Reason, voluntary private cooperation and entrepreneurship versus politics, irrationality and power-lust in facing apocalypse and extinction: An Appreciation of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the 2016 Prometheus for Best Novel

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is presenting weekly Appreciations of past award-winners. Here’s the latest Appreciation for Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the 2016 Best Novel winner:

By Michael Grossberg
Seveneves, an epic hard-science-fiction novel, focuses on a cataclysmic event that threatens human civilization and the planet Earth, and its long aftermath.

Neal Stephenson’s sprawling 2015 novel avoids ideology while dramatizing how a lust for power almost wipes out our species.

More impressively and much less common in such fiction these days, Stephenson also shows how the courage to face reality and tackle overwhelming problems through reason, individual initiative and the voluntary cooperation of private enterprise help tip the balance towards survival.

Especially inspiring, for advocates of reason and liberty, are Stephenson’s portrayals of the heroic efforts against terrific odds by a small group — including some of Earth’s bravest and richest entrepreneurs — who spend their fortunes and risk their lives to save humanity from extinction.

When the moon’s stability is undermined, humankind realizes that they have only a limited time to take drastic steps for their species’ future. As nations band together to ensure that at least some fraction of the population might survive in outer space, predictable political impulses for command and control and personal advantage pose a serious threat the efforts and reduce the number of survivors.

That unprecedented human struggle becomes the gripping focus of the bulk of Stephenson’s brilliant and speculative book, which then jumps forward five thousand years to portray how the survivors evolved genetically and created a new culture that almost seems alien in many ways.

Of greatest interest to libertarians, classical liberals and other freedom lovers is the dramatic and revealing way that Seveneves implicitly contrasts the “political means” (i.e. institutionalized coercion, and its attendant deceptions and manipulations from unbridled egotists indulging power lust for short-term but illusory advantages) with the “economic means” (i.e. the voluntary private initiative and cooperation that tends to be encouraged and is more common through the mutual aid and trade of a free society and its free marketplace.)

Without in any way becoming ideological, the novel thus parallels the deep insights of Franz Oppenheimer, the German sociologist and political scientist (1964-1943) who made the distinction between the “political means” and the “economic means.” In his classic 1908 book The State, Oppenheimer said: “I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor, and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means’.”

Such a framework was later developed by several generations of libertarian thinkers, most notably Albert Jay Nock (Our Enemy, the State), Murray Rothbard (Power and Market, For a New Liberty) and Roy Childs, Jr. (Liberty Against Power) as a profound and illuminating tool in modern analysis of political economy.

Many people misunderstand, stigmatize and even demonize free markets and free minds. They misperceive as somehow “greedy” or selfish or exploitative people who cooperate through economic or social means to work together in common pursuit to achieve countless legitimate goals and solve or ameliorate real human problems and challenges. In fact and in history, as well as in libertarian theory from Locke and Mill and Spencer to Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Rand and Rothbard, a sustainablesustainable and humane civilization, in which everyone’s natural rights and human dignity is respected depends on people more consistently embracing cooperation over coercion.

That is also one of the most seminal themes among several key concepts and insights in Seveneves, although the novelist wisely lets readers make those connections ourselves.

Beyond that, Seveneves is a massive and multi-part saga – in some ways, at least two different novels in one – that can stimulate and satisfy readers looking for many different things (from hard sci-fi and plausible world-building to big ideas, vast engineering projects and post-apocalyptic visions).

Yet, among the manifold pleasures in a rich, complex and multi-generational tale, libertarians and classical liberals can find much that underscores how those shortsighted people pursuing politics, power and short-term advantage over long-term rational self-interest are much more likely to undermine human society and progress – and in extreme crises, such as the central scenario imagined here, can threaten our very existence.

Note: Stephenson also won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in 2005 for The System of the World.

Neal Stephenson (Creative Commons license)

Stephenson was a Best Novel finalist in 1996 for The Diamond Age and in 2000 for Cryptonomicon, later inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction. He was nominated for Best Novel for Quicksilver (in 2004), The Confusion (2005), REAMDE (2012), and Fall, or Dodge in Hell (2020).

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciations of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Awards: Cory Doctorow’s Homeland, the other 2014 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive long-term) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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