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.

 

 

The Libertarian Futurist Society, Prometheus Awards, LFS writers hailed in Quillette article about the persistence of libertarian sf as a key strand in mainstream science fiction

By Michael Grossberg
Libertarian science fiction has always been a seminal strand in the ever-evolving genre of science fiction and fantasy – and in significant and honorable ways, that socially conscious and liberty-loving subgenre continues as a force today, even amid regressive and reactionary forces flirting with the perennial temptations of statism, authoritarianism and centralized, institutionalized coercion on the Left and Right.

Libertarian futurists – within and outside the Libertarian Futurist Society (not to mention other organizations within the far broader libertarian movement, from Reason and Liberty magazines to the Cato Institute)  – have understood that for a long time.

Yet, it’s salutary and newsworthy when our understanding of the broader intellectual and artistic currents that have helped shape the four-decade-plus history and diversity of the Prometheus Awards is shared and appreciated by an international, cosmopolitan publication outside the libertarian movement.

The cover illustration of the Quillette article on Libertarian Science Fiction Photo: a Quillette illustration, copied here to help people find the article on their website

Such a relatively rare occasion has materialized this month (June 2020) with a fair-minded, open-minded, rich and rewarding essay on “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” published in Quillette, an influential web-magazine that embraces what modern libertarians might generally recognize as classically liberal principles.

According to its mission statement, Quillette offers “a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress.”

Indeed, LFS members might say as much, using virtually the same words, to uphold important Bill of Rights aspects of our libertarian vision of a fully free future in which people strive to respect other people’s rights and live together through the voluntary cooperation and enterprise of a free society and a free market while steadfastly abjuring violence, the initiation of force or fraud and the institutionalized coercion of the unchecked State.

Continue reading The Libertarian Futurist Society, Prometheus Awards, LFS writers hailed in Quillette article about the persistence of libertarian sf as a key strand in mainstream science fiction

40th Anniversary Celebration: An Appreciation of No Award, the 1985 Prometheus Best Novel choice

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we are posting a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our earliest Best Novel awards.

Here’s the fifth Appreciation, for No Award (1985), following recent appreciations for novels by F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, James Hogan and J. Neil Schulman:

By William H. Stoddard

When the Libertarian Futurist Society started giving regular awards for Best Novel, ballots mailed to members offered the option of voting for None of the Above.

In 1985, None of the Above won, for the first and – up to now – the only time.

Continue reading 40th Anniversary Celebration: An Appreciation of No Award, the 1985 Prometheus Best Novel choice

A 40th Anniversary Retrospective: Introducing a Reader’s Guide to the Prometheus Award Winners

By Michael Grossberg

To highlight and honor the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we are providing a reader’s guide with capsule Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with the Best Novel category.

If you’ve ever wondered why a particular work of fiction has been recognized with a Prometheus Award and what libertarian sf fans see in these award-winning works, then our upcoming series of Appreciations should be must reading – as well as informative and illuminating!

Or, if you’re simply  looking for something enjoyable and stimulating to read within the realm of science fiction and fantasy, which also illuminates abiding questions about the perennial tensions between Liberty and Power, an excellent place to begin is with this recommended reading list of award-winning fiction (to be published here on a regular weekly (or biweekly) schedule, starting now (September 2019). These capsule appreciations are being written and edited by LFS members, in some cases based on reviews printed in the Prometheus quarterly (1982-2016) or the Prometheus blog (2017-today).

Since 1979, a wide array of novels, novellas, stories, films, TV series and other works of fiction have won Prometheus awards by highlighting in fascinatingly different ways the value of voluntary social cooperation over institutionalized State coercion, the importance of respecting human rights (even for that smallest minority, the individual), and the evils of tyranny (whether on the Left or the Right).


Continue reading A 40th Anniversary Retrospective: Introducing a Reader’s Guide to the Prometheus Award Winners

Travis Corcoran accepts 2019 Prometheus Award for Causes of Separation

Travis Corcoran holds up  his Prometheus Award. 

 

Here is the acceptance speech by Travis Corcoran for 2019 Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Causes of Separation.  (Corcoran could not attend the Dublin Worldcon but wrote this acceptance speech to be read there at the ceremony.)

I would like to thank the LFS for this year’s award, but more generally, I’d like to thank them for existence of the Prometheus award, all forty years of it. It’s good that our subculture has a long-lived award to recognize excellent science fiction, especially pro-liberty science fiction.

But the Prometheus award is not merely recognition, it’s an incentive!

In fact, I might not have written my novels without the Prometheus to aim for. But the Prometheus is not a financial incentive. The one-ounce gold coin on the plaque is nice, but neither I nor any of the other winners over 40 years would ever trade or sell it, and thus – ironically – it has no financial value.
Continue reading Travis Corcoran accepts 2019 Prometheus Award for Causes of Separation

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

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

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

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.
Continue reading What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?