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.
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.
The Quillette article, by Jordan Alexander Hill (host of the Western Canon Podcast and a Massachusetts writer-teacher) references with respect and accurate understanding the Prometheus Awards, the Prometheus Hall of Fame, and the Libertarian Futurist Society.
Plus, Hill quotes several LFS writers (including Eric Raymond, a Prometheus Awards Best Novel finalist judge and LFS board member) who have contributed to the Prometheus blog (and before that, to the Prometheus newsletter).
“It is 2020,” Hill writes, “and though socialism is again in vogue—44 percent of millennials say they would prefer to live in a socialist country—libertarian SF is showing no signs of waning. The connection between SF and liberty is not simply an accidental byproduct of the colorful history of SF publishing, but a necessary one tied to certain fundamentals of the genre. The soil of speculative fiction, in other words, has the right nutrients for the flourishing of libertarian values. But what are they? Unlike most ideologies that advocate forms of protectionism and luddite restrictionism, the libertarian outlook values choice, freedom, and market solutions. Libertarians, writes Ilya Somin for the Prometheus Newsletter, “are more likely to welcome such technological advances as genetic engineering, cloning, and nuclear power… the genre as a whole also tends towards technological optimism.”
In analyzing and in some cases somewhat reinterpreting the commonly understood history and evolution of science fiction, Hill usually gets it right, with persuasive insights:
“SF’s faith that rational individuals can solve their own problems and plan their own lives, its belief that science and innovation can liberate humanity from the slings and arrows of an unnecessary status quo — these are qualities that set the genre at odds with both progressive and conservative ideologies. They are also the qualities that have enthralled many libertarian fans.”
… “Another element, certainly, is a general openness to radical new ideas and an instinctive rejection of stale convention and custom. This trait unites libertarians and progressives against Burkean conservatives. Openness to novelty and diversity enables SF writers to speculate (hence the name “speculative fiction”) and go where other writers, bound by earthly limitations, cannot.”
… “At the same time, SF stands firm against the collectivist notions of both progressives and “common good” conservatives… In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein offers us a warning about left and right collectivism delivered by the character of Professor de la Paz, a “rational anarchist” who urges: “Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional, for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments… do not let the past be a straitjacket!”
“Perhaps this is why so much of SF expresses itself as dystopian fiction, a genre which, by its very nature, cannot but take on a libertarian flavor. Totalitarianism, war, and wide-scale oppression is almost always carried out by state force. Liberation, accordingly, must come in the form of negative rights—that is, “freedom from”—and voluntarism: “[I]n writing your constitution,” Professor de la Paz instructs, “let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do.”
Of course, any such history can’t avoid pinpointing the 1960s and the 1970s, the fertile decades in which the modern libertarian movement coalesced and during which the Prometheus Award was first presented. Hill treats this period fairly and accurately, with a summary that encompasses key figures and developments in not just sf but also libertarianism.
Plus, in what will be of particular interest to LFS members who truly should visit the Quillette website to read the entire essay, Hill incorporates capsule reviews of more than a dozen novels that over the past four decades have all been recognized by the LFS with a Prometheus Award for Best Novel or Best Classic Fiction (our Hall of Fame):
“The heady, rebellious atmosphere of this period produced some of the best libertarian SF ever written: In Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1961), one man fights back against a dystopian regime that enforces rigid equality of outcome through “handicaps” that stifle excellence. In Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion (1962) militarists from Earth visit an isolated colony and meet a peaceful libertarian society whose people call themselves “Gands” (after Gandhi). In Poul Anderson’s No Truce with Kings (1963), aliens come to a post-apocalyptic Earth to “help” the backwards natives resolve their feuds, but the mission goes awry.
In Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), a lunar colony rebels against Earth’s oppressive control in a struggle for independence mirroring the American Revolution. In Jack Vance’s Emphyrio (1969), the people of Halma, inspired by a legendary hero, lead a revolt against the planet’s overlords who have outlawed free trade. In Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day (1970) every aspect of life is planned by a world government run by a central computer called “Uni”—that is, until a group rises up.
In Shea and Wilson’sThe Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), readers meet libertarian characters as they are drawn into a surreal, hallucinatory web of conspiracy theories related to the global Illuminati and its control of world governments. Other favorites from the era include Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) and F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels Within Wheels . (1988)
… (By the 1980s and 1990s…) “A more overt, principled libertarian strain was emerging in prolific writers like Vernor Vinge, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford (longtime contributing editor for Reason magazine), Victor Milán, F. Paul Wilson, and L. Neil Smith.”
Finally, Hill’s well-informed article – so good that it deserves inclusion within our ongoing Appreciation series celebrating our 40-year anniversary – puts his themes into a deeper and more illuminating historical context, by intriguingly tracing themes and aspects of modern science fiction back through the centuries.
“Although some critics trace SF’s roots all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, or, as Nabokov once argued, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, most scholars agree that the genre as we know it began with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which many libertarians understand to be a cautionary tale about what happens when power-seeking men, under the guise of progress, devise a promethean monster (the State) that takes on an uncontrollable life of its own,” Hill writes.
“Whether Shelley—whose parents were the libertarian feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the “father of modern anarchism” William Godwin—intended this reading or not is unknown. Nevertheless, Mikayla Novak argues that the story remains a libertarian favorite for “the ways in which Mary Shelley grapples with matters of individuality, free will, and moral choices, and the place of individuals situated within broader civil society.”
At least to me, Hill’s analysis of such a classic work – which I read decades ago with great pleasure and which still haunts the 20th and 21st century imagination for good and ill – suggests that Mary Shelley’s prophetic 1818 novel (not coincidentally subtitled “or, The Modern Prometheus”) might well be due for consideration by LFS members for a future Prometheus Hall of Fame nomination.
But those are just a few of the juicy excerpts from a lengthy article well worth reading. Check out Hill’s full essay on Quillette – and if you like it, stick around there to read more.
* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: The final Appreciations in our initial Best Novel series, which will culminate next week with a combined essay by William H. Stoddard about Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth and its sequel Causes of Separation, the 2018 and 2019 Prometheus Awardwinners 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 in the long run than the cesspool of politics) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world for all.