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.

Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright, by Allen Steele (TOR Books, March 2016)

By Michael Grossberg
Science-fiction writers and fans have imagined the spread of humanity to the stars for generations.
Allan Steele hasn’t given up the dream.
In Arkwright, Steele sketches out a generations-long saga in an effort to dramatize how we plausibly can get there – even if we can’t overcome or get around such implacable limitations as the speed of light, a major stumbling block to interstellar travel given the vast distances between solar systems in this spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.
A heartfelt valentine to the golden age of science fiction, which embodied an optimistic view of human progress and technology fueled by a stlll-potent Jeffersonian liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) that has since sadly faded, the novel is especially flattering to SF fans because of its focus on a popular science fiction writer whose financial success and legacy sparks a long-term plan to reach the stars.
Arkwright Cover photo
Epic but also highly episodic, the 332-page novel seems consciously aimed at those who yearn for the return of a can-do American era, such as the early 1960s, when the popular culture was more heroic and hopeful about the future.
Steele, who has carved a respectable niche as an SF writer inspired by the golden age of Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, tends to write more in the realistic and prosaic style of Ben Bova but with a touch of the poetic flair of Ray Bradbury.
While some fans may question in certain ways just how likely is the real-world success of Steele’s particular space-flight scenario, Steele has written a story that flatters the assumptions of diehard SF fandom that’s been waiting for what seems like forever for humankind to finally figure out a way to colonize nearby exo-planets.
Better yet, it’s a story easy for hardcore SF fans – the kind who attend Worldcons and regional SF cons – to fall in love with. (In fact, I haven’t read an SF novel so appealing to knowledgeable SF fans since Red Shirts, John Scalzi’s clever and amusing starship-mission reconception of and tribute to the template of Star Trek.)
Arkwright fleshes out a multigenerational, private and largely discreet effort to develop, finance and launch the first working starship without government support or state bureaucracy. Such a broadly libertarian approach prompted the nomination of this entertaining work last year for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Early chapters should entertain older SF fans in particular because of their charming focus on the Legions of Tomorrow, a fan-based group that emerges from the first World Science Fiction conventions as the roman à clef story blends fictional characters with such familiar faces as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederick Pohl. That fan spirit animates the entire novel.
The novel’s title refers to beloved author Nathan Arkwright, best known for his “Galaxy Patrol” series of space adventures. (Think Heinlein crossed with E.E. “Doc” Smith, but with a heavy dose of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek.)
When Arkright dies, he leaves his entire and considerable estate to create and sustain the Arkright Foundation. The goal of the foundation: to send human genetic material inside a rocket to a habitable planet, so that the rocket’s computer can create embryos and raise them in artificial uteruses into people who would colonize the new frontier.
Succeeding generations of Arkrights further the foundation’s efforts, with varying degrees of commitment and doubts, in what’s basically a series of loosely connected vignettes, stories and novellas. (Some sections initially were published in Asimov’s Magazine.)
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Perhaps inevitably, as a byproduct of the novel’s very concept and structure, generations come and go too quickly to allow much reader identification with particular people. Even when a character sustains interest, he or she departs from the story within another few chapters as a new generation dawns.
There’s some welcome suspense and mystery – What obstacles will pop up to delay or foil the plan? And will the latest generation of characters have the means and will to recognize and overcome difficulties? – but the ultimate resolution is rarely in doubt.
One gets so involved with some initial leading characters that one misses them as the story moves on through five centuries.
One concern: A small part of Steele’s scenario is simplistic or stereotyped (the worst stereotypes are about religion or race, but are thankfully minor and brief, largely reflecting familiar SF tropes that champion reason and science while condemning religious fundamentalism or ethnic fanaticism), making it a little harder for this novel to connect with today’s welcome and more diverse readership.
Beyond questions of plausibility about the science and social changes, some have wondered whether even a wealthy private foundation would have enough millions to sustain any effort over a century. I didn’t have a problem with that – not only because of what financial investment advisers like to refer to as “the miracle of compound interest,” but also because of the widely underreported or taken-for-granted incredible progress that humankind already has made over the past century or two. (I highly recommend reading British science writer Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, insightful and revelatory books that marshal an amazing range of (often revelatory) history, statistics, science, economics and logic to demonstrate that our species has made enormous progress over the millennia and in recent centuries, largely because of the moral and practical policies that only in very recent generations have gelled into the social philosophy of market-oriented liberalism.)
If we’re so much richer, healthier, freer, more peaceful and longer-lived than past generations – and we are worldwide, with only a few grievous exceptions in the remaining dictatorships – then it’s certainly plausible for Steele to imagine that his centuries of further advances in prosperity, growth and wealth will be more than enough to fund interstellar travel.
The focus on human achievement – through private enterprise, and largely outside politics – is refreshing. Steele is at his best in exploring and dramatizing the real-world challenges of building and powering the starship, and identifying and later terraforming a suitable planet for colonization.
Yet politics does intrude here and there, which also seems sadly plausible.
Some libertarians, in judging this novel for the Prometheus Award, objected to one plot point, when the foundation makes a sizable campaign donation to a prominent member of Congress in order to affect federal legislation in a way favorable to future private space flights. My view: If the donation had been made to obtain a special federal subsidy or to directly harm competitors through government penalties, I’d agree with that criticism. But the foundation’s action seems acceptable (if not ideal) to me because it’s taken to forestall coercive governmental overreach threatening the foundation’s legitimate private efforts. Individuals – and groups of individuals, working through an organization, union or company – do have rights, including the right to self-defense, the right to advocate and to lobby to preserve their freedom.
Overall, despite the episodic gaps built into its four-part generations-spanning structure, Arkwright offers an inspiring and realistically complicated family saga about a seemingly plausible effort to develop the technology to build an interstellar starship that flies at up to half the speed of light and is capable of colonizing a planet in a solar system about 20 light years away.
Ultimately, this is a novel that champions initiative, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, innovation, technology, progress, fandom and the animating power of science fiction itself.

(Michael Grossberg, co-founder of the Libertarian Futurist Society and currently LFS board secretary and chair of the Prometheus Best Novel Finalist Judging Committee, has worked for more than four decades as an award-winning journalist and theater critic based in Columbus, Ohio.)

Prometheus Award winner Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017)

Jerry Pournelle at NASFiC in 2005. Public domain photo by G.E. Rule. 

If you follow science fiction news, you likely have heard by now about the death of Jerry Pournelle, who died Sept. 8, age 84.

Pournelle was arguably best known for his collaborations with Larry Niven, which earned Hugo nominations for The Mote in God’s EyeInferno, Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall. He won the Prometheus Award in 1992 for Fallen Angels, a collaboration with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn, and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2001 for The Survival of Freedom, an anthology he co-edited with John F. Carr.

You can read a tribute to Pournelle from Sarah Hoyt, herself a Prometheus Award winner (for her novel Darkship Thieves.)

There is also a useful Wikipedia entry. 

See also the Science Fiction Encylopedia article.

Victor Milán on classic SF works to remember

Tor.com’s excellent “Five Books” section has a recent piece by Victor Milán, “Five Classic Works of SFF by Authors We Must Not Forget.” He recommends Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore, The Planetary Adventures of Eric John Stark by Leigh Brackett, The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance, Berserker (Berserker Series Book 1) by Fred Saberhagen and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

Milán won the Prometheus Award in 1986 for Cybernetic Samurai. His latest book is The Dinosaur Princess. Find out more about him. 


Johanna Sinisalo accepts her Prometheus Award

Johanna Sinisalo accepts her Prometheus Award for Core of the Sun. It was presented to her at the recent Worldcon in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Ryan Lackey).

Finnish science fiction writer Johanna Sinisalo with John Christmas, left, an author and LFS member, and Dr. Steve Gaalema, a scientist and LFS board member. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

The Libertarian Futurist Society gave Finnish science fiction author Johanna Sinisalo, a guest of honor at the recently concluded worldcon in Helsinki, her Prometheus Award at the convention. The LFS was represented by John Christmas and Steve Gaalema.

John reports, “The award ceremony went well. Steve and I both sat at the front and made some opening comments about the LFS and the Hall of Fame Award, Special Prometheus Award, and Prometheus Award. Then, we presented the award to Johanna and she made an acceptance speech.”

Read the award announcement.

Read Chris Hibbert’s review.

John Christmas at the Worldcon.

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 http://www.integralarchive.org/index.htm). 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 www.lfs.org. 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.)