L. Neil Smith on his work, the Prometheus Award and his influences

L. Neil Smith in June 2019. (Photo courtesy L. Neil Smith).

L. Neil Smith is a libertarian activist and pundit, a musician, the founder of the Prometheus Award, a firearms enthusiast and a longtime Colorado resident. (Born in Denver, he grew up all over as an Air Force brat but eventually returned to Colorado for good.)

But he’s perhaps best known as a prolific science fiction writer, who often incorporates libertarian ideas into his novels, which usually have plenty of action and humor. He has written more than 35 books, including many science fiction novels, but also graphic novels, a vampire novel and political/philosophical commentary.

Smith founded the Prometheus Award by awarding it in 1979 to F. Paul Wilson for Wheels Within Wheels.   He did not, however, establish it as a regular award, but the award was continued when Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society. Since 1982, the Prometheus Award and Prometheus Hall of Fame award have been awarded every year.

Smith himself has won awards from the Libertarian Futurist Society five times. Three times he received the Prometheus Award, for The Probability Broach (probably still his best-known novel), and  Pallas and Forge of the Elders. He also received a Special Award (with Scott Bieser) for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel and a Special Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ares, the latest book of his Ngu Family Saga, will be out soon from Smith’s publisher, Arc Manor. His publisher also plans to soon issue another new completed Smith book, Only the Young Die Good, the sequel to his 2011 vampire novel, Sweeter Than Wine. Smith is currently working on a new Ngu novel, Rosalie’s World.

Smith, 73, lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., with his wife, Cathy, and roots for the Colorado Rockies baseball team.  The couple have a grown daughter.

Smith immediately agreed when I asked for an email interview. He answered all of my questions and tossed in some additional tidbits. We didn’t get around to asking what he thinks of the designated hitter in major league baseball or query him about his favorite beer, but we did try to cover quite a few of his many interests.

Tom Jackson: You have two new novels about to come out, and you are working on another Ngu Family Saga novel. Can we infer that you still enjoy writing and have no intention of stopping?

L. Neil Smith: You may, indeed. A long life, filled with … shall we say,
“events”? … couldn’t stop me. Thanks to a stroke in 2014, I can’t walk
or use my left arm. But I can still write. I intend to die just like Bat
Masterson, slumped over my keyboard.

Tom Jackson: Can you clear up a bibliographic point? You said that Ares, your about-to-be-published novel, is the fourth installment of the Ngu Family Saga, but I couldn’t figure out what the third book is. Your Wikipedia entry only lists two Ngu Family Saga books,  Pallas and Ceres, and I couldn’t clear up the mystery looking at Goodreads, either. What’s the third book?

L. Neil Smith: Your confusion is entirely my fault. I wrote Pallas. I wrote Ceres. Halfway through the latter, I realized how odd it was that, as one of Heinlein’s “children,’ I had never written a book about Mars. I also realized that for many plot-driven reasons, it had to be set, chronologically, between Pallas and Ceres, before Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov were born. It took me an unbelievable sixteen years, but I wrote it and called it  Ares the Greek name for Mars. So those are the three,  Pallas, Ceres and Ares. Now I’m writing a fourth novel, Rosalie’s World, in which Llyra is grown up and married. She has four kids! Jasmeen is married, too, to Llyra’s brother, Wilson, and together they’re raising Wilson’s daughter by Fallon O’Driscoll, Tieve. There may be a fifth Ngu family novel, Beautiful Dreamer, if I stay healthy and live long enough.     I’m looking forward to doing five more MacBear/Lysandra novels, too.

Tom Jackson: You’ve won three Prometheus Awards for your novels. Which of your works is your personal favorite, and which do you think you are likely to be remembered for?

L. Neil Smith: Actually, I’ve won four and a half Prometheus Awards. My favorite
is usually the novel I’m writing right now, although I do love working
and living with the Ngu family in particular. They almost seem like real
folks to me. As far as being remembered, rather than for any individual
work (it’ll probably be The Probability Broach, which is more than
okay by me), I want to be remembered as a writer who worked very hard —
thirty-seven books and counting, so far — and never wavered in his
belief in and defense of the free individual. I’ve been a committed
libertarian since I was fifteen, some fifty-seven years.

 

Tom Jackson: I have not read The Probability Broach yet, but my favorite among the ones I’ve read so far as The Forge of the Elders. How pleased are
you with that work when you think about it?

L. Neil Smith: It’s certainly up there; it has depths that I’m proud of, which is
why I wrote the prequel, Blade of p’Na and hope I can do a couple
more. I’ve become very fond of Sam, and of Eichra Oren’s would-be
girlfriend, Lornis.

I confess I like writing Ngu Family novels more. They’re like my
own family, and they are leading the rest of humanity out into space, to
the planets, and now, in _Rosalie’s World_, out of the Solar System to
the stars. They also have a lot of attractive characters — Gretchen,
Rosalie, Ardith, Llyra, Jasmeen, Julie, Tieve — it is great fun to
write about.

Tom Jackson: You mentioned you are sorry your 1997 novel, Bretta Martyndid not get more attention. Why is that novel special to you? Does is
stand alone well, or do readers need to read the two previous
Coordinated Arm series books books first?

L. Neil Smith: I don’t know if Bretta Martyn stands alone. It’s hard for an
author to tell. I do urge people to read Henry Martyn and The
Wardove. The former is a real space pirate story that leans a little on
_Captain Blood, and the latter follows a rock ‘n’ roll band (drawn
from Fleetwood Mac) raising money for the free side in an interstellar
war. It’s also a swell love story and my most neglected novel. It has
lyrics in it I wrote over thirty years.

I do know I have a tendency to “fall in love” with my leading
ladies (Jasmeen Khalidov most recently — also, watch for Tieve Ngu),
and Robretta Islay was definitely one of those, as was her mother, the
“tiny dancer” Loreanna Daimler-Wilkinson. You can actually _see_ Bretta
in a grand graphic novel from BigHead Press called _Phoebus Krumm_,
another swashbuckling space pirate story. One reason I love Bretta is
that she got to put a well-deserved crossbow bolt through Chuck
Schumer’s eye.

Check out BigHead Press for the graphic The Probability Broach, the
magnificent Roswell Texas, and Timepeeper.

Tom Jackson: Aside from your many other novels, you are known to Star Wars fans for your Lando Calrissian novels. Do you keep up with the series? Have you seen the last few movies?

L. Neil Smith: I do not keep up with the series, and I have not seen the last few
movies. I was brought in, essentially, by my friend, the late Brian
Daly, and an editor at Random House. At the time, I desperately needed
the money. In the end, I was treated so unprofessionally, and paid so
poorly, I lost all interest.

The movies eventually became a politically correct dog’s breakfast.
I detest operatives who destroy great works of art to advance their
agendas. With me, you knew I was a snake when you brought me in.

Tom Jackson: Am I correct in thinking that Robert Heinlein and Robert Shea/Robert  Anton Wilson are among your biggest influences? What other writers influenced you when you were starting out?

L. Neil Smith: Heinlein I think of as my mentor, from Sixth Grade on, almost like
a second father, although we never communicated until I was published
and I discovered that he had known about me for some time and read all
my books. Wilson and Shea I met somewhat later in life; they were my
friends. I and a handful of others formed sort of an informal little
club around their writings.

Poul Anderson was both, mentor and friend, and I have always
striven to write as well as Theodore Sturgeon and as funny as Robert
Sheckley. Detective author Rex Stout, and his forty-odd Nero Wolfe nooks,
have been a tremendous influence on me. And I wish, above all, that we’d
been in time to save H. Beam Piper, after whose most attractive and
winsome character I named my daughter Rylla. His novella, Last Enemy
is probably my favorite bit of science fiction.

Tom Jackson: How did you find out that Robert Heinlein had read your work? Did you get to talk to him very much? Did you read the William Patterson biographies, and the J. Neil Schulman interview?

L. Neil Smith: Several people told me that Heinlein thought well of my work. One couple  — our midwife and her husband — actually visited him; I gave them my latest, for him, but it turned out he already had it and, in fact, read everything I wrote. He said things about my work to them and others — and to his gardener, believe it or not — that I won’t repeat here because it’ll just seem like bragging. Needless to say, however, I have never paid any attention to critics since then, and they pretty much leave me alone. If I can please the Master, then to what else do I aspire?

I never talked to Heinlein directly (more’s the pity) but I did visit with his widow, Ginny, over the Internet, quite a lot after he died, back when it was simple and easy to do. She had outlived all her family and friends and was nearly blind. It was so sad. I didn’t know what to say, so I just visited.

 I gave up on Heinlein biographies back when Alexei Panshin wrote his. And I confess I never read the Schulman interview (sorry, Neil). Basically, I want my mental picture of the Old Man unsullied.

Tom Jackson: How did you discover Illuminatus! and what did you think of it when you first read it? Did Robert Anton Wilson or Robert Shea give you any writing advice?   

L. Neil Smith: I have been wracking my brain to remember how I first heard of Wilson and Shea, and how I acquired that book. (I read most of Wilson’s follow-ups, as well; I especially like Masks of the Illuminati, about Aleister Crowley.) That’s a major reason why it took me a while to get back to you this time. I consulted my wife, Cathy. Shea seemed particularly fond of her, but she couldn’t remember, either. I loved it from the first page, although I felt lucky I didn’t read it while smoking dope. It would have taken me so far out, I’d still be gone.

 And since you didn’t ask, my favorite part is Hagbard Celine and the self-destructing Mynah birds.

The two Bobs seemed to accept me as a colleague and contemporary, although Wilson was closer to my dad’s age, and never offered me advice.

Tom Jackson: Do you like being known as a “libertarian science fiction writer?” Or would you rather be labeled a “science fiction writer/” Or would you prefer yet another label, on none at all?

L. Neil Smith: “Libertarian science fiction writer” suits me perfectly. I have
struggled for that title for decades. I also like being known as a
worthy successor to Robert A, Heinlein.

Tom Jackson: We talked a bit about writers who influenced you, but I think
everyone you mentioned is deceased. Who are some of your favorite
living writers?

L. Neil Smith: It may surprise you to learn that I don’t read contemporary science fiction. I started writing, among other reasons, because there wasn’t
enough decent to read. I have read every one of Rex Stout’s forty-odd
Nero Wolfe books aloud, twice, to my wife, partly because they’re such
a pleasure to read aloud. Now and again exceptions occur, such as the
splendid novels of the great Vin Suprynowicz.

Tom Jackson: I like to buy ebooks when I can (because they are cheap, and cut down on all of the books cluttering up pretty much every room of my
house.) Are many of your current sales ebook sales? Do you read ebooks
yourself, or do you prefer paper?

L. Neil Smith: My house is the same — I call it “well-insulated.”

Everything I write or have written is available as an e-book.
Kindle and its little brothers and sisters have probably tripled my
income. I have read a great many e-books, myself, with perfect
satisfaction. Not so much for a while; I developed cataracts which I’m
right in the middle of getting removed. Also, manipulating dead-tree
books has become very difficult since the stroke cost me the use of my
left hand. A lot of good people whose books I promised to read must
think I’m an asshole.

Tom Jackson: Could you talk about what kind of music you like? Didn’t you play in a band for years?

L. Neil Smith: I started during the folk “revolution” of the 1960s. But nothing
moves me quite like genuine bluegrass — Flatt and Scruggs, the Monroe
Brothers, the Dillards, most of all the New Lost City Ramblers. The late
Pete Seeger once said that every newborn baby should be issued a
five-string banjo, so it will always be happy, demonstrating that even a
communist (“Ah, but he’s our communist.”) can be right occasionally.

I always thought that my future lay in music. I have performed
solo, in duos with an occasional beautiful girl, and led bands, The
Roughriders I and II and the Original Beautiful Dreamer Marching Jug
Band, doing bluegrass, what’s called “old timey music”: and, of course
jug band music. We covered Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, the Even Dozen
Jug Band, and Dave van Ronk and the Jug Band. See a pattern there?

My favorite old-timey songs are “Down With The Old Canoe” (a silly
song about the sinking of the Titanic) and “When The War Breaks Out In
Mexico (I’m A-headin’ Up To Montreal)”; my favorite jug band song is
“The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” my favorite bluegrass is
“I’m A-goin’ Down To North Carolina,”;my favorite folk song — bar none
— is “Flora/ the Lily of the West.” Check out Joan Baez’s version, or
that of Peter, Paul. and Mary — I blended the two together in the
arrangement I used.

In the early 60s, in my humble attic bedroom in college, I started
watching a PBS TV show, “The Turn of The Century” with pianist/scholar
Max Morath, that was mostly about the unutterably brilliant Scott
Joplin. My favorite composition of his is “Ragtime Dance,” which sounds
to me like a 1920s Disney cartoon sound-track. I do like some later
music: Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, and the astonishing genius of the
Beatles, which I believe will last for 500 years; I go to the 1964 The
Tribute concert every August at Red Rocks. I also like Barenaked Ladies.
Lately, doing karaoke with my lovely and talented wife and daughter, I
find myself gravitating toward country-western. I sang Jim Reeves’
“He’ll Have To Go” the other night.

Is that enough about music?

Tom Jackson: You gave out the first Prometheus Award, in 1979, for F. Paul
Wilson’s Wheels Within Wheels. What possessed you to originate the
award? How did that first awards process go?

L. Neil Smith: Well, I realized that, given my convictions, I would never win a
conventional literary award — “social justice warriors” are not a new
phenomenon by any means; the current specimens are just the older
generation’s pathetic spawn. Later, I sold the idea — an award, in
gold, for the best libertarian science fiction novel of the year — as a
way to persuade new writers to come out of the libertarian closet. I
didn’t need any such persuasion myself, so I was surprised when years
later, I won. But very happy.

Tom Jackson: After you awarded the first Prometheus Award, Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society, and with the help of others, has kept the Prometheus Award going for about four decades now. How have we done? And have you ever played an active role in the LFS, or have you chosen to stay out of it?

L. Neil Smith: The latter. Having handed off to someone else, I’ve stayed out of
it. It’s only courtesy. Michael has done a splendid job and I only hope
he will continue. He makes libertarians everywhere feel proud. There
are, as you would imagine, a couple of things I would have done
differently, but I understand Michael’s slant on them, I think, and it
isn’t easy to write the following ….

First, in designating an award in gold, I had in mind something
equal to the miserable pittance paid as an advance to the average
beginning author — four thousand dollars was what I got for The
Probability Broach. For a long, long time, it was all I got. But the
organization couldn’t afford that — believe me, I understand — so a
smaller amount was awarded. If I were running things (which I am not,
thank Somebody), I would hire a professional fund-raiser to scratch up
the money throughout the year. I wonder what advances are like now.
Still the same pittance, I’d wager.

Second, there has been an annoying tendency to give the award to
collectivists if they have just inserted the word “freedom” at the
bottom of Page 75. The Ursula LeGuin debacle was an instance of that,
and a stain on the award. I’m told that even she was bemused by having
won it. LeGuin is an avowed socialist; I meant for the award to go to
libertarians or proto-libertarians. I have not followed events closely
enough to know if this travesty has been repeated, but it shouldn’t be.

Tom Jackson: Isn’t the controversy over the  decision to give an award to The Dispossessed the sort of thing that’s always going to occur with awards? I’ve been a judge on the nominating committee several years, and while I can’t discuss specific arguments (deliberations are supposed to be confidential), I know that sharp disagreements are part of the process. Also, isn’t this an argument among friends? Robert Shea is one of the LFS members who argued LeGuin should get the award.

L. Neil Smith: This is easy. I created the award. I never intended that it be given to enemies of individual liberty and Western Civilization, like those who call themselves “socialists”. It would be like giving it to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bob Shea was a wonderful fellow, but in this case he was wrong. However, I had passed the torch to somebody else, and it became their decision to make.

Tom Jackson: You originally established the Prometheus Award, and since then you’ve received the award five times, and it seems to me those two facts taken together could be misunderstood. (I’ve been heavily involved in
the award for 10 years, and I know you have not “lobbied” us.) Is one of
the reasons you stayed away was to avoid “conflict of interest” complaints?

L. Neil Smith: Exactly. For a number of reasons, mostly personal, I was unable to
follow through with administering the award — I am most definitely not
a “leader of men” — and I was extremely fortunate and grateful that
Mike Grossberg was willing to take over. I never expected to win the
award myself, several years later; I never needed any encouragement to
write libertarian novels. But I was very pleased and flattered when it
happened.

Tom Jackson: Do you enjoy going to science fiction conventions? And have you continued to be accessible to your fans, writing back when they contact you?

L. Neil Smith: I hardly ever attend conventions, but when I do, I generally enjoy
it very much. I especially like pontificating on a panel. I don’t like
all this “social justice warrior” crap. They’re little bullies, no
different from Chinese communist thugs running “self criticism” sessions.

I have always made a point of being, as you say, “accessible”
(although it is my preference to have friends, instead of fans). Hey,
these folks pay me the enormous compliment of taking my work, my ideas,
into their minds. And, of course, they feed my family and keep a roof
over our heads. I do wish there were a couple million more of them.

As to writing back, I love the Internet. It has made communicating
with people who read my books and essays so much easier than it was when
I started in the early 80s. Guess I should add that I greatly prefer
plain “old-fashioned” e-mail to abominations like Twitter, Facebook, and
Messenger.

Tom Jackson: I have fantasized about living in Colorado. This seems unlikely,
although I did often visit when I lived in Oklahoma. Why do you choose
to live in Colorado, and what do you like about it?

L. Neil Smith: When I was in college, and I got off the plane from Colorado to
northern Florida, it was like walking into a hot, wet sponge. The air in
Colorado is cool and dry and I love it. Also, Colorado was a relatively
free state back then. It’s a blue state now, but it may turn in 2020. We
work and we have hope.

Tom Jackson: What libertarian blogs or websites do you like to read? Who are your favorite libertarian philosophers?

L. Neil Smith. I don’t really read much on the Internet. When I sit down at my
computer, I’m there to write. Some exceptions: The Libertarian
Enterprise (of course), Sarah Hoyt’s excellent columns, Marc Morano’s
Climate Depot, and I look at Breitbart and Drudge every morning,
just like my dad read his newspaper.

I have a lot of favorite “philosophers,” which I’ll define as
individuals who have taught me how to think about ethics: Robert A.
Heinlein, Ayn Rand, and Robert LeFevre foremost, Robert Anton Wilson
and Robert Shea (that’s a hell of a lot of Roberts), H. Beam Piper and
Poul Anderson. I would be an absolute ingrate to exclude Jeff Cooper
(look him up), John Wayne, and Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tom Jackson: When you write, do you outline a complete plot first? Or do you just start with a premise and let your instincts guide you?

L. Neil Smith: I have written over 35 books so far (at this moment, I don’t know
exactly how many), every single one of which was different. I’ve never
written a formal outline, as they taught us to do in school, but I
have written synopses as long as 10,000 words, not only as writing
guides, but as tools for selling book ideas to publishers. A colleague
once called it “the unknown art”. Sometimes I write synopses as I go
along, anticipating the next few chapters. Sometimes I just write “by
the seat of my pants”. Mostly I have learned to trust my unconscious
mind implicitly; it’s a much cleverer writer than my conscious mind. I
reward it with chocolate and lots of naps.

Tom Jackson: Who is the best editor you ever worked with? We’ll keep this on a positive plane and avoid asking about the worst, unless you want to
volunteer something.

L. Neil Smith: I always enjoyed working with James R. Frenkel at Tor, although we  differed philosophically and we had our occasional ups and downs. My
best editor is the one I have now, a charming lady who works for Arc
Manor/Phoenix Pick named Lezli Robyn. She clearly understands what I
am trying to do, literarily, and whether she agrees with me or not (I
don’t know), honestly helps me to do it. She also gets my jokes and
cares about my characters. I am endlessly grateful to my publisher,
Shahid Mahmud, for assigning her to me.

The worst editor is one I never had, who retired from one of my
several earlier publishers, lamenting that she and her husband could
no longer act as “gatekeepers.” She actually used that word, which I
would be deeply ashamed to do. These days, we all know what it means:
it’s Social Justice Warriorese for “concentration camp guard.”

Actually, I’ve had far worse difficulties with agents, of which
I’ve had — and fired — two. They were both from shockingly famous
and “prestigious” agencies. One of them lied to me and wouldn’t answer
my phone calls. The other helped his crooked boss steal from me.
Neither of them ever did me a bit of good and one of them set me back
considerably. I do not have an agent any more.

Tom Jackson: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but it’s an obligatory question: What is your advice for people who want to become writers?  

L. Neil Smith:  Lie down until the symptoms go away — I’m kidding. My serious advice is to read a lot, write what you are moved to write, and put not thy trust in agents, editors, or publishers. Their interests do not run parallel with yours. Today’s technology allows you to write and publish on your own terms. The Internet will let you advertise and distribute.

How would Heinlein react to today’s space news and progress?

By Michael Grossberg

Have spacesuit, will travel?

If only Robert Heinlein were still alive today, what would he think of the progress humankind is making in outer space by harnessing the creative energies of free enterprise?

Heinlein (1907-1988), often called the dean of science-fiction writers, was a pioneer in hard sf who often wrote novels and stories imagining how our species would expand beyond our planet to the Moon (“Rocket Ship Galileo,” his first novel published as a book; and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” perhaps the most beloved and explicitly libertarian of his many Prometheus Hall of Fame winners and the first to be inducted in 1983), Mars (“Red Planet,” a 1996 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee; “Podkayne on Mars,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land”) and well beyond (“Citizen of the Galaxy,” “Friday”, and “Have Space Suit – Will Travel,” among others.)

I thought of Heinlein, who I met at the 1981 Denver Worldcon and interviewed at the early-1980s L5 Society national convention in Houston, Texas, when I read a June 2019 news story in the UK newspaper “The Independent” about NASA announcing plans to let tourists, industrialists, and other private individuals into the international space station.

Excerpt: “The missions will be part of NASA’s broader plan to allow commercial companies into space. It hopes that private industry can develop the space technologies of the future, and help with its plans to return to the Moon in 2024, taking the first ever woman and the first person in decades.”

“NASA hopes that the missions help test out and encourage future private missions into space, which could provide funding for further exploration in years to come…

“The space agency will keep using the ISS as a place for research and testing in low-Earth orbit, doing work that will help contribute towards its plans to head to the Moon, it said. But it will also work with the private sector to allow it to use the ISS to test technologies, train astronauts and encourage the development of the “space economy”, it said.

NASA will also help develop a whole host of private spacecraft, floating around above the Earth, that can serve as a home for people, NASA said.

…Eventually, private companies could use floating habitations like the ISS to stop off at on their way to further destinations deeper in the solar system.”

For the generations that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, even before the first humans went to the moon, such news stories still seem a bit like science fiction – and recall many of the sf stories and novels that we read growing up.

Dozens of novels about space travel, space exploration, space industrialization and space colonization have been nominated for the Prometheus Awards over the past four decades. Many now seem prophetic; and some inevitably are beginning to seem a bit quaint – but that’s progress.