Identity, anarchy, free markets, robots with rights and the politics of space colonization: An Appreciation of Ken MacLeod’s The Stone Canal, the 1998 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and make clear what made past winners deserve recognition as pro-freedom or anti-authoritarian sf/fantasy, we’re continuing to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod:

Ken MacLeod’s The Stone Canal ranges widely in its exploration of different political systems on different planets in a future marked by wars, revolutions, space colonization and a cyberworld in which people’s memories and personalities can be downloaded or uploading to clones on demand.

Among the many exciting ideas that MacLeod explores in his ambitious 1997 novel – Book 2 in his Fall Revolution series, but set earlier than The Cassini Division – are several of special interest to libertarian sf fans – including his complex and ambiguous depiction of capitalist anarchy on Earth, how free markets might develop on a terraformed planet in another solar system and the possibility of independent robots with individual rights.

The settings are far-flung, too, from 20thcentury Scotland to a 21stcentury extra-solar planet called New Mars with a free market. It’s a  future of longer life-spans but also new kinds of death.


MacLeod’s story also imagines the problems and challenges in determining identity, basic rights and ownership – i.e. basic meta-foundational libertarian questions – when more than one copy of a personality can be downloaded into working infrastructure.

At the center of one pivotal thread of the post-Singularity story is an anarchist stranger, a clone who arrives on Mars with nuclear capability and memories of his life on Earth as Jonathan Wilde, when he was accused of losing World War III.

But the characters reflect the motley tapestry of a complex and messy future, from Marxist mercenaries and Abolitionists to uploaded “Fast Folk,” robotic copies, old loves, old enemies, sex slaves and anarcho-capitalist escaped slaves living in a new republic in a high-tech city in another solar system.

Full of kaleidoscopic literary and historical references, the novel is also a mystery with pieces of its puzzle in both the fragmented societies of the future and the past.

The stranger’s Wilde and wild memories explore an intriguing friendship forged over radical politics and ideological differences with David Reid, an old college buddy from 1970s Glasgow. Their relationship, strained by a centuries-old rivalry over politics and the affections of a woman, changes their lives and history.

Few sf writers blend imaginative cyberpunk hard-sf futures, a fast-paced and unpredictable plot and a vivid assortment of evolving, changing characters with such a fascinating blend of social, political and economic speculation.

In this and novels in his fascinating future-history series, MacLeod weaves in thought-provoking and plausible speculations about free will, consciousness, immortality through cloning, and the perennially fraught future of capitalism, socialism, anarchy and corporate responsibility.

Note: MacLeod also won Prometheus Awards for Best Novel for The Star Fraction in 1996 and Learning the World in 2006.

Ken MacLeod

His Prometheus Best Novel finalists include The Cassini Division (2000), The Sky Road (2001), Dark Light (2003), Newton’s Wake (2005), The Execution Channel (2008), The Restoration Game (2012), The Corporation Wars: Dissidence (2017), The Corporation Wars: Insurgence (2017) and The Corporation Wars: Emergence (2018).

* Read our previous Appreciation for Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction, the 1996 Prometheus Best Novel winner.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: John Varley’s The Golden Globe, the 1999 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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