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.

Freedom in the Future Tense: A Political History of SF


By Eric S. Raymond

The history of modern SF is one of five attempted revolutions — one success and four enriching failures. I’m going to offer a look at them from an unusual angle, a political one.
This turns out to be a useful perspective because more of the history of SF than one might expect is intertwined with political questions, and SF had an important role in giving birth to at least one distinct political ideology that is alive and important today.


The first and greatest of the revolutions came out of the minds of John Wood Campbell and Robert Heinlein, the editor and the author who invented modern science fiction. The pivotal year was 1937, when John Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction. He published Robert Heinlein’s first story a little over a year later.

Pre-Campbellian science fiction had bubbled up from the American pulp magazines of the 1910s and 1920s, inspired by pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and promoted by the indefatigable Hugo Gernsback (who had a better claim than anyone else to have invented the genre as a genre, and consequently got SF’s equivalent of the Oscar named after him). Early “scientifiction” mostly recycled an endless series of cardboard cliches: mad scientists, lost races, menacing bug-eyed monsters, coruscating death rays, and screaming blondes in brass underwear. With a very few exceptions (like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark of Space and sequels) the stuff was teeth-jarringly bad; unless you have a specialist interest in the history of the genre I don’t recommend seeking it out.

John Campbell had been one of the leading writers of space opera from 1930, second only to E.E. “Doc” Smith in inventiveness. When he took over Astounding, he did so with a vision: one that demanded higher standards of both scientific plausibility and story-crafting skill than the field had ever seen before. He discovered and trained a group of young writers who would dominate the field for most of the next fifty years. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, and Hal Clement were among them.

(Editor’s note: Heinlein and Anderson, decades later, would be recognized with multiple Prometheus Awards for their classic golden-age sf, much of which explores and dramatizes pro-freedom themes.)

Heinlein was the first of Campbell’s discoveries and, in the end, the greatest. It was Heinlein who introduced into SF the technique of description by indirection — the art of describing his future worlds not through lumps of exposition but by presenting it through the eyes of his characters, subtly leading the reader to fill in by deduction large swathes of background that a lesser author would have drawn in detail.

(Many accounts have it that Heinlein invented SFnal exposition by indirection, but credit for that innovation may be due to none other than Rudyard Kipling, whose 1912 story With The Night Mail anticipated the style and expository mechanics of Campbellian hard-science fiction fourteen years before Hugo Gernsback’s invention of the “scientifiction” genre and twenty-seven years before Heinlein’s first publication. Heinlein professed high regard for Kipling all his life and included tributes to Kipling in several of his works; it is possible, even probable, that he saw himself as Kipling’s literary successor.)

From World War II into the 1950s Campbell’s writers — many working scientists and engineers who knew leading-edge technology from the inside — created the Golden Age of science fiction. Other SF pulpzines competing with Astounding raised their standards and new ones were founded. The field took the form of an extended conversation, a kind of proto-futurology worked out through stories that often implicitly commented on each other.

While space operas and easy adventure stories continued to be written, the center of the Campbellian revolution was “hard SF”, a form that made particularly stringent demands on both author and reader. Hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world, permitting only a bare minimum of Wellsian speculations like faster-than-light star drives. Hard SF stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology wrong. Readers, on the other hand, needed to be scientifically literate to appreciate the full beauty of what the authors were doing.

There was also a political aura that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by Campbell and right-hand man Robert Heinlein. That tradition was of ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed realism that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion. Exceptions like Asimov’s Foundation novels only threw the implicit politics of most other Campbellian SF into sharper relief.

(Editor’s note: The LFS presented its 2002 Prometheus Award to Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, which offers a smart critique and plausible refutation of Asimov’s technocratic, statist, central-planning scenario at the foundation of his Foundation novels.)

At the time, this very American position was generally thought of by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But the SF community’s version was never conservative in the strict sense of venerating past social norms — how could it be, when SF literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social arrangements and even human nature itself?

SF’s insistent individualism also led it to reject racism and feature strong female characters decades before the rise of political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms of art.


Nevertheless, some writers found the confines of the field too narrow, or rejected Campbellian orthodoxy for other reasons. The first revolt against hard SF came in the early 1950s from a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York. The Futurians invented a kind of SF in which science was not at the center, and the transformative change motivating the story was not technological but political or social. Much of their output was sharply satirical in tone, and tended to de-emphasize individual heroism. The Futurian masterpiece was the Frederik Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants (1956).

(Editor’s note: The LFS presented one of its earliest Prometheus Hall of Fame awards to Cyril Kornbluth in 1986 for The Syndic, a satirical utopian tale about a future in which organized crime legalizes itself and replaces the government.)

The Futurian revolt was political as well as aesthetic. Not until the late 1970s did any of the participants admit that many of the key Futurians had histories as ideological Communists or fellow travellers, and that fact remained relatively unknown in the field well into the 1990s.

As with later revolts against the Campbellian tradition, part of the motivation was a desire to escape the “conservative” politics that went with that tradition. While the Futurians’ work was well understood at the time to be a poke at the consumer capitalism and smugness of the postwar years, only in retrospect is it clear how much they owed to the Frankfurt school of Marxist critical theory.

But the Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never challenged the centrality of hard SF. The Futurians’ Marxist underpinnings lay buried and undiscussed for decades after the fact.

Perception of Campbellian SF as a “right-wing” phenomenon lingered, however, and helped motivate the next revolt in the mid-1960s, around the time I started reading the stuff. The field was in bad shape then, though I lacked the perspective to see so at the time. The death of the pulp-zines in the 1950s had pretty much killed off the SF short-fiction market, and the post-Star-Wars boom that would make SF the second most successful fiction genre after romances was still a decade in the future.

Moon Book CoverThe early Golden Agers were hitting the thirty-year mark in their writing careers, and although some would find a second wind in later decades, many were beginning to get a bit stale. Heinlein reached his peak as a writer with 1967’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and, plagued by health problems, began a long decline.


These objective problems combined with, or perhaps led to, an insurgency within the field — the “New Wave,” an attempt to import the techniques and imagery of literary fiction into SF. As with that of the Futurians, the New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one.

The New Wave’s inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave, after 1965, was not so easily dismissed or assimilated as the Futurians had been. Amidst a great deal of self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychedelizing, there shone a few jewels — Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse stories (1961, retrospectively recruited into the post-1965 New Wave by their author), Langdon Jones’s The Great Clock (1966), Phillip José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage (1967), Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (1967), and Fritz Leiber’s One Station of the Way (1968) stand out as examples.

(Editor’s note: The LFS recognized Ellison in 2015 with a Prometheus Hall of Fame award for “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” a cautionary anti-authoritarian story – originally published in 1965 in Galaxy magazinethat skewers conformity and beautifully affirms and presages the rebellious emerging libertarian spirit of the late 1960s.)

book coverAs with the Futurians, the larger SF field rapidly absorbed some New Wave techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had had the stature to really break it, in Stranger In A Strange Land (1961) — a Hugo- and Prometheus-winning novel that helped shape the hippie counterculture of the later 1960s.

But the New Wave also exacerbated long-standing critical arguments about the nature of science fiction itself, and briefly threatened to displace hard SF from the center of the field.

Brian Aldiss’s 1969 dismissal of space exploration as “an old-fashioned diversion conducted with infertile phallic symbols” was typical New Wave rhetoric, and looked like it might have some legs at the time.

As a politico-cultural revolt against the American vision of SF, however, the New Wave eventually failed just as completely as the Futurians had. Its writers were already running out of steam in 1977 when Star Wars, rather obviously patterned on Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), took the imagery of pre-Campbellian space opera to the mainstream culture. The half-decade following (my college years, as it happened) was a period of drift and confusion only ended by the publication of David Brin’s Startide Rising in 1982.


Brin, and his colleagues in the group that came to be known as the “Killer Bs” (Greg Bear and Gregory Benford), reasserted the primacy of hard SF done in the grand Campbellian manner.

(Editor’s Note: Benford, a libertarian and a contributing editor to Reason the leading libertarian magazine, usually writes hard-science without much focus on political themes, which may explain why he has been nominated for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel (for Across the Sea of Suns in 1985) but hasn’t won. Brin, meanwhile, has often written about liberal, classical-liberal and libertarian individual-rights and sapiency themes, and has in some essays and conversations argued that the world is positively evolving from liberal to libertarian values.)

Campbell himself had died in 1971 right at the high-water mark of the New Wave, but Heinlein and Anderson and the other surviving luminaries of the Campbellian era had no trouble recognizing their inheritors. To everyone’s surprise, the New Old Wave proved to be not just artistically successful but commercially popular as as well, with its writers becoming the first new stars of the post-1980 boom in SF publishing.

Before getting back to the Killer Bs and their Campbellian revival, I need to point out an important bit of background. Besides helping spawn the New Wave, the Vietnam War broke open a long-standing fissure in the “right” wing of American politics. One kind of right-winger was the cultural conservative, frequently with both religious and militarist beliefs. The other kind was the “classical-liberal” or small-government conservative. These two very different tendencies had been forced into alliance in both the U.S. and Great Britain by the rise of the socialist Left after 1910.

The aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign in 1964 had strained the alliance between these factions almost to the breaking point. The Vietnam War broke it, at least for some. A mixed group of dissident classical liberals and anti-war radicals formed the Libertarian Party in 1971, repudiating both the right’s cultural conservatism and the left’s redistributionist statism.

(Editor’s note: Modern libertarianism – built upon and consistent with much of the classical liberalism of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, but incorporating the development of a constellation of new ideas and insights in economics, politics, history, psychology and philosophy – envisions a more civilized future in which people pursue their goals through cooperation instead of coercion. Libertarians believe that human dignity flourishes and individual rights are respected best through the voluntary social network of mutual aid and free trade commonly called the “free market” – while genuine civility and social community are undercut and severely damaged through the legalized force of the unlimited state and the inevitable abuses of unchecked government power.)

This is worth noticing in a history of SF because the platform of the Libertarian Party read like a reinvented, radicalized and intellectualized form of the implicit politics of Campbellian hard SF. This was not a coincidence; many of the founding Libertarians were science-fiction fans. They drew inspiration not merely from the polemical political science fiction of Ayn Rand — The Fountainhead (1943); Atlas Shrugged (1957) — but from the entire canon of Campbellian SF.

Something rather similar had happened in the late 19th century, when Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from the Year 2000 (1887) and various other works of utopian fiction now forgotten had helped shape the thinking of early Socialists. But this time the connection was more two-way and intimate; novels like Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1967), H. Beam Piper’s Lone Star Planet (1958, originally as A Planet For Texans), and Poul Anderson’s “No Truce With Kings” (1963), among many others, came to be seen retrospectively as proto-libertarian arguments not just by their readers but, often, by the authors of the novels themselves.

(Editor’s note: Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame with Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the very first year of that Prometheus category in 1983. Piper and John McGuire’s A Planet for Texans was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1999. Anderson’s novella “No Truce with Kings” was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, while Anderson, before his death, was the first author honored with a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.)

The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the anti-political/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with explicit libertarianism a feature of the political landscape, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the individualist impulse was more marked.

At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.

(Editor’s note: Pournelle won the Prometheus for Best Novel in 1992 for Fallen Angels, co-written by Larry Niven and Michael Flynn.)

Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein himself (increasingly erratic as a writer but still the Grand Old Man of the field, immensely respected by fans and even more by other authors) maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but described himself as a libertarian for more than a decade before his death in 1988.

Symbolically, Heinlein was the first among equals in a study commission of SF authors formed by Ronald Reagan to consider the feasibility of an anti-ballistic missile defense. Commission member Gregory Benford later described President Reagan as “a science fiction fan”, and the vision that emerged as the Strategic Defense Initiative was startlingly SFnal. Reagan’s threat to build SDI at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev in 1986 triggered the collapse of Soviet strategic ambitions as Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union could not match the U.S.’s raise in the geopolitical poker game. The Berlin Wall fell three years later and the Soviet Union collapsed three years after that; science fiction saved the world. Somewhere, Campbell and Heinlein were probably smiling.

Heinlein’s personal evolution from New Deal left-liberal to Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical both led and reflected larger trends. By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992, depictions of explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies had begun to filter into non-political SF works like Vernor Vinge’s Realtime sequence (1985) and Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time (1989). Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.

(Editor’s note: Vinge won the 1987 Prometheus for Best Novel for Marooned in Realtime, part of his Realtime sequence; the 2000 Best Novel award for A Deepness in the Sky; the 2004 Prometheus Hall of Fame award for his story The Ungoverned; the 2007 Hall of Fame award for his story True Names; and a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.)


The 1980s also brought us a quasi-politicized movement pulling in the opposite direction — cyberpunk, the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his Neuromancer (1984), was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Campbellianism in the late 1980s, called cyberpunk “the Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, and their lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard target.

Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Frederik Pohl’s Day Million (1966), Vernor Vinge’s hard-SF classic True Names (1978), inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2007, and even further back in The Space Merchants (1956). Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.

Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in Snow Crash (1992), which with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix (1985) and Walter John Williams’s Hardwired (1986) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of Campbellian SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.

By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated by New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler.

While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition — Golden Age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1997 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).

(Editor’s note: Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Falling Free was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2014.)

In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.

Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”, not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.

I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls “radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category “fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype “apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the “like an apple” category.

Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”) whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”, “avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (bright color).

In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition, but traits that are common to most of the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as “fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.

SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, utopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or, almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of most of the core (hard-SF) prototypes”.

The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they tend towards shrill and indifferently-written polemical tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans.

(Editor’s note: Smith, Wilson, Linaweaver and Schulman have all won the Prometheus Award and their books remain very popular with libertarians. Linaweaver won for Best Novel in 1989 for Moon of Ice. Schulman won for Best Novel in 1984 for The Rainbow Cadenza, while his earlier novel Alongside Night – a visionary look at how anarchocapitalism might offer a better alternative to statism – was inducted in 1989 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Wilson won the first Prometheus Award (for Best Novel) in 1979 for Wheels within Wheels, later winning for Best Novel in 2004 for Sims – while his two sequels to Wheels were inducted into the Hall of Fame: Healer (in 1990) and An Enemy of the State (in 1991). Smith, meanwhile, won for Best Novel in 1979 for The Probability Broach, along with Alongside Night one of the best and most entertaining fictional introductions to the libertarian vision of liberty.)


Of course, there are people in the SF field who find this deeply uncomfortable. Since the centrality of hard SF has become inescapable, resistance now takes the form of attempts to divorce hard SF from libertarianism — to preserve the methods and conceptual apparatus of hard SF while repudiating its political aura. Hartwell & Kramer’s 2002 follow-up to The Ascent of Wonder, The Hard SF Renaissance, takes up this argument in its introduction and explanatory notes.

The Hard SF Renaissance presents itself as a dialogue between old-school Campbellian hard SF and an attempt to construct a “Radical Hard SF” that is not in thrall to right-wing tendencies. It is clear that the editors’ sympathies lie with the “Radicals”, not least from the very fact that they identify libertarianism as a right-wing phenomenon. This is an error characteristic of left-leaning thinkers, who tend to assume that anything not “left” is “right” and that approving of free markets somehow implies social conservatism.

Is the “Radical Hard SF” program possible? Partly this is a matter of definition. I have already shown that the SF genre cannot be culturally or politically conservative; by nature it must be prepared to contemplate — and implicitly advocate — radical change. So either the partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are just terminally confused, pushing against an open door, or what they really object to is hard SF’s libertarian connection.


It’s worth asking, then: is the intimate historical relationship between libertarian political thought and SF a mere accident, or is there an intrinsic connection? And not worth asking merely as a question about politics, either; we’ll understand SF and its history better if we know the answer.

I think I know what John Campbell’s answer would be, if he had not died the year that the founders of modern libertarianism broke with conservatism. I know what Robert Heinlein’s was. They’re the same as mine, a resounding yes — that there is a connection, and that the connection is indeed deep and intrinsic.

But cultural history is littered with the corpses of zealots who attempted to yoke art to ideology with shallow arguments, only to be exposed as fools when the art became obsolescent before the ideology or (more often) vice-versa.

In the remainder of this essay I will nevertheless attempt to prove this point. My argument will center around the implications of a concept best known from First Amendment law: the “marketplace of ideas”.

I am going to argue specifically from the characteristics of hard SF, the prototypes of the radial category of SF. I’ll use this argument to try to illuminate the central values of SF as a literature, and to explain the large historical pattern of failed revolutions against the Campbellian model.

Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — characteristic SFnal tropes such as these are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.

SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones.

But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.

At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.

SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.

All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism, applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the terminology of radial categories.

Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities.

Here is where we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice, voluntary relationships, and the laws and institutions that make them possible.

The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendent futures of optimistic SF.

Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysenkoism).

In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.

SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for storylines in which – as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who Sold The Moon (1951) – scientific breakthrough and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole.

These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.

This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely science and technology but technology-driven social change as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.

Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian tradition: ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable.

These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.

The partisans of “Radical Hard SF”, like those of the earlier failed revolutions, are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps.

By jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or “conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.

By understanding these imperatives, on the other hand, we can explain the series of failed revolutions against the Campbellian model that is the largest pattern in the history of modern SF. We can also predict two important things about the future of the SF genre itself.

One: people whose basic political philosophy is flatly incompatible with libertarianism will continue to find the SF mainstream an uncomfortable place to be. Therefore, sporadic ideological revolts against the Campbellian model of SF will continue, probably about the established rate of one per decade. The Futurians, the New Wave, the cyberpunks, and “Radical Hard SF” were not the end of that story, because the larger political questions that motivated those insurrections are not yet resolved.

Two: all these revolts will fail in pretty much the same way. The genre will absorb or routinize their literary features and discard their political agendas. And SF will continue to puzzle observers who mistake its anti-political DNA for conservatism while missing its underlying radicalism.

(Eric S. Raymond was one of the pioneers of the modern open-source movement. He is a board member of the LFS and one of the Prometheus Award judges. He website is This article, reprinted with permission from Raymond, is a slightly different version of an article that first appeared in 2002 and was prepared for Penguicon I, with updates in 2006 and 2007 on Raymond’s blog, )




Welcome to our blog

For many years, the Libertarian Futurist Society has distributed a paper newsletter, Prometheus, which featured book reviews and news about our doings, sending it out using the U.S. mail system that according to legend was begun by Benjamin Franklin.

As much as we admire Ben and enjoyed our newsletter, we have decided that it is time to enter the digital age, and turn our publication into a website. This will allow wider access for our news and views, and allow members of the Libertarian Futurist Society to share pieces they enjoy with a wider audience, posting links via social media or using their own blogs.

If you came across this blog by accident, let me explain that it is part of a larger website run by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which presents two awards for science fiction exploring the importance of individual liberty: The Prometheus Award (for a science fiction novel published in the previous year) and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (for classic science fiction). We also give out special awards for works that fall outside of our usual award categories.

The Prometheus Award dates back to 1979, when it was created by author L. Neil Smith, and became a regular award in 1982 with the founding of the Libertarian Futurist Society. While we are not as venerable as the Hugos or the Nebulas, we have been around for more than 35 years and are one of the older science fiction awards. During that time, we are proud to have brought recognition to many fine works of science fiction. Many of our award winning authors identify as “libertarian,” but many of them do not, evidence that we have stressed literary excellence and attempted to avoid political sectarianism.

We welcome new recruits to our organization. If you are a science fiction fan interested in individual liberty, we invite you to explore the rest of our website and learn more about us.