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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: In this wide-ranging autobiographical interview, Grossberg shares his encounters, conversations and/or connections with Timothy Leary, George R.R. Martin, L. Neil Smith, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, Sissy Spacek, Gore Vidal, Ray Bradbury, Roy Rogers, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Roberto Rossellini, Nicholas Ray, Marianne Williamson, Susan Sontag, Roy Childs Jr., James Hogan and Robert Heinlein, among others.
L. Neil Smith in June 2019. (Photo courtesy L. Neil Smith).
L. Neil Smith is a libertarian activist and pundit, a musician, the founder of the Prometheus Award, a firearms enthusiast and a longtime Colorado resident. (Born in Denver, he grew up all over as an Air Force brat but eventually returned to Colorado for good.)
But he’s perhaps best known as a prolific science fiction writer, who often incorporates libertarian ideas into his novels, which usually have plenty of action and humor. He has written more than 35 books, including many science fiction novels, but also graphic novels, a vampire novel and political/philosophical commentary.