Review: Lionel Shriver’s alternate-reality novel Should We Stay or Should We Go highlights how government paternalism, NHS bureaucracy, runaway inflation and other statist disasters make end-of-life decisions worse

Note: The Prometheus Blog welcomes reviews by LFS members and freedom-lovers of all Prometheus Award nominees, not to mention other novels, stories or films of interest.
Here’s a review of one of the 16 2021 novels nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel. Over the next few months, we hope to publish more reviews of the nominees and the finalists, to be announced in April.

By Michael Grossberg
Life, aging and death are difficult enough for most people to deal with, even when we strive to think and plan ahead and make the best choices we can about our senior years – including the possibilities of assisted living and even euthanasia.

Exploring those increasingly vital and common 21st-century issues in her kaleidoscopic 2021 novel Should We Stay or Should We Go, shrewd contrarian British novelist Lionel Shriver underscores how much worse the outcomes can be when oppressive laws, obtrusive welfare-state bureaucracy, socialized health care, forced medication, involuntary hospitalization, virtual imprisonment, anti-suicide laws, other bad government policies, abuses of power and even today’s dangerous trends of exploding federal debt and rising monetary inflation can damage lives further while undermining our ability to make our own decisions about end-of-life matters.

Continue reading Review: Lionel Shriver’s alternate-reality novel Should We Stay or Should We Go highlights how government paternalism, NHS bureaucracy, runaway inflation and other statist disasters make end-of-life decisions worse

Alternate history as a fruitful genre for re-imagining themes of Liberty versus Power: An Appreciation and Comparison of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re presentING a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation – and an intriguing comparison – of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel:

By William H. Stoddard

The year 2008 saw, for the first time, a tie between two Prometheus Award nominees for Best Novel: Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator (in his Crosstime Traffic series from Tor Books) and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny (in her Small Change series, also from Tor Books).

Ordinarily, each winner would merit its own entry; but there are interesting parallels between the two, which make it especially fitting that they shared the award, and illuminating to examine them together.

Turtledove has been known primarily as an author of alternate history, making his mark with early works such as A Different Flesh (1988), set on an Earth where the Americas are inhabited by surviving Homo erectus, and The Guns of the South, in which South African engineers help Robert E. Lee to victory, with surprising results. The six volumes of Crosstime Traffic are a young adult series about trade between parallel Earths.

Walton’s oeuvre has been more varied, but Small Change is definitely alternate history, set in a timeline where the United Kingdom came to terms with Germany in the 1930s.

It belongs to a subgenre that’s not usually considered science fictional: the cozy mystery, commonly set in a domain of wealthy and privileged people (not very different from the setting of the Jeeves and Wooster stories!) and keeping overt violence and the cruder sorts of crime offstage.

Walton mixes this with a different subgenre, the police procedural, making her continuing protagonist a Scotland Yard investigator. The science-fictional aspect comes from Walton’s careful exploration of the cultural divergence to be expected in her alternate timeline.
Continue reading Alternate history as a fruitful genre for re-imagining themes of Liberty versus Power: An Appreciation and Comparison of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel

Power, liberty, galactic intrigue and how markets tend to reduce inequality and bigotry: A 40th Anniversary Celebration and Appreciation of F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels, the first Prometheus award winner in 1979

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 and moving forward to today.
Here’s the first Appreciation for F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels, which won the first Prometheus Award in 1979.
At the end, we also include a few recent comments by Wilson, looking back 40 years at the very-different era and context in which he wrote his novel.

By Michael Grossberg
   An sf murder mystery hailed by the Library Journal for its “cleverly planted clues” and “all the satisfaction of a good Agatha Christie,” this 1978 novel was the first work of fiction to receive the Prometheus Award, initially established by writer L. Neil Smith to recognize more libertarian sf fiction.

With the benefit of hindsight, looking back at Wilson’s work from the perspective of the 40thanniversary of the Prometheus Awards in 2019, one appreciates this novel even more as part of a fascinating larger whole: Wilson’s LaNague Federation series, set in an interstellar future in which an imperialist central State is toppled by a decentralized libertarian social order that unleashes an era of peace, prosperity, progress and broad respect for individual rights.

Continue reading Power, liberty, galactic intrigue and how markets tend to reduce inequality and bigotry: A 40th Anniversary Celebration and Appreciation of F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels, the first Prometheus award winner in 1979

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

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.
Continue reading Review: Avengers: Infinity War

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.
Continue reading Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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

By Tom Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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