Rising up against universal surveillance and the imperial state: Poul Anderson’s story “Sam Hall,” the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation for Poul Anderson’s story “Sam Hall,” the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

In “Sam Hall,” published in 1953 in Astounding Science Fiction, Poul Anderson offers one of the earlier visions of a dystopian possibility based on the computers that had been invented only a few years before: a society with ubiquitous surveillance.

This is our age’s version of the panopticon described by Jeremy Bentham – one not confined to local sites such as prisons, but having an entire nation, or an entire planet, in its view. Anderson’s vision of computer technology is primitive, with a gigantic machine in a central government office that receives and stores information on punched cards. It has no hint of artificial intelligence, or of the ability to interpret voice or vision. But the job he sees it as doing is still the stuff of our nightmares.

The political system that Anderson shows as using this engine of surveillance is one that has become an alternate history: a unipolar world, dominated by the United States of America, to which all other powers have been subordinated, in an empire greater than those of the Romans or the Mongols. Naturally, this creates unrest; and this unrest inspires an institutional paranoia expressed in ever-increasing demands for surveillance; and that surveillance in turn is the source of greater unrest.

At one point, Anderson’s protagonist, Thornberg, reflects on how people used to criticize the Americanization of Europe, in the form of mass-produced goods and commercialization, they didn’t notice the more sinister Europeanization of America: authoritarian government, surveillance, and censorship.

Thornberg himself is part of this change, being an official of the secret police, one of those who manage the gigantic computer system, “Matilda.” Troubled by the arrest and later death of his nephew, and fearing for the fate of his son, he takes advantage of his position to subvert the surveillance apparatus, inserting a fictitious character into its records to whom subversive acts can be attributed – one named “Sam Hall,” from the lyrics of a folk song about an unrepentant criminal. (Like most folk songs, this has a number of versions; Anderson gives the refrain as the relatively clean “God damn your/their eyes,” publishable in Astounding,but I’ve seen a version with “Fuck ’em all!”)

Sam Hall becomes a symbol of uprising against the American imperial state, and pursuing him uses up vital secret police manpower and provides the uprising with a smoke screen

As is generally true of Anderson’s stories, this one’s point isn’t that simple. At the end, Thornberg speaks with a representative of the new, freedom-oriented regime, and learns that it wants to shut down Matilda . . . but not immediately; they need the information while they put things in order.

The reader can take this either as an optimistic story of one man’s ability to disrupt a repressive state, or as a pessimistic one  that asks if such a state can really be done away with. Such ambivalence is one of Anderson’s best traits as a writer, and makes this story more than a simple melodrama of revolution.

Where to Find This Story
:“Sam Hall” has been widely published over the years in quite a few collections, including:
Going for Infinity (TOR, 2002, a retrospective collection with autobiographical notes)
Machines That Think, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Patricia S. Warrick (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984)
The Best of Poul Anderson (Pocket Books, 1976)
The Saturn Game, by Poul Anderson (NESFA Press, 2010) (subtitle: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Volume 3)
Science Fiction Thinking Machines, ed. Groff Conklin (Vanguard 1954/Bantam 1955)

Poul Anderson (Creative Commons license)

Poul Anderson (1926-2001), was the first sf author to be honored with a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement.The award to the ailing author was accepted by his wife, Karen, at the 2001 LFScon (the first LFS mini-con) at Marcon, Ohio’s oldest and largest sf/fantasy convention.

Anderson won his first competitive Prometheus award for his novel Trader to the Stars, inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1985.
He also wrote The Stars Are Also Fire (the 1995 Prometheus winner for Best Novel), “No Truce with Kings” (a story inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2010) and “Sam Hall” (a story inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020).

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary 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.

* 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 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 spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *