R.I.P., L. Neil Smith: Sf writer, best known for libertarian classic The Probability Broach, leaves a lasting legacy of liberty-loving sf adventure

Libertarian science fiction writer L. Neil Smith has died, leaving a legacy of high-spirited libertarian sf adventure and of the Prometheus Award itself.

L. Neil Smith (Creative Commons photo)

Smith, who died at 75 on Aug. 27, 2021 in Fort Collins, Colo., is best known for his explicitly libertarian novel The Probability Broach and its rambunctious alternate-history sequels in his The North American Confederacy series.

During his writing career from the 1970s into the 2010s, Smith wrote 31 books, including 29 novels, and many essays and short stories.

Quite a few of his works were nominated for Prometheus Awards because of their freewheeling adventure, sense of humor, imaginative alternate-reality scenarios and strong libertarian/individualist themes.

Smith won the Prometheus Award three times for Best Novel – in 1984 for The Probability Broach, in 1994 for Pallas and in 2001 for Forge of the Elders.

Smith was nominated 17 times by Libertarian Futurist Society members for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

His other nominees include Blade of P’Na (in 2017), Sweeter Than Wine (2012), Ceres (a 2011 finalist), Roswell, Texas (2009), The American Zone (a 2002 finalist and the direct sequel to The Probability Broach), Bretta Martyn (a 1998 finalist), Brightsuit MacBear (1989), The Crystal Empire (a 1987 finalist), The Gallatin Divergence (a 1986 finalist), Tom Paine Maru (a 1985 finalist), Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of Thonboka (1984) The Nagasaki Vector (a 1984 finalist), The Venus Belt (1983) and Their Majesties’ Bucketeers (1983).

Smith won a Special Award, shared with illustrator Scott Bieser, in 2005 for The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel.

In 2016, Smith received the Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement for his many contributions to liberty and libertarian sf. (Only four authors have received this prestigious lifetime award, including Poul Anderson, F. Paul Wilson and Vernor Vinge.)

LFS co-founder Michael Grossberg presented the special lifetime award to Smith in Denver as an honored part of the main program at MileHiCon, Colorado’s largest annual sf/fantasy convention.

By then, Smith was in a wheelchair, largely from a series of strokes, but his mind was still active and his zestful spirit and sense of humor was still manifest, Grossberg recalled.

With Smith’s death, LFS President William H. Stoddard notes sadly that most in the generation of explicitly libertarian sf writers who emerged in the 1970s have now passed – including James Hogan, Brad Linaweaver, Victor Milan and J. Neil Schulman. (Meanwhile, Vernor Vinge and Victor Koman, each multiple Prometheus winners, are no long writing, although a younger generation of libertarian sf authors has emerged, including Travis Corcoran, Sarah Hoyt and Dani and Eytan Kollin.)

Smith is remembered by the Libertarian Futurist Society, in particular, for creating the Prometheus Awards in 1979 to honor libertarian science fiction.

A panel selected F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels as the best novel, and a gold coin then worth $2,500 was presented to Wilson. Due to the cost and the lack of a formal organization, the Prometheus Awards fell into limbo.

L. Neil Smith in the 1980s (Creative Commons license)

In December 1981, after two years with the award in hiatus, Smith contacted Grossberg, a journalist and arts critic, and asked him to find a way to resuscitate the Prometheus Awards as a regular annual award with a sustainable gold prize

Grossberg, a veteran sf fan who appreciated the potential of awards to raise the visibility of authors and art, agreed to take on the project.

Michael Grossberg in the 1980s. Courtesy M.G.

Hoping for the best but without the financial resources to create a national organization by himself, Grossberg reached out by mail nationwide – in an era well before the convenience, speed and minimal cost of email – to a small group of libertarian sf fans and libertarians to gauge interest in organizing a nonprofit group to sustain the Prometheus Awards.

Sufficient support materialized in 1982 to allow the formation of the Libertarian Futurist Society, which sponsored its first prize for Best Novel in 1982 and added in 1983 a second category for Best Classic Fiction (the Prometheus Hall of Fame.)

As Smith originally intended, the prize for the awards is a gold coin, symbolizing free trade and free minds, with the coin mounted on an engraved plaque.

LFS leaders and members are grateful to Smith for not only providing us with years of good reading but also for launching what’s now one of the oldest and continuing annual sf/fantasy awards, and one that we are proud to continue to sustain.

But Smith’s work was wide-ranging, both in fiction and non-fiction, and transcended ideology, with a consistent focus on fun-loving storytelling.

Smith also wrote a trilogy of novels within the Star Wars expanded universe, concentrating on the adventures of Lando Calrissian. The trilogy, published in 1983, consists of Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of SharuLando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Odeon, and Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka.

Although not as widely recognized by mainstream critics for his social conscience and passion for justice and liberty during his lifetime as this principled and idealistic author deserved, Smith regularly incorporated such themes into both his fiction and nonfiction.

For instance, a dramatic exposure of the evils of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust was at the moral center of The Mitzvah, Smith’s novel (cowritten with Aaron Zelman) about a Catholic priest, influenced by socialist ideas of the 1960s, who discovers that the German immigrant parents who raised him actually adopted him and that his true parents were a Jewish couple murdered in the Holocaust.

Smith, a longtime libertarian activist, also wrote two non-fiction books, Lever Action and Down with Power, that expressed his libertarian views, and founded, and regularly contributed essays to, The Libertarian Enterprise, an anarcho-capitalist journal.

Arizona libertarian activist Mike Dugger, who knew Smith since the 1980s, praised him in an obit/tribute on his Pirates Without Borders website as “a literal brother-in-arms to all of us who believe in the supremacy of the individual, rather than the State. A man who greatly and positively influenced a generation or more of libertarians.”

“My initial introduction to Neil was through his essays that floated, first around BBS systems in the 1980s, then through the fledgling internet of the 1990s, and ultimately published as Lever Action in 2001 by Vin Suprynowicz’s Mountain Media. Those essays were a no-holds-barred advocacy of asserting and defending the rights of the individual, with a pronounced emphasis on gun rights; as were his science fiction novels which I came to read and appreciate somewhat later,” Dugger wrote.

“He was the real deal and I am blessed to have had him as a true libertarian mentor,” he said.

Lester Neil Smith III is survived by his wife Cathy and his daughter Rylla.

For more information, visit www.lneilsmith.org

* Read the Prometheus blog appreciations of L. Neil Smith’s three Best Novel winners: The Probability Broach, Pallas and The Forge of the Elders.

* Read Prometheus-winning novelist Sarah Hoyt’s personal “Goodbye My Friend” tribute to L. Neil Smith on her blog accordingtohoyt.com
Here’s an excerpt: “L. Neil Smith and his optimism “well, then we’ll work for Liberty harder” were one of my touch points to remain sane. I won’t insult his disbelief by positing an afterlife for him… But if he has one, I hope it’s something like the last time we met in person: when he received the Prometheus for lifetime work. Afterwards we were “kidnapped” for a party thrown by his fans, in which he got to speak at length and receive admiration for his work. And where the rest of us could bask in not feeling out of place for once and being able to bandy intellectual arguments without crying or denunciations,” Hoyt wrote.
“I’m going to miss his encouragement and his optimism, but most of all I’m going to miss him.”

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

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in sparking positive social change and spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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