Back to the Moon: Lunar fiction from Heinlein to McDonald, Weir and Corcoran

By William H. Stoddard

Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a classic of libertarian science fiction; along with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it was the first winner of the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Hall of Fame award in 1983. Many science fiction fans, and not only libertarians, regard it as one of his best novels. But for nearly half a century after its original publication in 1966, it inspired no obvious imitators. Now, that’s started to change, with the appearance of multiple novels that explore the idea of a “free Luna” in the near future.

In 2015, Ian McDonald published Luna: New Moon, followed in 2017 by Luna: Wolf Moon; as of the time this is written, a third volume, Luna: Moon Rising is shortly to appear. In 2017, Travis Corcoran published the first volume of his Aristillus series, The Powers of the Earth, winner of the Prometheus Award for best novel, followed in 2018 by Causes of Separation. Also in 2017, Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, published Artemis. All three novels or series have important elements in common with each other and with Heinlein’s novel — but at the same time, they develop them in significantly different ways.
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What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?

A bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford. (Creative Commons photo). 

By William H. Stoddard

The Prometheus Award has been given annually since 1982, and the Hall of Fame Award since 1983. All through the twenty-first century, lists of four to six finalists have been announced for each award. And for much of that time, online comments on the nominations and awards have often questioned their rationale.  There have been comments suggesting that the awards could go to virtually any book, or to winners that have no libertarian content, or indeed are actively opposed to libertarianism.

“Virtually any book” is an exaggeration. There are any number of compelling books whose themes aren’t political: The Island of Dr. Moreau, At the Mountains of Madness, and Ringworld are all examples. Even past winners of the Prometheus Award have written such books, such as Michael Flynn’s brilliantly tragic The Wreck of The River of Stars. There are also books written from viewpoints opposed to libertarianism, such as Star Maker or the Foundation series. I think it’s safe to say that none of these could have been a Best Novel nominee, or can be expected to be a Hall of Fame nominee.
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Review: Avengers: Infinity War


Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man, at San Diego Comic Con International in 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore). 

By William H. Stoddard

The films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an unusual, and possibly unique artistic project: a cinematic series set in a shared fictional universe, one that develops from film to film, with later films referring to earlier. Of course there have been trilogies and other series of films, but this design not only is at a greater length, but has multiple branches following different groups of characters. There’s a main storyline that began with The Avengers and progressed through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and The Black Panther, but other films have told different types of stories: a mock epic in Guardians of the Galaxy, a caper film in Ant-Man, and a story of supernatural initiation in Doctor Strange, for example.
The latest film, The Avengers: The Infinity War, attempts to bring these all together into a climactic story—or at least, the first half of one; it ends with a cliffhanger. I went into the theater not sure this film would be worth seeing, and I can see some flaws in it, largely reflecting the vast differences in tone among the earlier films; but the overall result was impressive and moving. And I think this largely reflects the central role of theme in the script.
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Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz (Creative Commons photo)

By William H. Stoddard

Annalee Newitz has had a successful career as a print and online journalist, and has published several books, but until Autonomous, all of these were nonfiction. It was a happy discovery for me that her first venture into fiction showed real mastery of the craft. I laughed at her epigraph from “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” and promptly tracked the song down and bought it; and the opening page of her narrative hooked me and kept me reading. Both her handling of characterization and plot, and the quality of her prose, were the kind of thing I hope for when I glance at a new book and ask if I want to read it.
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Futures in Collision: Firefly’s Divided Society

Actor Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. Creative Commons photo by vagueonthehow. 

By William H. Stoddard

In the decade and a half since Firefly came on the air, it’s emerged as one of the high points of television science fiction, both for its characterization, and for the unusual depth in which its setting is imagined. In fact, that depth helps explain the characterization. The crew and passengers of the Serenity come from different places in a complex world, and their motives and relationships reflect this. On a first viewing, they’re inevitably two-dimensional, inviting the watcher to see them as dramatic stereotypes. Fitting the description of Firefly as a “space Western,” they often seem like Western stereotypes: the cynical veteran, the glamorous dance-hall girl, the preacher, the naïve city dweller out of his depth. But over the course of the first (and only) season, viewers came to know their backstories, and to see their actions in more depth, in relation to their pasts as well as their presents.
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Review: Drug Lord by Doug Casey and John Hunt

By William H. Stoddard

Drug Lord is the second volume in the authors’ High Ground series about international entrepreneur and libertarian idealist Charles Knight. I can’t fault it as a libertarian work; of course, libertarians disagree about a lot of specific issues, but any libertarian reader will recognize the basic point of view. And I didn’t bog down in reading it, or find it a struggle to turn the next page.

Nonetheless, I have to say I’m ultimately not satisfied with Drug Lord as a book.
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Review: Freefall, Chapter 1, by Mark Stanley

By William Stoddard

Mark Stanley has been writing and drawing Freefall for nineteen years now, making it one of the longest-running Webcomics ever. He officially announced the completion of its first chapter on July 11, 2016. Stanley has just been awarded a Special Prometheus Award for Freefall.

The core of Freefall is character-driven comedy. Its three core characters are Sam Starfall, a ship captain; Helix, his assistant/flunky; and Florence Ambrose, the ship’s engineer. None of them is human! Sam is an intelligent alien, of a race evolved from land-dwelling cephalopod scavengers, the only member of his race on the colony planet Jean (though he wears a humanoid exoskeleton). Helix is an Asimovian robot. Florence is an uplifted wolf with intelligence equal to that of a very bright human, but with different underlying instincts—probably the only one on the planet, and one of the few in existence anywhere. Many of the secondary characters are human, but not all; Jean’s robot population is vastly larger than its human (450 million vs. 40 thousand), and we’ve also met Florence’s designer, Dr. Bowman, an unplifted chimpanzee with rage issues. A great deal of the comedy is driven by the tension between Sam’s love of chaos, rulebreaking, and petty crime, and Florence’s conscientiousness and naïveté.

Having made created beings a big part of the setting, Stanley follows Chekhov’s advice about the gun on the mantelpiece: He makes them a major focus of his story. While a lot of it is episodic, over the course of the chapter a continuing plot emerges and becomes central, one whose focus is conflict over the rights of robots. It’s to Stanley’s credit that he doesn’t go in for straw man villains. The immediate threat comes from a corporate executive who has come up with a way to enrich himself; but his actions aren’t corporate policy, and another executive opposes his scheme. The resolution of the conflict brings in Jean’s court system and planetary government, whose mayor is initially opposed to the rights of robots—but other officials have different views, and the mayor’s position becomes more complex over the course of the story.

As a libertarian, of course I find the idea of the universal rights of sentient beings (starting perhaps in #714 with “Intelligent beings should not be property!”) an appealing theme, if one whose appeal isn’t limited to libertarians. But Stanley also inserts a number of other comments that libertarians will applaud:

  • References to the failings of bureaucracies, from inefficiency to manipulation and abuse
  • The idea that government officials need to be restrained by fear of the people rising against them
  • The idea that disobedience and resistance to authority are praiseworthy
  • Elements of free market economics, including a discussion of why it’s more efficient for robots to have control of their own earnings than for maintenance to be centrally controlled (#2432) and a clear explanation of gains from trade based on differences in what is scarce (#1252)
  • Approval for spontaneous order (#2518)
  • At the most basic, repeated celebrations of the virtue of free choice

Stanley also shows a consistent appreciation for diversity. This starts out with his basic cast of characters: Florence’s respect for the law and sense of duty are profoundly different from Sam’s dishonesty, trickery, and love of chaos, but each of them learns from the other, and in fact a running joke is the two of them thinking that they’ve set good examples for each other. (For example, in one strip (#855), Sam laments, “I’ve allowed the prospect of short term profit to endanger my long term goals,” and Helix comments, “That sounds like something Florence would say.”) Other strips have Sam reflecting on liking human beings but finding their behavior and their ethics incomprehensible. His different beliefs are tied to the evolutionary history of his species, in a classic science fictional style.

At still a deeper level, Freefall is often philosophically sophisticated. Sometimes this shows up in the form of jokes and allusions, as when Florence faces a conflict between conflicting moral values, and asks herself, “What would Jean Buridan do in this situation?” (#1803), or as in a strip that says that robots work by clever programming with no “ghost in the machine” (#1328). But these jokes point at a more serious theme: A nonmystical, nonsupernatural explanation of “free will,” or self-direction—as the contemporary philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it, a theory without “spooky stuff.” Stanley envisions both Florence and many of the robots on Jean as having a neural architecture that doesn’t depend on rigid, pre-programmed algorithms, but on complexity and flexibility, letting it arrive at decisions autonomously. In fact, his account of the brain as a self-organizing cognitive system parallels the concept of markets as self-organizing economic systems. And most importantly, he suggests that real virtue has to originate in autonomous choices, and not in imposed “laws.”

Beyond these philosophical and political themes, Freefall is also quite good science fiction. In fact, it’s toward the hard end of the SF spectrum; it assumes that faster-than-light travel is possible, but all its other “miracles” are plausible speculation based on present-day physics and biology. And Florence Ambrose is a classic Astounding-style engineer hero—even though she’s a genetically enhanced wolf, and many strips turn on peculiarities of canid behavior. And even beyond those aspects, Freefall is fun! How could anyone not love the sequence where Sam gets the mayor to say, “This is a direct order. Hit me with a pie!” in the presence of five AIs who are programmed to obey her implicitly?

William Stoddard is the president of the Libertarian Futurist Society, and is a professional copy editor specializing in scientific and scholarly material.