In memoriam Jack Vance: 1916 — 2013

By Anders Monsen

Jack Vance, science fiction grandmaster, died on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Born on August 28 1916, John Holbrook Vance wrote over 50 novels and many more short stories, most published under the name Jack Vance. His works ranged from science fiction and fantasy to mystery and regional fiction. Vance’s first published story was “The World Thinker” in 1945 for Thrilling Wonder Stories, and his first published book The Dying Earth, by Hillman Press in 1950. His last novel, Lurulu, appeared in 2004, and an autobiography in 2009.

Though he was approaching 100, and I always expected to read something about his death, I felt a deep shock when I finally received the news. I have read all his books, many of them multiple times. They are like old friends. I have nominated and voted for many of his works for the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Now he is dead. Will it matter if he ever wins? Would he have cared to have won while still alive? I do not know. Reflecting on his books is like reflecting on the lives of long-time friends.

While there are many reasons I like his fiction, I believe many of his books contain individualist themes, and I believe that libertarians who care about well-written fiction with an individualist bent will find many of his books worth reading.

book coverIn 1985 I picked up my first Jack Vance book, a collection of stories called The Narrow Land. The title story tells the tale of a very alien protagonist, born in a swamp, struggling to survive among creatures similar to himself, yet also imbued with a desire to explore the environs of his world. Of the seven stories in The Narrow Land, along with the title story, tales like “Chateau D’If,” “The World-Thinker,” and “Green Magic” displayed an unmatched imagination and an intricate display of stylistic prose. Beginning with that collection I sought as many Vance books as possible, each one a discovery of joy. Like panning for gold or unearthing gems, reading a Jack Vance book amid the sea of mundane SF meant reading the apex of imaginative writing.

The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, set in the same far future, stood apart from more traditional fantasy books. Other fantasy stories I had read were either epics on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, or vapid tales of kingdoms and coming of age stories. Vance’s Dying Earth tales imagined a far-future earth, the sun threatening to extinguish at any moment. This was an age of magic, although a magic diluted and faded from previous aeons. Wizards conspired against each other, and rogues like Cugel the Clever tried to make their ways in this dangerous world. Cugel, a rare anti-hero in fantasy akin to characters by Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, struggled through one adventure after another, his plans always going slightly awry. I imagined Vance must have a had a great deal of fun writing those stories.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s I trawled through used books stores (back when they still existed) and amassed every single paperback by Jack Vance that I could find. Today, discovering any Vance paperback in a used book store is a rare event indeed. Back then I found all the DAW editions, including the five Demon Prince novels. These tales of revenge read like Rafael Sabatini novels in space. The protagonist, with the memorable name of Kirth Gersen, hunts the five criminals who laid waste to his world. Raised by his grandfather to be a resourceful detective and killer, Gersen shares many traits with another favorite character of mine, F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack. The Demon Prince books (The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face and The Book of Dreams) are books that I probably have read more than half a dozen times each. Five books for five Demon Princes, each more extravagant than the one before.

book coverAlthough he wrote many stand-alone novels, his other series were equally memorable. The first, a four-book tale of an earthman stranded on an alien planet called Tschai, was marketed as the Planet of Adventure (composed of City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume). Here Adam Reith drew upon his resources to discover a means by which he could build or steal a spaceship and return to Earth, and in the process he upset the societal rules of four alien species and their human-like mirror societies. This was my first encounter with Vance’s trenchant social criticism. He rips into people who submit to rulers, and tears apart traditions for the sake of tradition.

Another series, set in the future history that Vance called the Gaean Reach, was the Alastor trilogy. Each title bore the name of the planet upon which it was set, along with the planetary number. I remember them simply as Wyst, Trullion, and Marune. The first drew again on social criticism, depicting a society founded upon the ideals of socialism, and it did not skimp on its negative portrayal. Any redistributionist who reads this novel probably winces uncomfortably at the idea of “bonter” and Wyst’s egalitarian society. Wyst would be among the first books to read on the Vance libertarian bookshelf.

The Durdane trilogy, while to me not as memorable as some of the other series, nonetheless continued the social criticism along with strong characters and plot. Here we find society and various strata within society governed by rigid rules. Yet someone steps forward to fight against these rules.

Vance, by the late 1980s legally blind and using specially crafted software to read aloud the text that he wrote, still created masterpieces. The first of the Cadwal books, Araminta Station, remains one of my all-time favorite novels. Published in 1987, it centers around a near-pristine planet, Cadwal, protected by a naturalist society. The society has established a small enclave at Araminta Station, composed of the families of the original settlers. Another race, known as Yips, inhabit a small island but seek to expand and care not for ecological niceties. The Yips often act as servants or workers in Araminta Station, along with some off-worlders who are not part of the original families. We meet Glawen Clattuc, the protagonist, on his sixteenth birthday, when he attains status and must choose a profession. Skullduggery is afoot, and Glawen and his father must thwart a plot to have Glawen bumped down the status ladder and out of Cadwal society, which sets the tone for the rest of the book and its two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy. Vance packs more into the first novel than many other SF series, and the opening of Ecce and Old Earth, rife with tension and danger, with Glawen’s journey through the fetid and lethal jungles of Cadwal’s other continent to rescue his father, written as if for a Spielberg movie.

book coverWhile all these series fell into science fiction, one of his greatest bodies of work remains the fantasy trilogy Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, Madouc). The Lyonesse trilogy takes place in the mythical land of Lyonesse, one of the Elder Isles. Now submerged and vanished in the mists of time, this isle off the British coast flourishes a few generations before the birth of King Arthur. In Vancian mythology, Arthur’s Round Table has roots in a famed round table in a city in Lyonesse, but this is almost a throw-away detail. Another young protagonist, Aillas, a prince from one of the many separate kingdoms of Lyonesse, finds himself the victim of family rivalry, and as the book opens is tossed off a boat and left to die.

Aillas, like most Vance protagonists, is resourceful. His many adventures range the width and length of Lyonesse, and introduce a variety of races and cultures, including faeries and magicians, trolls, and demons from other dimensions who serve the magicians. The third book features a strong female character, the half-faerie girl Madouc, raised as a human princess, who embarks on her own Grail quest. The Lyonesse trilogy in my opinion is the greatest fantasy work in the English language, far surpassing the Lord of the Rings and anything before and since.

Along with the science fiction and fantasy stories, Vance also wrote mysteries and regional novels. He wrote three books under the Ellery Queen imprint (The Four Johns, The Mad Man Theory, and A Room to Die In). Even in these standard works, Vance’s style and characters step forth from the pages as uniquely his own. Two books set in an imagined area south of San Francisco detail the life of a small-town sheriff. The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders both bring this area to life. The region and time where they are set may seem dated, yet again his characters, their background and motivation, make them a compelling read. The Deadly Isles, set in the South Seas and largely on boats, also falls into the mystery genre. An attempted murder results in the victim trying to find out who tried to kill him. The killer remains at large, and each step is fraught with danger. Vance loved the ocean, and his detailed descriptions of boats and sailing make this book a treasure. Considering it’s a rare find, it’s almost a double treasure.

Some of his other books appeared in print only in limited editions. While Strange Notions and The Dark Ocean were published together in 1985, and the main female characters share the same first name of Betty, they are two very different books. The first is set in Italy after WWII, possibly in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and covers dark themes of incest and blackmail. The second takes place aboard a steamer bound from San Francisco to Europe, through the Panama Canal. It evolves into a murder mystery, but this time the killer is known fairly early, unlike Vance’s other mysteries. The Dark Ocean also features a very strong female character who undergoes life-changing events under tough circumstances.

book coverOther books with limited appearances include the mystery novel The Man in the Cage, set in North Africa. The View from Chickweed’s Window, Bad Ronald and The House on Lily Street all take place in California. Like Shakespeare’s “negative capability” that John Keats so often wrote about, Vance makes evil characters equally as believable as good ones. Both the titular character in Bad Ronald and the main character in The House on Lily Street are killers who exist in their own mental worlds, bending reality to fit their crazed views. Other sketches of evil include the various outlaw “demon princes” and their associates, such as Spanchetta and Namour in the Cadwal trilogy, and the rogue wizard Faude Carfilhiot in the Lyonesse books, and many smaller characters whose motives appear petty and self-centered, especially artists.

Vance shows how easily people betray others for a quick coin, or cling to their small motives and often meet their fate with sadness and surprise. He also gave short shrift to religion, such as in the unctuous Brother Umphred in the Lyonesse books, whose final fate seemed too quick and without enough suffering.
Other regional fiction includes Take My Face and Bird Isle, both initially published under pseudonyms, and then released together by the small press Underwood-Miller. Underwood-Miller and Jack Vance have a long history together. Founded by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, based in San Francisco, they began with a hardcover edition of Vance’s first book, The Dying Earth, in 1976. Although they also published other authors, like Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, they published over 55 Jack Vance hardcover books. These often were limited to 1000 copies or fewer and these days are priced fairly high on the collector’s market.

book coverPorts of Call and Lurulu, his last two novels, sketch a peripatetic journey through space. Night Lamp is a character-driven novel about a young boy found beaten and rescued by an older couple. It is a coming-of-age story that near the end details a society suddenly confronted by the need to change after generations of co-dependency—a theme he visited multiple times (see the Tschai books, The Languages of Pao, Maeske: Thaery, and The Gray Prince, and many more).

Several of Jack Vance’s books have been nominated for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. The most notable are Emphyrio, The Blue World, and Wyst: Alastor 1716, and the books from the Durdane trilogy( The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men and The Asutra). Emphyrio tells the tale of a young boy living with his father in a rigid, welfare-based society. He rebels, seeking a better life. The ideas of individual liberty are infused throughout this novel. The Blue World (based on a novella called “The Kragen”) shows how power collaborates with religion to control people. The message is both overt and subtle, considering how Vance introduces the early settlers of the watery world that forms the setting of the novel, and how the current generation, many years removed from their ancestors, knows nothing of the meaning of their forebears’ professions. Meanwhile, as I’ve already mentioned, Wyst shows the misery and hypocrisy of an egalitarian society, and what happens to those who attempt to keep their individuality.

Notable shorter works include two novellas, Dragon Masters and The Last Castle. Both blend SF and fantasy, appear set in a far future earth or some off-world planet long removed from present history. They thrust the reader into aeon-long conflicts, masterful strategy and inventions from resourceful individuals, which are contrasted with staid and conservative thinking. In Vance’s universe, change is a constant, yet with change always comes an uncertainty. Vance knew that change isn’t always welcomed by everyone, and many of his stories contrasted people who wanted to hang onto their privileges, against those who chafed and fought to break out of social constraints that bound them, directed their lives.

book coverAside from the series, other books that could fall into his vast Gaean Reach future history include Big Planet and Showboat World. Both are set on the same vast planet, filled with strange cultures and many adventures. His characters wander from place to place. They sail down rivers and across oceans, ride on vast vehicular zip-lines, fly in space ships and planes, ride on animals and other vehicles. They are constantly exposed to alien cultures, even though most of those aliens are other humans. Vance, having traveled throughout the world many times, knew that even a short distance could lead to differences. His planets and cities had a settled feel to them, a sense of place that exaggerated differences, from the poison-loving Sarkoy, to the Darsh and their strange foods and methods of social punishment, to the aloof Methliens, and many other strange races.

Much as with Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, revenge as a motive appears throughout Vance’s fiction. Most notable certainly are the five demon princes, but this motive also appears in To Live Forever, which deals with immortality, clones, and an ever-present social climbing known as “slope.” Gold and Iron (aka Slaves of the Klau) begins on earth, when a handful of humans are enslaved by aliens and transported to their planet. The protagonist begins a relentless, almost monomaniacal effort to escape. Revenge is foremost as well in the mind of Cugel the Clever (in the books The Eyes of the Overworld and its sequel, Cugel’s Saga), who, although he might deserve his punishment, is driven by revenge. The perils of revenge lead Cugel to make many fateful mistakes. Even Kirth Gersen of the five demon prince novels, who might be justified in his motive for revenge (much like Dantès), wonders whether the idea of revenge has filled him with such a powerful motivation that his life would be empty were he to succeed in killing all the demon princes.

Vance also wrote juvenile fiction in the vein of Robert A. Heinlein, in Vandals of the Void, a very early novel. Many of his protagonists are young yet capable: Glawen Clattuc in the Cadwal chronicles, Gastel Etzwane in the Durdane books, Beran Panasper in The Languages of Pao, Jaro in Night Lamp, Roger Wool in Space Opera, and Myron Tany in Ports of Call and Lurulu. Often these young men must placate and deal with an overbearing great-aunt—the roots of this common theme appear to lie in Vance’s childhood, as related in his 2009 autobiography.

His autobiography detailed his life as a boy in San Francisco and nearby sloughs and river, his many travels; it is clear from the descriptions of where he went how his travels influenced his fiction. The science of his science fiction is a minor aspect—intersplit drives, space travel—all are taken for granted, glossed over as simply another means of travel. Vance takes excessive care in constructing his worlds and knows his science, but the science usually takes a back seat to colors and cultures, and human motives and actions.

Vance also liked footnotes, describing strange words or behaviors. He prefaced many chapters with imagined quotes, cited planetary guides, and built an elaborately imagined literary support structure for his worlds. Many of the books set in the Gaean Reach contain quotes and allusions to the curmudgeonly Baron Bodissey, as is the poetry of the mad poet, Navarth. Bodissey’s trenchant dicta seem to echo sentiments found in Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken.

Vance did it all: the style, the sketches of cultures and places, and the characters, from the many memorable male protagonists: Adam Reith, Aillas, Gersen, Glawen, Jantiff, Claude Glystra, Ghyl Tarvoke, Jaro. Then there are his incomparable heroines and female characters: Zap 210, Betty Haverhill, Betty Dannister, Madouc, Glisten, Fay Bursill, T’sais, Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, Alice Wroke. Although some of the female characters play second fiddle, many are equally resourceful and capable.

book coverVance’s characters, like his books, become like old friends. While some of the protagonists have flaws, most have clear-cut ethical values. The values of decency, loyalty, and bravery are often contrasted with narrow and callous self-interest in both evil characters and ones who simply cannot understand that other people might not share their vision.
Vance’s heroes, both male and female, but more usually the former, are capable, resourceful individuals who find themselves in tough positions and never give up. Betty Haverhill in The Dark Ocean is tossed overboard near the Panama Canal, and she must either swim the shark infested waters at night to survive, or give up and die. Adam Reith is stranded on a strange planet, the only survivor from a space ship, and single-handedly changes the lives and fates of many cultures. Glawen Clattuc finds himself in many dangerous situations, yet never gives up, nor does Aillas, the young prince captured and enslaved, branded and bound. There are many inspiring stories in Vance’s books, many lessons young readers can take to heart.

book coverI never knew Jack Vance in person, never met him at a science fiction conference or otherwise, but I’ve known his fiction for almost thirty years. Vance rarely wrote or talked about his fiction. He often dismissed much of it as hack work, or juvenilia; he wrote to get paid, and one time tried to write as many words as possible to sell as many stories as possible. Over a sixty-year span he published as many books and many short stories. He had a long and fruitful literary life, and a remarkable and rich life outside literature. A few of his collections contain a page or two introducing the stories. These he appears to have written reluctantly. He preferred to let his art speak for itself. Either you bought it or you didn’t, you liked it or you didn’t. What the writer thought at the time is irrelevant to your appreciation of his stories, he seemed to say.

Vance won a handful of awards in his lifetime, across a vast spectrum. He received the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Edgar for best mystery. Most of these appeared in the mid-point of his career, the 1960s, but his last award came in 2010, a Hugo for best related work with his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance. This book, fairly slim, appeared near the end of his life, five years after his last novel, and hardly mentioned his fiction. Instead, he traced his life growing up, his influences (literary and personal), his many travels around the world. His autobiography also is notable because he dictated the entire book. Legally blind for many years, at one time he wrote using a computer with special software. As in the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, the fates sometimes can be cruel, in this case robbing a writer with Vance’s talent of his sight. Yet he never quit.

book coverThe poet and fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith sketched alien worlds while rarely leaving his home near Auburn, California. Vance, on the other hand, lived in many countries, on houseboats and cabins. He designed and built his own house, sailed many oceans, traveled to countless countries, ate and drank exotic foods. All those experiences infused his fiction. While he tended to gloss over science in his science fiction, the colorful descriptions of planets and cities, locales and cultures, people and aliens, remains unrivaled. He invented strange beasts, coined more words than William Shakespeare, and crafted each sentence so they appeared both economical and lyrical.

Today, Jack Vance’s books remain elusive in large book stores. The Vance Integral Edition (VIE) collected all his works in a limited but authorized editions (see Spatterlight Press, established in 2012, has begun the process to convert his books into electronic editions from the VIE texts. Subterranean Press, a small press that publishes handsome limited editions, has published several volumes collecting his short stories and mystery works, which often are sold-out upon publication. His legacy extends to the many authors that he has influenced. The most notable example might be Michael Shea, who in the early 1970s requested and received permission to write his own sequel starring Cugel the Clever.

Perhaps the eBook revolution will gain him new readers. Perhaps publishers once again will bring out mass market editions of his books. While the science of Vance fiction dated quickly, this is but a minor part of his fiction. The true aficionado appreciates more than ephemeral science and prediction ratios. Then again, perhaps Vance is not for everyone. Fashions come and go, from cyberpunk to hard sf to Tolkien pastiches to harlequin/sf mashups and beyond. Yet I cannot help but think that in the history of SF, once the wheat is separated from the chaff, that Jack Vance will stand among the giants of SF. Virtually all those giants now are gone: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury. Perhaps these are giants also because those of us who see them as giants read them in our formative years. Regardless, I cannot count the number of hours I have spent immersed in the many worlds of Jack Vance. Inevitably when I think or write about Vance, I pick up one of his books, and before I know it I have read several in a row. Perhaps that’s how Vance would have liked to be remembered: an author, a spinner of yarns. He wrote his fiction, lived his life, and lived it to the fullest. I salute you Jack Vance. There will never be another quite your like.

Thanks for the stories, the characters, the prose.

[This essay first appeared in Prometheus, Volume 31. No. 4, Summer 2013.]

Sinisalo wins Prometheus Award

Prometheus Award ceremony to be held Aug. 11 at Worldcon Helsinki, Finland

The Libertarian Futurist Society has chosen The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo, as the 2017 winner in the Best Novel category of the 37th annual Prometheus Awards.

LFS members also voted to induct Robert Heinlein’s story “Coventry” (first published in 1940 in Astounding Science Fiction) into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for best classic fiction.

In a separate awards process, the LFS also recently selected the first chapter of Freefall, a Webcomic by Mark Stanley, to receive a Special Prometheus Award in 2017.

The 2017 awards will be presented at 2 p.m. Friday Aug. 11 in Room 205 of Messukeskus, the Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre during the 75th annual World Science Fiction Convention Aug. 9-13, 2017 in Helsinki, Finland. Sinisalo will receive a plaque and a one-ounce gold coin; other winners receive plaques and smaller gold coins.

The 2016 novel, translated by Lola Rogers and published by Grove Press/Black Cat, is both libertarian and feminist. In it, the well-known Finnish writer imagines a dystopian eugenics-dominated alternate history of Finland. While coping with strong feelings about her lost sister, the heroine battles an oppressive, manipulative and male-dominated regime that makes women subservient housewives and mothers and bans alcohol, mind-altering drugs, caffeine and hot peppers.

The Core of the Sun was selected from a slate of finalists, chosen by a 10-member LFS judging committee, that includes The Corporation Wars: Dissidence and The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod (Orbit), The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins) and Blade of p’Na by L. Neil Smith (Phoenix Pick).

Sixteen novels published in 2016 were nominated for this year’s award, among the largest slates of nominees in the past two decades.

The other Best Novel nominees were Morning Star: Book III of The Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown (Del Rey); Speculator by Doug Casey and John Hunt (HighGround Books); Dark Age by Felix Hartmann (Hartmann Publishing); Kill Process by William Hertling (Liquididea Press); Through Fire by Sarah Hoyt (Baen Books); Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (TOR Books); Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey (Thomas & Mercer); Arkwright by Allen Steele (TOR Books); On to the Asteroid by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson (Baen Books); Necessity by Jo Walton (TOR Books); and Angeleyes by Michael Z. Williamson (Baen Books).

Other Hall of Fame finalists were Poul Anderson’s 1967 story “Starfog,” Rudyard Kipling’s 1912 story “As Easy as A.B.C.,” Vernor Vinge’s 1968 story “Conquest by Default,” Kurt Vonnegut’s 1971 story “Harrison Bergeron” and Jack Williamson’s 1947 story “With Folded Hands . . .”.

The annual Prometheus Hall of Fame award is open to works published or broadcast at least five years ago in any narrative or dramatic form, including prose fiction, stage plays, film, television, other video, graphic novels, song lyrics, or epic or narrative verse. As in all Prometheus Award categories, eligible works must explore themes relevant to libertarianism and must be science fiction, fantasy, or related genres.

For more than three decades, the Prometheus Awards have recognized outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy that dramatize the perennial conflict between Liberty and Power, expose the abuses and excesses of coercive government, contrast the virtues of cooperation with the evils of coercion, critique or satirize authoritarian ideas, or champion individual rights and freedoms as the mutually respectful foundation for civilization, peace, prosperity, progress and justice.

The Prometheus Award, sponsored by the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), was established 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.

For a full list of past Prometheus Award winners in all categories, visit Membership in the Libertarian Futurist Society is open to any science fiction fan interested in how fiction can promote an appreciation of the value of liberty.

Review: Freefall, Chapter 1, by Mark Stanley

By William Stoddard

Mark Stanley has been writing and drawing Freefall for nineteen years now, making it one of the longest-running Webcomics ever. He officially announced the completion of its first chapter on July 11, 2016. Stanley has just been awarded a Special Prometheus Award for Freefall.

The core of Freefall is character-driven comedy. Its three core characters are Sam Starfall, a ship captain; Helix, his assistant/flunky; and Florence Ambrose, the ship’s engineer. None of them is human! Sam is an intelligent alien, of a race evolved from land-dwelling cephalopod scavengers, the only member of his race on the colony planet Jean (though he wears a humanoid exoskeleton). Helix is an Asimovian robot. Florence is an uplifted wolf with intelligence equal to that of a very bright human, but with different underlying instincts—probably the only one on the planet, and one of the few in existence anywhere. Many of the secondary characters are human, but not all; Jean’s robot population is vastly larger than its human (450 million vs. 40 thousand), and we’ve also met Florence’s designer, Dr. Bowman, an unplifted chimpanzee with rage issues. A great deal of the comedy is driven by the tension between Sam’s love of chaos, rulebreaking, and petty crime, and Florence’s conscientiousness and naïveté.

Having made created beings a big part of the setting, Stanley follows Chekhov’s advice about the gun on the mantelpiece: He makes them a major focus of his story. While a lot of it is episodic, over the course of the chapter a continuing plot emerges and becomes central, one whose focus is conflict over the rights of robots. It’s to Stanley’s credit that he doesn’t go in for straw man villains. The immediate threat comes from a corporate executive who has come up with a way to enrich himself; but his actions aren’t corporate policy, and another executive opposes his scheme. The resolution of the conflict brings in Jean’s court system and planetary government, whose mayor is initially opposed to the rights of robots—but other officials have different views, and the mayor’s position becomes more complex over the course of the story.

As a libertarian, of course I find the idea of the universal rights of sentient beings (starting perhaps in #714 with “Intelligent beings should not be property!”) an appealing theme, if one whose appeal isn’t limited to libertarians. But Stanley also inserts a number of other comments that libertarians will applaud:

  • References to the failings of bureaucracies, from inefficiency to manipulation and abuse
  • The idea that government officials need to be restrained by fear of the people rising against them
  • The idea that disobedience and resistance to authority are praiseworthy
  • Elements of free market economics, including a discussion of why it’s more efficient for robots to have control of their own earnings than for maintenance to be centrally controlled (#2432) and a clear explanation of gains from trade based on differences in what is scarce (#1252)
  • Approval for spontaneous order (#2518)
  • At the most basic, repeated celebrations of the virtue of free choice

Stanley also shows a consistent appreciation for diversity. This starts out with his basic cast of characters: Florence’s respect for the law and sense of duty are profoundly different from Sam’s dishonesty, trickery, and love of chaos, but each of them learns from the other, and in fact a running joke is the two of them thinking that they’ve set good examples for each other. (For example, in one strip (#855), Sam laments, “I’ve allowed the prospect of short term profit to endanger my long term goals,” and Helix comments, “That sounds like something Florence would say.”) Other strips have Sam reflecting on liking human beings but finding their behavior and their ethics incomprehensible. His different beliefs are tied to the evolutionary history of his species, in a classic science fictional style.

At still a deeper level, Freefall is often philosophically sophisticated. Sometimes this shows up in the form of jokes and allusions, as when Florence faces a conflict between conflicting moral values, and asks herself, “What would Jean Buridan do in this situation?” (#1803), or as in a strip that says that robots work by clever programming with no “ghost in the machine” (#1328). But these jokes point at a more serious theme: A nonmystical, nonsupernatural explanation of “free will,” or self-direction—as the contemporary philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it, a theory without “spooky stuff.” Stanley envisions both Florence and many of the robots on Jean as having a neural architecture that doesn’t depend on rigid, pre-programmed algorithms, but on complexity and flexibility, letting it arrive at decisions autonomously. In fact, his account of the brain as a self-organizing cognitive system parallels the concept of markets as self-organizing economic systems. And most importantly, he suggests that real virtue has to originate in autonomous choices, and not in imposed “laws.”

Beyond these philosophical and political themes, Freefall is also quite good science fiction. In fact, it’s toward the hard end of the SF spectrum; it assumes that faster-than-light travel is possible, but all its other “miracles” are plausible speculation based on present-day physics and biology. And Florence Ambrose is a classic Astounding-style engineer hero—even though she’s a genetically enhanced wolf, and many strips turn on peculiarities of canid behavior. And even beyond those aspects, Freefall is fun! How could anyone not love the sequence where Sam gets the mayor to say, “This is a direct order. Hit me with a pie!” in the presence of five AIs who are programmed to obey her implicitly?

William Stoddard is the president of the Libertarian Futurist Society, and is a professional copy editor specializing in scientific and scholarly material.

Review: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is the second book of a trilogy. It (along with the first book in the series, Dissidence, is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Insurgence continues the story of awakened robots struggling for freedom, and uploaded human ex-combatants fighting to retake the planetary system the robots had been mining and exploring.

This installment focuses less on the robots’ claim to be agents worthy of separate respect, and more on the uploaded warriors struggle to figure out the nature of the reality they inhabit while mostly following orders to fight the battles their supervisors are pursuing. Their ultimate worry is that they don’t have enough information to tell which side they’re fighting on or who they are battling to subdue. When you live in a simulation (particularly when you can tell that someone else has access to the control panel) it’s a little difficult to be sure that your choices aren’t effectively controlled by someone else.

Next, cracks appear in the simulation, and “real” revived people see the shortcomings, but non-player-characters (MacLeod calls them philosophical zombies) think everything is normal, so the real people can tell who’s just a simulated person. The idea of zombies in philosophy (sometimes “p-zombies”) is an exploration of the idea of consciousness. What if there were beings that acted just like people, but had no consciousness? Would it make a difference to them? Should we accord them lesser rights?

I consider the idea of p-zombies to be incoherent, but many smart people treat the question as exploring an important distinction. MacLeod here undercuts the point of the argument since there are actual behavioral differences. It isn’t an exploration of whether consciousness matters, it’s just that some characters in the story are imperfect simulations without an inner life, and the actual thinking beings can tell who they are. At the same time, MacLeod makes sure we notice that the robots and AIs who are active in the battles and the scheming do have an inner dialogue, and are making plans and collaborating with others to get things done.

The starting position for the agencies that represent the current Earth government and act under its protection is that only humans are allowed to be sentient. Even AIs’ powers are circumscribed. Whenever self awareness arises otherwise, it must be stamped out. It’s not clear why this would be a plausible stance, since it’s clearly the case that the AIs can become self-aware for short periods, and autonomously operating robots have the capacity for spontaneous self awareness given the right trigger. So they must be constantly battling to defeat uprisings, and track down newly minted sophonts who either try to escape from control, or hide in occupied systems. It would make more sense to forbid use of tools with the capacity for self awareness, than to constantly try to stomp them out. I’d also have a hard time going along with a regime that wanted to outlaw and destroy a class of beings because they were self aware. Self aware and hostile is a separate thing, but that’s not the distinction they’ve settled on.

Before one of the final battles, one of the leaders of the simulated humans challenges the combatants to each eat a slice of p-zombie flesh to prove that they believe they’re in a simulation, and that there can’t be any moral issues with simulated eating of simulated meat from simulated people that were never actually alive or aware. Except for a few who object to the initiation-ceremony aspect of the act, they all partake.

So there’s a lot of exploration here of of philosophical questions of identity, and what it means to be human. The questions of liberty are mostly focussed on what kinds of agents deserve respect as actual people, though I think MacLeod fumbled some of the issues. The action is interesting and the conflict exciting. Besides there are also weaponized communications packets, interrogations of potentially hostile agents by sending them into a dungeon simulation, double and triple agents, and terraforming. It’s a pretty good read, and the lead-in to part three, of course, leaves a few things to be resolved.

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

Review: L. Neil Smith’s Blade of p’Na

By Tom Jackson

book coverI’ll start my review with a confession. Even though I honor L. Neil Smith for creating the Prometheus Award, and I devote a great deal of time and energy trying to help the award continue, I don’t always love his work.

I enjoyed The Forge of the Elders (the 2011 Prometheus Award-winner for Best Novel) but I didn’t care for Pallas or Ceres very much. Smith the angry libertarian polemicist does little for me, either in the Ngu Family Saga or on Facebook.

Blade of p’Na, though, is the more genial Smith — it even shares the two main characters of The Sword of the Elders, Eichra Oren and Sam. If I read it correctly, p’Na is a prequel to The Sword of the Elders, although both books read fine as stand-alone books. There’s plenty of libertarianism of course — it wouldn’t be a Smith novel if there wasn’t — but I find Smith speaking in a calm, rational tone much more persuasive than Smith the shouter. And Blade of p’Na is one of five novels published last year that’s a finalist for this year’s Prometheus Award.

Eichra Oren is a “p’Nan ethical debt assessor” whose job it is to adjudicate cases in which force that violates libertarian principles allegedly has been used. He carries around a big, sharp sword, the “Blade of p’Na” referred to in the title, so he can kill people when he’s forced to carry out an act of capital punishment. (p’Na is essentially the alternate world’s name for libertarianism. Under doctrine of p’Na, “It is considered an axiom that nobody has a right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason,” as Chapter Four of the book explains.)

Sam Otusam is his dog sidekick, although he’s been altered to be intelligent and capable of speech. He still has a dog body, though, according to the text, so it seems a little creepy that he is sexually attracted to women and even has sex with them.

At the beginning of the novel, set on an alternate Earth, a big female spider comes in, seeking help in finding her runaway bridegroom, who apparently is afraid that she will eat him. This plotline eventually is mostly superseded by a threat from one of the other alternate Earths, an invasion of creatures descended from flatworms.

The alternate Earth Blade of p’Na is set in is dominated by the Elders, the creatures who featured also in The Forge of the Elders. Although they are Lovecraftian creatures in some respects, they also are essentially benign libertarians. The main Elder character in it is named Misterthoggosh.

The world is filled with a variety of intelligent creatures that the Elders have brought in from many other alternate Earths. Many of these creatures are very unusual, and Smith has a lot of fun with Jack Vance style exoticism, as we’re introduced to one improbable sentient creature after another.

The Illuminatus! trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson was a big influence on Smith, and as in many of his other novels, he slips in references to the work.  In Chapter 21, Oren and Sam visit the estate of an Elder named Semlohcolresh, and Sam notices columns “with a carved stone ball at the top, sitting on a pyramid. For some reason, they looked a bit like eyeballs.” This eye and pyramid motif references the title of the first book of the Illuminatus! trilogy, The Eye in the Pyramid.

But in a way, the whole novel shows the influence of Illuminatus! on Smith. Both works are essentially alternate Earth novels, featuring a purported detective story with fantastic elements. Both make use of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, although Smith’s Elders are rather nice and like to drink beer. Both are loaded with libertarian philosophy. Both works have an underwater confrontation with the enemy toward the end.

I’m pleased that Arc Manor’s Phoenix Pick, one of my favorite SF publishers, has taken up Smith as one of its authors.

Smith has won the Prometheus Award for four works. Three are novels: The Probability Broach, Pallas,  and The Forge of the Elders. He received a special award for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, and received a special Prometheus for lifetime achievement last year. 

I enjoyed Blade of p’Na  from beginning to end. Smith writes like a man who enjoys life and having the opportunity to share his outlook with readers.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at

Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is the first book of a trilogy. It (along with the second book in the series, Insurgence) is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Book CoverThe story starts with a scene in which a pair of mining robots exploring an asteroid (in a distant solar system) and representing different corporate interests have an encounter, which leads them to realize they have opposing interests, which leads them each to recognize that they have interests, which leads them to self-awareness. The corporations are in a tenuous situation, trying to assert their ownership of the robots, trying to be civil about their contractual cooperation, but objecting strenuously to breaches by the opposing robots. The corporations end up fighting one another, while the robots band together and spread the concept of self-awareness to other nearby robots with sufficient computing capacity. Since the corporations don’t seem likely to grant them independence, the robots form an independent faction in the upcoming battle. The corporations are loath to destroy their valuable property just yet.

When they do decide that military actions are called for, they end up dredging up opposing troops of uploaded warriors from past wars. All the AIs and non-self-aware robots and other actors are under a deep compulsion that only humans and their uploads can actually be armed for combat, even against rogue self-aware robots. So the “humans” spend parts of their time embodied as people in a planetary environment, training and relaxing between missions. In the missions, they’re downloaded into articulated space-battle suits. Every time they die in battle, they return to the training site to start again. Over time, they find reason to doubt the reality of their home, and eventually detect serious cracks.

The uploads gradually learn enough about their realities to doubt that they’re still fighting for the side they were loyal to in their first lives. Apparently part of the distinction between uploads and awakened AIs is that the operators can’t tinker with opinions and loyalties directly, but they can easily lie and mislead about who they’re representing, and what their opponents are fighting for. Of course, it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the operator’s control couldn’t be subverted.

Ken MacLeod tells a good story, and gets us to think about what kinds of entities should have rights. The authorial point of view allows him to show the action in the eyes alternately of the awakened robots and the revived soldiers, so we feel their fundamental humanness. The characters, ex-human and non-human alike, think about who they should allow into their coalition and whether other actors are actually aware or just act like it, and have varying motives.

My biggest complaint about the story and the characters’ attitudes is a simple universal acceptance among them that some other characters aren’t self-aware and thus can be treated as objects, based simply on statements from other people in authority roles. In war, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about whether the people shooting at you are actually thinking beings, but deciding that some category of bystanders don’t have inner lives should be a cause for more investigation. It’s an easy allegation to make, and not far from common attitudes about one’s enemies that we’ve mostly moved past.

It will be interesting to see how MacLeod resolves these issues in Insurgence and in Emergence, the concluding novel of the trilogy which is due to be published in the fall of 2017.

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

Review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

By Chris Hibbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

By Tom Jackson

Book CoverWith The Handmaid’s Tale, science fiction readers who inclined toward feminism got to see what the tools of science fiction would look like in the hands of a skilled mainstream writer, Margaret Atwood.

Libertarian science fiction fans who have wondered what an equally skilled mainstream writer could do by taking a stab at science fiction now have their novel, too: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver.

Shriver is best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and also was awarded the Orange Prize in 2005. Her novel So Much for That was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing her novel, Shriver says, “I am first of all trying to tell a good story, and in this case a plausible one. I wanted to put together a sequence of future history events which made economic sense. The focus of the novel is the implosion of the economy as a consequence of overloading of U.S. sovereign debt.”

Greece seems like a current example of what Shriver is talking about. Michael Grossberg remarked to me in an email that reading The Mandibles reminded him of what “just recently has been happening in Venezuela, once the richest (and much free-er) country in South America, and now an impoverished socialist disaster where people are starving, can’t get bathroom tissues to wipe their ass (a specific issue in Shriver’s novel that’s also very plausible) and fighting each other over scraps — just as The Mandibles foresees.”

There are many libertarian elements, which it would be unfair to the reader to reveal in a review. Shriver, who I am sorry to say I had never read before, has a literary style that is clear and sharp, filled with wit. (In her future history, the Mexican government winds up behaving more sensibly than the profligate American one, and winds up building a wall to keep out desperate Americans seeking opportunity in a relatively free country.)

The idea of implanting a chip so that the government can monitor its citizens is not new, but Shriver’s skill gives the idea a new freshness.

I won’t reveal many more details but will suggest that libertarian readers interested in either mainstream fiction or science fiction will likely be interested in this book.

I will, however, answer the literary hit job put out on Shriver by Ken Kalfus last year in the Washington Post’s “Books” section. Apparently offended by Shriver’s irreverent treatment of current Democratic politics (one of her future Democratic politicians presiding over a ruined nation is Chelsea Clinton), Kalfus complained about the book’s “racist characterizations” and offered this example:

“The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”

This paragraph is clever in its maliciousness. It is a textbook example of how you can write something that is technically truthful (thus warding off a possible libel suit) but mislead the reader.

The Mandibles in fact makes a point of telling the reader that Luella was intelligent and charming when she was a healthy woman. At the time when the novel takes place, she is suffering from dementia. With the collapse of the government, the safety net that would have allowed families to deal with people such as Luella is completely gone, and the members of the family go to an enormous amount of trouble to take care of her, change her adult diapers, etc. This is depicted as a heroic effort by family members unwilling to abandon her. In the novel, the option of locking away dementia sufferers in secure nursing homes is gone. The leash that Kalfus references is what the family has to use to keep them from losing her. How did Kalfus miss all this, if he actually read the novel that the Washington Post assigned him to review? Did he skim it, looking for something to complain about?

And what should we make of the fact that Luella is “the single African American in the family,” as Kalfus puts it? How many white families have even one African American? The family patriarch, Lionel Mandible, married a black woman in the novel’s past. Why is this evidence of the novel’s racism?

And how did Kalfus manage to miss the fact that the most unsympathetic characters in the novel are all white? Gore Vidal used to complain about reviewers who, he alleged, didn’t actually read the entire book. I wonder if Shriver would have a similar complaint here.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at

Special Award for Freefall

The Libertarian Futurist Society is pleased to announce a Special Prometheus Award for the webcomic Freefall.

From the official press release: “Freefall is set on a planet in another solar system, Jean, colonized by a small number of human beings and a large number of robots. Its main characters are a squidlike intelligent alien, Sam Starfall; a robot, Helix; and a genetically enhanced humanoid wolf, Florence Ambrose. The strip is largely humorous, but a major storyline has explored the rights and legal status of created beings. ”

Full press release here.

Now, go enjoy the comic!



Fiction workshop opportunity

Calliope Authors Workshop, sponsored by Taliesin Nexus, is taking applications for their fiction workshop.

If you’re working on a manuscript (or any body of work) that could use some editorial feedback, apply to the Calliope Authors Workshop. The deadline is May 31st. The workshop will last over a weekend in mid September 2017.

It’s a great opportunity to get advice from authors, agents, and editors. Plus it’s a free trip to Los Angeles.

Applicants must submit:

– A completed application
– A creative work:
Novel Track (at least 50 pages or a completed novel);
Graphic Novel Track (at least 20 pages or a completed novel);
Narrative Non-fiction Track (at least 50 pages or a completed manuscript);
Short Story Track (a completed short story of 8 to 25 pages);
– A two page detailed treatment of the work, including character descriptions and arcs, plot outline, and setting notes

Taliesin Nexus is a network of film and television producers, screenwriters, and directors who share a passion for a free society. Their website lists various programs and opportunities for writers and film makers.