To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing review-essays of past award-winners that make clear why each winner deserves recognition as pro-freedom. Here is an Appreciation of H. Beam Piper and John McGuire’s A Planet for Texans (aka Lone Star Planet), inducted in 1999 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.
By Eric S. Raymond
In 2021, H. Beam Piper’s 1957 novel A Planet For Texans (co-written with John McGuire) can seem like little more than an appealing and rather lightweight adventure romp.
That’s because today we read it already having a good idea of what a libertarian minarchy would be like, and Piper’s New Texas seems like another exercise in familiar tropes.
In 1957 it was something much more, a bold and even shocking thought experiment – because it was among the very first works to propose that what we now think of as a libertarian minarchy would not immediately degenerate into a Hobbesian war against all, but could in fact be a stable and just society.
Nowadays we think of “libertarian SF” as the part of the SF genre consciously written to explore or advocate libertarian ideas. In these works, influence runs from libertarian ethics and politics to fiction.
But there are a handful of science-fiction classics from before the modern formulation of libertarianism around 1970 that were causal in the opposite direction, influencing how libertarianism took its present shape.
One might call seminal works these “pre-libertarian” SF. While Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress from 1966 is the example that usually leaps to mind, A Planet for Texans is not far down the list in terms of persistent popularity and lasting influence.
When you really grapple with how early H. Beam Piper wrote this – well before the likes of David D. Friedman (author of the influential empirical libertarian book The Machinery of Freedom, available here with a free pdf) wrote seriously and analytically about libertarian legal systems – the courtroom scenes begin to seem much more impressive. (Check out Friedman’s blog here.)
In true Golden Age fashion, the idea is the hero – an idea that nobody could possibly slap a “libertarian” sticker on until at least thirteen years after the story was written. The adventure plot is a thin wrapper around the conceptual challenge to the reader, and the romance almost an afterthought.
There’s a bit more substance in the whodunit subplot as the protagonist unravels dastardly villainous plans, but that too is an accompaniment rather than the main thrust of the novel.
There is a quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery which explains the main thrust: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Piper’s novel was clearly intended to make the reader to live on New Texas, and it succeeds in that for anyone not entirely dead to the attractions of liberty. Which was important, perhaps more important in the years between 1957 and 1971 than we can now easily understand today; St. Exupery tells us why. Before the pioneers of our movement could construct libertarian ethical and political theory, they needed to long for a vast ocean of liberty.
The gift of pre-libertarian SF was to create and nourish that longing when the language to articulate it barely existed as yet – and by doing so, stimulate the invention of an adequate language.
It is for that achievement that A Planet For Texans deserves to be remembered.
Note: H. Beam Piper (1904-1964) was an American science fiction writer of novels and short stories.
He was best known for his Terro-Human Future History series of stories and novels (including Little Fuzzy and two other Fuzzy novels about a sapient alien species) and a shorter series of alternate-history “Paratime” stories (including his Paratime anthology and the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.
Lone Star Planet, co-written with John J. McGuire and originally titled A Planet for Texans, was separate and independent from either Piper series.
The work was a tribute to libertarian journalist H.L. Mencken’s essay “The Malevolent Jobholder” (published in June 1924 in The American Mercury magazine), in which Mencken proposed “that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado, flay or even lynch a (government) jobholder, and that it shall be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds the jobholder’s deserts. The amount of this excess, if any, may be determined very conveniently by a petit jury, as other questions of guilt are now determined.”
Sadly, Piper committed suicide in 1964. According to the Wikipedia bio entry on Piper, he killed himself believing that his career was “on the skids” and he was “prevented by reticence and his Libertarian principles from asking anyone to assist him with his financial difficulties.”
Even more horribly, Piper was mistaken about his career because “his agent had died without notifying him of multiple sales.”
* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the 2000 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.
* Also worth reading is Eric S. Raymond’s seminal Prometheus Blog essay on “Freedom in the Future Tense: A Political History of SF.”
* 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.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more productive and fulfilling in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.