The Top 6 Libertarian Science Fiction Novels of the Year


this one should win, probably

Step right up and get yer dose of new libertarian science fiction right here, folks. The Libertarian Futurist Society has announced this year's Prometheus Award finalists. They include some old standbys—Vernon Vinge, Ken MacLeod, and Terry Pratchett—and some new names publishing in new venues—Thomas L. James and Carl C. Carlsson.

The Children of the Sky (TOR Books)—A sequel to Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and in the same universe as Prometheus-winning A Deepness in the Sky, this novel focuses on advanced humans, stranded and struggling to survive on a low-tech planet populated by Tines, dog-like creatures who are only intelligent when organized in packs. The most libertarian of the three human factions and their local allies must cope with the world's authoritarian factions to advance peaceful trade over war and coercion.

The Freedom Maze (Small Beer Press)—Delia Sherman's young-adult fantasy novel focuses on an adolescent girl of 1960 who is magically sent back in time to 1860 when her family owned slaves on a Louisiana plantation. With her summer tan, she's mistaken for a slave herself, and she learns the hard way what life was like. In the process, she comes to appreciate the values of honor, respect, courage, and personal responsibility.

In the Shadow of Ares (Amazon Kindle edition)- This young-adult first novel by Thomas L. James and Carl C. Carlsson focuses on a Mars-born female teenager in a near-future, small civilization on Mars, where hardworking citizens are constantly and unjustly constrained by a growing, centralized authority whose excessive power has led to corruption and conflict.

Ready Player One (Random House)—Ernest Cline's genre-busting blend of science fiction, romance, suspense, and adventure describes a virtual world that has managed to evolve an order without a state and where entrepreneurial gamers must solve virtual puzzles and battle real-life enemies to save their virtual world from domination and corruption. The novel also stresses the importance of allowing open access to the Internet for everyone.

The Restoration Game (Pyr Books)—Set in a world whose true nature is a deeper mystery, this philosophical and political thriller by Ken MacLeod (winner of Prometheus awards for Learning the World, The Star Fraction, and The Stone Canal) explores the dark legacy of communism and the primacy of information in shaping what is "reality" amid Eastern European intrigue, online gaming, romance and mystery.

Snuff (Harper Collins)—A Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett (winner of a Prometheus Award for *Night Watch*, also set in Discworld), *Snuff* blends comedy, drama, satire, suspense and mystery as a police chief investigates the murder of a goblin and finds himself battling discrimination. The mystery broadens into a powerful drama to extend the world's recognition of rights to include these long-oppressed and disdained people with a sophisticated culture of their own.

For more on the wide world of libertarian SF, check out my 2008 story hooked to that year's award, "Tor's Worlds Without Death or Taxes."

Jesse Walker wrote about Ken Macleod in 2000. Peter Suderman briefly reviewed Children of the Sky in the April issue.

And check out Reason TV's chat with Vernon Vinge:

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  1. These are all considered libertarian because they are set in a future of flying cars where roads are no longer needed.

  2. Associating libertarianism with science fiction does no favors to the fan of either genre.

    1. No, actually, I’m a libertarian and I like science fiction but get disgusted with lovers of totalitarian regimes like Arthur C. Clarke. Glad I found this article.

  3. I continue to be baffled that a Trotskyite and Wobblie, who self-describes as a socialist and depicts Libertopia as a filthy, polluted, hell-hole filled with violent fanatics, whose main “libertarian” character in his most famous series of books is a power-mad billionaire who enslaves millions of human minds to do his bidding, keeps winning Prometheus awards. Baffled. It’s like they say “This book at least said the word ‘libertarian,’ let’s give it an award, who cares about the context!”

    1. I didn’t understand anything you said.

      Are you angry with libertarianism or science fiction?

      1. He is justifiably peeved over the notion that Ken MacLeod could be considered libertarian by any sane definition of the word.

        I’ve read some of his stuff. Its pretty good, but I wouldn’t say it presents libertarian characters or philosophy in a positive light.

        1. Yes, but online gambling is legal in his books.

        2. I like his books too, but the constant under-current of hate for capitalism and individualism is tiring.

          1. The obvious solution, of course, is to take him at his work and steal his books.

            1. Take him at his word, that is.

              1. Take him at his word, then take his work.


          2. I think the problem is you take science fiction too seriously.

          3. As far as Commie cred goes, MacLeod can’t hold a candle to China Mieville, yet Mieville can write entertaining novels that don’t club you over the head with his ideology.

            1. Yeah, from my ventures into Mieville, I had no idea what his personal ideology was, nor do I much care.

              Red Ken kind of beats you over the head with it, like Iain Banks does.

              1. Banks isn’t that bad about it, at least in his Culture novels. Richard Morgan is worse, but his books are good enough that I don’t care.

                1. People tell me I should read the Takeshi Kovacs stuff, but after Market Forces I was done. The entire book is a broken windows fallacy.

                  1. You should read the Takeshi Kovacs stuff. And none of his other stuff.

                  2. Definitely read the Takeshi Kovacs books. They’re much better than Market Forces and its silly premise and even sillier economics. Though even in that book the car battles were excellent – I think the guy writes “cinematic” action scenes better than anybody out there.

                    1. Yeah, Morgan’s books are basically designed to be adapted into movies. When he escapes the VR torture sessions in Altered Carbon and goes on his murder rampage in the VR facility is something I can’t wait to see on the screen (the films rights were acquired a while back, but no production yet).

                    2. Yes, read Altered Carbon. All of you should read Altered Carbon. If you don’t I’ll know.

                      Morgan wrote Market Forces years before AC and couldn’t get it published. For obvious reasons.

              2. At least Banks isn’t called a libertarian, except, of course, by the idiots at io9. But to be fair, it wasn’t about Dr. Who, so we can’t really expect io9 to really know anything about it, right?

                1. If I ever go completely insane and become dictator of the world, many io9 writers will be high on the purge list. High.

                  1. NutraSweet knows far too much about what io9 writers know about. I find this suspicious, and wonder whether he is actually a…writer for io9. Thoughts, ProL?

                    1. At least a regular commenter, kissing ass to the idiot writers all while secretly nursing his Dr. Who hate. Which I share.

                    2. ion and I are like Warty and his granny porn. Warty tries to stop, but he just can’t.

                      I do comment there, but give up in disgust after a few minutes. It’s like trying to discuss financial instruments with freshman art studio majors.

                    3. io9 not ion. Stupid autocorrect.

                    4. That is a lie. I don’t try to stop.

              3. Mieville actually has his PhD in Marxist Law and has run as a Commie for Parliament.

                Again, he really only gets ideological in Iron Council and that is very lightly. In his own words, “it’s all about the monsters.”

                1. China Mieville. He doesn’t just write fantasy, he believes it.

    2. Libertopia as a filthy, polluted, hell-hole filled with violent fanatics, whose main “libertarian” character in his most famous series of books is a power-mad billionaire who enslaves millions of human minds to do his bidding

      That’s what we were aiming for, right? Wait, the answer is “no”?

      1. His is basically a o3-level understanding of libertarianism, childish in its willful misunderstanding and malicious in its mis-statement of what libertarians believe.

        1. So…just like most critics of libertarianism.

        2. Wait. Van Jones writes science fiction?

  4. I have yet to read Snuff but I have read Night Watch – I fail to see how his books promote any kind of ideology apart from humanism. (Not to mention that, strictly speaking, if you have to have your writers and books stuck into a genre, he isn’t really a SF writer)

    1. I don’t look to science fiction to promote libertarianism. Nice when it does, but I find that many books labeled as “libertarian” really aren’t. And, to be sure, I bet most authors who are libertarian-leaning are more interested in telling a good story, playing with science and technology, etc. than in politics.

      1. We’ve talked about this before, but there is very little fiction that is about libertarianism. Most things latched onto as libertarianism are depictions of antiauthoritarianism, left-anarchy, and utopianism.

        L. Neil Smith comes the closest to depicting it as a political philosophy, but leans toward the polemic. James P. Hogan flirts with it, but has the baggage of being a Holocaust denier and J. Neil Schulman’s “libertarian” government requires a period of sexual slavery for all women and allows some people to be hunted for sport.

        Even the “libertarian” world of The Unicorporated Man requires severe economic and cultural coercion to operate.

        1. To also rehash old territory, some of the more interesting studies of libertarian concepts have often come from nonlibertarian authors. For instance, I think the Spacers were mostly libertarian, though Asimov would muck that up occasionally because he couldn’t quite accept the total cult of the individual he had in the Spacer culture.

          1. To move away from books, Bioshock is an obvious example of a study of libertarian concepts. Basically argues that even if you did set up libertopia, humans would band together and demand collectivism, and you could only stop it by resorting to becoming an increasingly oppressive government structure.

            1. Bishock is about Objectivism not libertarianism.

            2. My problem with Bioshock as a critique on anything is that it deals with people trapped at the bottom of the ocean who experimented with gene-altering superdrugs as their leader became more and more of a hypocrite, establishing the very things he claimed to despise. The people in Bioshock aren’t really human any more so criticizing objectivism or libertarians or whatever because it can’t work with human beings doesn’t apply here because the people who bring down Rapture aren’t necessarily human anymore. Moreover, the multitude of property rights violations in the form of children being kidnapped and experimented on would result in endless forms of parental suicidal revenge in normal society. On top of this, there is no completely free market in Bioshock because free trade with the surface world is forbidden, thus necessitating a black market that gives rise to the types of people who help bring down Rapture. Good game, despite all this though even if it was kind of easy. I just don’t buy it as a valid critique of free markets, non-coercion, and the like.

        2. John C. Wright’s Golden Age series seems pretty explicitly libertarian. I had thought Randian, even, but I guess he converted from atheism to Christianity before it was published, or so wikipedia avers.

          1. I’ll second the John C. Wright observation. Those books are more explcitly libertarian than any other sci-fi I can remember.

        3. Does Terry Goodkind or is his stuff just Randianismist?

          1. Count. Does he count.

          2. Does he go? Nudge, nudge, say no more.

          3. It’s pretty much Randianism. Richard does become, after all, THE ultimate ruler, particularly in the end, even if he’s benevolent about it.

            You could say he’s the ultimate TOP MEN.

        4. Perhaps Charles Stross fits in there as well.

          1. Sometimes Stross seems to be hinting at libertarian tendencies, but never quite gets there. It’s kind of confusing, actually.

            1. Good way to put it. As PL noted up thread, the main focus is a good story and Stross does that.

            2. He gives a pretty good, “take that” to libertarianism in Iron Sunrise (the story of the formation of the Septagon system). OTOH, his protagonists live in a world where they purchase nation-state type services/insurance (protection, ransoming if captured) from quasi-sovereign companies. I don’t find the Laundry series to be all that libertarian; rather a Dilbert-esque raging at the incompetence and faddism of technical management.

              IMHO, in Stross’s case, his politics don’t interfere with his stories, or really even show up that much. YMMV.

              1. Stross had a rant against libertarianism on his blog a while back that pretty much proved he doesn’t actually know what “libertarian” means. He also pals around with Krug-man. Disappointing, but i still enjoy his work.

          2. Stross isn’t libertarian, but he loves to satirize bureacratic nonsense.

        5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I sense quite a few libertarian themes in Robert Heinlein’s novels. Some (For Us, The Living) embrace a slightly more libertine society than pure libertarianism, and I wasn’t a big fan of the social welfare program in that, even if EVERYONE was on the dole. But obviously The Moon is a Harsh Mistress fits the bill, as does Farnham’s Freehold (I’m assuming on the last one; haven’t yet had a chance to read it).

          Forgive me for sounding a bit too idealistic, but I find that the beauty of fiction, like music, is that there are so many interpretations. That is why Steigerwald posted earlier today on whether The Hunger Games series is libertarian: no one can say for certain.

          1. Heinlein definitely falls in that camp but I think most of the posts so far are referring to current writers. “Moon” may be the #1 libertarian sci-fi novel. Keep in mind that Heinlein was actually a pretty standard pre-WWII leftist until his second (third?) marriage to Virginia who is often given credit for his libertarian shift. And even near his death, he was still adopting acceptance of the New Deal along the “extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses” type thinking.

            Another deceased libertarian style sci-fi writer was Poul Anderson. And, in some ways, Ursula LeGuin.

            1. Okay. After I had posted that one I started wondering if the focus was on current authors. I thought it strange that Heinlein was not on the list for “Libertarian Sci-Fi Writers”. Chalk it up to the DayQuil I guess.

              1. “Oh, it’s not the speed really so much, I just wish I hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup this morning.”

          2. A lot of it is the difference between liberty-themed and libertarian. I’d say Moon is libertarian and anarchy-capitalist, actually exploring the mechanisms of libertarianism (even if Heinlein as a whole is more about a cranky individualism than libertarianism per se). But most things are liberty-themed and antiauthoritarian than libertarian. It’s an important distinction when it comes to branding and laying claim on cultural trends and works of popular fiction.

            (Farnham is not either, rather a satire on post-apocalypse fiction and racism that mostly fails at its goals for my taste.)

        6. >requires a period of sexual slavery for all women

          NO DEAL! It’s all or nothing!

          1. Raise your hand if you’d like to be a sexual slave for women.

        7. But in the Unincorporated Man, it wasn’t a “libertarian” world because adults began partly owned. The newcomer taught that contracts you were forced into are invalid. He inspired and led blowback against the coercion in other words.

          Did I miss something there?

    2. I’d say Snuff could definitely be considered for Vetinari’s defense of drug use (that doesn’t kill you or while operating heavy machinery) plus a telling of a civil rights movement, even if it is more fantasy.

      I think Night Watch is Pratchett’s best work (Going Postal is an almost immeasurable second), and I do like some of the themes: Service to the law over service to the man, the strong stand it takes against torture and police states in general, and especially its cynical attitude to revolutions and revolutionaries (I don’t have the book on me, but there is one great passage about how revolutionaries are always disappointed when they stand for “The People” because it turns out the people are small minded and distrustful of cleverness and concerned with petty things like dollars and cents. Thus, revolutionaries end up thinking that it’s not their ideas that are flawed, but their people, and they trot out programs to make people better).

      Also, dude, Terry Pratchett.

      1. I enjoyed when Vimes was charged with overseeing a public protest and ended up siding with the protestors. When asked why he was abandoning his post he said (paraphrasing) “It’s my duty to protect the people, and there sure seemed to be more people to protect on this side of the barricade”.

      2. The Night Watch books are a very nice account of the, wait for it, night watchmen minarchic society. Vetinari is a dictator, sure, but he never does anything but keep the peace (and the wheels of commerce turning).

        1. One the one hand, Pratchett has a keen eye for pointing out some of the absurdities. He riffs on the economics of ‘insurance’ back in the first book, when he was mainly making fun of the fantasy genre, and I’ve used the Ankh-Morpork Firefighter’s Guild as a textbook example of perverse governmental incentives (paid by the number of fires put out).

          On the other hand, I don’t know if the Thieves Guild is mocking business, the government, or both.

          1. It’s hard to tell with things like the Thieves Guild, because it seems like an insane mockery and satire, but then there’s a hint of “maybe this crazy idea isn’t actually entirely crazy.”

        2. Isn’t the character of Reacher Gilt in Going Postal a caricature of John Galt, and thereby, of libertarianism? It seemed pretty apparent to me that Pratchett was coming from the perspective that unrestrained capitalism was rapacious, corrupt, and ultimately much more evil than the ‘tyrant’ Vetinari.

          I love PTerry, but I wouldn’t classify him as a libertarian-leaning author.

          1. Reacher Guilt isn’t a capitalist–he’s a con man, as was/is Moist. Moist becomes a capitalist as the book wears on–even though many of his capitalist ideas start as scams, with the addition of honesty, they become money making bonanzas.

        3. Vetinari, through Moist, is responsible for the revitalization of the post office and the mint (which Moist uses to institute paper money).

  5. Let me give some props to Ready Player One. A really fun book, especially if you can remember ’80s pop culture.

    Not particularly libertarian, really, but a good read.

  6. Can anyone offer a Vernor Vinge reading guide? I haven’t read any of his stuff, but I hear he’s the guy.

    1. He’s the guy? I wanna be the guy too!

    2. How did it happen, Monk?

    3. I’ve read “Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky” & thought “Fire” was significantly better, but not everyone agrees. I think for most people, Vinge’s rep after “Fire” was based on his really original conceptualization of the way the laws of physics work in the galaxy. I won’t say more than that because it’ll spoil the big idea of the book.

      1. I disagree. While the conceptualizations in Fire were difficult to grasp at times, Deepness had its own strange physics that you had to wrap your head around. What I found to be worse about Fire was that overall it seemed more of the characters were just sort of whiny in general.

        I think Fire may have been slightly better from a science fiction standpoint, but worse overall as a book because of the characters. Sometimes a book (especially ones with so many POV changes) can drag on when you keep switching to the perspective of characters that annoy you.

        1. I’ll agree on your second para. I should have put that in: the characters in “Fire” were pretty weak (& also fairly predictable).

      2. “Fire upon the Deep” introduces the modular intelligence pseudocanines, one of the best alien races I’ve ever seen. Having said that, I’d recommend “The Peace War” and its sequel, “Marooned in Real Time.”

  7. I nominate Wool (Omnibus Edition).

  8. There were 6 libertarian science-fiction novels last year?

    Who knew?

    1. It’s a typo. She got it right the second time.

  9. What struck me in this list is how… unimaginative these books seem to be. You can do a high concept pitch for any of them (Shadow of Ares- “Podkayne meets Red Planet”) and there seems to be a high concentration of sequels.

    I love great SF, but from the descriptions, I’m not tempted to read any of these books.

    1. well, the Pratchett one is likely to be pretty funny, though not necessarily very libertarian.

    2. Ready Player One. For the fun.

  10. huhwhatt???? Register to comment now? I mean, I get it, but for a website called Reason it sure took them a long time.

    Also, when it comes to metaphors, the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may be apt; however, literally speaking, I think if a publisher couldn’t dole out for some decent cover art the book isn’t worth my time.

    1. for a website called Reason

      Does this qualify for a drink?

  11. Without having read any of these books, here’s my off the cuff review for each of them:

    CoS — Boring crap filled with extraneous, unremarkable characters and a tired central premise and “epic” (i.e., loose and directionless) narrative filling in for a missing plot.

    TFM: OMG, time travel *and* slavery?!?! With a Very Special Message about the power of hard work, friendship, and not being a slave? Where’s my checkbook?!

    ITSOA: “You know what would make a great book? Red Faction.”

    RPO: “You know what the problem with Matrix Reloaded was? Not enough representation of the entrepreneurial world.”

    TRG: Eastern European intrigue, online gaming, romance, and mystery, huh? Sounds like my sexual fantasies involving Veronica Zemanova. Well, minus the romance.

    Snuff: Goblin discrimination? Jesus.

    None of these books looks even remotely appealing.

  12. While I enjoy Terry Pratchett, he’s pretty much the opposite of a libertarian.

    Virtually all his novels seem to promote the idea that the best government is a benign socialist dictatorship run by a kindle genius (but utterly ruthless) dictator

    1. Damn it, we need edit.

      Kindly genius.

      1. It depends on how you define the government of Ankh-Morpork, especially with how you define the Guilds (are they businesses, government-enforced monopolies, or unions?). If you take the city as representative of Pratchett’s political posturing, it’s very hard to say. There isn’t a lot of publicly funded services mentioned besides the guards and the mint. The city’s military posture (at least when our heroes are calling the shots) is basically ‘why fight with someone you can do business with?’. The government encourages trade, individual rights, and business. And the only outright social prohibition is on mimes.

        My biggest problem with most fantasy worlds is my absolute revulsion with the feudal system and the divine rights of nobility. Pratchett’s world, or at least the parts the reader is supposed to sympathize with Ankh-Morpork and Lancre), doesn’t have that. The rulers are not above the law and do not rule because it’s their right as nobility. It may not be libertarian, but it’s a step in the right direction.

        1. It’s like a cross between minarchy and anarchosyndicalism, benignly neglected by a dictator who does the job so nobody worse can step in.

          1. I think a lot of the Ankh-Morpork characters are trying to not be what their natures would dictate. Besides the obvious fantasy contrasts (vampires that do not drink blood, ect) Vimes is a natural killer, Carrot is a natural leader, and Vetanari a natural tyrant.

  13. I read “Children of the Sky”. Kind of a let down from the previous novels. Might be setting up something good.

    The “most libertarian of the three human factions” are depicted as very nice, very stupid, wimps who keep getting fooled and beat up by humans and aliens.

    I don’t want them representing me.


  15. A new Vinge book. Sweet.

  16. That is exactly what I am talking about dude.

  17. I refuse to believe that there were six high-quality, libertarian, sci-fi books published this year.

  18. Its interesting that Science Fiction is so varied an example

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