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.


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.