‘Causes of Separation’ wins Prometheus AWard

The Libertarian Futurist Society has announced the 2019 winners of the Prometheus Awards for Best Novel and Hall of Fame (Best Classic Fiction).

The LFS has chosen Causes of Separation (Morlock Publishing), by Travis Corcoran, as the 2019 winner of the Best Novel category of the 39th annual Prometheus Awards.

LFS members also voted to induct “Harrison Bergeron,” a dystopian 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., into the Hall of Fame.

In Causes of Separation, renegade lunar colonists fight for independence and a free economy against an Earth-based invasion that seeks to impose authoritarian rule and expropriate their wealth, while the colonists strive to prevail without relying on taxes or declaring emergency war powers. The panoramic narrative encompasses artificial intelligence, uplifted dogs, combat robots, sleeper cells and open-source software while depicting the complex struggle on the declining Earth and besieged Moon from many perspectives. The novel is a sequel to The Powers of the Earth, the 2018 Prometheus winner for Best Novel.

This is the first Prometheus Awards recognition for Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). In “Harrison Bergeron,” first published in 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vonnegut blends a satirical and tragic tone in depicting a dystopian future in the United States where constitutional amendments and a Handicapper General mandate that no one can be stupider, uglier, weaker, slower (or better) than anyone else. Vonnegut dramatizes the destruction of people’s lives and talents and the obliteration of basic humanity via a denial of emotions and knowledge that leaves parents unable to mourn a son’s death. “Harrison Bergeron” exposes and mourns the chilling authoritarian consequences of radical egalitarianism taken to an inhuman and Orwellian extreme that denies individuality, diversity and the opportunity to excel.

Plans are under way to present the awards at the World Science Fiction Convention, as in past years. LFS members John Christmas and Fred Moulton will co-present the annual Prometheus Awards ceremony at the 77th Worldcon, “Dublin 2019 – An Irish Worldcon,” set for Aug. 15-19, 2019, in Dublin, Ireland.

The other Best Novel finalists were Kingdom of the Wicked (including Order: Book One and Rules: Book Two), by Helen Dale (Ligature Pty Limited); State Tectonics, by Malka Older (TOR Books); The Fractal Man, by J. Neil Schulman (Steve Heller Publishing); and The Murderbot Diaries (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells (TOR Books).

The other Hall of Fame finalists were “Sam Hall,” a novelette (1953) by Poul Anderson; “As Easy as A.B.C.,” a novelette (1912) by Rudyard Kipling; “Conquest by Default,” a novelette (1968) by Vernor Vinge; and The Universe Next Door, a novel (1979) by Robert Anton Wilson.

The Prometheus Award, sponsored by the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019, having been first presented in 1979, making it one of the most enduring awards after the Nebula and Hugo awards, and one of the oldest fan-based awards currently in sf.

Presented annually since 1982 at the World Science Fiction Convention, the Prometheus Awards include a gold coin and plaque for the winners – with a one-ounce gold coin for Best Novel and a smaller gold coin for the Prometheus Hall of Fame (for Best Classic Fiction in all written and broadcast/on-screen media) and the occasional Prometheus Special awards.

The Prometheus Awards recognize outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy that dramatize the perennial conflict between Liberty and Power, champion cooperation over coercion, expose the abuses and excesses of government, critique or satirize authoritarian ideas, or uphold individual rights and freedoms as the mutually respectful foundation for peace, prosperity, progress, justice, tolerance, and civilization itself.

For a full list of past Prometheus Award winners in all categories, visit www.lfs.org. Membership in the Libertarian Futurist Society is open to any science fiction fan interested in how fiction can promote a broader appreciation of the value of liberty and respect for natural rights.

L. Neil Smith on his work, the Prometheus Award and his influences

L. Neil Smith in June 2019. (Photo courtesy L. Neil Smith).

L. Neil Smith is a libertarian activist and pundit, a musician, the founder of the Prometheus Award, a firearms enthusiast and a longtime Colorado resident. (Born in Denver, he grew up all over as an Air Force brat but eventually returned to Colorado for good.)

But he’s perhaps best known as a prolific science fiction writer, who often incorporates libertarian ideas into his novels, which usually have plenty of action and humor. He has written more than 35 books, including many science fiction novels, but also graphic novels, a vampire novel and political/philosophical commentary.

Smith founded the Prometheus Award by awarding it in 1979 to F. Paul Wilson for Wheels Within Wheels.   He did not, however, establish it as a regular award, but the award was continued when Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society. Since 1982, the Prometheus Award and Prometheus Hall of Fame award have been awarded every year.

Smith himself has won awards from the Libertarian Futurist Society five times. Three times he received the Prometheus Award, for The Probability Broach (probably still his best-known novel), and  Pallas and Forge of the Elders. He also received a Special Award (with Scott Bieser) for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel and a Special Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ares, the latest book of his Ngu Family Saga, will be out soon from Smith’s publisher, Arc Manor. His publisher also plans to soon issue another new completed Smith book, Only the Young Die Good, the sequel to his 2011 vampire novel, Sweeter Than Wine. Smith is currently working on a new Ngu novel, Rosalie’s World.

Smith, 73, lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife, Cathy, and roots for the Colorado Rockies baseball team.  The couple have a grown daughter.

Smith immediately agreed when I asked for an email interview. He answered all of my questions and tossed in some additional tidbits. We didn’t get around to asking what he thinks of the designated hitter in major league baseball or query him about his favorite beer, but we did try to cover quite a few of his many interests. [UPDATE: Smith says, “I detest the designated hitter or any
‘pinch’ hitter or runner at all. My favorite beer is Budweiser Chelada.“]

Tom Jackson: You have two new novels about to come out, and you are working on another Ngu Family Saga novel. Can we infer that you still enjoy writing and have no intention of stopping?

L. Neil Smith: You may, indeed. A long life, filled with … shall we say,
“events”? … couldn’t stop me. Thanks to a stroke in 2014, I can’t walk
or use my left arm. But I can still write. I intend to die just like Bat
Masterson, slumped over my keyboard.

Tom Jackson: Can you clear up a bibliographic point? You said that Ares, your about-to-be-published novel, is the fourth installment of the Ngu Family Saga, but I couldn’t figure out what the third book is. Your Wikipedia entry only lists two Ngu Family Saga books,  Pallas and Ceres, and I couldn’t clear up the mystery looking at Goodreads, either. What’s the third book?

L. Neil Smith: Your confusion is entirely my fault. I wrote Pallas. I wrote Ceres. Halfway through the latter, I realized how odd it was that, as one of Heinlein’s “children,’ I had never written a book about Mars. I also realized that for many plot-driven reasons, it had to be set, chronologically, between Pallas and Ceres, before Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov were born. It took me an unbelievable sixteen years, but I wrote it and called it  Ares the Greek name for Mars. So those are the three,  Pallas, Ceres and Ares. Now I’m writing a fourth novel, Rosalie’s World, in which Llyra is grown up and married. She has four kids! Jasmeen is married, too, to Llyra’s brother, Wilson, and together they’re raising Wilson’s daughter by Fallon O’Driscoll, Tieve. There may be a fifth Ngu family novel, Beautiful Dreamer, if I stay healthy and live long enough.     I’m looking forward to doing five more MacBear/Lysandra novels, too.

Tom Jackson: You’ve won three Prometheus Awards for your novels. Which of your works is your personal favorite, and which do you think you are likely to be remembered for?

L. Neil Smith: Actually, I’ve won four and a half Prometheus Awards. My favorite is usually the novel I’m writing right now, although I do love working and living with the Ngu family in particular. They almost seem like real folks to me. As far as being remembered, rather than for any individual work (it’ll probably be The Probability Broach, which is more than okay by me), I want to be remembered as a writer who worked very hard — thirty-seven books and counting, so far — and never wavered in his belief in and defense of the free individual. I’ve been a committed libertarian since I was fifteen, some fifty-seven years.

 

Tom Jackson: I have not read The Probability Broach yet, but my favorite among the ones I’ve read so far as The Forge of the Elders. How pleased are you with that work when you think about it?

L. Neil Smith: It’s certainly up there; it has depths that I’m proud of, which is why I wrote the prequel, Blade of p’Na and hope I can do a couple more. I’ve become very fond of Sam, and of Eichra Oren’s would-be girlfriend, Lornis.

I confess I like writing Ngu Family novels more. They’re like my
own family, and they are leading the rest of humanity out into space, to the planets, and now, in _Rosalie’s World_, out of the Solar System to
the stars. They also have a lot of attractive characters — Gretchen,
Rosalie, Ardith, Llyra, Jasmeen, Julie, Tieve — it is great fun to
write about.

Tom Jackson: You mentioned you are sorry your 1997 novel, Bretta Martyndid not get more attention. Why is that novel special to you? Does it stand alone well, or do readers need to read the two previous  Coordinated Arm series books books first?

L. Neil Smith: I don’t know if Bretta Martyn stands alone. It’s hard for an author to tell. I do urge people to read Henry Martyn and The
Wardove. The former is a real space pirate story that leans a little on
_Captain Blood, and the latter follows a rock ‘n’ roll band (drawn
from Fleetwood Mac) raising money for the free side in an interstellar
war. It’s also a swell love story and my most neglected novel. It has
lyrics in it I wrote over thirty years.

I do know I have a tendency to “fall in love” with my leading
ladies (Jasmeen Khalidov most recently — also, watch for Tieve Ngu),
and Robretta Islay was definitely one of those, as was her mother, the
“tiny dancer” Loreanna Daimler-Wilkinson. You can actually _see_ Bretta in a grand graphic novel from BigHead Press called Phoebus Krumm, another swashbuckling space pirate story. One reason I love Bretta is that she got to put a well-deserved crossbow bolt through Chuck Schumer’s eye.

Check out BigHead Press for the graphic The Probability Broach, the
magnificent Roswell Texas, and Timepeeper.

Tom Jackson: Aside from your many other novels, you are known to Star Wars fans for your Lando Calrissian novels. Do you keep up with the series? Have you seen the last few movies?

L. Neil Smith: I do not keep up with the series, and I have not seen the last few movies. I was brought in, essentially, by my friend, the late Brian Daly, and an editor at Random House. At the time, I desperately needed the money. In the end, I was treated so unprofessionally, and paid so poorly, I lost all interest.

The movies eventually became a politically correct dog’s breakfast.
I detest operatives who destroy great works of art to advance their
agendas. With me, you knew I was a snake when you brought me in.

Tom Jackson: Am I correct in thinking that Robert Heinlein and Robert Shea/Robert  Anton Wilson are among your biggest influences? What other writers influenced you when you were starting out?

L. Neil Smith: Heinlein I think of as my mentor, from Sixth Grade on, almost like a second father, although we never communicated until I was published and I discovered that he had known about me for some time and read all my books. Wilson and Shea I met somewhat later in life; they were my friends. I and a handful of others formed sort of an informal little club around their writings.

Poul Anderson was both, mentor and friend, and I have always
striven to write as well as Theodore Sturgeon and as funny as Robert
Sheckley. Detective author Rex Stout, and his forty-odd Nero Wolfe books, have been a tremendous influence on me. And I wish, above all, that we’d been in time to save H. Beam Piper, after whose most attractive and winsome character I named my daughter Rylla. His novella, Last Enemy is probably my favorite bit of science fiction.

Tom Jackson: How did you find out that Robert Heinlein had read your work? Did you get to talk to him very much? Did you read the William Patterson biographies, and the J. Neil Schulman interview?

L. Neil Smith: Several people told me that Heinlein thought well of my work. One couple  — our midwife and her husband — actually visited him; I gave them my latest, for him, but it turned out he already had it and, in fact, read everything I wrote. He said things about my work to them and others — and to his gardener, believe it or not — that I won’t repeat here because it’ll just seem like bragging. Needless to say, however, I have never paid any attention to critics since then, and they pretty much leave me alone. If I can please the Master, then to what else do I aspire?

I never talked to Heinlein directly (more’s the pity) but I did visit with his widow, Ginny, over the Internet, quite a lot after he died, back when it was simple and easy to do. She had outlived all her family and friends and was nearly blind. It was so sad. I didn’t know what to say, so I just visited.

 I gave up on Heinlein biographies back when Alexei Panshin wrote his. And I confess I never read the Schulman interview (sorry, Neil). Basically, I want my mental picture of the Old Man unsullied.

Tom Jackson: How did you discover Illuminatus! and what did you think of it when you first read it? Did Robert Anton Wilson or Robert Shea give you any writing advice?   

L. Neil Smith: I have been wracking my brain to remember how I first heard of Wilson and Shea, and how I acquired that book. (I read most of Wilson’s follow-ups, as well; I especially like Masks of the Illuminati, about Aleister Crowley.) That’s a major reason why it took me a while to get back to you this time. I consulted my wife, Cathy. Shea seemed particularly fond of her, but she couldn’t remember, either. I loved it from the first page, although I felt lucky I didn’t read it while smoking dope. It would have taken me so far out, I’d still be gone.

 And since you didn’t ask, my favorite part is Hagbard Celine and the self-destructing Mynah birds.

The two Bobs seemed to accept me as a colleague and contemporary, although Wilson was closer to my dad’s age, and never offered me advice.

Tom Jackson: Do you like being known as a “libertarian science fiction writer?” Or would you rather be labeled a “science fiction writer/” Or would you prefer yet another label, on none at all?

L. Neil Smith: “Libertarian science fiction writer” suits me perfectly. I have struggled for that title for decades. I also like being known as a
worthy successor to Robert A, Heinlein.

Tom Jackson: We talked a bit about writers who influenced you, but I think everyone you mentioned is deceased. Who are some of your favorite living writers?

L. Neil Smith: It may surprise you to learn that I don’t read contemporary science fiction. I started writing, among other reasons, because there wasn’t enough decent to read. I have read every one of Rex Stout’s forty-odd Nero Wolfe books aloud, twice, to my wife, partly because they’re such a pleasure to read aloud. Now and again exceptions occur, such as the splendid novels of the great Vin Suprynowicz.

Tom Jackson: I like to buy ebooks when I can (because they are cheap, and cut down on all of the books cluttering up pretty much every room of my house.) Are many of your current sales ebook sales? Do you read ebooks yourself, or do you prefer paper?

L. Neil Smith: My house is the same — I call it “well-insulated.”

Everything I write or have written is available as an e-book.
Kindle and its little brothers and sisters have probably tripled my
income. I have read a great many e-books, myself, with perfect
satisfaction. Not so much for a while; I developed cataracts which I’m
right in the middle of getting removed. Also, manipulating dead-tree
books has become very difficult since the stroke cost me the use of my
left hand. A lot of good people whose books I promised to read must
think I’m an asshole.

Tom Jackson: Could you talk about what kind of music you like? Didn’t you play in a band for years?

L. Neil Smith: I started during the folk “revolution” of the 1960s. But nothing moves me quite like genuine bluegrass — Flatt and Scruggs, the Monroe Brothers, the Dillards, most of all the New Lost City Ramblers. The late Pete Seeger once said that every newborn baby should be issued a five-string banjo, so it will always be happy, demonstrating that even a communist (“Ah, but he’s our communist.”) can be right occasionally.

I always thought that my future lay in music. I have performed
solo, in duos with an occasional beautiful girl, and led bands, The
Roughriders I and II and the Original Beautiful Dreamer Marching Jug
Band, doing bluegrass, what’s called “old timey music”: and, of course
jug band music. We covered Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, the Even Dozen Jug Band, and Dave van Ronk and the Jug Band. See a pattern there?

My favorite old-timey songs are “Down With The Old Canoe” (a silly
song about the sinking of the Titanic) and “When The War Breaks Out In Mexico (I’m A-headin’ Up To Montreal)”; my favorite jug band song is “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” my favorite bluegrass is “I’m A-goin’ Down To North Carolina,”;my favorite folk song — bar none — is “Flora/ the Lily of the West.” Check out Joan Baez’s version, or that of Peter, Paul. and Mary — I blended the two together in the arrangement I used.

In the early 60s, in my humble attic bedroom in college, I started
watching a PBS TV show, “The Turn of The Century” with pianist/scholar Max Morath, that was mostly about the unutterably brilliant Scott Joplin. My favorite composition of his is “Ragtime Dance,” which sounds to me like a 1920s Disney cartoon sound-track. I do like some later music: Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, and the astonishing genius of the Beatles, which I believe will last for 500 years; I go to the 1964 The Tribute concert every August at Red Rocks. I also like Barenaked Ladies.

Lately, doing karaoke with my lovely and talented wife and daughter, I
find myself gravitating toward country-western. I sang Jim Reeves’
“He’ll Have To Go” the other night.

Is that enough about music?

Tom Jackson: You gave out the first Prometheus Award, in 1979, for F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels Within Wheels. What possessed you to originate the award? How did that first awards process go?

L. Neil Smith: Well, I realized that, given my convictions, I would never win a conventional literary award — “social justice warriors” are not a new phenomenon by any means; the current specimens are just the older
generation’s pathetic spawn. Later, I sold the idea — an award, in
gold, for the best libertarian science fiction novel of the year — as a
way to persuade new writers to come out of the libertarian closet. I
didn’t need any such persuasion myself, so I was surprised when years
later, I won. But very happy.

Tom Jackson: After you awarded the first Prometheus Award, Michael Grossberg organized the Libertarian Futurist Society, and with the help of others, has kept the Prometheus Award going for about four decades now. How have we done? And have you ever played an active role in the LFS, or have you chosen to stay out of it?

L. Neil Smith: The latter. Having handed off to someone else, I’ve stayed out of it. It’s only courtesy. Michael has done a splendid job and I only hope he will continue. He makes libertarians everywhere feel proud. There
are, as you would imagine, a couple of things I would have done
differently, but I understand Michael’s slant on them, I think, and it
isn’t easy to write the following ….

First, in designating an award in gold, I had in mind something
equal to the miserable pittance paid as an advance to the average
beginning author — four thousand dollars was what I got for The
Probability Broach. For a long, long time, it was all I got. But the
organization couldn’t afford that — believe me, I understand — so a
smaller amount was awarded. If I were running things (which I am not, thank Somebody), I would hire a professional fund-raiser to scratch up the money throughout the year. I wonder what advances are like now. Still the same pittance, I’d wager.

Second, there has been an annoying tendency to give the award to
collectivists if they have just inserted the word “freedom” at the
bottom of Page 75. The Ursula LeGuin debacle was an instance of that,
and a stain on the award. I’m told that even she was bemused by having won it. LeGuin is an avowed socialist; I meant for the award to go to libertarians or proto-libertarians. I have not followed events closely enough to know if this travesty has been repeated, but it shouldn’t be.

Tom Jackson: Isn’t the controversy over the  decision to give an award to The Dispossessed the sort of thing that’s always going to occur with awards? I’ve been a judge on the nominating committee several years, and while I can’t discuss specific arguments (deliberations are supposed to be confidential), I know that sharp disagreements are part of the process. Also, isn’t this an argument among friends? Robert Shea is one of the LFS members who argued LeGuin should get the award.

L. Neil Smith: This is easy. I created the award. I never intended that it be given to enemies of individual liberty and Western Civilization, like those who call themselves “socialists”. It would be like giving it to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bob Shea was a wonderful fellow, but in this case he was wrong. However, I had passed the torch to somebody else, and it became their decision to make.

Tom Jackson: You originally established the Prometheus Award, and since then you’ve received the award five times, and it seems to me those two facts taken together could be misunderstood. (I’ve been heavily involved in the award for 10 years, and I know you have not “lobbied” us.) Is one of the reasons you stayed away was to avoid “conflict of interest” complaints?

L. Neil Smith: Exactly. For a number of reasons, mostly personal, I was unable to follow through with administering the award — I am most definitely not a “leader of men” — and I was extremely fortunate and grateful that Mike Grossberg was willing to take over. I never expected to win the award myself, several years later; I never needed any encouragement to write libertarian novels. But I was very pleased and flattered when it happened.

Tom Jackson: Do you enjoy going to science fiction conventions? And have you continued to be accessible to your fans, writing back when they contact you?

L. Neil Smith: I hardly ever attend conventions, but when I do, I generally enjoy it very much. I especially like pontificating on a panel. I don’t like all this “social justice warrior” crap. They’re little bullies, no different from Chinese communist thugs running “self criticism” sessions.

I have always made a point of being, as you say, “accessible”
(although it is my preference to have friends, instead of fans). Hey,
these folks pay me the enormous compliment of taking my work, my ideas, into their minds. And, of course, they feed my family and keep a roof over our heads. I do wish there were a couple million more of them.

As to writing back, I love the Internet. It has made communicating
with people who read my books and essays so much easier than it was when I started in the early 80s. Guess I should add that I greatly prefer
plain “old-fashioned” e-mail to abominations like Twitter, Facebook, and Messenger.

Tom Jackson: I have fantasized about living in Colorado. This seems unlikely, although I did often visit when I lived in Oklahoma. Why do you choose to live in Colorado, and what do you like about it?

L. Neil Smith: When I was in college, and I got off the plane from Colorado to northern Florida, it was like walking into a hot, wet sponge. The air in Colorado is cool and dry and I love it. Also, Colorado was a relatively free state back then. It’s a blue state now, but it may turn in 2020. We work and we have hope.

Tom Jackson: What libertarian blogs or websites do you like to read? Who are your favorite libertarian philosophers?

L. Neil Smith. I don’t really read much on the Internet. When I sit down at my computer, I’m there to write. Some exceptions: The Libertarian  Enterprise (of course), Sarah Hoyt’s excellent columns, Marc Morano’s Climate Depot, and I look at Breitbart and Drudge every morning, just like my dad read his newspaper.

I have a lot of favorite “philosophers,” which I’ll define as
individuals who have taught me how to think about ethics: Robert A.
Heinlein, Ayn Rand, and Robert LeFevre foremost, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (that’s a hell of a lot of Roberts), H. Beam Piper and Poul Anderson. I would be an absolute ingrate to exclude Jeff Cooper (look him up), John Wayne, and Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Tom Jackson: When you write, do you outline a complete plot first? Or do you just start with a premise and let your instincts guide you?

L. Neil Smith: I have written over 35 books so far (at this moment, I don’t know exactly how many), every single one of which was different. I’ve never written a formal outline, as they taught us to do in school, but I have written synopses as long as 10,000 words, not only as writing guides, but as tools for selling book ideas to publishers. A colleague once called it “the unknown art”. Sometimes I write synopses as I go along, anticipating the next few chapters. Sometimes I just write “by the seat of my pants”. Mostly I have learned to trust my unconscious
mind implicitly; it’s a much cleverer writer than my conscious mind. I
reward it with chocolate and lots of naps.

Tom Jackson: Who is the best editor you ever worked with? We’ll keep this on a positive plane and avoid asking about the worst, unless you want to volunteer something.

L. Neil Smith: I always enjoyed working with James R. Frenkel at Tor, although we  differed philosophically and we had our occasional ups and downs. My best editor is the one I have now, a charming lady who works for Arc Manor/Phoenix Pick named Lezli Robyn. She clearly understands what I am trying to do, literarily, and whether she agrees with me or not (I don’t know), honestly helps me to do it. She also gets my jokes and cares about my characters. I am endlessly grateful to my publisher, Shahid Mahmud, for assigning her to me.

The worst editor is one I never had, who retired from one of my
several earlier publishers, lamenting that she and her husband could
no longer act as “gatekeepers.” She actually used that word, which I
would be deeply ashamed to do. These days, we all know what it means: it’s Social Justice Warriorese for “concentration camp guard.”

Actually, I’ve had far worse difficulties with agents, of which
I’ve had — and fired — two. They were both from shockingly famous
and “prestigious” agencies. One of them lied to me and wouldn’t answer my phone calls. The other helped his crooked boss steal from me.
Neither of them ever did me a bit of good and one of them set me back
considerably. I do not have an agent any more.

Tom Jackson: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but it’s an obligatory question: What is your advice for people who want to become writers?  

L. Neil Smith:  Lie down until the symptoms go away — I’m kidding. My serious advice is to read a lot, write what you are moved to write, and put not thy trust in agents, editors, or publishers. Their interests do not run parallel with yours. Today’s technology allows you to write and publish on your own terms. The Internet will let you advertise and distribute.

Tor.com looks at the Prometheus Award

James Davis Nicoll, a recent nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, writes about “40 Years of the Prometheus Award,” for Tor.com.  He concludes that “following this particular award can be rewarding for readers of all stripes. Probably not every work above will be to your taste, but certainly some will be.”

The comments, including back and forth between Nicoll and readers, also are interesting.

 

 

Back to the Moon

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.

What did Heinlein do that these later writers have found worthy of imitation? He portrayed the lunar environment as harsh and indeed potentially lethal (his original title was The Moon Is a Harsh Schoolmistress). Despite this, he showed it as having potentially permanent human communities of some size, including Lunar-born inhabitants. He envisioned these communities as multiethnic and culturally hybridized. He imagined them as supported by a largely unregulated economy. His storyline focused on a lunar struggle for political autonomy against Earth’s much larger states and population. A further element was the presence of a fully self-aware computer that became involved in the human struggles.

Heinlein’s lunar environment was potentially threatened by vacuum, and offenders against its customary law were likely to be thrown out an airlock without a space suit; but his characters were much more hindered by having adapted to low gravity, to the point where returning to Earth left them disabled and at risk of death. McDonald picked up on this point in a major way, with visitors from Earth carefully monitoring how long it would be before they couldn’t return. But he also makes a point of confrontation with vacuum, both in a brilliant early scene where lunar teenagers show their bravery by walking on the surface without vacuum gear, and in a later one where two young lunar inhabitants make a desperate journey with the air in their suits running out—one that recalls another Heinlein novel, Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Corcoran also emphasizes vacuum in multiple scenes, starting with a tourist from Earth taking foolish risks in exploring the lunar surface. And Weir’s dramatic climax involves both a journey on the Moon’s surface and a threat to the lunar air supply.

Only Corcoran picks up on Heinlein’s having a self-aware computer as a character. His character Gamma carries forward Heinlein’s effort to show how such a being’s mentality might differ from a human one, with the benefit of decades of advances in both artificial intelligence and cognitive science to inform his portrayal. He also provides a vehicle for Corcoran to acknowledge Heinlein’s work — and argue with it — because Gamma has read Heinlein and has opinions about why some of his ideas wouldn’t work; the scene where he explains to Max, an uplifted dog, that “throwing rocks” will only make the situation worse is both well reasoned and hilarious.

Heinlein’s Luna was a prison colony for the major nations of Earth, and thus multiethnic, with such cities as Novy Leningrad and Hong Kong Luna, and his viewpoint character’s descent was racially mixed: white American, Hispanic American, black South African, and Tatar. One minor incident has him jailed in North American because he’s revealed that his Lunar marriage includes spouses of diverse races — Heinlein wrote only two years before Loving v Virginia did away with American miscegenation laws, and assumed they would still be in force a century later. Corcoran shows major American, Chinese, and American populations, and one of his best drawn characters is a preadolescent Nigerian girl. McDonald goes even further, with the five corporations that dominate the Moon’s economy being Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Ghanaian, and Russian. Artemis has a viewpoint character of Arabian descent, a colonial administration established by Kenya, and the air supply controlled by a Brazilian firm. None of these authors envisions a purely American future in space!

However, all of them portray a relatively unregulated economy that reflects libertarian ideas about free markets; and most of them also envision stateless legal systems—The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the main inspirations for the anarchocapitalism of David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. (The exception is Artemis, in which there’s an appointed “city administrator,” an arrangement somewhat like Hong Kong under British rule.) Heinlein’s Loonies are left free largely because of the general indifference of the Lunar Authority to most of what they do, and their arrangements tend to be small-scale and informal. McDonald’s lunar society is governed entirely by contract law, having no criminal law and no government capable of imposing it; it reads like an attempt to envision the kind of society Friedman wrote about in anthropological terms — in many ways it’s the most alien of the various fictional worlds — with an emphasis not on ethical principles but on the grungy realities of how markets actually work. Even so, he portrays a society that has both freedom and opportunity, as well as hardship and conflict. Corcoran’s Aristillus is more focused on ethical and legal principles in its portrayal of a society founded by a libertarian visionary; however, he doesn’t hesitate to explore its failure modes, from difficulties in establishing clear title to real property to the challenge of funding collective goods such as military defense. Taken all together, these four authors thoroughly explore the idea of a free lunar society —and the challenges of defending it.

One of the appeals of science fiction, for many decades, has been its character as an ongoing dialogue about ideas. After a long gap, we are now seeing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress inspire such a dialogue — explicitly for Corcoran, implicitly for the other two. Happily, Heinlein has found worthy successors: All of these books were worth reading. Having them all come out close together was a fortunate coincidence—or, possibly, a reflection of a new hope of establishing a human presence in space.

Where you can find the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame finalists

Now that the Libertarian Futurist Society has announced its 2019 finalists for the Prometheus Hall of Fame (Best Classic Fiction) and posted the news on our lfs.org website and on this Prometheus blog, LFS members (and all interested sf fans) might be curious about where you can find and read them.

That’s especially a question that might arise this year, when for the first time within memory, almost all of the Hall of Fame finalists are short stories or novellas (with only one novel as a finalist.)

As a happy result, most finalists should be quicker and easier to read this year. Yet, stories are harder to look up and find than novels at the bookstore or library. So here is a helpful guide to all the books and story collections that have included each 2019 finalist, based on a search of the Internet Science Fiction Database and Amazon websites.

Each Hall of Fame finalist is listed below, with its original publication and year and capsule description; plus, collections of the specific author’s work, or omnibus volumes by the author, that include it; and also any anthologies that include it, with their editors. Each part is in chronological order.

To make global computer searches more effective, the list follows the style of the title of each source that’s currently available directly through Amazon with an asterisk (*) (not counting old/used copies that are available from resellers who sell through Amazon). In many cases, electronic “ebook” versions are available, too.

  • “Sam Hall,” by Poul Anderson (a short story first published 1953 in Astounding Science Fiction): A story set in a security-obsessed United States, where computerized record-keeping enables the creation of a panopticon society. The insertion of a false record into the system leads to unintended consequences. Anderson, the first sf author to be honored with a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement, explores political implications of computer technology that now, decades later, are widely recognized.
    Published:
    The Best of Poul Anderson (Pocket Books, 1976)
    The Saturn Game, by Poul Anderson (NESFA Press, 2010) (subtitle: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Volume 3)*
    Science Fiction Thinking Machines, ed. Groff Conklin (Vanguard 1954/Bantam 1955)
    Machines That Think, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Patricia S. Warrick (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984)

  •  “As Easy as A.B.C.,” by Rudyard Kipling (first published 1912 in London Magazine), the second of his “airship utopia” stories, envisions a twenty-first century world founded on free travel, the rule of law, and an inherited abhorrence of crowds. Officials of the Aerial Board of Control are summoned to the remote town of Chicago, which is convulsed by a small group’s demands for revival of the nearly forgotten institution of democracy.
    Published:
    A Diversity of Creatures (Doubleday, 1917*)
    17 X Infinity, ed. Groff Conklin (Dell, 1963)
    John Brunner Presents Kipling’s Science Fiction (Tor, 1992)
    The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, ed. Tom Shippey, *Oxford University Press, 1992*)
    The Science Fiction Century, ed. David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1997*)

  • “Conquest by Default,” by Vernor Vinge (first published 1968 in Analog), Vinge’s first exploration of anarchism, offers a story about human civilization being overwhelmed by a superior alien force, told from the point of view of an alien sympathetic to the underdogs, who finds a way to save the humans by breaking up governments into much smaller components. The alien culture uses a legal twist to foster extreme cultural diversity, as characters draw explicit parallels between the plight of humanity in the face of superior alien tech and the fate of Native Americans faced with European invaders.
    Published:
    Collected Stories, by Vernor Vinge (Tor, 2001*)
    Republic and Empire, ed. John F. Carr, Jerry Pournelle (Baen, 1987)
    Threats . . . and Other Promises, a Vinge collection
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut (first published 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), a dystopian short story, set in a United States where constitutional amendments and a Handicapper General mandate that no one can be stupider, uglier, weaker, slower (or better) than anyone else, satirizes the authoritarian consequences of radical egalitarianism taken to an extreme that denies individuality and diversity. Vonnegut dramatizes the destruction of people’s lives and talents and the obliteration of basic humanity via a denial of emotions and knowledge that leaves parents unable to mourn a son’s death.
    Published:
    Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press, 1968/Dell, 1970*)
    The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 11th series, ed. Robert P. Mills, (1962)
    The Golden Age of Science Fiction, ed. Kingsley Amis (Penguin, 1983)
    The World Treasury of Science Fiction, ed. David G. Hartwell (Little, Brown, 1989)
    The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary, ed. Gordon Van Gelder (Tachyon, 2009)
    Complete Stories, by Kurt Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press, Sept. 2017)

* Schrödinger’s Cat: The Universe Next Door, by Robert Anton Wilson (first published 1979 by Pocket Books), a parallel-worlds novel, draws upon theories from quantum mechanics to explore themes about the evil of violence, particularly political coercion and the carnage of the Vietnam War. The speculative fantasy features alternate versions of characters from the Illuminatus! trilogy by Wilson and Robert Shea, which won the Hall of Fame Award in 1986.
Published:
Schrödinger’s Cat: The Universe Next Door (Pocket Books, 1979)
Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy (Dell, 2009*)

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

By Michael Grossberg
Several Prometheus-winning novels rank high in the Great American Read, suggesting that at least some significant aspects of individualist and libertarian/classical-liberal values remain at the core of popular American and worldwide culture.
The nationwide PBS competition invited Americans in communities across the country to rank and vote for their favorite novels – contemporary and classic, in all genres.
To Kill a Mockingbird recently was announced as the No. 1 winner. Although it’s not science fiction or fantasy, and thus ineligible for the Prometheus Award, Harper Lee’s classic courtroom drama (and the Oscar-winning film version starring Gregory Peck, not to mention the upcoming Broadway adaptation of the novel) eloquently uphold basic principles of civility, due process and the presumption of innocence as well as the vital importance of personal integrity, truth and courage that libertarians and classical liberals (but unfortunately fewer and fewer of today’s leftwing progressives) champion and uphold as part of our vital modern foundation for civility and the rule of law against mob rule, racism, false accusations and prejudice.

The posting of the PBS final rankings is the culmination of a lengthy and populist process in which the 100 previously selected popular favorites were whittled down to a set of five finalists (including the Outlander series, the Harry Potter series, Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings.)


J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame a in 2000. The Lord of the Rings, ranked No. 5 on the Great American Read list, offers a cautionary fable about the unbridled pursuit of power, how power corrupts and absolute power (symbolized by the Ring) can corrupt absolutely, leading to vast evil and tyranny threatening civilization itself. (If the great British classical liberal and Catholic historian Lord Acton, who famously wrote that “Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” had written a fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings might well have been it, because it perfectly embodies his cautionary themes.)


George Orwell’s novel 1984, an early Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee (coincidentally, in 1984) for its perceptive dramatization and dissection of horrific socialist/communist/fascist tyranny and how dictatorships undermine and deny facts and truth and reality itself through indoctrinating and intimidating people in a group-think mob hysteria, ended up ranked at No. 18 on the Great American Read.


Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the first two Prometheus Hall of Fame winners in 1983, also ranked high at No. 20. Rand’s magnum opus is a suspense-mystery philosophical thriller about the crucial role of the free mind in human civilization. (Note: Under the rules of the Great American Read series, only the top-ranked novel by each author could be eligible for inclusion in the top-100 list – or else Rand’s The Fountainhead likely would have ranked high, too.)
Ready Player One (ranked No. 76), by Ernest Cline, won the 2012 Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Among the other science fiction or fantasy classics that also ranked on the top-100 list include The Chronicles of Narnia (No. 9), the children’s fantasy series by the great Christian libertarian C.S. Lewis; Stephen King’s The Stand (No. 24); Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (No. 34), Frank Herbert’s Dune (No. 35), Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (No. 39), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (No. 43), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (series) (No. 49), Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (No. 52); The Martian (No. 61), by Andy Weir (whose Artemis was a recent Prometheus finalist for Best Book); and The Sirens of Titan (ranked No. 87), by Kurt Vonnegut (whose short story “Harrison Bergeron,” nominated in the past two years for the Prometheus Hall of Fame, offers an implicitly libertarian satirical critique of coercive egalitarianism carried to extremes.)

Of course, many if not most of the 100 novels on the list are well worth reading and quite a few offer great stories and great wisdom about the human experience. So the list (despite the occasional inclusion of recent favorite bestsellers destined to fade over time) can be used as a welcome guide to further reading – or re-reading.
For the full ranked list of the 100 most popular novels in the PBS competition, visit http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/results/

What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?

A bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford. (Creative Commons photo). 

By William H. Stoddard

The Prometheus Award has been given annually since 1982, and the Hall of Fame Award since 1983. All through the twenty-first century, lists of four to six finalists have been announced for each award. And for much of that time, online comments on the nominations and awards have often questioned their rationale.  There have been comments suggesting that the awards could go to virtually any book, or to winners that have no libertarian content, or indeed are actively opposed to libertarianism.

“Virtually any book” is an exaggeration. There are any number of compelling books whose themes aren’t political: The Island of Dr. Moreau, At the Mountains of Madness, and Ringworld are all examples. Even past winners of the Prometheus Award have written such books, such as Michael Flynn’s brilliantly tragic The Wreck of The River of Stars. There are also books written from viewpoints opposed to libertarianism, such as Star Maker or the Foundation series. I think it’s safe to say that none of these could have been a Best Novel nominee, or can be expected to be a Hall of Fame nominee.

On the other hand, it’s long established that our awards go to the book, not the author. There’s no list of official libertarian authors, or of unacceptable antilibertarian authors. A work can be considered if it attempts to envision a free society, or to show a path that might lead to increased freedom, or if it shows the dangers of authoritarianism as such, or deconstructs an earlier work based on antilibertarian assumptions. Prometheus Awards have gone to authors such as Ken MacLeod (several times!), Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton because our members agreed that they had something important to say to us about these topics.

But on the gripping hand, exactly what it is that marks a work as of libertarian interest, or disqualifies it from being considered that way, isn’t always clear to nonlibertarians. (For that matter, libertarians may disagree about this; our juries have some lively private discussions each year!) So I’d like to discuss one of our recent honorees, a work whose admission to the Hall of Fame evoked an unusually large volume of questions: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

On one hand, I’ve seen a number of comments to the effect that there’s nothing in The Lord of the Rings that’s relevant to libertarianism, or to political philosophy of any sort. That seems a surprising statement! This is, after all, a novel about a magical device that grants the user power over others, and particularly the ability to take over and control other magical devices; that is an invaluable tool of conquest and domination; and that also is dangerously addictive to the user. In fact, the One Ring is a modernized version of Plato’s parable of the Ring of Gyges, an ancient legend about the corruption of power. It’s hard to imagine a premise for fantasy better adapted to make a libertarian point. Despite Tolkien’s disclaimer of “allegory” and overt messages, the applicability is there.

It’s also worth noting that the Shire, the home of the novel’s hero and his friends, is a much freer society than is common in fantasy. It has a mixed government, part aristocracy and part commercial republic, but its only important functions seem to be police (and concerned more with strayed beasts than strayed hobbits) and the mails; it’s really quite a good fit to the old idea of the “minimal state.” Tolkien’s description of it seems to owe something to independent Iceland, in which several libertarian writers have found inspiration.

Later in the story, the Shire gets taken over by outside intruders, who propose to modernize it, and who set up a system of “gatherers and sharers” who, as one resident of the Shire says, do a lot more gathering than sharing. Tolkien doesn’t push the reader’s face into it, but this episode looks a lot like a socialist takeover, and like many such takeovers, it leaves the Shirefolk both poorer and less free.

On the other hand, some commenters have thought that The Lord of the Rings had elements that were clearly and obviously opposed to libertarianism. More than one commenter, in particular, has pointed to the accession of Aragorn (or “Strider”) to the throne of the reunited kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, taking it that monarchy is obviously at odds with libertarian ideas.

Many libertarians are anarchists, and rule by a king is obviously opposed to anarchism. (Tolkien, incidentally, expressed sympathy for anarchism in one of his letters.) But so is rule by a voting majority, or any other sovereign entity. How bad a given monarchy is depends on what sort of rule the monarch engages in; a good monarch can be a lesser evil than a bad popular government.

On the other hand, many libertarians are not anarchists, but supporters of constitutional government that respects people’s rights. And in a libertarian view, the important rights are “life, liberty, and property”—freedom to think for oneself, to express one’s thoughts, to form relationships, to trade and produce, and by doing so to sustain one’s life and happiness. The right to vote is a less important issue, and would be even less important if government were barred from violating the primary rights. What’s important is that rights and law are prior to government, and that rulers should be restrained by them. A democratic majority unrestrained by law, and doing anything it pleases, is unlibertarian; a king ruling under law—as was assumed in much of the medieval writing that Tolkien studied—need not be. And Tolkien showed Aragorn acting as such a king, and moreover, not asserting the right to rule through superior power, but asking the people of Minas Tirith to consent to his rule. It’s especially notable that Aragorn makes a point of preserving the rights of the Shire, that happy near-anarchy, to maintain its own laws and customs, to the point of not himself crossing its borders.

In other words, the element in The Lord of the Rings that seems incompatible with libertarianism for many readers is less so than it appears. It’s arguably incompatible with democracy, but democracy isn’t a primary value to libertarians; democratic majorities have too often voted to take away rights that libertarians want to preserve. It seems that some readers, not very familiar with libertarian ideas, may have assumed that libertarians must agree with them, instead of finding out what libertarians think. And one of the goals of the Prometheus Award and the Hall of Fame is to provide a list of works that will help people find that out—among which The Lord of the Rings is a good example, offering many ideas congenial to libertarian thought, but not by any means the only one.

Literary snobbery at the ‘Paris’ Review

Johanna Sinisalo holds her Prometheus Award. (Photo by Ryan Lackey). 

The Paris Review has a new article up, “How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country,” which purports to tell the story of how Finnish writers have acquired an international reputation.

But the article’s author, Kalle Oskari Mattila, seems to be determined to make sure that neither the science fiction community nor the Prometheus Award will receive any credit for the growing attention to Finnish writing.

The article includes a photograph Johanna Sinisalo and a brief description of her novel, The Core of the Sun. But it doesn’t mention that she received the Prometheus Award in 2017 for the book — likely the first time the award has gone to someone who isn’t an Anglo-American author.

Similarly, the article leaves out the fact that Sinisalo was one of the guests of honor for the first-ever Finnish worldcon in 2017, which drew 7,119 people. Sinisalo was given her Prometheus Award at the convention, and the award helped demonstrate that she was a guest of honor on her merits, and not just because she happens to be Finnish. The worldcon was one of the biggest ever in terms of attendance and certainly helped shine a spotlight on Finnish writers.

I thought this sort of literary snobbery had gone away but the “Paris”
Review (actually published in New York) apparently wants to take it into the 21st Century.

— Tom Jackson

Prometheus Awards podcast available for downloading and streaming

Did you miss the live podcast of Prometheus Award authors on the Geek Gab podcast? Fear not — there are time binding options!

You can listen to it on YouTube. You also have the option of searching for it on your favorite podcasting app; search for “Geek Gab” at the iTunes store or the Google Play store.

The podcast features authors of this year’s Prometheus Award nominees, with Ken MacLeod, Andy Weir, Travis Corcoran, Karl Gallagher and John Hunt. Sarah Hoyt and Doug Casey were unable to join the podcast. Along with discussion of their books, the authors say interesting things about artificial intelligence and computer programming, about anarcho-capitalism and libertarian ethics, and reveal the most surprising elements of their books for many readers. And it turns out there’s more than one fan of Iain M. Banks in the group. All I know about the host is that he goes by “Daddy Warpig,” but he does a great job.

— Tom Jackson

 

Prometheus winner ‘Ready Player One’ out soon as a movie

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the 2012 Prometheus Award winner (in a tie, with Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze) is about to become much better known. A movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released March 30.

Not everyone has climbed on Ernest Cline’s bandwagon. “Second Opinion: Ready Player One is the Worst Thing Nerd Culture Ever Produced,” published last year and written by I. Coleman, tries its best to live up to the title. Sample paragraph:

Ready Player One is a 2011 novel that lifts its setting, premise, and most of its story beats from 1992’s Snow Crash, removes all of the self-awareness, badass action, and philosophical musings on the nature of the relationship between language and technology, replaces them with painfully awkward 80s references, and changes the main character from a samurai pizza deliveryman and freelance hacker to the asshole kid in your friend group who claimed he ‘didn’t need showers,’ vomited onto the page by Ernest Cline. Its bestseller success and Cline’s subsequent 7-figure sale of the screenplay to Steven Spielberg is as close as we can get to objective proof that the meritocracy isn’t working.”

More here.

I’ve noticed other folks on social media who are scornful of the book. Disclosure: I enjoyed reading it..

I wasn’t the only one. Reviewing the book for the Boing Boing website, Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder wrote,

“It seems like every decade or so a science fiction novel comes along that sends a lightning bolt through my nervous system: Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). And I recently discovered what my mind-blowing novel for the 2010s is: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.”

Just in case you couldn’t tell if he liked it, Frauenfelder later adds, that the book is  “a rollicking, surprise-laden, potboiling, thrilling adventure story that takes place both in the OASIS and the real world. It is loaded with geek-culture references from the 1980s that resonated strongly with me — but they are all integral to the story and never feel gratuitous. You don’t need to know about 1980s pop culture to appreciate the story. I loved every sentence of this book, and was a little sad when I reached the end and re-entered reality.”

— Tom Jackson