Some love for L. Neil Smith at Tor.com

As part of a “bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books,” Alan Brown writes an appreciation of The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith for Tor.com. (Smith won the Prometheus Award for the book in 1982.)

Brown writes, “Smith’s writing voice is witty, snarky, and entertaining, and there is always plenty of action to keep the story moving.”

Brown’s take on Smith’s libertarian philosophy: “In the early 1980s, I worked in a variety of jobs in Washington, D.C., and it was here that I encountered Smith’s work. During that time, spending an evening here and there reading a book set in worlds of free-wheeling anarchy was often a refreshing break from the sluggish bureaucracy I worked in during the days. While I am a political centrist myself, I always enjoy reading works that advocate different points of view, especially when they do so in an entertaining manner.”

 

 

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.

An immediately evident theme of Infinity War is environmentalism: Its antagonist, Thanos, is motivated by a fear of overpopulation, for which he envisions consequences much like those Paul Ehrlich warned against—and apparently, in this world, those consequences actually came about. Now, there are valid environmental concerns that it’s prudent to address—and there have been libertarian proposals to address them at least since R.H. Coase’s 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost.” But some versions of environmentalism treat it as a new justification for economic central planning, despite the dismal environmental record of planned economies; and a few more radical versions call for things such as the end of economic growth or the reversal of past growth, for an end to human reproduction, or even for outright human extinction. Thanos’s draconian solution to population growth puts him in this last small group of green fanatics.

What makes the difference among these variants? The last two are utilitarian (note that Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, advocated giving equal weight to human and animal feelings of pleasure and pain—akin to current “animal rights” thinking, though Bentham rejected any kind of rights as “nonsense on stilts”). That is, they thought it was legitimate to trade off different people’s pleasure and pain: To inflict suffering on one person in order to give another person a greater benefit, or to bring small benefits to a large number of other people. In the words of one of the early Star Trek films, utilitarianism says that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” In contrast, many versions of libertarianism reject such thinking as collectivist, and call for what Ayn Rand described as a “non-sacrificial ethic,” one in which no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property for another’s gain. And this idea, too, shows up in Infinity War, notably in Steve Rogers’ statement, “We don’t trade lives.”

Of course, Rand’s concept of “sacrifice” is narrow: Her characters are prepared to risk their lives to save a factory, to rescue a benefactor, or to serve justice, and her quintessential self-interested hero is ready to commit suicide rather than see the woman he loves tortured to gain his cooperation, acts that most people would call “sacrifices.” And this sort of choice is seen all through Infinity War. In fact, the entire film seems to be about the theme of sacrifice: On one hand, Thanos’s sacrifice of others’ lives, extolled by his henchman Ebony Maw as “the privilege . . . of being saved by the Great Titan” (but a privilege Thanos seemingly doesn’t plan to share, even when his work is done), is coerced sacrifice, imposed by force on terrified victims. On the other, Thanos’s adversaries voluntarily give things up, or endure suffering, to attain something they value: Thor goes through an ordeal to make a new weapon, Groot gives part of his body to provide it with a handle, the Black Panther leads his entire kingdom into a battle against Thanos’s forces that may destroy it, and the Vision—who has consistently advocated “the needs of the many”—urges the destruction of the Mind Stone that animates him to keep it out of Thanos’s hands. Even Thanos himself has to make a sacrifice, to give up what he loves, as the price of his gigantic quest. These and other scenes all reflect that common theme, which gives unity to the entire film. And at the same time they cumulatively show the difference between paying a high price for something you value, and being made use of to serve someone else’s ends, even if those ends are presented as a noble purpose. All of this makes Infinity War not simply an action story, or melodrama, but a drama, whose characters have to make hard choices, choices that reveal what is truly important to them.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been amazingly successful. I think this latest film helps show why: Their films aren’t just action and violence and special effects, impressive though those are. They’re about something. When one of their characters goes into combat, the audience almost always knows what they’re fighting for and who they are. And this has a big payoff in audience involvement, one that lets them bring together a huge cast of characters and have the audience already prepared to care about what happens to them, and how they face this new ordeal.

Review: The Fractal Man by J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman

By Eric Raymond

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, now available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate  on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

(Reprinted by permission from Eric Raymond’s Armed and Dangerous blog).

Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

By Chris Hibbert

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, though it was more the setting than the story that had me entranced.

Doctorow envisions a relatively high tech future with a strong upper class with strict controls on many aspects of society, but there’s an informal, unsupported safety valve that makes it possible for people to get out from under the plutocrats (called Zottas here). Doctorow’s society is fraying around the edges, so there are lots of abandoned industrial facilities and vacant land that people who are fed up can Walkaway to. Once there they create informal voluntary societies, and exploit the abandoned wealth they find around them. As with Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom this is a reputation based society, but many of the people who fuel this iteration explicitly reject the ideas of ratings and rankings and tracking contributions. People work together for the joy of it, and record their ideas and plans so others can replicate what works and improve on what doesn’t.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

In a focal early scene, Limpopo and her companions have been working for months to build a habitation called the Belt and Braces in the wilderness. Limpopo leads by doing a lot of the work, and she has argued convincingly that using leaderboards and rewarding people based on their contributions are ineffective ways to encourage desirable behaviors because they incentivize the wrong kinds of effort. Jimmy had lost an earlier round of this argument and been asked to leave. He returns with a crowd of allies one day when Limpopo is working outside, and his crowd uses the lack of formal rules to rewrite the software controls and impose a reward structure. A common response to this kind of disagreement would be to wage a “revert” battle in the software, but Limpopo uses this opportunity to demonstrate the depth of her commitment to the “Walkaway” philosophy by announcing that she’s not going to fight over it. Instead, she’ll go somewhere else and start over, leaving Jimmy with full possession of an empty shell. When pressed, she declares “I didn’t make it. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t let him take it.” The Walkaway philosophy is to not have belongings, so as not be attached to your stuff. It’s impossible to steal from them because they don’t acknowledge ownership.

The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott

For me, the model that strikes home is the ability to withdraw from an existing government and decamp to a new location to just start over. The current international order doesn’t seem to leave any gaps for things like this, but I’m currently in the middle of reading James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which presents a history of South East Asia that says that the shape of the societies in that part of the world has been driven for millennia largely by the people who moved to less accessible locations in order to escape governments that were getting unbearable. Scott argues that the sociology of the closely related peoples living in hills and valleys were driven more by which crops and living arrangements were easy for governments to count and tax in the valleys, and hard for them to find and more durable in the remote and higher settlements.

Doctorow doesn’t try to argue that it’s easy, and in fact shows that the walkaway crowd is doing an immense amount of work in order to rebuild. I find this model of decentralized self government very sympathetic. There’s no acknowledged government with territorial exclusivity, and people are able to leave if they don’t like the way things are being run. There is plenty of open room to move to, and there’s enough generalized wealth at hand and accessible know how that people don’t feel tied down.

The unfortunate part of Walkaway is that Doctorow needed a conflict, and the one he sets up is that the Zottas are jealous of their control over society, and see the walkaways as a threat, so they’re willing to kidnap, torture and send in the troops in order to regain control. In the final battle scene, a Zotta leader’s daughter is in the target area, and the Zotta’s back down. But in the meantime, the walkaway society’s story is one of resisting violence from outside rather than the peaceful coexistence they’re working so hard to get.

I agree with Doctorow’s aesthetic sense; focusing on this society after the Zottas have ceded control wouldn’t provide conflict at the same existential level, but it would be a much nicer place to live, both for those who walk away and those who remain behind in the “default” economy.

Doctorow knows how to tell a story: There are a lot of funny and touching scenes in the story, and he covers a lot of ground. In addition to the overall situation which I’ve focused on so far, the story covers many kinds of relationships, uploading makes a major sub-plot, and the unequal distribution of society’s benefits is explored. He does have a darker outlook than I on where technology is heading. The reason there are riches lying around is that the Zottas would rather shutter outmoded plants than sell them and allow someone else to exploit the resources they contain. There are many highly trained mercenaries around that the Zottas can hire who will do their bidding, no matter how distasteful it might seem to us. But that’s visible in many of his other stories, and he still manages to be entertaining and paint a hopeful picture about how people can get along together and build something great. This book is being considered for this year’s Prometheus, and it’s my current favorite.

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.

The title Autonomous refers to one of the novel’s plotlines and themes: an examination of the ethical and legal rights of artificial intelligences, through the struggles of various robots to deal with their “indentured” status. Ingeniously, Newitz envisions a future society where human beings, though born free, can also become indentured after falling into debt, or take on indentures to finance education and training. The complexities of the resulting laws affect a number of significant plot points, including a subplot about an indentured human being. Newitz has ingeniously combined a social satire on the problem of educational debt with an exploration of the ethical status of nonhumans.

However, the primary plot reflects a different issue: intellectual property. This has been much debated both in public policy and among libertarians; the emergence of the online world has heated up the debate, as copying and sharing texts, pictures, music, and videos has become all but costless. Libertarian views have ranged from support for indefinitely prolonged intellectual property rights to complete abolition of copyrights and patents. Newitz’s protagonist, a smuggler who sells pirated drugs to people who can’t afford to pay what the patent holders are asking, discovers that one of her products has seriously destructive side effects; ironically, it’s her efforts to set things right and make amends that entangle her in a struggle with the company that holds the patent, and with the covert operatives who try to enforce it on their behalf. I think libertarian readers will find this thought provoking. Both in the case of indentures and in the case of patents, Newitz’s story explores the possibility that some things that are called “property rights” may be unjust and exploitative.

It appeals to me, too, that Newitz’s protagonist is an entrepreneur; and that,  having discovered a problem with one of her products, she promptly sets out to make things right for her customers. Everything else follows from that, in the same way that everything in the Iliad follows from Achilles’ anger with Agamemnon. So the whole story is one of virtuous entrepreneurship. Autonomous doesn’t show us a large-scale transition to a free society, but it gives us a protagonist who has the qualities we would like such a society to nurture.

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 it as a book.

To start with, the authors seem insensitive to prose. I was struck by one passage where a secondary character, an overtly gay man, makes a joke about being turned on by naked power—“Not so much the power, but definitely the naked part”—in what the authors describe as a prominent lisp. I’ll accept that as a deliberate mockery of the stereotype. But the sentence only contains one sibilant! How can anyone lisp words without sibilants? Casey and Hunt seem to have put words down on paper without thinking about what they sound like. There’s nothing else quite that striking, but the style throughout the book seems flat and unmemorable.

The presentation of libertarian ideas is handicapped by a tendency to present the authors’ evaluations to the reader, rather than showing people and events and letting readers reach their own conclusions. That may appeal to some libertarians (though it doesn’t to me personally), but it’s an obstacle to readers who don’t already share those ideas.

Beyond that, this reads to me like a conventional mass market bestseller. The characterization and motivation don’t seem very deep; I mostly don’t get a sense for why the different characters are doing what they’re doing. The protagonists succeed at most of their actions, even when their approaches look poorly thought out and could plausibly fail; on the other hand, when an action fails, it’s not because there was any deeper error—it reads as if the authors decided they needed a reversal of fortune there and put one in without showing why that specific plot twist would happen. I read through all the action scenes without getting into the heads of the characters, and without any sense of tension about the outcome . . . and that’s really not a good thing in an action novel, such as this sets out to be.

Perhaps the big issue is that I don’t have enough sense for what’s at stake in these novels. We see the libertarian ideas. But we don’t see Charles Knight starting a radical movement to defend liberty, or the antagonistic characters engaged in a sinister plot to annihilate it once and for all. The story goes through the motions of struggle and crisis, but the liberty that’s its nominal theme never really seems to be at stake. I think that above all is why I don’t feel strongly involved in this series.

Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright, by Allen Steele (TOR Books, March 2016)

By Michael Grossberg
Science-fiction writers and fans have imagined the spread of humanity to the stars for generations.
Allan Steele hasn’t given up the dream.
In Arkwright, Steele sketches out a generations-long saga in an effort to dramatize how we plausibly can get there – even if we can’t overcome or get around such implacable limitations as the speed of light, a major stumbling block to interstellar travel given the vast distances between solar systems in this spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.
A heartfelt valentine to the golden age of science fiction, which embodied an optimistic view of human progress and technology fueled by a stlll-potent Jeffersonian liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) that has since sadly faded, the novel is especially flattering to SF fans because of its focus on a popular science fiction writer whose financial success and legacy sparks a long-term plan to reach the stars.
Arkwright Cover photo
Epic but also highly episodic, the 332-page novel seems consciously aimed at those who yearn for the return of a can-do American era, such as the early 1960s, when the popular culture was more heroic and hopeful about the future.
Steele, who has carved a respectable niche as an SF writer inspired by the golden age of Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, tends to write more in the realistic and prosaic style of Ben Bova but with a touch of the poetic flair of Ray Bradbury.
While some fans may question in certain ways just how likely is the real-world success of Steele’s particular space-flight scenario, Steele has written a story that flatters the assumptions of diehard SF fandom that’s been waiting for what seems like forever for humankind to finally figure out a way to colonize nearby exo-planets.
Better yet, it’s a story easy for hardcore SF fans – the kind who attend Worldcons and regional SF cons – to fall in love with. (In fact, I haven’t read an SF novel so appealing to knowledgeable SF fans since Red Shirts, John Scalzi’s clever and amusing starship-mission reconception of and tribute to the template of Star Trek.)
Arkwright fleshes out a multigenerational, private and largely discreet effort to develop, finance and launch the first working starship without government support or state bureaucracy. Such a broadly libertarian approach prompted the nomination of this entertaining work last year for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Early chapters should entertain older SF fans in particular because of their charming focus on the Legions of Tomorrow, a fan-based group that emerges from the first World Science Fiction conventions as the roman à clef story blends fictional characters with such familiar faces as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederick Pohl. That fan spirit animates the entire novel.
The novel’s title refers to beloved author Nathan Arkwright, best known for his “Galaxy Patrol” series of space adventures. (Think Heinlein crossed with E.E. “Doc” Smith, but with a heavy dose of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek.)
When Arkright dies, he leaves his entire and considerable estate to create and sustain the Arkright Foundation. The goal of the foundation: to send human genetic material inside a rocket to a habitable planet, so that the rocket’s computer can create embryos and raise them in artificial uteruses into people who would colonize the new frontier.
Succeeding generations of Arkrights further the foundation’s efforts, with varying degrees of commitment and doubts, in what’s basically a series of loosely connected vignettes, stories and novellas. (Some sections initially were published in Asimov’s Magazine.)
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Perhaps inevitably, as a byproduct of the novel’s very concept and structure, generations come and go too quickly to allow much reader identification with particular people. Even when a character sustains interest, he or she departs from the story within another few chapters as a new generation dawns.
There’s some welcome suspense and mystery – What obstacles will pop up to delay or foil the plan? And will the latest generation of characters have the means and will to recognize and overcome difficulties? – but the ultimate resolution is rarely in doubt.
One gets so involved with some initial leading characters that one misses them as the story moves on through five centuries.
One concern: A small part of Steele’s scenario is simplistic or stereotyped (the worst stereotypes are about religion or race, but are thankfully minor and brief, largely reflecting familiar SF tropes that champion reason and science while condemning religious fundamentalism or ethnic fanaticism), making it a little harder for this novel to connect with today’s welcome and more diverse readership.
Beyond questions of plausibility about the science and social changes, some have wondered whether even a wealthy private foundation would have enough millions to sustain any effort over a century. I didn’t have a problem with that – not only because of what financial investment advisers like to refer to as “the miracle of compound interest,” but also because of the widely underreported or taken-for-granted incredible progress that humankind already has made over the past century or two. (I highly recommend reading British science writer Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, insightful and revelatory books that marshal an amazing range of (often revelatory) history, statistics, science, economics and logic to demonstrate that our species has made enormous progress over the millennia and in recent centuries, largely because of the moral and practical policies that only in very recent generations have gelled into the social philosophy of market-oriented liberalism.)
If we’re so much richer, healthier, freer, more peaceful and longer-lived than past generations – and we are worldwide, with only a few grievous exceptions in the remaining dictatorships – then it’s certainly plausible for Steele to imagine that his centuries of further advances in prosperity, growth and wealth will be more than enough to fund interstellar travel.
The focus on human achievement – through private enterprise, and largely outside politics – is refreshing. Steele is at his best in exploring and dramatizing the real-world challenges of building and powering the starship, and identifying and later terraforming a suitable planet for colonization.
Yet politics does intrude here and there, which also seems sadly plausible.
Some libertarians, in judging this novel for the Prometheus Award, objected to one plot point, when the foundation makes a sizable campaign donation to a prominent member of Congress in order to affect federal legislation in a way favorable to future private space flights. My view: If the donation had been made to obtain a special federal subsidy or to directly harm competitors through government penalties, I’d agree with that criticism. But the foundation’s action seems acceptable (if not ideal) to me because it’s taken to forestall coercive governmental overreach threatening the foundation’s legitimate private efforts. Individuals – and groups of individuals, working through an organization, union or company – do have rights, including the right to self-defense, the right to advocate and to lobby to preserve their freedom.
Overall, despite the episodic gaps built into its four-part generations-spanning structure, Arkwright offers an inspiring and realistically complicated family saga about a seemingly plausible effort to develop the technology to build an interstellar starship that flies at up to half the speed of light and is capable of colonizing a planet in a solar system about 20 light years away.
Ultimately, this is a novel that champions initiative, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, innovation, technology, progress, fandom and the animating power of science fiction itself.

(Michael Grossberg, co-founder of the Libertarian Futurist Society and currently LFS board secretary and chair of the Prometheus Best Novel Finalist Judging Committee, has worked for more than four decades as an award-winning journalist and theater critic based in Columbus, Ohio.)

In memoriam Jack Vance: 1916 — 2013

By Anders Monsen

Jack Vance, science fiction grandmaster, died on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Born on August 28 1916, John Holbrook Vance wrote over 50 novels and many more short stories, most published under the name Jack Vance. His works ranged from science fiction and fantasy to mystery and regional fiction. Vance’s first published story was “The World Thinker” in 1945 for Thrilling Wonder Stories, and his first published book The Dying Earth, by Hillman Press in 1950. His last novel, Lurulu, appeared in 2004, and an autobiography in 2009.

Though he was approaching 100, and I always expected to read something about his death, I felt a deep shock when I finally received the news. I have read all his books, many of them multiple times. They are like old friends. I have nominated and voted for many of his works for the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Now he is dead. Will it matter if he ever wins? Would he have cared to have won while still alive? I do not know. Reflecting on his books is like reflecting on the lives of long-time friends.

While there are many reasons I like his fiction, I believe many of his books contain individualist themes, and I believe that libertarians who care about well-written fiction with an individualist bent will find many of his books worth reading.

book coverIn 1985 I picked up my first Jack Vance book, a collection of stories called The Narrow Land. The title story tells the tale of a very alien protagonist, born in a swamp, struggling to survive among creatures similar to himself, yet also imbued with a desire to explore the environs of his world. Of the seven stories in The Narrow Land, along with the title story, tales like “Chateau D’If,” “The World-Thinker,” and “Green Magic” displayed an unmatched imagination and an intricate display of stylistic prose. Beginning with that collection I sought as many Vance books as possible, each one a discovery of joy. Like panning for gold or unearthing gems, reading a Jack Vance book amid the sea of mundane SF meant reading the apex of imaginative writing.

The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, set in the same far future, stood apart from more traditional fantasy books. Other fantasy stories I had read were either epics on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, or vapid tales of kingdoms and coming of age stories. Vance’s Dying Earth tales imagined a far-future earth, the sun threatening to extinguish at any moment. This was an age of magic, although a magic diluted and faded from previous aeons. Wizards conspired against each other, and rogues like Cugel the Clever tried to make their ways in this dangerous world. Cugel, a rare anti-hero in fantasy akin to characters by Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, struggled through one adventure after another, his plans always going slightly awry. I imagined Vance must have a had a great deal of fun writing those stories.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s I trawled through used books stores (back when they still existed) and amassed every single paperback by Jack Vance that I could find. Today, discovering any Vance paperback in a used book store is a rare event indeed. Back then I found all the DAW editions, including the five Demon Prince novels. These tales of revenge read like Rafael Sabatini novels in space. The protagonist, with the memorable name of Kirth Gersen, hunts the five criminals who laid waste to his world. Raised by his grandfather to be a resourceful detective and killer, Gersen shares many traits with another favorite character of mine, F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack. The Demon Prince books (The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face and The Book of Dreams) are books that I probably have read more than half a dozen times each. Five books for five Demon Princes, each more extravagant than the one before.

book coverAlthough he wrote many stand-alone novels, his other series were equally memorable. The first, a four-book tale of an earthman stranded on an alien planet called Tschai, was marketed as the Planet of Adventure (composed of City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume). Here Adam Reith drew upon his resources to discover a means by which he could build or steal a spaceship and return to Earth, and in the process he upset the societal rules of four alien species and their human-like mirror societies. This was my first encounter with Vance’s trenchant social criticism. He rips into people who submit to rulers, and tears apart traditions for the sake of tradition.

Another series, set in the future history that Vance called the Gaean Reach, was the Alastor trilogy. Each title bore the name of the planet upon which it was set, along with the planetary number. I remember them simply as Wyst, Trullion, and Marune. The first drew again on social criticism, depicting a society founded upon the ideals of socialism, and it did not skimp on its negative portrayal. Any redistributionist who reads this novel probably winces uncomfortably at the idea of “bonter” and Wyst’s egalitarian society. Wyst would be among the first books to read on the Vance libertarian bookshelf.

The Durdane trilogy, while to me not as memorable as some of the other series, nonetheless continued the social criticism along with strong characters and plot. Here we find society and various strata within society governed by rigid rules. Yet someone steps forward to fight against these rules.

Vance, by the late 1980s legally blind and using specially crafted software to read aloud the text that he wrote, still created masterpieces. The first of the Cadwal books, Araminta Station, remains one of my all-time favorite novels. Published in 1987, it centers around a near-pristine planet, Cadwal, protected by a naturalist society. The society has established a small enclave at Araminta Station, composed of the families of the original settlers. Another race, known as Yips, inhabit a small island but seek to expand and care not for ecological niceties. The Yips often act as servants or workers in Araminta Station, along with some off-worlders who are not part of the original families. We meet Glawen Clattuc, the protagonist, on his sixteenth birthday, when he attains status and must choose a profession. Skullduggery is afoot, and Glawen and his father must thwart a plot to have Glawen bumped down the status ladder and out of Cadwal society, which sets the tone for the rest of the book and its two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy. Vance packs more into the first novel than many other SF series, and the opening of Ecce and Old Earth, rife with tension and danger, with Glawen’s journey through the fetid and lethal jungles of Cadwal’s other continent to rescue his father, written as if for a Spielberg movie.

book coverWhile all these series fell into science fiction, one of his greatest bodies of work remains the fantasy trilogy Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, Madouc). The Lyonesse trilogy takes place in the mythical land of Lyonesse, one of the Elder Isles. Now submerged and vanished in the mists of time, this isle off the British coast flourishes a few generations before the birth of King Arthur. In Vancian mythology, Arthur’s Round Table has roots in a famed round table in a city in Lyonesse, but this is almost a throw-away detail. Another young protagonist, Aillas, a prince from one of the many separate kingdoms of Lyonesse, finds himself the victim of family rivalry, and as the book opens is tossed off a boat and left to die.

Aillas, like most Vance protagonists, is resourceful. His many adventures range the width and length of Lyonesse, and introduce a variety of races and cultures, including faeries and magicians, trolls, and demons from other dimensions who serve the magicians. The third book features a strong female character, the half-faerie girl Madouc, raised as a human princess, who embarks on her own Grail quest. The Lyonesse trilogy in my opinion is the greatest fantasy work in the English language, far surpassing the Lord of the Rings and anything before and since.

Along with the science fiction and fantasy stories, Vance also wrote mysteries and regional novels. He wrote three books under the Ellery Queen imprint (The Four Johns, The Mad Man Theory, and A Room to Die In). Even in these standard works, Vance’s style and characters step forth from the pages as uniquely his own. Two books set in an imagined area south of San Francisco detail the life of a small-town sheriff. The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders both bring this area to life. The region and time where they are set may seem dated, yet again his characters, their background and motivation, make them a compelling read. The Deadly Isles, set in the South Seas and largely on boats, also falls into the mystery genre. An attempted murder results in the victim trying to find out who tried to kill him. The killer remains at large, and each step is fraught with danger. Vance loved the ocean, and his detailed descriptions of boats and sailing make this book a treasure. Considering it’s a rare find, it’s almost a double treasure.

Some of his other books appeared in print only in limited editions. While Strange Notions and The Dark Ocean were published together in 1985, and the main female characters share the same first name of Betty, they are two very different books. The first is set in Italy after WWII, possibly in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and covers dark themes of incest and blackmail. The second takes place aboard a steamer bound from San Francisco to Europe, through the Panama Canal. It evolves into a murder mystery, but this time the killer is known fairly early, unlike Vance’s other mysteries. The Dark Ocean also features a very strong female character who undergoes life-changing events under tough circumstances.

book coverOther books with limited appearances include the mystery novel The Man in the Cage, set in North Africa. The View from Chickweed’s Window, Bad Ronald and The House on Lily Street all take place in California. Like Shakespeare’s “negative capability” that John Keats so often wrote about, Vance makes evil characters equally as believable as good ones. Both the titular character in Bad Ronald and the main character in The House on Lily Street are killers who exist in their own mental worlds, bending reality to fit their crazed views. Other sketches of evil include the various outlaw “demon princes” and their associates, such as Spanchetta and Namour in the Cadwal trilogy, and the rogue wizard Faude Carfilhiot in the Lyonesse books, and many smaller characters whose motives appear petty and self-centered, especially artists.

Vance shows how easily people betray others for a quick coin, or cling to their small motives and often meet their fate with sadness and surprise. He also gave short shrift to religion, such as in the unctuous Brother Umphred in the Lyonesse books, whose final fate seemed too quick and without enough suffering.
Other regional fiction includes Take My Face and Bird Isle, both initially published under pseudonyms, and then released together by the small press Underwood-Miller. Underwood-Miller and Jack Vance have a long history together. Founded by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, based in San Francisco, they began with a hardcover edition of Vance’s first book, The Dying Earth, in 1976. Although they also published other authors, like Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, they published over 55 Jack Vance hardcover books. These often were limited to 1000 copies or fewer and these days are priced fairly high on the collector’s market.

book coverPorts of Call and Lurulu, his last two novels, sketch a peripatetic journey through space. Night Lamp is a character-driven novel about a young boy found beaten and rescued by an older couple. It is a coming-of-age story that near the end details a society suddenly confronted by the need to change after generations of co-dependency—a theme he visited multiple times (see the Tschai books, The Languages of Pao, Maeske: Thaery, and The Gray Prince, and many more).

Several of Jack Vance’s books have been nominated for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. The most notable are Emphyrio, The Blue World, and Wyst: Alastor 1716, and the books from the Durdane trilogy( The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men and The Asutra). Emphyrio tells the tale of a young boy living with his father in a rigid, welfare-based society. He rebels, seeking a better life. The ideas of individual liberty are infused throughout this novel. The Blue World (based on a novella called “The Kragen”) shows how power collaborates with religion to control people. The message is both overt and subtle, considering how Vance introduces the early settlers of the watery world that forms the setting of the novel, and how the current generation, many years removed from their ancestors, knows nothing of the meaning of their forebears’ professions. Meanwhile, as I’ve already mentioned, Wyst shows the misery and hypocrisy of an egalitarian society, and what happens to those who attempt to keep their individuality.

Notable shorter works include two novellas, Dragon Masters and The Last Castle. Both blend SF and fantasy, appear set in a far future earth or some off-world planet long removed from present history. They thrust the reader into aeon-long conflicts, masterful strategy and inventions from resourceful individuals, which are contrasted with staid and conservative thinking. In Vance’s universe, change is a constant, yet with change always comes an uncertainty. Vance knew that change isn’t always welcomed by everyone, and many of his stories contrasted people who wanted to hang onto their privileges, against those who chafed and fought to break out of social constraints that bound them, directed their lives.

book coverAside from the series, other books that could fall into his vast Gaean Reach future history include Big Planet and Showboat World. Both are set on the same vast planet, filled with strange cultures and many adventures. His characters wander from place to place. They sail down rivers and across oceans, ride on vast vehicular zip-lines, fly in space ships and planes, ride on animals and other vehicles. They are constantly exposed to alien cultures, even though most of those aliens are other humans. Vance, having traveled throughout the world many times, knew that even a short distance could lead to differences. His planets and cities had a settled feel to them, a sense of place that exaggerated differences, from the poison-loving Sarkoy, to the Darsh and their strange foods and methods of social punishment, to the aloof Methliens, and many other strange races.

Much as with Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, revenge as a motive appears throughout Vance’s fiction. Most notable certainly are the five demon princes, but this motive also appears in To Live Forever, which deals with immortality, clones, and an ever-present social climbing known as “slope.” Gold and Iron (aka Slaves of the Klau) begins on earth, when a handful of humans are enslaved by aliens and transported to their planet. The protagonist begins a relentless, almost monomaniacal effort to escape. Revenge is foremost as well in the mind of Cugel the Clever (in the books The Eyes of the Overworld and its sequel, Cugel’s Saga), who, although he might deserve his punishment, is driven by revenge. The perils of revenge lead Cugel to make many fateful mistakes. Even Kirth Gersen of the five demon prince novels, who might be justified in his motive for revenge (much like Dantès), wonders whether the idea of revenge has filled him with such a powerful motivation that his life would be empty were he to succeed in killing all the demon princes.

Vance also wrote juvenile fiction in the vein of Robert A. Heinlein, in Vandals of the Void, a very early novel. Many of his protagonists are young yet capable: Glawen Clattuc in the Cadwal chronicles, Gastel Etzwane in the Durdane books, Beran Panasper in The Languages of Pao, Jaro in Night Lamp, Roger Wool in Space Opera, and Myron Tany in Ports of Call and Lurulu. Often these young men must placate and deal with an overbearing great-aunt—the roots of this common theme appear to lie in Vance’s childhood, as related in his 2009 autobiography.

His autobiography detailed his life as a boy in San Francisco and nearby sloughs and river, his many travels; it is clear from the descriptions of where he went how his travels influenced his fiction. The science of his science fiction is a minor aspect—intersplit drives, space travel—all are taken for granted, glossed over as simply another means of travel. Vance takes excessive care in constructing his worlds and knows his science, but the science usually takes a back seat to colors and cultures, and human motives and actions.

Vance also liked footnotes, describing strange words or behaviors. He prefaced many chapters with imagined quotes, cited planetary guides, and built an elaborately imagined literary support structure for his worlds. Many of the books set in the Gaean Reach contain quotes and allusions to the curmudgeonly Baron Bodissey, as is the poetry of the mad poet, Navarth. Bodissey’s trenchant dicta seem to echo sentiments found in Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken.

Vance did it all: the style, the sketches of cultures and places, and the characters, from the many memorable male protagonists: Adam Reith, Aillas, Gersen, Glawen, Jantiff, Claude Glystra, Ghyl Tarvoke, Jaro. Then there are his incomparable heroines and female characters: Zap 210, Betty Haverhill, Betty Dannister, Madouc, Glisten, Fay Bursill, T’sais, Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, Alice Wroke. Although some of the female characters play second fiddle, many are equally resourceful and capable.

book coverVance’s characters, like his books, become like old friends. While some of the protagonists have flaws, most have clear-cut ethical values. The values of decency, loyalty, and bravery are often contrasted with narrow and callous self-interest in both evil characters and ones who simply cannot understand that other people might not share their vision.
Vance’s heroes, both male and female, but more usually the former, are capable, resourceful individuals who find themselves in tough positions and never give up. Betty Haverhill in The Dark Ocean is tossed overboard near the Panama Canal, and she must either swim the shark infested waters at night to survive, or give up and die. Adam Reith is stranded on a strange planet, the only survivor from a space ship, and single-handedly changes the lives and fates of many cultures. Glawen Clattuc finds himself in many dangerous situations, yet never gives up, nor does Aillas, the young prince captured and enslaved, branded and bound. There are many inspiring stories in Vance’s books, many lessons young readers can take to heart.

book coverI never knew Jack Vance in person, never met him at a science fiction conference or otherwise, but I’ve known his fiction for almost thirty years. Vance rarely wrote or talked about his fiction. He often dismissed much of it as hack work, or juvenilia; he wrote to get paid, and one time tried to write as many words as possible to sell as many stories as possible. Over a sixty-year span he published as many books and many short stories. He had a long and fruitful literary life, and a remarkable and rich life outside literature. A few of his collections contain a page or two introducing the stories. These he appears to have written reluctantly. He preferred to let his art speak for itself. Either you bought it or you didn’t, you liked it or you didn’t. What the writer thought at the time is irrelevant to your appreciation of his stories, he seemed to say.

Vance won a handful of awards in his lifetime, across a vast spectrum. He received the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Edgar for best mystery. Most of these appeared in the mid-point of his career, the 1960s, but his last award came in 2010, a Hugo for best related work with his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance. This book, fairly slim, appeared near the end of his life, five years after his last novel, and hardly mentioned his fiction. Instead, he traced his life growing up, his influences (literary and personal), his many travels around the world. His autobiography also is notable because he dictated the entire book. Legally blind for many years, at one time he wrote using a computer with special software. As in the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, the fates sometimes can be cruel, in this case robbing a writer with Vance’s talent of his sight. Yet he never quit.

book coverThe poet and fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith sketched alien worlds while rarely leaving his home near Auburn, California. Vance, on the other hand, lived in many countries, on houseboats and cabins. He designed and built his own house, sailed many oceans, traveled to countless countries, ate and drank exotic foods. All those experiences infused his fiction. While he tended to gloss over science in his science fiction, the colorful descriptions of planets and cities, locales and cultures, people and aliens, remains unrivaled. He invented strange beasts, coined more words than William Shakespeare, and crafted each sentence so they appeared both economical and lyrical.

Today, Jack Vance’s books remain elusive in large book stores. The Vance Integral Edition (VIE) collected all his works in a limited but authorized editions (see http://www.integralarchive.org/index.htm). Spatterlight Press, established in 2012, has begun the process to convert his books into electronic editions from the VIE texts. Subterranean Press, a small press that publishes handsome limited editions, has published several volumes collecting his short stories and mystery works, which often are sold-out upon publication. His legacy extends to the many authors that he has influenced. The most notable example might be Michael Shea, who in the early 1970s requested and received permission to write his own sequel starring Cugel the Clever.

Perhaps the eBook revolution will gain him new readers. Perhaps publishers once again will bring out mass market editions of his books. While the science of Vance fiction dated quickly, this is but a minor part of his fiction. The true aficionado appreciates more than ephemeral science and prediction ratios. Then again, perhaps Vance is not for everyone. Fashions come and go, from cyberpunk to hard sf to Tolkien pastiches to harlequin/sf mashups and beyond. Yet I cannot help but think that in the history of SF, once the wheat is separated from the chaff, that Jack Vance will stand among the giants of SF. Virtually all those giants now are gone: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury. Perhaps these are giants also because those of us who see them as giants read them in our formative years. Regardless, I cannot count the number of hours I have spent immersed in the many worlds of Jack Vance. Inevitably when I think or write about Vance, I pick up one of his books, and before I know it I have read several in a row. Perhaps that’s how Vance would have liked to be remembered: an author, a spinner of yarns. He wrote his fiction, lived his life, and lived it to the fullest. I salute you Jack Vance. There will never be another quite your like.

Thanks for the stories, the characters, the prose.

[This essay first appeared in Prometheus, Volume 31. No. 4, Summer 2013.]

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.

Review: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is the second book of a trilogy. It (along with the first book in the series, Dissidence, is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Insurgence continues the story of awakened robots struggling for freedom, and uploaded human ex-combatants fighting to retake the planetary system the robots had been mining and exploring.

This installment focuses less on the robots’ claim to be agents worthy of separate respect, and more on the uploaded warriors struggle to figure out the nature of the reality they inhabit while mostly following orders to fight the battles their supervisors are pursuing. Their ultimate worry is that they don’t have enough information to tell which side they’re fighting on or who they are battling to subdue. When you live in a simulation (particularly when you can tell that someone else has access to the control panel) it’s a little difficult to be sure that your choices aren’t effectively controlled by someone else.

Next, cracks appear in the simulation, and “real” revived people see the shortcomings, but non-player-characters (MacLeod calls them philosophical zombies) think everything is normal, so the real people can tell who’s just a simulated person. The idea of zombies in philosophy (sometimes “p-zombies”) is an exploration of the idea of consciousness. What if there were beings that acted just like people, but had no consciousness? Would it make a difference to them? Should we accord them lesser rights?

I consider the idea of p-zombies to be incoherent, but many smart people treat the question as exploring an important distinction. MacLeod here undercuts the point of the argument since there are actual behavioral differences. It isn’t an exploration of whether consciousness matters, it’s just that some characters in the story are imperfect simulations without an inner life, and the actual thinking beings can tell who they are. At the same time, MacLeod makes sure we notice that the robots and AIs who are active in the battles and the scheming do have an inner dialogue, and are making plans and collaborating with others to get things done.

The starting position for the agencies that represent the current Earth government and act under its protection is that only humans are allowed to be sentient. Even AIs’ powers are circumscribed. Whenever self awareness arises otherwise, it must be stamped out. It’s not clear why this would be a plausible stance, since it’s clearly the case that the AIs can become self-aware for short periods, and autonomously operating robots have the capacity for spontaneous self awareness given the right trigger. So they must be constantly battling to defeat uprisings, and track down newly minted sophonts who either try to escape from control, or hide in occupied systems. It would make more sense to forbid use of tools with the capacity for self awareness, than to constantly try to stomp them out. I’d also have a hard time going along with a regime that wanted to outlaw and destroy a class of beings because they were self aware. Self aware and hostile is a separate thing, but that’s not the distinction they’ve settled on.

Before one of the final battles, one of the leaders of the simulated humans challenges the combatants to each eat a slice of p-zombie flesh to prove that they believe they’re in a simulation, and that there can’t be any moral issues with simulated eating of simulated meat from simulated people that were never actually alive or aware. Except for a few who object to the initiation-ceremony aspect of the act, they all partake.

So there’s a lot of exploration here of of philosophical questions of identity, and what it means to be human. The questions of liberty are mostly focussed on what kinds of agents deserve respect as actual people, though I think MacLeod fumbled some of the issues. The action is interesting and the conflict exciting. Besides there are also weaponized communications packets, interrogations of potentially hostile agents by sending them into a dungeon simulation, double and triple agents, and terraforming. It’s a pretty good read, and the lead-in to part three, of course, leaves a few things to be resolved.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)