40th Anniversary Celebration: An Appreciation of Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind, the 1991 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we are posting a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our earliest Best Novel awards.

Here’s the 11th appreciation/review, following recent appreciations for award-winning novels by (among others) F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, Vernor Vinge, Victor Koman and Brad Linaweaver:

By William H. Stoddard

Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind came out in 1990, the same year as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. While the word “steampunk” was somewhat older (coined in 1987 by K.W. Jeter for Victorian fantasies generally), these two novels gave the genre one of its central themes: the use of Victorian technology and social transformation as an analog of (then-) recent computer technology, making steampunk parallel to cyberpunk.

For both novels, a central technology was Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine,” a proposed machine that would have been fully programmable in the manner of an electronic computer.

Gibson and Sterling made the analytical engine the basis for an alternate history – a literal “difference engine.” Flynn did something subtler: He made the analytical engine the basis for an only minimally fictionalized version of real-world history.

Most of his novel was set in the present or the near future; the actual Victorian past appeared only in short prologues to its three sections -though strikingly evocative prologues. Rather than an “alternate history,” Flynn presented a “secret history”: a tale of striking events hidden unsuspected within the known past (a genre later put to epic use in Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle).

Flynn’s story takes a classical form: its focus is what Aristotle called anagnorisis, “recognition,” the revelation of hidden truths that change the principal characters or the world. Starting with an accidentally uncovered clue, its protagonist gets involved in investigating an ancient and long hidden conspiracy, and becomes the target of modern-day conspirators who object to her investigations, wanting their truths kept hidden.

Flynn envisions a predictive historical science —but one whose practitioners, rather than merely hiding themselves like Asimov’s Second Foundation, actively work to make society more easily predictable, regarding the effect of their efforts on other human beings as an acceptable cost.

This is the point at which the story acquires libertarian implications, in its portrayal of lost freedom of choice. And those implications deepen when we learn that Flynn’s historical manipulators, or “cliologists,” are themselves subject to the same predictable changes they identify in the larger society around them, including temptation and corruption by power.

At the same time, this novel does a lot of other things. It’s an adventure story, and a suspenseful one. It’s an ingenious satire on conspiracy theories. It’s even a love story, with the obstacles to mutual attraction emerging quite naturally from the nature of the larger conflict.

This was really quite a remarkable first novel. And it invites the reader to ask disturbing questions about historical trends in our own society over the past century:

“They’re trying to breed a nation of techno-peasants. Educated just enough to keep things going, but not enough to ask tough questions. They encourage any meme that downplays thoughtful analysis or encourages docility or self-indulgence or uniformity … Peasants, whether they’re tilling fields or stuffing circuit boards, are easier to manipulate. Don’t question; just believe.”

Note: Flynn also won the 1992 Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Fallen Angels, which he co-authored with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn’s Fallen Angels, the 1992 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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