Interview: LFS President William H. Stoddard on fandom, freedom, favorite novels and the power of language

Few individuals have made more of a difference to the Libertarian Futurist Society and the Prometheus Awards in the 21st century than William H. Stoddard.

Bill, as he’s known to friends and fellow LFS members, has led the nonprofit, all-volunteer group of freedom-loving sf fans for more than a decade as president of the board of directors.

William H. Stoddard (File photo)

But Stoddard has done far more for many years, writing reviews of sf/fantasy for the Prometheus newsletter and more recently, this blog, and serving for decades as a key judge on both finalist-judging committees for the Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction categories of the Prometheus Award.

Here is LFS Secretary Michael Grossberg’s interview with Stoddard about how he became an sf fan, a libertarian and an active LFS member and what are some of his favorite writers and Prometheus-winning works.

Q: What Prometheus Award winners especially excited you or pleased you when they won for Best Novel?

A: For the Best Novel Award, I’d name two.

Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind (1991 award) asked “what if Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine had come into use in the nineteenth century?” in the form, not of an alternate history, but of a hidden history where multiple secretive groups used predictive social science (made possible by Analytical Engines) to create the actual history of the twentieth century from behind the scenes; it was one of my main influences when I wrote GURPS Steampunk for Steve Jackson Games in 2000.

Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky (2000 award) has both a wonderful job of creating an alien race, the Spiders, in the style of some of Poul Anderson’s stories, and a tense conflict between two human cultures after first contact with the Spiders—the trade-oriented Qeng Ho and the corporatist Emergents.

Q: What do you see as the potential positive impact of awards in general and the Prometheus Awards in particular?

A: On one hand, awards, particularly niche awards, provide recognition to creators, including creators who might otherwise have been overlooked.

William H. Stoddard giving novelist Vernor Vinge his 2014 Prometheus Special Award for Lifetime Achievement at ConDor in San Diego Photo courtesy of Stoddard

Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos (published 2018 by Tor Books) takes a close look at this process in the early years of the Hugo Awards, when science fiction as such was still a niche category.


On the other, they can help motivate creators and encourage the creation of a particular type of work. I think these are both important now, when we’re seeing the emergence of a new generation of libertarian SF writers—Dani and Eytan Kollin, Sarah Hoyt, and Travis Corcoran among them.

Q: When did you discover science fiction and fantasy and start reading it?

A: I really can’t pin that down; it goes back so early in my childhood that I don’t have a clear sense of chronology.

We had some of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels on the family bookshelves, so I must have read them very young—including a clever bit of political satire in his last book, Glinda of Oz, where the ruler of the Flatheads keeps his people happy by making all of them dictators of one thing or another, while he himself is their Supreme Dictator.

I found more fantasy, including in particular Edward Eager’s books, in the public library, and I also found juvenile science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton.

Somewhat later, in sixth grade, I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I totally loved, particularly for its resonance with Norse myths, which I had been reading for years.

Really I think I could more easily explain how I discovered realistic fiction, because that started later for me!

Q: Beyond reading sf and fantasy as a kid, how did you become an active sf fan, regularly going to conventions and socializing with other fans?

A: As I’ve mentioned, at the first science fiction convention I attended, I met a group of people who were both a branch of the Mythopoeic Society, which held monthly discussions of Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings, and mostly played roleplaying games. That was around 1975.

Carol and William Stoddard. Photo courtesy of Stoddard

In the 1980s, I became active in a San Diego-based amateur press association, and I started attending the San Diego Comic-Con, which was where I had my first long conversation with Carol, who moved in with me in 1985 and whom I married in 2016. She and I became involved in convention fandom and volunteered on a number of conventions over the years.

We also became involved in the local science fiction club, through which I acquired a large circle of fellow gamers. Much later, in the late 1990s, I discovered the Internet, and after we moved out of San Diego that became our main source of social interaction, especially now that face-to-face meetings are high-risk.

Left to right: A wedding officiant, Carol Stoddard and William H. Stoddard at theIr wedding in 2016 Photo courtesy of Stoddard

Q: How did you become active with the Libertarian Futurist Society and Prometheus Awards?

A: Not long after the Libertarian Futurist Society was founded, Victoria Varga got in touch with me and asked permission to reprint my review of Robert Franson’s The Shadow of the Ship for the newsletter.

For a few years I subscribed to the newsletter but didn’t join. I became a member after I started working for a large scientific publisher and had a budget that could accommodate annual dues. Around the turn of the millennium, I did a stint as editor of the newsletter, and also became a Board member. About the same time, we began doing formal reviews of nominees for the awards, and I offered to serve on the Best Novel committee – partly, I think, because I nominated a lot of novels for the award! – and to chair the Hall of Fame committee, which reflects my interest in the history of the genre.

Q: In “real life,” you work as an editor and copy editor, mostly of technical publications but also occasionally of sf novels. You’ve also had a sort of second career writing books for Steve Jackson Games. Tell us about your work and how it connects to your work within the Libertarian Futurist Society and for the Prometheus Awards.

A: I’d say that the most important influence of my work as a copy editor has been that I’ve spent many years looking at exact nuances of meaning in word choice and sentence structure, which has developed my sensitivity to style.

I’ve loved etymology since childhood, when I used to look at my grandmother’s Oxford English Dictionary, and my sense of the historical origins of words is important to me both as a professional tool and as an aesthetic sensibility.

Of course, I care about more than style — for Prometheus Award nominees, theme and worldbuilding matter a lot — but it’s style that’s most tied to my professional outlook.

I feel that I have to keep my professional relationships with authors at arm’s length from my involvement in the Best Novel committee, to avoid conflict of interest.

As for Steve Jackson Games, I have to write for a general audience with diverse political views, so I can’t lecture my readers about political theory — though I do find it congenial that their game GURPS defines a political spectrum from anarchy through mostly free and mostly unfree to totalitarian!

If anything, my reading both in science fiction set in exotic cultures and in social systems with different customs than ours has been a resource for my game writing.

I’d say that what critics call “cognitive estrangement” has been something that I often present in games I run, and that a lot of my players have sought out; and I first became conscious of its effect from a line of Bernard Shaw’s that Robert Heinlein quoted as the epigraph for one of his novels: “He is a barbarian, and thinks the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”

Q: In judging Prometheus Award nominees and weighing how to rank them, is there more than one standard or benchmark that you and other LFS members use on the awards-finalist-judging committees?

A: I can’t speak to how other LFS members make that decision; I don’t have statistically meaningful evidence.

I personally look for several different things. I want the works I support to be libertarian: it’s good if they affirm pro-liberty views on their topic, better if they show awareness of the nuances of libertarian thought (as in Travis Corcoran’s short story “Staking a Claim,” with its exploration of the function of title registries), and even better if they ask interesting questions or offer novel approaches within that perspective.

For example, Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle explored the historical origins of many libertarian aspects of modernity in the decades following the Restoration, from the gold standard to antislavery.

Beyond that, this is an award for the fantastic genres, so I want the fantastic premise to be essential to the plot and to be fully developed. I also care a lot about style and about sensitivity to language.

And then there’s also the element of personal emotional response. I will vote for a book that I read eagerly over one that I have to struggle through. And that’s accounted for by things like complex and interesting world-building, and involvement with the characters — the sorts of thing that, in role-playing games, we call “immersion.’

* Coming up next on the Prometheus Blog: Part II of the Prometheus Interview with Stoddard, focusing on the importance of remembering the best of the past through the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* This is the latest in an occasional series of Prometheus Blog interviews. Read the most recent other interviews with novelist L. Neil Smith and LFS founder Michael Grossberg.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: 
An Appreciation of past Prometheus Hall of Fame winners, such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, F. Paul Wilson’s Healer and An Enemy of the State, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

* 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.

* 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. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* 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 that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* 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, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

 

NASFiC acceptance speech: How C.J. Cherryh built her Alliance-Union Universe, & the launch of a prequel trilogy with Alliance Rising, the 2020 Prometheus Best Novel

If you’re a fan of C.J. Cherryh in general and her vast, complex, economically literate Alliance-Union Universe in particular, the full text of Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher’s Prometheus Awards acceptance speech is a fascinating must-read.

Cherry and Fancher co-wrote Alliance Rising, billed as the first prequel in a projected Hinder Stars trilogy exploring how her – now, their – future history develops.


The Libertarian Futurist Society, which presented its 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony Saturday at the all-online North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), chose Alliance Rising as its 2020 Best Novel winner partly because of the plausible realism with which Cherryh and Fancher weave a portrait of how the emergence of an interstellar trade network with private property and active markets tends to reduce conflicts, violence and the threat of war while sustaining peace, prosperity and progress.

“Its not so much that we set out to write a novel about the link between freedom and economics,” Cherryh said in her acceptance remarks, “but that when you start telling a story about human civilization, it goes with the territory.”

Continue reading NASFiC acceptance speech: How C.J. Cherryh built her Alliance-Union Universe, & the launch of a prequel trilogy with Alliance Rising, the 2020 Prometheus Best Novel

Prometheus Awards 40th anniversary panel set with F. Paul Wilson, LFS leaders, for online-only New Zealand Worldcon; Sarah Hoyt and Wilson to lead LFS panel and awards ceremony at North American Science Fiction Convention

The Libertarian Futurist Society will raise its visibility online and around the world this summer with events and Prometheus-winning speakers and LFS leaders at both the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) and the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC).

Everything will take place safely during these “virtual cons,” set up to protect online participants and viewers during the pandemic – which means that LFS members and the public will be able to watch, participate and ask questions from the comfort of their own homes via computers, smart TVs, tablets or smart phones.

WORLDCON PROMETHEUS PANEL
Bestselling, Prometheus-winning novelist F. Paul Wilson (An Enemy of the State, Sims, Healer, Wheels within Wheels, Repairman Jack series) will headline the LFS’ Worldcon panel on “Freedom in SF: Forty Years of the Prometheus Award.”

Celebrating the recent 40thanniversary of the awards, the Worldcon panel will explore the distinctive focus and impressive track record of the many diverse winners of one of the oldest continuing fan-based awards in the sf/fantasy field after the Hugo and Nebula awards.

(To find out who has won the 2020 Prometheus Awards, read the LFS press release posted on the LFS website.)

Continue reading Prometheus Awards 40th anniversary panel set with F. Paul Wilson, LFS leaders, for online-only New Zealand Worldcon; Sarah Hoyt and Wilson to lead LFS panel and awards ceremony at North American Science Fiction Convention

Guide for LFS voters: Where to find the 2020 Prometheus Awards finalists for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame)

The 2020 Prometheus Awards are now in the final weeks of voting by Libertarian Futurist Society members across the continent – but where can you find and read each of the finalists?
That’s commonly not a problem with the annual Best Novel category, since all five finalists are widely available, typically published in the preceding year.
Yet, it can be challenging to find some of the older finalists in the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.
That’s because the Prometheus Awards’ other annual category is wide open to any work of fiction first published, broadcast, staged or screened 20 or more years ago.
But this year, for the first time, two Hall of Fame finalists – a story and a song – can be found in full online and for free!

So accessibility of this year’s Prometheus  award finalists is in some ways easier than ever – and this guide should help LFS Members find and consider every finalist before voting.

Continue reading Guide for LFS voters: Where to find the 2020 Prometheus Awards finalists for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame)

The Libertarian Futurist Society, Prometheus Awards, LFS writers hailed in Quillette article about the persistence of libertarian sf as a key strand in mainstream science fiction

By Michael Grossberg
Libertarian science fiction has always been a seminal strand in the ever-evolving genre of science fiction and fantasy – and in significant and honorable ways, that socially conscious and liberty-loving subgenre continues as a force today, even amid regressive and reactionary forces flirting with the perennial temptations of statism, authoritarianism and centralized, institutionalized coercion on the Left and Right.

Libertarian futurists – within and outside the Libertarian Futurist Society (not to mention other organizations within the far broader libertarian movement, from Reason and Liberty magazines to the Cato Institute)  – have understood that for a long time.

Yet, it’s salutary and newsworthy when our understanding of the broader intellectual and artistic currents that have helped shape the four-decade-plus history and diversity of the Prometheus Awards is shared and appreciated by an international, cosmopolitan publication outside the libertarian movement.

The cover illustration of the Quillette article on Libertarian Science Fiction Photo: a Quillette illustration, copied here to help people find the article on their website

Such a relatively rare occasion has materialized this month (June 2020) with a fair-minded, open-minded, rich and rewarding essay on “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” published in Quillette, an influential web-magazine that embraces what modern libertarians might generally recognize as classically liberal principles.

According to its mission statement, Quillette offers “a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress.”

Indeed, LFS members might say as much, using virtually the same words, to uphold important Bill of Rights aspects of our libertarian vision of a fully free future in which people strive to respect other people’s rights and live together through the voluntary cooperation and enterprise of a free society and a free market while steadfastly abjuring violence, the initiation of force or fraud and the institutionalized coercion of the unchecked State.

Continue reading The Libertarian Futurist Society, Prometheus Awards, LFS writers hailed in Quillette article about the persistence of libertarian sf as a key strand in mainstream science fiction

Atwood’s The Testaments, Cherryh and Fancher’s Alliance Rising, Patrick Edwards’ Ruin’s Wake, Ian McDonald’s Luna: Moon Rising and Marc Stiegler’s Ode to Defiance selected as 2020 Prometheus Award finalists for Best Novel

Whether set on Earth, on the Moon, or throughout interstellar space and whether taking place in the near-future or distant future, novels dramatizing fights for freedom and threats of tyranny can achieve a timeless and universal relevance.

Recognizing the perennial tensions between Liberty and Power, the Libertarian Futurist Society presents its annual Prometheus Awards for outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy.

The five 2019 novels that the LFS has just selected as its finalists in the Best Novel category of the 2020 Prometheus Awards certainly range widely in setting, era, plot, character and style. Yet, each sheds fascinating light on the enduring human themes and challenges that inspire each generation’s struggle for freedom amid recurring threats of dictatorship, war, plague, pandemic, powerlust and other ills.

Continue reading Atwood’s The Testaments, Cherryh and Fancher’s Alliance Rising, Patrick Edwards’ Ruin’s Wake, Ian McDonald’s Luna: Moon Rising and Marc Stiegler’s Ode to Defiance selected as 2020 Prometheus Award finalists for Best Novel

Free enterprise in outer space, or reaching the stars through profit-enhanced competition rather than government bureaucracy: Appreciating Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, the 1997 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists see in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier:

Victor Koman’s 1997 novel dramatizes the dream of getting into space with an libertarian twist: The massive effort is achieved through the voluntary social cooperation of mutual trade and mutual aid through private enterprise.

Set in a subtly alternate reality, the story imagines a profit-enhanced competition to reach the stars, which anticipated the X Prize that saw Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne reach space in 2004.

Kings of the High Frontier highlights the shortsighted bureaucratic and political efforts of a government-run program like NASA, with its consequences in corruption, wasteful mismanagement and stagnation.

Continue reading Free enterprise in outer space, or reaching the stars through profit-enhanced competition rather than government bureaucracy: Appreciating Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, the 1997 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Ideology, libertarian and socialist factions, high-tech surveillance and a balkanized 21st century future: An Appreciation of Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction, the 1996 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists see in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom or anti-authoritarian sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod:

The Star Fraction, a 1995 novel by Ken MacLeod, established the Scottish sf novelist’s international reputation for blending sf with a dizzying array of balkanized politics and ideological factions (including highly self-aware libertarians and socialists).

Set in a fragmented and conflicted mid-21st-century Britain beset by political factions and high-tech surveillance after a brief third world war and leftist Labour Party policies have led to economic and social decay, this is the first novel in MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, which continued with The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road.
Among the interesting and unusual characters and forces affecting this future are a Christian-turned-atheist teenaged programmer eager to escape his fundamentalist subculture, a rogue computer program manipulating events, a woman scientist researching memory-enhancement drugs, and a communist security mercenary with a smart gun and information that might spark change.

Continue reading Ideology, libertarian and socialist factions, high-tech surveillance and a balkanized 21st century future: An Appreciation of Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction, the 1996 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Identity, mystery, body-transfer technology, bureaucrats, capitalists and green politics in a hard-sf political thriller: An Appreciation of James P. Hogan’s The Multiplex Man, the 1993 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the 40-year history of the Prometheus Awards, a landmark which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we’ve launched a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our earliest Best Novel awards.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for James P. Hogan’s The Multiplex Man, the 1993 Best Book winner:

James Hogan’s 1992 hard-sf political thriller revolves around a polite schoolteacher who wakes up one day to discover he’s far from home and in a body not his own. Soon after returning home, he discovers that seven months have passed – and he can’t return to his old body or life because he died six months ago.
His suspenseful journey to solve multiple unfolding mysteries is set in an authoritarian future Earth where former Eastern/communist countries have exploited space resources to boost their economies over the faltering West, undermined by Green-dominated governments’ anti-industry regulations, education restrictions and propaganda.

In this cautionary anti-authoritarian story, the State authorities control virtually everything about people’s lives and activities on Earth, while condemning as dangerous any dissent or unapproved behavior and viewing off-world colonies as enemies because of their competition for Earth resources.

Continue reading Identity, mystery, body-transfer technology, bureaucrats, capitalists and green politics in a hard-sf political thriller: An Appreciation of James P. Hogan’s The Multiplex Man, the 1993 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Astronauts, environmentalists, sf fandom, global cooling, anti-science factions and social regression in a dark future: An Appreciation of Fallen Angels, the 1992 Prometheus Best Novel winner by Flynn, Niven and Pournelle

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we launched in September, 2019, a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our Best Novel category.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Fallen Angels, co-written by Michael Flynn, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle:

Fallen Angels imagines a heroic struggle set against a dark future in which the United States and other countries are fighting a losing battle amidst the “global cooling” of a new Ice Age.

With the government turned anti-science and anti-technology in a coalition among Greens, feminists and religious fundamentalists, and federal officials focusing on persecuting science-fiction fans as subversives while ignoring the welfare of much of the population in some of the most affected parts of the weather-besieged country, this provocative 1992 novel might have been just a depressing cautionary tale.
But the three co-authors offer some hope by focusing on a group of individualistic, science-loving and freedom-loving misfits. Continue reading Astronauts, environmentalists, sf fandom, global cooling, anti-science factions and social regression in a dark future: An Appreciation of Fallen Angels, the 1992 Prometheus Best Novel winner by Flynn, Niven and Pournelle