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

 

 

 

Tyler Cowen re-reads ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’

The very first Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, back in 1983, was given, in a tie, to Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, won the Hugo for best novel in 1967. It was a favorite of mine when I read it during the 1970s, as a high school student. Evidently it was a favorite of lots of people.

Tyler Cowen, the influential libertarian-leaning blogger, author and columnist, recently re-read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and found that it holds up. His blog post is not very long, so I’m going to quote it in full:

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein. I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13. Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully. It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice. TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea. The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak. Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles! This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too. Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

Tyler’s post inspired 55 comments (so far!)

— Tom Jackson

 

‘Eric Kotani’ has died

Science fiction writer Eric Kotani  has died. His novel The Island Worlds, co-written with John Maddox Roberts and published in 1987, was a finalist in 2016 for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

The name “Eric Kotani” actually was a pen name for American astrophysicist Yoji Kondo, who was born in Japan.

See this excellent obituary in the Baltimore Sun.  Some highlights: Kondo wanted to see the world, so he learned Portuguese, which allowed him to obtain a job in Brazil. He eventually moved to the U.S., earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He then worked for NASA and held various academic jobs.

When Robert Heinlein asked him questions about astronomy, the two became friends, and Kondo began his second career as a science fiction writer, collaborating with Roberts on a series of novels and also writing a Star Trek novel, Death of a Neutron Star, on his own.