How would Heinlein react to today’s space news and progress?

By Michael Grossberg

Have spacesuit, will travel?

If only Robert Heinlein were still alive today, what would he think of the progress humankind is making in outer space by harnessing the creative energies of free enterprise?
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Back to the Moon

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.

What did Heinlein do that these later writers have found worthy of imitation? He portrayed the lunar environment as harsh and indeed potentially lethal (his original title was The Moon Is a Harsh Schoolmistress). Despite this, he showed it as having potentially permanent human communities of some size, including Lunar-born inhabitants. He envisioned these communities as multiethnic and culturally hybridized. He imagined them as supported by a largely unregulated economy. His storyline focused on a lunar struggle for political autonomy against Earth’s much larger states and population. A further element was the presence of a fully self-aware computer that became involved in the human struggles.

Heinlein’s lunar environment was potentially threatened by vacuum, and offenders against its customary law were likely to be thrown out an airlock without a space suit; but his characters were much more hindered by having adapted to low gravity, to the point where returning to Earth left them disabled and at risk of death. McDonald picked up on this point in a major way, with visitors from Earth carefully monitoring how long it would be before they couldn’t return. But he also makes a point of confrontation with vacuum, both in a brilliant early scene where lunar teenagers show their bravery by walking on the surface without vacuum gear, and in a later one where two young lunar inhabitants make a desperate journey with the air in their suits running out—one that recalls another Heinlein novel, Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Corcoran also emphasizes vacuum in multiple scenes, starting with a tourist from Earth taking foolish risks in exploring the lunar surface. And Weir’s dramatic climax involves both a journey on the Moon’s surface and a threat to the lunar air supply.

Only Corcoran picks up on Heinlein’s having a self-aware computer as a character. His character Gamma carries forward Heinlein’s effort to show how such a being’s mentality might differ from a human one, with the benefit of decades of advances in both artificial intelligence and cognitive science to inform his portrayal. He also provides a vehicle for Corcoran to acknowledge Heinlein’s work — and argue with it — because Gamma has read Heinlein and has opinions about why some of his ideas wouldn’t work; the scene where he explains to Max, an uplifted dog, that “throwing rocks” will only make the situation worse is both well reasoned and hilarious.

Heinlein’s Luna was a prison colony for the major nations of Earth, and thus multiethnic, with such cities as Novy Leningrad and Hong Kong Luna, and his viewpoint character’s descent was racially mixed: white American, Hispanic American, black South African, and Tatar. One minor incident has him jailed in North American because he’s revealed that his Lunar marriage includes spouses of diverse races — Heinlein wrote only two years before Loving v Virginia did away with American miscegenation laws, and assumed they would still be in force a century later. Corcoran shows major American, Chinese, and American populations, and one of his best drawn characters is a preadolescent Nigerian girl. McDonald goes even further, with the five corporations that dominate the Moon’s economy being Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Ghanaian, and Russian. Artemis has a viewpoint character of Arabian descent, a colonial administration established by Kenya, and the air supply controlled by a Brazilian firm. None of these authors envisions a purely American future in space!

However, all of them portray a relatively unregulated economy that reflects libertarian ideas about free markets; and most of them also envision stateless legal systems—The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the main inspirations for the anarchocapitalism of David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. (The exception is Artemis, in which there’s an appointed “city administrator,” an arrangement somewhat like Hong Kong under British rule.) Heinlein’s Loonies are left free largely because of the general indifference of the Lunar Authority to most of what they do, and their arrangements tend to be small-scale and informal. McDonald’s lunar society is governed entirely by contract law, having no criminal law and no government capable of imposing it; it reads like an attempt to envision the kind of society Friedman wrote about in anthropological terms — in many ways it’s the most alien of the various fictional worlds — with an emphasis not on ethical principles but on the grungy realities of how markets actually work. Even so, he portrays a society that has both freedom and opportunity, as well as hardship and conflict. Corcoran’s Aristillus is more focused on ethical and legal principles in its portrayal of a society founded by a libertarian visionary; however, he doesn’t hesitate to explore its failure modes, from difficulties in establishing clear title to real property to the challenge of funding collective goods such as military defense. Taken all together, these four authors thoroughly explore the idea of a free lunar society —and the challenges of defending it.

One of the appeals of science fiction, for many decades, has been its character as an ongoing dialogue about ideas. After a long gap, we are now seeing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress inspire such a dialogue — explicitly for Corcoran, implicitly for the other two. Happily, Heinlein has found worthy successors: All of these books were worth reading. Having them all come out close together was a fortunate coincidence—or, possibly, a reflection of a new hope of establishing a human presence in space.

Prometheus winners rank high on the Great American Read list – including Tolkien, Orwell and Rand

By Michael Grossberg
Several Prometheus-winning novels rank high in the Great American Read, suggesting that at least some significant aspects of individualist and libertarian/classical-liberal values remain at the core of popular American and worldwide culture.
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Travis Corcoran’s acceptance speech for ‘The Powers of the Earth’

Travis Corcoran

Travis Corcoran won the Prometheus Award for his excellent novel, The Powers of the Earth. He couldn’t make it to the Worldcon for this weekend’s awards ceremony, but here is the text of his acceptance speech, read by Chris Hibbert. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.
Continue reading Travis Corcoran’s acceptance speech for ‘The Powers of the Earth’

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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Literary snobbery at the ‘Paris’ Review

Johanna Sinisalo holds her Prometheus Award. (Photo by Ryan Lackey). 

The Paris Review has a new article up, “How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country,” which purports to tell the story of how Finnish writers have acquired an international reputation.

But the article’s author, Kalle Oskari Mattila, seems to be determined to make sure that neither the science fiction community nor the Prometheus Award will receive any credit for the growing attention to Finnish writing.

The article includes a photograph Johanna Sinisalo and a brief description of her novel, The Core of the Sun. But it doesn’t mention that she received the Prometheus Award in 2017 for the book — likely the first time the award has gone to someone who isn’t an Anglo-American author.

Similarly, the article leaves out the fact that Sinisalo was one of the guests of honor for the first-ever Finnish worldcon in 2017, which drew 7,119 people. Sinisalo was given her Prometheus Award at the convention, and the award helped demonstrate that she was a guest of honor on her merits, and not just because she happens to be Finnish. The worldcon was one of the biggest ever in terms of attendance and certainly helped shine a spotlight on Finnish writers.

I thought this sort of literary snobbery had gone away but the “Paris”
Review (actually published in New York) apparently wants to take it into the 21st Century.

— Tom Jackson

Reason magazine on our fight over ‘The Dispossessed’

My Jan. 24 blog post on the death of prominent SF writer Ursula K. LeGuin mentioned that she won our Hall of Fame Award in 1993, for The Dispossessed.

I know now a lot more about the history behind that award, thanks to a new article by Victoria Varga. 

Varga, the former editor of The Prometheus, the newsletter we sent out until we established this blog, explains that the novel came out in 1974 and she nominated it for the Hall of Fame Award in 1983, touching off years of debate. LeGuin appreciated the nominations but privately expressed doubt it would win, although it finally did.

Continue reading Reason magazine on our fight over ‘The Dispossessed’

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: The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

By Tom Jackson

Book CoverWith The Handmaid’s Tale, science fiction readers who inclined toward feminism got to see what the tools of science fiction would look like in the hands of a skilled mainstream writer, Margaret Atwood.

Libertarian science fiction fans who have wondered what an equally skilled mainstream writer could do by taking a stab at science fiction now have their novel, too: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver.

Shriver is best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and also was awarded the Orange Prize in 2005. Her novel So Much for That was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing her novel, Shriver says, “I am first of all trying to tell a good story, and in this case a plausible one. I wanted to put together a sequence of future history events which made economic sense. The focus of the novel is the implosion of the economy as a consequence of overloading of U.S. sovereign debt.”

Greece seems like a current example of what Shriver is talking about. Michael Grossberg remarked to me in an email that reading The Mandibles reminded him of what “just recently has been happening in Venezuela, once the richest (and much free-er) country in South America, and now an impoverished socialist disaster where people are starving, can’t get bathroom tissues to wipe their ass (a specific issue in Shriver’s novel that’s also very plausible) and fighting each other over scraps — just as The Mandibles foresees.”

There are many libertarian elements, which it would be unfair to the reader to reveal in a review. Shriver, who I am sorry to say I had never read before, has a literary style that is clear and sharp, filled with wit. (In her future history, the Mexican government winds up behaving more sensibly than the profligate American one, and winds up building a wall to keep out desperate Americans seeking opportunity in a relatively free country.)

The idea of implanting a chip so that the government can monitor its citizens is not new, but Shriver’s skill gives the idea a new freshness.

I won’t reveal many more details but will suggest that libertarian readers interested in either mainstream fiction or science fiction will likely be interested in this book.

I will, however, answer the literary hit job put out on Shriver by Ken Kalfus last year in the Washington Post’s “Books” section. Apparently offended by Shriver’s irreverent treatment of current Democratic politics (one of her future Democratic politicians presiding over a ruined nation is Chelsea Clinton), Kalfus complained about the book’s “racist characterizations” and offered this example:

“The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”

This paragraph is clever in its maliciousness. It is a textbook example of how you can write something that is technically truthful (thus warding off a possible libel suit) but mislead the reader.

The Mandibles in fact makes a point of telling the reader that Luella was intelligent and charming when she was a healthy woman. At the time when the novel takes place, she is suffering from dementia. With the collapse of the government, the safety net that would have allowed families to deal with people such as Luella is completely gone, and the members of the family go to an enormous amount of trouble to take care of her, change her adult diapers, etc. This is depicted as a heroic effort by family members unwilling to abandon her. In the novel, the option of locking away dementia sufferers in secure nursing homes is gone. The leash that Kalfus references is what the family has to use to keep them from losing her. How did Kalfus miss all this, if he actually read the novel that the Washington Post assigned him to review? Did he skim it, looking for something to complain about?

And what should we make of the fact that Luella is “the single African American in the family,” as Kalfus puts it? How many white families have even one African American? The family patriarch, Lionel Mandible, married a black woman in the novel’s past. Why is this evidence of the novel’s racism?

And how did Kalfus manage to miss the fact that the most unsympathetic characters in the novel are all white? Gore Vidal used to complain about reviewers who, he alleged, didn’t actually read the entire book. I wonder if Shriver would have a similar complaint here.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at RAWIllumination.net.)

Freedom in the Future Tense: A Political History of SF

 

By Eric S. Raymond

The history of modern SF is one of five attempted revolutions — one success and four enriching failures. I’m going to offer a look at them from an unusual angle, a political one.
This turns out to be a useful perspective because more of the history of SF than one might expect is intertwined with political questions, and SF had an important role in giving birth to at least one distinct political ideology that is alive and important today.

CAMPBELL AND HEINLEIN

The first and greatest of the revolutions came out of the minds of John Wood Campbell and Robert Heinlein, the editor and the author who invented modern science fiction. The pivotal year was 1937, when John Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction. He published Robert Heinlein’s first story a little over a year later.
Continue reading Freedom in the Future Tense: A Political History of SF