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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.)

Review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

By Chris Hibbert

book coverJohanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun is a finalist for the Prometheus Award this year.   It has enough SF elements to qualify as standard near-future fiction, and provides biting social commentary. In feel, it reminds me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I liked this better in several ways.

The story takes place in a future Finland that has managed to selectively breed its women so that they’re either docile sex dolls and mothers (“eloi”), or sterile, powerless but competent workers (“morlocks”). They’ve also outlawed psycho-active drugs from alcohol to heroin, and somehow included capsaicin (hot peppers) on that list. The protagonist, Vanna, is a morlock who was raised as an eloi, which allows her to pass in polite company. She’s also hooked on hot peppers, and has started dealing in whole, dried, and preserved peppers in order to afford her next fix.

Compared with Handmaid’s Tale, the viewpoint character is a more active agent, with more freedom to act for her own interests and to undermine the system; her allies against the state are more fully bought into the fight; and the state she fights has taken more reprehensible steps, though it seems to have less thorough control of its subjugated females.

The story is told with a mix of present-tense action and recollections by Vanna of how she got to her present situation, mostly written as letters to her long-lost eloi sister, Manna. The two were raised away from the city by their eccentric aunt, which gave Vanna the opportunity to act naturally most of the time, and mimic her sister when visitors were around. This gave her the tools to pass as eloi when she grew up.

After the aunt dies, Manna finds a husband Vanna suspects to be after the family farm, since neither Manna nor Vanna (passing as an eloi) can legally hold title to it. Vanna finds a man to partner with who values her for her unusual intellect and her ability to act independently (a useful tool for his black-market activities).

Vanna pursues the secrets behind her sister’s disappearance until events force her to escape with her partner. I found the prose (and occasional poetry) to be delightful and very evocative. The characters were convincing, and Vanna’s struggle to be her own person in the face of societal expectations was heartbreaking.

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

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.)