Introduction: This is the final review in a series that the Prometheus blog has been publishing this spring and summer to highlight the 2022 Best Novel finalists.
This review of Wil McCarthy’s Rich Man’s Sky follows previously posted reviews of the other four finalists: Lionel Shriver’s Should We Stay Or Should We Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Karl K. Gallagher’s Between Home and Ruin and Seize What’s Held Dear.
By Michael Grossberg
Venturing beyond the Earth to explore, colonize and industrialize our solar system has been a dream of humanity – and that dream is beginning to materialize.
Four billionaires play key roles in striving to bring such dreams to life in Rich Man’s Sky (Baen Books, 291 pages), a 2022 Best Novel finalist by Wil McCarthy.
AN EPIC LANDSCAPE
Set on and off Earth, in near-Earth orbit, on the Moon, at L5 points, on an experimental habitat near the Sun and heading towards Mars and beyond, McCarthy’s kaleidoscopic novel brims with the excitement, anxieties and uncertainties of real-world entrepreneurship.
McCarthy’s understanding of the challenges inherent in new technology and age-old human psychology grounds his novel in plausible dramatic conflicts as fearful governments and competing interests plot to undermine some of the more audacious space ventures.
As the quite different billionaires (actually “trillionaires,” dubbed the Four Horseman) propel humanity’s expansion into the solar system, McCarthy’s writing conjures an epic mosaic of ambition, desire, fear and hope.
Buoyed by his years of work as a space enthusiast-techie and space-business entrepreneur, McCarthy is an sf writer full of interesting ideas – especially ideas grounded in science, business and emerging industry. That helps make his story fun for readers to explore with him.
Loosely structured and somewhat episodic in its far-flung imagination, Rich Man’s Sky sets up several intriguing scenarios.
While one billionaire aims at settling Mars with a 100-person lottery, another plans more long-range for the first human interstellar trip to Proxima Centauri.
Yet another billionaire is Orlov, a Russian gangster-oligarch who runs a refueling station and is eager to seize control of lunar colonies and Earth-orbiting space stations. Meanwhile, the fourth Horseman’s grand aerial-balloon-ship plans largely haven’t gotten that far off the ground yet.
Such massive and expensive long-term projects require the development of new technology – for terraforming, interstellar propulsion and hibernation for long space voyages, among other things – and McCarthy makes such developments plausible.
Some of the “Four Horsemen” are revealed to be mostly admirable, and some decidedly not, but McCarthy makes all four real and human as they spearhead game-changing private-enterprise projects that governments aren’t able or willing to do.
Some may see similarities to today’s most famous billionaire space enthusiasts (especially Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Richard Branson), but McCarthy fictionalizes his characters enough to make each one distinct.
McCarthy knows how to write well-paced and action-oriented science fiction, while plausibly extrapolating today’s trends into the near future. But it’s his believable characters that, more than anything, enhance the novel’s credibility.
None of the protagonists or antagonists are one-dimensional heroes or villains. Each billionaire has strengths and flaws. Yet, each aims to fulfill their dreams and get the job done, no matter what obstacles may arise from politics, economics, society, technology or science.
EMERGING PRO-FREEDOM THEMES
The implicit libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes emerge slowly but naturally, as different interests maneuver and scheme and a fearful and controlling government sends a clandestine mission to subvert the most dangerous space effort involving a solar shield.
Despite its male-oriented title, Rich Man’s Sky focuses onseveral strong women characters – including one subplot in which female space colonists participate in a breeding experiment on a distant space habitat.
One of the most suspenseful threads in McCarthy’s mosaic follows a team of elite military women sent into space to infiltrate one billionaire’s visionary and idealistic space project before he can change the world – for good and (as some fear) for ill.
A focal point of the novel is Alice, a former experienced US Air Force medic assigned to violently take control of the solar shield. Built halfway between the Earth and the sun, the shield – if misused – could spark an ice age or threaten some parts of our planet with much colder or warmer weather, disrupting international politics.
A few other plot threads are introduced, though, without much pay-off. Although the monks on the Moon (including one monk whose communications add humor and quirky personality to the story) seem peripheral to the main plot, McCarthy seems to be setting up his richly varied and complex future for further exploration in sequels.
CHALLENGING THE ANTI-CAPITALIST MENTALITY
Overall, this hard-science Heinlein-esque tale of State-threatened market innovations in space persuasively counters anti-capitalist stereotypes.
Today, reflecting age-old prejudices and economic ignorance, many continue to vilify the wealthy (the super-rich, even more so). Yet, many of those same critics paradoxically excuse, minimize, hide or ignore State aggression, assassination, spying, sabotage and other abuses from “throwing muscle around.”
Rich Man’s Sky, by welcome contrast, exposes the limitations and downside of coercive government while fairly portraying each billionaire as an individual – and without demonizing the rich.
Beyond its implicit critique of what Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises billed as the Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Rich Man’s Sky further illuminates today’s real-world issues via clearly dramatizing the vast possibilities for voluntary cooperation and progress based on investment, cooperation, and scientific/tech innovations.
For example, on page 106, one female character recognizes ruefully that governments are neither capable nor willing to go into space and lead through innovation – while businessman and markets can and do:
“All things considered, Miyuki would rather be working for somebody like NASA or ESA or the sort-lived UN Space Agency… But alas … there were no public space programs anymore. Through some combination of deficit spending, warped priorities and desperately short-term thinking, the governments of the world had starved themselves right out of the civilian space business…. the Horsemen (the four billionaires) had expanded into that power vacuum very nicely. And then they kept right on expanding, because people needed things the Earth could no longer provide…”
Several characters also recognize the endemic corruption and short-sighted egotism of many political “leaders.”
“They’re toddlers, Alice. Greedy little toddlers. They care about reelection, taxes, and looking tough, in that order. It’s stupid, but true. They don’t give a shit about the future; they don’t even think it’s a real thing. It’s just something that happens in the movies,” one character tells another on page 232.
As a libertarian bonus, one character even speaks up about the right of self-defense against violent attack or an especially aggressive and intrusive tyranny.
PLAUSIBLE NON-IDEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES
McCarthy mostly avoids explicit ideology. When revealing broader ideals and insights, the story usually makes them reflective of the perspectives of particular characters.
Towards the end of Rich Man’s Sky (on pages 296-297), the anti-authoritarian, pro-space, pro-technology, pro-progress and pro-freedom themes become a bit more explicit.
Writing in his private diary, perhaps for posterity, the billionaire Horseman observes: “The very governments that have declined to meet the demand of ordinary people for access to space, are now throwing muscle around to prevent private parties from doing it for them. This shameful demonstration is no doubt meant to intimidate, and it succeeds handily…
“But it makes an opposite point as well, that space-based enterprise must do its level utmost to cut these ties and dependencies, so people like Tompkins (the US president) can only watch and ask, as opposed to dictate.
“I would rather face ten Orlovs than a single Tompkins, and if a colonized Mars can only speak to its parent as a beggar or a child, then we will have failed in one of the most important tasks history has ever set. Thus, with creativity and poise, we must make a world that can, as quickly as at all possible, stand tall and alone upon the face of eternity.”
INSPIRED BY HEINLEIN’S SPIRIT
In his own fresh, fun and forward-thinking way, McCarthy ranks among the new generation of sf writers carrying on Heinlein’s brand of fiction and his optimism that humanity does have a future in space.
Today, when billionaire-launched private space companies are competing and cooperating with governments and various organizations to push further into space, Rich Man’s Sky doesn’t seem quite so fantastical.
What once were almost exclusively fictional tales of adventure, initiative and futuristic imagination – from Heinlein’s story “The Man Who Sold the Moon” to Victor Koman’s Prometheus-winning Kings of the High Frontier, to mention just a few libertarian SF classics – are now becoming routine newspaper/TV headlines.
With Rich Man’s Sky, McCarthy is developing his own exciting and visionary Future History series – one that I, like many readers, will be eager to read to find out what happens next.
Note: Rich Man’s Sky is the first Wil McCarthy novel nominated for a Prometheus Award.
For capsule reviews and news about all five 2022 Best Novel finalists, see the LFS press release.
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