The 58th World Science Fiction Convention (Chicon) welcomed over five-thousand fans to Chicago this past Labor Day weekend. One small event in this annual behemoth was the bestowing of the Prometheus Award for best liberty-oriented science fiction novel. Currently sponsored by the Libertarian Futurist Society (founded in 1982), this award was established in 1979 by L. Neil Smith to honor those works of fiction past and present that best promote freedom.
The winner this year was Vernor Vinge for his novel, A Deepness in the Sky. (In the past, Vinge won this award for his Marooned in Realtime.) He also took the Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of the year.
For the Hall of Fame award, Hans Christian Andersen won for his "The Emperor's New Clothes." Even though this story is nearly one-hundred-seventy years old, its message of citizens so frightened and brainwashed that they distort their perceptions of reality in order to please their ruler is still timely. Let us hope that we small voices proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes will likewise awaken the populace to their self-delusions regarding the present political myth-making.
The Prometheus Award ceremony itself was both exciting and disappointing. The event was exciting in the fact that fans of freedom had a focal point for their common interest. It was disappointing in that fewer than two-dozen people out of those five-thousand-plus Chicon attendees thought the awarding of the Prometheus plaque and gold coin worth the time and effort to attend.
Still, quantity is no guarantee of quality. (And, of course, Vinge's triumph in the Hugo Awards proved a mitigating factor in contemplating the low turnout.) Writer Wendy McElroy discussed the award and her path to freedom (which included reading Ayn Rand's Anthem.) In his acceptance speech, Vinge talked about his history in the liberty movement. (His first eye-awakening moment came when reading David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom.) He also pointed out that those who are dedicated to increasing personal freedom are often a contentious lot. Despite our common goals, there are any number of gradations from anarchists of various stripes to limited government libertarians to Objectivists.
I see the importance of this award less in the attention it garners but more in its recognition of the vitally crucial role fiction -- and especially novel-length fiction -- plays in spreading the ideas of liberty and exciting and energizing those who recognize how necessary freedom is in living any kind of a truly human existence.
While many people (such as Vernor Vinge) might cite a nonfiction book as a primary influence (and, indeed, I have been told by some individuals that fiction is "a waste of time"), most readers respond more strongly to fiction than to an essay, research report, or academic tome. That is precisely the reaction we must capitalize if we are to win the hearts as well as the minds of the majority of citizens.
Unfortunately, substantial obstacles must first be overcome for this strategy to succeed.
A short story can pack a big wallop into a small package. This kind of hit-and-run literary endeavor, however, rarely garners a large audience. Science fiction magazines, for example, barely cling to existence. Circulations are small and variable. Any particular story has a short shelf life. Not only are few selected for single-author collections or best-of-the-year series, such books do not enjoy major sales.
Both professional and semi-professional publications in this field drift in and out of existence on a regular basis. Even the first such title, Amazing Stories, established by Hugo Gernsback in 1926, has been on life-support more than once. Indeed, it is currently in suspension, perhaps to be resuscitated yet again by a new owner. Such vagaries of the market make it difficult for writers sympathetic to freedom to find a venue for their wares. In addition, the competition for space is fierce. Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, for example, claims to receive 850 submissions per month...and many of the stories selected are by already published authors and/or by people personally known to the editor.
While web-based magazines are increasing in number, few of them offer payment to writers. Such virtual publications benefit from low production costs but have yet to prove themselves in the chaotic marketplace that is the World Wide Web.
Novels are the Holy Grail of most fiction writers. There is something ineluctably solid and impressive about a book -- especially a novel that appears first in hardcover. Here again, of course, the would-be champion of freedom-oriented literature must battle not only the thousands of hopefuls sliding over the editorial transoms and into the slush piles but a very real bias against pro-liberty stories on the part of many editors.
The prejudice can be subtle and perhaps even subconscious, but those schooled in the humanities -- and especially women -- frequently absorb notions hostile to self-reliance, freedom, and small government. (For confirmation of this fact, peruse any list of libertarians -- or science fiction fans -- and see the great disparity that exists between the numbers of men and women and between those schooled in the sciences vs the humanities.)
Examine the shelves of science fiction (or other) novels for sale in any major bookstore and you will be struck by the difficulty in plucking the few freedom-friendly works from the indifferent multitudes. Some stalwarts, of course, stand out. Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, James Hogan, F. Paul Wilson, and L. Neil Smith are among the few who are published with any regularity. Dean Koontz's Dark Rivers of the Heart stands out in recent memory. Gregory Benford's work sometimes reveals his libertarian leanings as does the work of Nelson DeMille. And, of course, there are the four novels by Ayn Rand -- We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged -- that continue to sell in the millions.
Other than these, however, the selection is pretty much catch-as-catch-can. A gem here and there; a barely endurable story you read anyway because of its sympathy to your worldview.
The best of these books, however, draw you into their self-constructed universes. For a precious pause in time, you can cheer on heroes struggling to establish justice as they strive to break off the figurative or literal chains of tyranny. When you find yourself caring about the protagonists and victims fighting against foes either subtle or overwhelming, then you are primed to absorb and ponder the benefits and wonders of a life of freedom.
A good piece of fiction personalizes the issues involved in opposing bullies, both private and public. Rather than merely telling us what the negative effects of bad government policies might be, a novel shows us in the concrete terms of the characters' lives how devastating a new restriction can be; how emotionally wrenching it is to confront your fears and suffer the consequences of upholding your beliefs, your principles; how exalting it will be when you defy those who would crush and destroy you.
Such essential depictions of the fundamental ideas at stake can spur us to action we might otherwise never dare to take.
To win back our freedom, we must do more than merely contemplate abstract ideas and nod sagely at their correctness. We must discover motivation strong enough within ourselves -- and inspire it in the hearts of others who would join us -- if we are ever to launch ourselves fully and forcefully into the arena of the real world; a stage where you can endure actual harm and perhaps even lose your life.
A novel can aid us in such endeavors. A story worthy of the best within us can spur us on in the face of obstinate resistance from our enemies or an internal reluctance that urges us to avoid waves, to surrender our ideals, or to grow complacent and "go along to get along."
The path of least resistance too easily leads us astray. If you need fortification in maintaining the energy and commitment necessary to rise above the crowd that threatens to pound you down, then buy novels that promote themes of freedom, read them, pass them along; encourage publishers to scour the literary ranks for more such works.
Even better, why don't you would-be writers out there sit down at your computers, face up to the daunting task of filling hundreds of blank pages with stirring prose, and tell me a story of freedom.