Looking back at Prometheus Awards history: What happened at the first awards ceremony in 1979 in Los Angeles – and why it was controversial

Today marks nearly the end of a pivotal year marking the 40th anniversary of the Prometheus Awards, so it’s interesting to take a moment in 2019 and look back at the birth of the awards with the very first Prometheus Awards ceremony in 1979.
First envisioned and launched by sf writer L. Neil Smith, the Prometheus Award was first presented in 1979 in a high-profile ceremony at the year’s biggest Libertarian convention, which attracted several thousand people in Los Angeles.

Writer Robert Anton Wilson announced the winner – F. Paul Wilson’s sf mystery Wheels Within Wheels– after announcing three finalists, including Poul Anderson’s The Avatarand James P. Hogan’s The Genesis Machine.
Here’s a glimpse of how the event was covered in Frontlines, a leading libertarian-movement-news newsletter published by Reason magazine’s foundation:
“The first-ever Prometheus Award was presented for the best libertarian science fiction novel of 1978. The finalists were Poul Anderson’s The Avatar, James P. Hogan’s The Genesis Machine and F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels. Robert Anton Wilson did the honors, on behalf of the Prometheus Award Committee (an independent group of libertarian sf fans, who contributed the award), presenting the $2,500 in gold to (no relation) F. Paul Wilson. The prize (which has already increased significantly in value) is the largest award for science fiction given anywhere in the world.”


Interestingly, the awards ceremony was presented as the culmination of and at the end of a Libertarian Futurism panel discussion, which had proved surprisingly controversial in the months leading up to the convention.

Several libertarian-movement newsletters, including Frontlines and Update, reported on the controversy earlier in 1979 by highlighting concerns by some that science fiction and libertarian futurist themes were somehow outside the respectable boundaries of libertarian discussions and issues.

While some politically-oriented libertarians favored elimination of the panel (and presumably also the awards ceremony) from the program and schedule of the fall 2019 convention, other prominent libertarians – including Reason magazine publisher-editor Robert Poole and libertarian feminist/activist Tonie Nathan defended it.

“At issue are the theme and emphasis of the 1979 LP National convention. One group wants the program broadened to include futuristic themes; the other wants to retain the strictly political format planned by the Convention Committee,” reported Frontlines in a March 1979 story headlined “Convention Program Sparks Debate.”
“The controversy began when several Natcom members (including Ben Olson, Sylvia Sanders, John Hilbert and Rich White), together with L. Neil Smith and Cynthia Molson-Smith, organized the Prometheus Award Committee. Its purpose is to present an annual award for ‘the best work of speculative fiction embodying the ideals of voluntarism, independence, self-determination, and freedom (in other words, libertarian science fiction)’ published each year, the Frontlines article reported.
“So far, no controversy. It was only when the committee asked NatCom to amend the national convention program to provide time for an awards ceremony, and to include a ‘libertarian futurism’ panel on the program, that controversy erupted. Several Natcom members denounced the idea as contrary to the purpose of both the convention and the LP itself. Neither Satcom nor the Convention Committee took any action on it at (the Satcom meeting in) Las Vegas – leading to a frenetic exchange of letters in the weeks that followed,” Frontlines reported.
“In that heated atmosphere, the futurists were quickly dubbed ‘space cadets’ while their opponents were castigated as power seekers.”
“(LP leader) Ed Crane… argued that it is ‘simply wrongheaded’ to outline a vision of the future – ‘such visions are for fortunetellers, not libertarians.”

Toni Nathan, meanwhile, had written and circulated a column defending the awards ceremony and libertarian futurist panel as a modest addition to the convention program.
Her column was reprinted in that same issue of Frontlines (Vol. 1, No. 7, March 1979) under the title “Envisioning the Free Society.”
Nathan (1923-2014), then president of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and the first woman to receive an electoral vote in U.S, history, as the Libertarian vice-presidential candidate in 1972, outlined one major difference between people with a libertarian vision and others.

“Perhaps the major difference… is genuine optimism, idealism and a positive view of human nature,” she said.
“We libertarians have a boundless faith in a beautiful, productive and fruitful future because we know what a free society can produce. We tend to believe most persons who are introduced to our vision of a free society will produce… people who can travel to stars – people who aspire to new experiences, new delights, new challenges and independent thinking.”
“Historians and economists can show how freedom is good in the aggregate. They can detail the results of the invisible hand. They can explain business, artistic, and scientific successes after the fact. But they cannot document or analyze what is yet to be,” she wrote.
“They cannot know beforehand what special circumstances will motivate individuals to produce the goods, services and ideas that enrich human life. It is artists, poets and writers who paint the future and inspire action. Their dreams, their imagination, their inquiries, light up the minds of inventors, entrepreneurs and workers.”
“Libertarians dream. And because they dream, they create. Let us, therefore, lace our libertarian convention with dreams. Let us leaven our politics with imagination and project the future for those who want a vision of something worth striving for…. Let us explore the shape of the future.
What is the shape of the future? No one knows. But show me your vision and I will show you mine. To reach a star, I will willingly follow a path untrod by others… Encourage us to dream at our convention. Stimulate our minds, whet our appetites and show us a vision of future freedom.”

And that’s precisely what several leading libertarians – including Bob Poole and Joseph Martino, who became and remain veteran members of the Libertarian Futurist Society, established in 1982 to sustain and administer the Prometheus Awards, which went on hiatus after the 1979 award – did in pulling off the first Libertarian Futurism panel at a major 1970s Libertarian convention.

From the Frontline convention report:
“The long awaited Futurism panel proved to be one of the most popular events. After Bob Poole’s introduction making the case for a libertarian futurism, the audience was treated to a slide show on computers by Byte editor Carl Helmers, an inspiring talk on the need for libertarian visions of the future by The Futurist’s Joseph Martino, a pastiche of possibilities for life-extension by Robert Anton Wilson, and discussions of space industrialization, privatization and weaponry by Mark Frazier and Gary Hudson.”
With an attendance of over 2000 people (from 47 states) and perhaps partly because of its wide-ranging program, the convention attracted major media coverage, with correspondents from national newspapers and such magazine as Esquire, Omni (a popular science/futurist magazine of that era), Oui, Penthouse and TWA Ambassador.
With the advantage of hindsight, we know that all three 1979 Prometheus Awards finalists – including Anderson and Hogan – would go on to win more than one Prometheus Award over the next two decades.
And with hindsight, we can see that in many ways, what L. Neil Smith started that year continues today, well into the 21stcentury, with the same libertarian futurist spirit of hope and vision for a better, freer future.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Poul Anderson’s The Stars are Also Fire, the 1995 winner for Best Novel.

* Join us!  To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better 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 “Looking back at Prometheus Awards history: What happened at the first awards ceremony in 1979 in Los Angeles – and why it was controversial”

  1. Good point, Bill. After further research through old libertarian newsletters, I found an earlier 1979 news story in Frontlines about the roots of the controversy – and have added several paragraphs of history, context and quotes from that story that make clearer what the conflict was about and how the controversy sparked a series of letters and mutual criticisms over several months that year. Check out the updated and more complete blog post.

  2. What arguments were given for NOT having a libertarian science fiction award? This piece quotes at length from the pro-award arguments, but barely mentions the opposing views. I don’t feel that gives me any real understanding of the controversy.

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