Interview: LFS President William H. Stoddard on fandom, freedom, favorite novels and the power of language

Few individuals have made more of a difference to the Libertarian Futurist Society and the Prometheus Awards in the 21st century than William H. Stoddard.

Bill, as he’s known to friends and fellow LFS members, has led the nonprofit, all-volunteer group of freedom-loving sf fans for more than a decade as president of the board of directors.

William H. Stoddard (File photo)

But Stoddard has done far more for many years, writing reviews of sf/fantasy for the Prometheus newsletter and more recently, this blog, and serving for decades as a key judge on both finalist-judging committees for the Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction categories of the Prometheus Award.

Here is LFS Secretary Michael Grossberg’s interview with Stoddard about how he became an sf fan, a libertarian and an active LFS member and what are some of his favorite writers and Prometheus-winning works.

Q: What Prometheus Award winners especially excited you or pleased you when they won for Best Novel?

A: For the Best Novel Award, I’d name two.

Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind (1991 award) asked “what if Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine had come into use in the nineteenth century?” in the form, not of an alternate history, but of a hidden history where multiple secretive groups used predictive social science (made possible by Analytical Engines) to create the actual history of the twentieth century from behind the scenes; it was one of my main influences when I wrote GURPS Steampunk for Steve Jackson Games in 2000.

Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky (2000 award) has both a wonderful job of creating an alien race, the Spiders, in the style of some of Poul Anderson’s stories, and a tense conflict between two human cultures after first contact with the Spiders—the trade-oriented Qeng Ho and the corporatist Emergents.

Q: What do you see as the potential positive impact of awards in general and the Prometheus Awards in particular?

A: On one hand, awards, particularly niche awards, provide recognition to creators, including creators who might otherwise have been overlooked.

William H. Stoddard giving novelist Vernor Vinge his 2014 Prometheus Special Award for Lifetime Achievement at ConDor in San Diego Photo courtesy of Stoddard

Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos (published 2018 by Tor Books) takes a close look at this process in the early years of the Hugo Awards, when science fiction as such was still a niche category.


On the other, they can help motivate creators and encourage the creation of a particular type of work. I think these are both important now, when we’re seeing the emergence of a new generation of libertarian SF writers—Dani and Eytan Kollin, Sarah Hoyt, and Travis Corcoran among them.

Q: When did you discover science fiction and fantasy and start reading it?

A: I really can’t pin that down; it goes back so early in my childhood that I don’t have a clear sense of chronology.

We had some of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels on the family bookshelves, so I must have read them very young—including a clever bit of political satire in his last book, Glinda of Oz, where the ruler of the Flatheads keeps his people happy by making all of them dictators of one thing or another, while he himself is their Supreme Dictator.

I found more fantasy, including in particular Edward Eager’s books, in the public library, and I also found juvenile science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton.

Somewhat later, in sixth grade, I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I totally loved, particularly for its resonance with Norse myths, which I had been reading for years.

Really I think I could more easily explain how I discovered realistic fiction, because that started later for me!

Q: Beyond reading sf and fantasy as a kid, how did you become an active sf fan, regularly going to conventions and socializing with other fans?

A: As I’ve mentioned, at the first science fiction convention I attended, I met a group of people who were both a branch of the Mythopoeic Society, which held monthly discussions of Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings, and mostly played roleplaying games. That was around 1975.

Carol and William Stoddard. Photo courtesy of Stoddard

In the 1980s, I became active in a San Diego-based amateur press association, and I started attending the San Diego Comic-Con, which was where I had my first long conversation with Carol, who moved in with me in 1985 and whom I married in 2016. She and I became involved in convention fandom and volunteered on a number of conventions over the years.

We also became involved in the local science fiction club, through which I acquired a large circle of fellow gamers. Much later, in the late 1990s, I discovered the Internet, and after we moved out of San Diego that became our main source of social interaction, especially now that face-to-face meetings are high-risk.

Left to right: A wedding officiant, Carol Stoddard and William H. Stoddard at theIr wedding in 2016 Photo courtesy of Stoddard

Q: How did you become active with the Libertarian Futurist Society and Prometheus Awards?

A: Not long after the Libertarian Futurist Society was founded, Victoria Varga got in touch with me and asked permission to reprint my review of Robert Franson’s The Shadow of the Ship for the newsletter.

For a few years I subscribed to the newsletter but didn’t join. I became a member after I started working for a large scientific publisher and had a budget that could accommodate annual dues. Around the turn of the millennium, I did a stint as editor of the newsletter, and also became a Board member. About the same time, we began doing formal reviews of nominees for the awards, and I offered to serve on the Best Novel committee – partly, I think, because I nominated a lot of novels for the award! – and to chair the Hall of Fame committee, which reflects my interest in the history of the genre.

Q: In “real life,” you work as an editor and copy editor, mostly of technical publications but also occasionally of sf novels. You’ve also had a sort of second career writing books for Steve Jackson Games. Tell us about your work and how it connects to your work within the Libertarian Futurist Society and for the Prometheus Awards.

A: I’d say that the most important influence of my work as a copy editor has been that I’ve spent many years looking at exact nuances of meaning in word choice and sentence structure, which has developed my sensitivity to style.

I’ve loved etymology since childhood, when I used to look at my grandmother’s Oxford English Dictionary, and my sense of the historical origins of words is important to me both as a professional tool and as an aesthetic sensibility.

Of course, I care about more than style — for Prometheus Award nominees, theme and worldbuilding matter a lot — but it’s style that’s most tied to my professional outlook.

I feel that I have to keep my professional relationships with authors at arm’s length from my involvement in the Best Novel committee, to avoid conflict of interest.

As for Steve Jackson Games, I have to write for a general audience with diverse political views, so I can’t lecture my readers about political theory — though I do find it congenial that their game GURPS defines a political spectrum from anarchy through mostly free and mostly unfree to totalitarian!

If anything, my reading both in science fiction set in exotic cultures and in social systems with different customs than ours has been a resource for my game writing.

I’d say that what critics call “cognitive estrangement” has been something that I often present in games I run, and that a lot of my players have sought out; and I first became conscious of its effect from a line of Bernard Shaw’s that Robert Heinlein quoted as the epigraph for one of his novels: “He is a barbarian, and thinks the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”

Q: In judging Prometheus Award nominees and weighing how to rank them, is there more than one standard or benchmark that you and other LFS members use on the awards-finalist-judging committees?

A: I can’t speak to how other LFS members make that decision; I don’t have statistically meaningful evidence.

I personally look for several different things. I want the works I support to be libertarian: it’s good if they affirm pro-liberty views on their topic, better if they show awareness of the nuances of libertarian thought (as in Travis Corcoran’s short story “Staking a Claim,” with its exploration of the function of title registries), and even better if they ask interesting questions or offer novel approaches within that perspective.

For example, Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle explored the historical origins of many libertarian aspects of modernity in the decades following the Restoration, from the gold standard to antislavery.

Beyond that, this is an award for the fantastic genres, so I want the fantastic premise to be essential to the plot and to be fully developed. I also care a lot about style and about sensitivity to language.

And then there’s also the element of personal emotional response. I will vote for a book that I read eagerly over one that I have to struggle through. And that’s accounted for by things like complex and interesting world-building, and involvement with the characters — the sorts of thing that, in role-playing games, we call “immersion.’

* Coming up next on the Prometheus Blog: Part II of the Prometheus Interview with Stoddard, focusing on the importance of remembering the best of the past through the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* This is the latest in an occasional series of Prometheus Blog interviews. Read the most recent other interviews with novelist L. Neil Smith and LFS founder Michael Grossberg.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: 
An Appreciation of past Prometheus Hall of Fame winners, such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, F. Paul Wilson’s Healer and An Enemy of the State, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

* 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.

* 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. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* 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 that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* 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, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

 

How far can struggles against tyranny go without becoming tyrannical? C.M. Kornbluth’s The Syndic, a 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian works, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners. Here is an Appreciation of C.M. Kornbluth’s The Syndic, one of two 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductees for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

C.M. Kornbluth’s novel The Syndic was an early winner of the Hall of Fame Award, in 1986.

Originally published in 1953, it was an example both of what Isaac Asimov called “social science fiction,” envisioning a change in technology or human behavior and working out its cultural implications, and of “thought variant” fiction, seeking to explore provocative ideas.

Such ideas were supposed to stir up discussion by going against conventional beliefs, in the style Robert Heinlein envisioned in Space Cadet as a required seminar in “Doubt”:

The seminar leader would chuck out some proposition that attacked a value usually attacked as axiomatic. From there on anything could be said.

Kornbluth picked a really provocative premise: A future North America ruled by organized crime, with the government driven into exile, creating a freer and happier society than that of his own time. This led to a story with a lot of action, but one where social speculation was never far from sight.

Continue reading How far can struggles against tyranny go without becoming tyrannical? C.M. Kornbluth’s The Syndic, a 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Free trade, entrepreneurship and a swashbuckling merchant-hero: Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners that makes clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian in theme. Here is an Appreciation of Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
    Trader to the Stars, part of Anderson’s interstellar and libertarian-themed Future History series written over four decades, offers three loosely interconnected and longer stories about the free-trade-oriented Polesotechnic League operating during a Terran Empire.

Blending adventure, mystery and sf with some swashbuckling heroism and vivid descriptions often evoking Norse sagas, this 1964 book centers on Nicholas van Rijn, a resourceful and clever Danish merchant-hero (Anderson was Danish-American).

Anderson, always a realist about humanity with a sensibility of a melancholy romantic, portrays both humans and aliens as self-interested, striving to make a buck and satisfy their various needs amid an imperfect world of struggling and flawed peoples – in short, a future just like today.

Continue reading Free trade, entrepreneurship and a swashbuckling merchant-hero: Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Non-violence, Gandhian resistance and MYOB: Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ diverse four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as pro-freedom, anti-authoritarian or dystopian sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.
Here is an Appreciation of Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
The power of peaceful behavior and non-violent resistance is explored in The Great Explosion.

British author Eric Frank Russell’s satirical 1962 novel, which incorporates in its final third section his classic golden-age-sf 1951 short story “…And Then There Were None,” is set in an expansive interstellar future in which millions have used a faster-than-light transport system to escape an increasingly bureaucratic and statist Earth and have settled countless planets.

When ships with soldiers and bureaucrats and pompous officials from a still-statist and aggressively imperialist Earth arrive four centuries to visit and take over three of the planets, they find a penal colony with a corrupt and despotic government on the first, health and fitness fanatic nudists on the second and no signs of human life on the third planet, colonized by a religious group.

But they face their biggest mystery – and largest challenge – on a final fourth planet, filled with people who calls themselves Gands (after Gandhi) and whose agrarian culture and economy have embraced a classless libertarian anarchy based on passive resistance to unjust authority.

Continue reading Non-violence, Gandhian resistance and MYOB: Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

How does sf lend itself to exploring freedom & other ideas? Watch the NASFIC 2020 Prometheus Awards and “Visions of SF, Liberty & Human Rights” panel with authors Hoyt, Wilson; surprise guests Cherryh & Fancher; & LFS leaders

Serendipity and seized opportunity enhanced the star power and appeal of the Libertarian Futurist Society’s panel discussion at the 2020 online North American Science Fiction Convention.

Unexpectedly but delightfully, the Hugo-winning Grand Master novelist C.J. Cherryh and her partner Jane. S. Fancher joined past Prometheus winners Sarah Hoyt and F. Paul Wilson and several LFS veteran leaders including LFS President William H. Stoddard in answering a variety of thought-provoking questions during the NASFiC/LFS panel on “Visions of SF, Liberty, Human Rights: The Prometheus Awards Over Four Decades, from F. Paul Wilson and Robert Heinlein to Today.”

When panel moderator Tom Jackson noticed that
Cherryh and Fancher were still hanging out within the Zoom “meeting room” after accepting their 2020 Best Novel award for co-writing Alliance Rising to watch the post-ceremony panel discussion, he noted their presence and ability to participate.

Tom Jackson

After a few questions to the other panelists, Jackson invited Cherryh and Fancher to come into the discussion with their comments.

Which they graciously did, and fascinatingly so.

Thus, the long-planned NASFiC panel celebrating the recent 40th anniversary of the Prometheus Awards – first presented by L. Neil Smith to F. Paul Wilson in 1979 – expanded into an event with interesting comments from not two but four bestselling, Prometheus-award-winning novelists.

Here is the full panel discussion, part of an 80-minute two-part NASFiC/LFS video that begins with the 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony, including Cherryh and Fancher’s Best Novel acceptance speech and Astrid Anderson Bear’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech for her late father Poul Anderson; and concludes with the 50-minute panel discussion:

 

Continue reading How does sf lend itself to exploring freedom & other ideas? Watch the NASFIC 2020 Prometheus Awards and “Visions of SF, Liberty & Human Rights” panel with authors Hoyt, Wilson; surprise guests Cherryh & Fancher; & LFS leaders

NASFiC acceptance speech: How C.J. Cherryh built her Alliance-Union Universe, & the launch of a prequel trilogy with Alliance Rising, the 2020 Prometheus Best Novel

If you’re a fan of C.J. Cherryh in general and her vast, complex, economically literate Alliance-Union Universe in particular, the full text of Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher’s Prometheus Awards acceptance speech is a fascinating must-read.

Cherry and Fancher co-wrote Alliance Rising, billed as the first prequel in a projected Hinder Stars trilogy exploring how her – now, their – future history develops.


The Libertarian Futurist Society, which presented its 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony Saturday at the all-online North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), chose Alliance Rising as its 2020 Best Novel winner partly because of the plausible realism with which Cherryh and Fancher weave a portrait of how the emergence of an interstellar trade network with private property and active markets tends to reduce conflicts, violence and the threat of war while sustaining peace, prosperity and progress.

“Its not so much that we set out to write a novel about the link between freedom and economics,” Cherryh said in her acceptance remarks, “but that when you start telling a story about human civilization, it goes with the territory.”

Continue reading NASFiC acceptance speech: How C.J. Cherryh built her Alliance-Union Universe, & the launch of a prequel trilogy with Alliance Rising, the 2020 Prometheus Best Novel

How to subvert authoritarian regimes? Astrid Bear’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech for Poul Anderson’s “Sam Hall”; NASFiC presenter Sarah Hoyt on writing about liberty

Novelist Sarah Hoyt, speaking from Colorado, discussed the importance of writing about liberty.

Astrid Anderson Bear, speaking from Washington, talked about her late father Poul Anderson and how to subvert authoritarian regimes.

Both women spoke eloquently at the Libertarian Futurist Society’s 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony, presented Saturday Aug. 22 as a well-advertised highlight during the all-online Columbus North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC). (Editor’s note: This is the first of several planned Prometheus blog posts about the awards ceremony and related LFS panel.)

Hoyt, winner of the 2011 Prometheus for Best Novel for Darkship Thieves, had the honor of presenting the Prometheus Hall of Fame category for Best Classic Fiction.

This Poul Anderson collection includes his short story “Sam Hall.”

Bear accepted the award for her late father, whose story “Sam Hall” was inducted into the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Continue reading How to subvert authoritarian regimes? Astrid Bear’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech for Poul Anderson’s “Sam Hall”; NASFiC presenter Sarah Hoyt on writing about liberty

North American Science Fiction Convention to host 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony & LFS “Visions of SF, Liberty, Human Rights…” panel as centerpieces of expanded online weekend with presenters Hoyt, Wilson and winners Cherryh, Fancher and (Anderson) Bear

Columbus’ long-awaited hosting of its first North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) will become an online reality this weekend.

“We have put a great team together to make this NASFiC totally VIRTUAL,” the convention organizers promised recently – and they’ve delivered with online versions of the Masquerade, Art Show, Dealer’s Room, a Writer’s Workshop and other events, beginning with opening ceremonies at 3 p.m. Friday Aug. 21.

And the Libertarian Futurist Society and our Prometheus Awards will be among the weekend’s highlights.

Continue reading North American Science Fiction Convention to host 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony & LFS “Visions of SF, Liberty, Human Rights…” panel as centerpieces of expanded online weekend with presenters Hoyt, Wilson and winners Cherryh, Fancher and (Anderson) Bear

Libertarian Futurist Society raises visibility at CoNZealand, the first all-online World Science Fiction Convention, with Prometheus-winning novelist F. Paul Wilson leading timely panel (watch it here!) on “Freedom in SF: Forty Years of the Prometheus Awards”

CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention and the first Worldcon in history to be presented entirely online, pulled off the unprecedented feat with impressive organization and the dedication of countless volunteers and organizers.

In the process, the July 29 to Aug. 1 event offered the annual Hugo Awards ceremony and a dizzying variety of interesting panel discussions – including one suggested by the Libertarian Futurist Society to honor the Prometheus Awards’ recent 40thanniversary.

With a vast and potentially larger worldwide online audience watching from many countries on Zoom and Discord platforms but avoiding direct physical contact for safety during the pandemic, the New Zealand Worldcon seized the potential to be seen more widely. One happy consequence was raising the visibility worldwide of the Libertarian Futurist Society and the Prometheus Awards.

 

Continue reading Libertarian Futurist Society raises visibility at CoNZealand, the first all-online World Science Fiction Convention, with Prometheus-winning novelist F. Paul Wilson leading timely panel (watch it here!) on “Freedom in SF: Forty Years of the Prometheus Awards”

Censorship, book-burning, history, memory, individualism and rebellion: An Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a 1984 co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ diverse four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian and dystopian sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 a weekly series of Appreciations of past award-winners, beginning with the first category for Best Novel and now focusing on the Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

Here is an Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the other 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

One of the most widely admired classics of science fiction is Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s poignant 1953 novel makes an eloquent case (both libertarian and classical liberal) against censorship and book-burning as a blow not only to basic individual rights but as a devastating wound to history, memory and civilization itself.

Bradbury’s best-known novel offers an exemplary cautionary fable about an illiberal future society in which books are outlawed and burned to destroy them and any remnant of literacy, memory, deep culture and independent thinking.

Those who still love and read books become criminals, hunted down by “firemen” and at high risk of having their homes invaded, their books and houses burned and their lives destroyed by the omnipresent State.

Continue reading Censorship, book-burning, history, memory, individualism and rebellion: An Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a 1984 co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame