March 27th, 2018

Prometheus Award finalists

The judging committee for the LFS best novel award has just chosen its finalists and announced the results. This year we went for six finalists, rather than our usual five, partly because there was a small gap between #5 and #6 and a big gap between #6 and #7, and partly because on judge only rated three of the 13 nominees, and giving 0 points to the others biases the outcomes; with that ballot omitted one of the top five was different.

Doug Casey and John Hunt, Drug Lord: High Ground, is about an idealistic young man who finds out about a drug that enhances intelligence and grants the ability to recognize truths that a person was not previously focusing on, and starts making it available on the black market, leading to a moral panic. This was a really clearly libertarian work intellectually, but I didn't think the drug's effects were defined clearly enough to make it convincing science fiction, and the characters seemed shallow to the point of two-dimensionality.

Travis Corcoran, The Powers of the Earth, is the first of two volumes; the second is supposed to come out on May 1 this year. It envisions an anarchocapitalist colony on the Moon, made possible by the discovery of antigravity, and founded by an American entrepreneur with dissident political views—a colony that's now economically successful enough to be a tempting target for expropriation by the American government, and thus needs to prepare to defend itself. The founder is the central figure, but the novel has a lot of viewpoint characters who don't all see things the same way, and Corcoran manages to tell his story with surprisingly little lecturing and to explore the problems of the society he envisions. I copy edited both volumes in early 2017 and liked them enough to sign up for hardback versions on the Kickstarter; I liked this a lot.

Karl Gallagher, the Torchship series, is three volumes that were nominated as a single work. It's set in a future where Earth has been wiped out by runaway artificial intelligence, and the various interstellar colonies have adopted several different strategies for avoiding having the same thing happen to them—one of which results in starships being navigated with slide rules and optical astronomical instruments, right out of Heinlein's juveniles. There are libertarian aspects, but they aren't always in sharp focus, and I think the writing could benefit from a little more depth of character interaction.

Sarah Hoyt, Darkship Revenge, continues the series whose first volume won a Prometheus Award some years back, with her main character being entangled both in the established political conflicts of Earth between elitist seacities and "USAian" rebels, and in the appearance of a new threat to human freedom—and at the same time having to cope with having a newborn daughter and with her husband having disappeared and perhaps been taken prisoner. I like the idea of the "USAian" religion as an analog of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, but Athena Hera Sinistra isn't a really appealing viewpoint character, which limits my enjoyment of this series.

Ken MacLeod, The Corporation Wars: Emergence is the final volume of a series; the first two volumes were finalists last year. The entire series has terraforming and space industrial robots in a distant solar system attaining self-awareness and a desire for political freedom, and uploaded human beings being recruited to fight a war against them—with both groups being divided into multiple factions. The series as a whole has some clever jokes about political philosophy and some interesting discussion of the nature of consciousness; but I felt that the third volume had too much action and too little thought to be a really good conclusion to the series.

Andy Weir, Artemis, has a lunar colony founded by a Kenyan economist as a tourist destination and a home for a small number of (mostly wealthy) emigrants; it's economically relatively free and Weir has a historical model for why this should be so, but it doesn't have anything like an ideology of individual rights, and in fact it scarcely has the rule of law at all. There's a clever plot that's part noir and part caper and that was entertaining to read; but I found the climactic crisis hard to take seriously, as it turned on a purportedly brilliant character having made some really bad choices about technological design.

I think that all together, this year's finalists are at a reasonably high level and are fairly clearly libertarian for the most part. Corcoran is my flat out favorite, Gallagher and Weir have a lot of good points, and Hoyt and MacLeod are acceptable, though they weren't my picks for finalists; only Casey and Hunt leave me seriously unsatisfied.