Travis Corcoran’s acceptance speech for ‘The Powers of the Earth’

Travis Corcoran

Travis Corcoran won the Prometheus Award for his excellent novel, The Powers of the Earth. He couldn’t make it to the Worldcon for this weekend’s awards ceremony, but here is the text of his acceptance speech, read by Chris Hibbert. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.

This vision of science fiction is under attack by collectivists, and hard SF and libertarian SF are being pushed out of publisher lineups and off of bookstore shelves.

Very well. We have intelligence, we have skills and we’re not afraid of hard work. Let’s rise to this challenge!

The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

. . . But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government – they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

Thus we get to one of the most important themes of The Powers of the Earth and its sequel, Causes of Separation: the concepts of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The tri-chotomy was first codified in an essay—titled “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States”—by economist Albert Hirschman in 1970.

An aside: I love that this essay was penned while Americans walked on the moon.

Hirschman argued that when a vendor or government fails to deliver, people can either remain loyal, can speak out within the system, or can exit the system.

The problem we Americans have in 2018 is that there is no more frontier. Like the engineers in Christopher Priest’s “The Inverted World”, we moved west until we hit an ocean, and that has been our doom.

When there is a frontier, it is impossible to deny that the pie is growing. Want a farm? Go hack one out of the forest. Want a house? Go build one.

Once the frontier is gone, value can still be created ab initio. The pie is not fixed. For the price of a cheap computer you can create a novel or a software package. With a $100 video camera you can be a garage Kubrick. With a free Craigslist ad you can be a dog-walking entrepreneur.

. . . But the closing of the frontier made it easier for the collectivists to argue that the pie is fixed. And—worse yet—it made it impossible for the rest of us to get away.

We’d all love to live in David Friedman’s polycentric legal system, Robert Nozick’s meta-utopia, Moldbug’s patchwork, or Scott Alexander’s archipelago – a place where each of us could live by rules we choose, and people who preferred another set could live by those… but we can’t, and that’s for one reason and one reason alone: the collectivists who can’t bear to let anyone, anywhere, be ungoverned.

Totalitarian ideologies – Nazism, Communism, Islamofascism, Progressivism – all subscribe to the Mussolini quote “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

The Nazi sees any area not under Nazi control as a threat.

The communist sees any area not under communist control as a threat.

The Islamofascist sees any area outside of Dar al Islam as Dar al-Harb—a populace to be subjugated.

Collectivists sees anything not under collectivist control as a threat—and as an opportunity.

A threat, because areas not under collectivist control always work better. It is no accident that just as the Soviets jammed broadcasts from the west, Nazis outlawed American music, Chinese built a Great Firewall, so too do progressives shadow-ban free voices on Twitter and Facebook and expel people from conventions.

An opportunity, because of what totalitarians do when they see a patch of freedom: they try to take it over. “All within, nothing outside”.

When the patch of freedom is a state, we get the long march through the institutions, as outlined by communist Antonio Gramsci and refined by communist Rudi Dutschke. First they become teachers, then they influence the students, then they take over the courts . . . and then it’s not too long until some O’Brien is holding up four fingers to some Winston Smith, crushing out the last of the wrongthink.

When the patch of freedom is a subculture the mechanism is different—it’s discussed in the brilliant essay “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” by David Chapman.

One core attribute of totalitarians is that they don’t create, they steal. And because they steal, they are both confused by and hate those who do create. As Barrack Obama said “You didn’t build that.” As the internet meme says: “You made this? <pause> I made this.”

Since the first Worldcon in 1939 science fiction has been a libertarian territory under attack from authoritarians. Futurian Donald Wollheim was a communist, and argued that all of science fiction “should actively work for the realization of the . . . world-state as the only . . . justification for their activities”.

Wollheim failed with his takeover in 1939—he was physically removed from Worldcon—but he started a Gramscian long march through the institutions, and it worked. In the current year conventions, editors, and publishing houses are all cordy-cepted. The sociopaths have pushed the geeks out and have taken over the cultural territory.

“You made this? <pause> I made this.”

When the state tries to take your home, they come with guns, and you have to fight them with guns, if at all.

When a subculture tries to take your home, they come with snark and shame and entryism . . . and you fight them by making better art.

The bad news for us libertarians is that the cities we built have fallen. The publishers? Gone. The bookstore shelves? Gone.

But what of it? We have Amazon, we have print on demand, we have Kickstarter.

And, most importantly of all, we have the vital heart, the radiant core of science fiction: we can tell great stories about ornery individualism, about competent men and women using skills and hard work to overcome challenges. This is the one thing the collectivists can never steal from us, because it is antithetical to their nature.

There is not an ocean in front of us, dooming us to captivity—there is only sky. The frontier is still open.

Onward!

8 thoughts on “Travis Corcoran’s acceptance speech for ‘The Powers of the Earth’”

  1. I certainly saw the analogies between Aristillus and Iceland that Travis Corcoran describes. But I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that “the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government.”

    It’s true that Iceland had no police and no armed forces (not even a volunteer army such as Aristillus has). But it did have a judicial body, the Thing, and a presiding official, the Lawspeaker, whose principal duty was to recite the Icelandic legal code over the span of his three-year term. That legal code, in turn, was agreed on by discussion at the Thing.

    “Government” is generally defined as a body that has a monopoly of force, or of certain types of force. Was the Thing a monopoly? Not of enforcement, which anyone was free to do, and which was commonly done by godhar after purchasing claims against wrongdoers. Not of arbitration, either: anyone could mediate between the parties to a dispute, or one party could grant the other the right of “self-judgment,” trusting him to exact a fair compensation. (See William Ian Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking for details on all this.)

    But the Thing had the power of compulsory process: Any Icelander could summon any other to be tried there, and if he failed to appear, he faced outlawry, and had to flee the island or be killed. And no other body on Iceland was permitted to exercise this power. The Thing was a unique court of last resort that could not safely be defied. That looks like a monopoly, and one that applies to an important kind of force. Iceland’s government was so ultraminimal that it makes the usual minarchy look like a police state by comparison, but I think it has to count as a government, in a way that the Boardroom Group on Aristillus seems not to. Corcoran’s reference to it as the “Icelandic Free State” is an accurate description.

  2. Was this speech actually delivered out loud to some sort of audience somewhere or does it just exist on the Internet? That’s never been very clear to me.

    1. We had a one-hour slot at the WorldCon in San Jose on Friday afternoon. There was a reasonable audience; I didn’t count, but I’d estimate it at 30-40 people, which was as large as some of the readings I (Chris Hibbert) attended.

      We had a ceremony, and recorded the whole thing. I hope to be able to post the recording here shortly. We’ve posted previous ceremonies on our press release page. Travis Corcoran wrote the speech above, which I read after announcing “The Powers of the Earth” as the winner.

      We have had a slot (usually Friday afternoons) at nearly every WorldCon in recent memory. Sometimes some of the recipients can make it to WorldCon, but this isn’t the first time without any recipients present. We’ve also done presentations at Cons more convenient to the authors when they haven’t been able to travel to the WorldCon.

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