity War


Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man, at San Diego Comic Con International in 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore). 

By William H. Stoddard

The films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an unusual, and possibly unique artistic project: a cinematic series set in a shared fictional universe, one that develops from film to film, with later films referring to earlier. Of course there have been trilogies and other series of films, but this design not only is at a greater length, but has multiple branches following different groups of characters. There’s a main storyline that began with The Avengers and progressed through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and The Black Panther, but other films have told different types of stories: a mock epic in Guardians of the Galaxy, a caper film in Ant-Man, and a story of supernatural initiation in Doctor Strange, for example. The latest film, The Avengers: The Infinity War, attempts to bring these all together into a climactic story—or at least, the first half of one; it ends with a cliffhanger. I went into the theater not sure this film would be worth seeing, and I can see some flaws in it, largely reflecting the vast differences in tone among the earlier films; but the overall result was impressive and moving. And I think this largely reflects the central role of theme in the script.

An immediately evident theme of Infinity War is environmentalism: Its antagonist, Thanos, is motivated by a fear of overpopulation, for which he envisions consequences much like those Paul Ehrlich warned against—and apparently, in this world, those consequences actually came about. Now, there are valid environmental concerns that it’s prudent to address—and there have been libertarian proposals to address them at least since R.H. Coase’s 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost.” But some versions of environmentalism treat it as a new justification for economic central planning, despite the dismal environmental record of planned economies; and a few more radical versions call for things such as the end of economic growth or the reversal of past growth, for an end to human reproduction, or even for outright human extinction. Thanos’s draconian solution to population growth puts him in this last small group of green fanatics.

What makes the difference among these variants? The last two are utilitarian (note that Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, advocated giving equal weight to human and animal feelings of pleasure and pain—akin to current “animal rights” thinking, though Bentham rejected any kind of rights as “nonsense on stilts”). That is, they thought it was legitimate to trade off different people’s pleasure and pain: To inflict suffering on one person in order to give another person a greater benefit, or to bring small benefits to a large number of other people. In the words of one of the early Star Trek films, utilitarianism says that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” In contrast, many versions of libertarianism reject such thinking as collectivist, and call for what Ayn Rand described as a “non-sacrificial ethic,” one in which no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property for another’s gain. And this idea, too, shows up in Infinity War, notably in Steve Rogers’ statement, “We don’t trade lives.”

Of course, Rand’s concept of “sacrifice” is narrow: Her characters are prepared to risk their lives to save a factory, to rescue a benefactor, or to serve justice, and her quintessential self-interested hero is ready to commit suicide rather than see the woman he loves tortured to gain his cooperation, acts that most people would call “sacrifices.” And this sort of choice is seen all through Infinity War. In fact, the entire film seems to be about the theme of sacrifice: On one hand, Thanos’s sacrifice of others’ lives, extolled by his henchman Ebony Maw as “the privilege . . . of being saved by the Great Titan” (but a privilege Thanos seemingly doesn’t plan to share, even when his work is done), is coerced sacrifice, imposed by force on terrified victims. On the other, Thanos’s adversaries voluntarily give things up, or endure suffering, to attain something they value: Thor goes through an ordeal to make a new weapon, Groot gives part of his body to provide it with a handle, the Black Panther leads his entire kingdom into a battle against Thanos’s forces that may destroy it, and the Vision—who has consistently advocated “the needs of the many”—urges the destruction of the Mind Stone that animates him to keep it out of Thanos’s hands. Even Thanos himself has to make a sacrifice, to give up what he loves, as the price of his gigantic quest. These and other scenes all reflect that common theme, which gives unity to the entire film. And at the same time they cumulatively show the difference between paying a high price for something you value, and being made use of to serve someone else’s ends, even if those ends are presented as a noble purpose. All of this makes Infinity War not simply an action story, or melodrama, but a drama, whose characters have to make hard choices, choices that reveal what is truly important to them.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been amazingly successful. I think this latest film helps show why: Their films aren’t just action and violence and special effects, impressive though those are. They’re about something. When one of their characters goes into combat, the audience almost always knows what they’re fighting for and who they are. And this has a big payoff in audience involvement, one that lets them bring together a huge cast of characters and have the audience already prepared to care about what happens to them, and how they face this new ordeal.

Review: The Fractal Man by J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman

By Eric Raymond

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, now available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate  on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

(Reprinted by permission from Eric Raymond’s Armed and Dangerous blog).

J. Neil Schulman completes new novel [UPDATED]

Author J. Neil Schulman, a two-time winner of the Prometheus Award, announced on Facebook that he has completed his fourth novel, The Fractal Man. Apparently it will be available soon. UPDATE: You can buy it now as a Kindle ebook for just 99 cents. If you don’t have an Amazon device, use a Kindle app to read it on your tablet or phone.

“I just finished my fourth novel, The Fractal Man. Chapters 1-25 (out of 35) are up for free reading at the publisher’s website http://stevehellerpublishing.com while we format and proof the complete Kindle edition which, when ready, will go up at Amazon for $0.99,” he reports.

Schulman won the Prometheus Award in 1984 for The Rainbow Cadenza. He also won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1989 for Alongside Night. A third novel, Escape from Heaven, was a finalist for the 2002 Prometheus Award.

Schulman also has written nonfiction books; see the bibligraphy at the Wikipedia bio. 

Radio drama production of ‘Lone Star Planet’

The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company in performance.

The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has done a great many audio dramas, including plenty of science fiction. And now the company has announced it plans a series of dramatizations of libertarian science fiction classics — beginning with Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper, which was recently released and is available now for purchase and downloading. 

It’s an adaptation of a work that won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1999. 

Here’s more from William Allan Ritch, president of the Atlanta Theatre Company:

“Lone Star Planet had a soft release (within the local SF conventions) last year. This year we have started podcasting it and making it available for paid downloads.It is a finalist for the Mark Time Awards (episodes #3 and #4 submitted) Mark Time Awards – as given by the Hear Now Festival (formerly The National Audio Theatre Festival.)

“Other libertarian works that are getting imminent are Moon of Ice_by Brad Linaweaver and The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt. We are working on more. Some are public domain and some we have purchased the rights from the author.

Lone Star Planet was adapted first as a 1 hour play, which was a sever condensation of the novel,. It was performed at several SF conventions – but not offered for sale. It was available for a free podcast – one of our monthly presentation of recordings of our live show,. The full version is about 3 hours long and divided into 25-30 min episodes.

“The writer who adapted the book is Ron N. Butler and I am the director. The producer is David Benedict.”

 

 

 

Prometheus Awards podcast available for downloading and streaming

Did you miss the live podcast of Prometheus Award authors on the Geek Gab podcast? Fear not — there are time binding options!

You can listen to it on YouTube. You also have the option of searching for it on your favorite podcasting app; search for “Geek Gab” at the iTunes store or the Google Play store.

The podcast features authors of this year’s Prometheus Award nominees, with Ken MacLeod, Andy Weir, Travis Corcoran, Karl Gallagher and John Hunt. Sarah Hoyt and Doug Casey were unable to join the podcast. Along with discussion of their books, the authors say interesting things about artificial intelligence and computer programming, about anarcho-capitalism and libertarian ethics, and reveal the most surprising elements of their books for many readers. And it turns out there’s more than one fan of Iain M. Banks in the group. All I know about the host is that he goes by “Daddy Warpig,” but he does a great job.

— Tom Jackson

 

Podcast with Prometheus Award nominees (Andy Weir! Sarah Hoyt! Ken MacLeod!) etc.

“Torchship” trilogy author Karl Gallagher has organized a podcast featuring most of the authors of this year’s group of Prometheus Award nominees. The podcast will be broadcast live at 2 p.m. April 14 (that’s a Saturday) on Daddy Warpig’s Geek Gab.

Here again are the nominees:

* Drug Lord: High Ground by Doug Casey and John Hunt (High Ground Books)
* Powers of the Earth, by Travis Corcoran (Morlock Publishing)
*Torchship, Torchship Pilot and Torchship Captain, by Karl Gallagher (Kelt Haven Press)
* Darkship Revenge, by Sarah Hoyt (Baen Books)
* The Corporation Wars: Emergence by Ken MacLeod (Orbit Books)
Artemis, by Andy Weir (Crown Books)

Gallagher, who organized the event, says all of the authors have agreed to take part, except for Casey and Hunt, who have schedule conflicts.

Gallagher reports, “We’ll also be on the Krypton Radio ‘Event Horizon’ but it’s not scheduled yet. The host is reading the books to prepare. That’s recorded in advance so we should be able to find a time for everyone.”