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The Prometheus—established in 1979, about the same time Tor was founded—is one of those niche awards. Its winner’s circle used to be dominated by a small clutch of explicit libertarians, such as Poul Anderson and L. Neil Smith, who made a brief run for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1999. According to Anders Monsen, editor of the Libertarian Futurist Society newsletter, the honor has moved toward novels like this year’s finalists: books that espouse no dogma but clearly engage themes of liberty and authority. “The general trend has been that the market has moved on,” Monsen says. “J. Neil Schulman [author of The Rainbow Cadenza] moved on to nonfiction, and L. Neil Smith is not selling. Instead, libertarian ideas have penetrated the mainstream more; they’re easier to recognize. Our mission is to promote libertarian science fiction, but it’s also to promote libertarianism in science fiction more generally.”
This year, Tor’s Prometheus finalists included three alternate history novels. One is Jo Walton’s Ha’penny, the second in a series set in a Britain where a 1941 “peace with honor” forestalls World War II. Another is Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator, set in a communist Italian People’s Republic being infiltrated by capitalist travelers from a parallel universe. The third—only a slightly alternate history, since the turning point is the 2000 election—is Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, in which a fractured family dodges the security state after a terror attack. The fourth nominee was Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin, a space opera centered on humanity’s struggle against alien colonizers and enslavers. Similar themes of slavery and freedom guide the fifth finalist: Fleet of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, a prequel to the popular and long-lived Ringworld series.
In July, Prometheus announced a tie for first place between two of the alternate histories, Ha’penny and The Gladiator. A Hall of Fame prize is also awarded each year to an older book, so those two reconsiderations of failed versions of totalitarianism will be entered into the record books alongside that classic about control, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
Taken together, this fairly diverse bunch of novels demonstrates a strange but familiar kind of science fiction alchemy: Writers with a jumble of competing views, working with editors spanning the political spectrum, churn out books for the mass market that turn out to be surprisingly effective propaganda pieces for liberty and against government.
Scratch a civil libertarian, and you’ll often find a 15-year-old who read a lot of Philip K. Dick. Ask a college guy protesting censorship at his student newspaper for his inspirations, and there’s a good chance Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will come up. Meet someone who thinks there might be an upside to anarchy, and you have probably found a girl who once read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or a boy who loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
“I suspect S.F. has an individualistic, antiauthoritarian trend to it not least because so many of the people who read and write it (not all by any means, but quite a few) are innerdirected introverts who make neither good leaders nor good followers,” emails Harry Turtledove, a best-selling author whose most famous novels pose questions about contingency in history and the importance of individual action. “Am I talking about myself? Well, now that you mention it, yes. But I ain’t the only one, not even close.”
Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the goateed and bespectacled Tor eminence who edited two of the house’s Prometheus finalists this year, draws a direct line between youthfulness and openness to libertarian ideas. “Young people read fiction to figure out how the world works,” he says, “and science fiction is an extremely effective, quick way of testing your views of how the world works.” Paraphrasing the late novelist and critic Thomas Disch, Hayden says, “Enormous quantities of science fiction and fantasy are about power, and who needs power fantasies more than teenagers, people who have a little bit of power for the first time in their lives and need to think about how power works?”
The god in the machine, the man who roped science fiction and
libertarianism together, is Robert A.
Heinlein. The author of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the half-dozen most influential libertarians of the 20th century, and much of the science fiction written after his heyday is an attempt to answer questions or squabble with conclusions he first posited in his books.
“Heinlein’s great strength,” Doctorow says, “was that he could put his arm around your shoulder and say, ‘Look kid, I’m going to make you understand how the world works. What the fuck does a woman want? What drives society? How does a military work?’ That’s incredibly powerful, especially to an adolescent.” Nielsen Hayden cites the same aspect of Heinlein’s work to explain why he has been “catnip to science fiction fans for so many generations.”
When asked about their early influences in interviews for this article, nearly all of Tor’s Prometheus finalists mentioned Heinlein, who once said of himself, “I’m so much a libertarian that I have no use for the whole libertarian movement.” Turtledove read Heinlein at 11, after which he was “off like a shot.” Walton read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress at 14 and “was very drawn to it.” MacLeod calls Heinlein “the giant of S.F. who stimulated the most libertarian thought.” Buckell, author of Ragamuffin, says Heinlein “didn’t do much” for him but pays tribute to the author’s influence with a hasty, “Not that there’s anything wrong with Heinlein!”
Buckell’s critique of Heinlein—and other mid-20th-century science fiction greats, such as the not-so-libertarian Isaac Asimov—is that they missed something crucial about the political and cultural diversity of the future. They “rewrite suburban America in the future,” he says. “In the ’50s and ’60s, people were a little more didactic. In this day and age, people expect a little more subtlety out of their fiction.”
A new crop of Tor authors is delivering just that kind of subtlety. MacLeod calls his The Execution Channel “an angry book.” But even when writing in a rage, Hayden says, MacLeod “has got a talent which I wish more science fiction writers had.…His books, all of them, have real politics in them, in which there is a real diversity of viewpoints, each of which gets off some good lines.” It’s a talent, Hayden feels, that is becoming incrementally more common and exponentially more valued within science fiction (which Hayden prefers to call “speculative fiction” or “idea fiction,” since speculation and ideas are what the category is really all about).
“I think the genre has grown up in very many ways,” says Claire Eddy, who has been an editor at Tor for 23 years. “There are aspects to our society that are more Blade Runner and less Star Trek.” Science fiction has become more intimate, she says. “There is much more of the human element and how we as a species will deal with the science.”
Science fiction appeals to people grappling with these heavy issues in their personal lives as well as on a broader social level, Buckell adds, “because our books often deal with creating whole new societies. Whether it’s a technology that revolutionizes things, or people leaving a planet to start a new colony, it’s people trying something revolutionary.”
Buckell’s Ragamuffin, for example, depicts humanity struggling for independence from humiliating bondage to aliens, who use travel and communication restrictions and mind control to keep human populations small and powerless, while offering the Orwellian assurance that humanity has already been “emancipated.” Themes of colonialism and political oppression run through Buckell’s books, which isn’t surprising: He was born in Grenada in 1979 and grew up in the messy aftermath of a communist coup.