Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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