Interview (part 2): William Stoddard on the challenges, rewards and future of the Prometheus Hall of Fame

“I think a full understanding of justice also has to include honoring and rewarding worthy acts and accomplishments. ” – William H. Stoddard

Here is part 2 of the Prometheus Blog interview with LFS President William H. Stoddard.

Editor-writer William H. Stoddard in his library, with his GURPS book on Fantasy, published in 2004 (Photo courtesy of Stoddard)

This part of the interview focuses on the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction, which Stoddard has been closely involved with for two decades.

As chair of the Hall of Fame finalist judging committee, Stoddard leads a group of LFS members who read, discuss and rank the annual nominees to select a slate of typically five finalists for the entire LFS membership to rank and vote on. The winner is inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, established in 1983.

 

Q: What works of fiction especially pleased you when they were inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction?

For the Hall of Fame Award, far and away the one that meant most to me was Donald M. Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite (2016; original publication 1982).

I consider it one of the best science fiction novels ever written, for its portrayal of a exotic human culture, for its getting the reader (or at least me!) into the mind and viewpoint of characters from that culture through Campbellian indirect exposition, and for its theme of optimization, with its striking congruences with libertarian ideas.

Q: What do you mean by optimization?

A: Mathematically (and Kingsbury is a mathematician), optimization means choosing a value for one variable that causes another variable to take on the highest or lowest value possible, at least in a certain range.

This has been generalized to other fields; for example, in economics, a situation is “Pareto optimal” if it’s not possible to make anyone better off without making someone else worse off (which in libertarian terms means that it shouldn’t be interfered with, since people usually won’t voluntarily accept being made worse off). Optimization can sometimes take place through decentralized evolutionary processes, such as market competition or natural selection, and that’s the form that Kingsbury mostly writes about.

Q: How does Kingsbury’s novel dramatize that optimization theme and what does that have to do with modern libertarian thought?

A: Kingsbury gives us a symbol for this early in the novel, when the character Teenae falls into one of her planet’s rare seas and uses her mathematical intuition to arrive at the least effortful swimming stroke.

I see Kingsbury as showing optimization at work in several dimensions.

There’s biological optimization, as different families and clans each seek to have children of high “kalothi” (apparently derived from the English word “quality” and meaning roughly “inclusive fitness”).

There’s economic optimization by markets.

There’s political optimization, as embodied in the customs and laws of the Kaiel clan, where policy is set by voting — but how many votes a Kaiel gets is based on how many people have voluntarily chosen them as a representative, and anyone’s votes can be challenged by asking them to name all their constituents and discuss the concerns of each, which is a lot like libertarian thought on “the consent of the governed.”

And finally, there’s ethical optimization, the choice of the best set of values and principles to live by, which in Kingsbury’s presentation involves, first, ensuring independence and autonomy, in such forms as a tendency to stoicism, but, second, encouraging cooperation.

The resonances between these levels make the novel conceptually rich, and while it’s not ideologically libertarian, it explores issues that are of great interest to libertarians. And at the same time, since they pervade the culture of his imaginary planet Geta, they make it not merely exotic—though it is fascinatingly exotic—but coherent.

Q: How important is the Hall of Fame category to the Prometheus Awards, and how does it balance the Best Novel category?

A: I think the Hall of Fame embodies an attitude I might call “piety,” not in the religious sense but more in the Roman sense: not, for libertarians, blind conformity to the past, but an interest in the past and an openness to learning from it.

I think we’re experiencing what might be called an age of repudiation, akin to ancient China, where Qin Shihuangdi burned literary classics and buried alive scholars who tried to preserve them, or to the Puritans who destroyed stained glass windows.

In the science fiction community, for example, we’ve seen the renaming of the Campbell and Tiptree Awards, and we’ve seen entire eras of science fiction dismissed as worthless and uninteresting. I would prefer to look back and see what value we can find in them, and I think the Hall of Fame encourages doing so.

I think that there’s some impulse to use the Hall of Fame as a “second thoughts” award, a way of giving recognition to a novel that didn’t win Best Novel in its year. I don’t see that as productive; the other nominees for Best Novel have already been recognized by being nominated, and I think we’re better off making a choice and moving forward.

But I think that the recent change (editor’s note: approved by the board in January 2019) from works five years old being eligible to only works at least twenty years old being eligible has helped to move away from that.

I don’t think we can really assess whether a work as recent as five or ten years old is an enduring classic, but I think when a generation has passed the really lasting works start to emerge.

Q: The first Prometheus Hall of Fame was established in 1983, just a year after the Libertarian Futurist Society was founded in 1982 to revive and sustain the Prometheus Awards, conceived by L. Neil Smith and first presented in 1979. We began celebrating the 40th anniversary of the awards last year, and looking ahead, the Prometheus Hall of Fame will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2023. And you’ve played a large role in sustaining that awards category. How do you view that milestone and your contributions to achieving it?

A: I find it satisfying to do the work, but I don’t think about anniversaries much; they don’t seem like real achievements to me.

Q: Classic works can take years or decades to be recognized as classics, perhaps somewhat like the aging of fine wine. So the Prometheus Hall of Fame seems like it should have solid candidates in theory to consider inducting in the long run. But in the short run, LFS members have sometimes worried that we’re in danger of running out of solid candidates to consider. How do you view this concern and challenge?

A: I do think it’s a real concern. We’ve recognized a large number of older classics, which leaves us fewer remaining choices; and while later  years come into play as we moved forward, they don’t necessarily add enough notable works to keep up, especially taking into account that at least one work each year wins Best Novel and thus is ineligible for the Hall of Fame.

Over the past few years, we’ve often had mostly the same nominees come back, but none of them having enough support to win.

Instead, we’ve seen a series of newly nominated works take the award, such as Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” or Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” or Poul Anderson’s “Sam Hall.” I encourage committee members to look for other new choices, but I wonder how long we can go on finding new choices.

Q: So far, as of September, 2020, 44 works have been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, including two each in the first five years, just to get the ball rolling. In those early years, the Hall of Fame inductees were very well known.

Virtually every LFS member, libertarian, libertarian sf fan and sf fan had read them – bestselling, widely hailed works by Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, Anthem), Robert Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land), George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Poul Anderson (Trader to the Stars) and others.
But increasingly and perhaps inevitably, the Hall of Fame has focused on recognizing works not as well known or as widely read or seen.
What do you think of this gradual shift, and how do you think it affects the Hall of Fame and its future?

A: I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. Some years ago, we adopted a policy of allowing the Hall of Fame to go to works other than novels.

And I don’t think I’d say that stories such as “Harrison Bergeron” or “With Folded Hands” — or the television series The Prisoner — aren’t widely known.

That’s been a response to the problem raised in your previous question, and I think it’s been successful so far, with only about half this century’s winners being novels. I don’t think our voters are dismissing short stories as unfamiliar.

In the longer term, though, as we give more awards for notable short fiction, and occasionally for film, video, or music, I think we’ll find that the pool of such works is getting shallower. So this is something we need to think about for the future.

Q: You’ve been involved with the Libertarian Futurist Society in different ways – as a reviewer, newsletter editor, board member, awards judge, judging committee chair and board president – since the 1990s. What keeps you going, and why is the LFS and its Prometheus Awards important to you?

A: Most of my roles have not actually been draining, or needed something to “keep me going.” Editing the newsletter was hard, given both how much of it I had to write myself and how few people ever commented on it; I think other newsletter editors such as Anders Monsen had the same experience. But being active in the LFS gives me my primary opportunity to interact with other libertarians, and to discuss issues and books from a libertarian perspective. And it gives me the chance to help gain recognition for libertarian works and authors, which I think is important.

When we talk about justice, we’re usually thinking in terms of punishing wrongful acts, and condemning them. But I think a full understanding of justice also has to include honoring and rewarding worthy acts and accomplishments.

And I think the pleasure of taking part in that sort of justice isn’t sufficiently appreciated. But I think that’s the main thing the LFS is offering its members generally, and I’m glad to have it.

* If you missed it, read the recent first half of the Prometheus Blog interview with LFS President William H. Stoddard.

* Read the Prometheus Blog interviews with novelist L. Neil Smith and LFS founder Michael Grossberg.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: 
An Appreciation of past Prometheus Hall of Fame winners, such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, F. Paul Wilson’s Healer and An Enemy of the State, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “Interview (part 2): William Stoddard on the challenges, rewards and future of the Prometheus Hall of Fame”

    1. Indeed, I think it’s a tragedy that it has not been kept in print, or published electronically, and that the only way to read it is to track down a used copy.

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