40 Years of the Prometheus Award

Awards like the Hugo and the Nebula, which have been around for longer than the median person has been alive, are the exception. Science fiction is full of awards that were given out for a few years and then, for one reason or another, fell into shadows. Founding something is much easier than maintaining and perpetuating it.

The Prometheus Award is an interesting case. Founded by L. Neil Smith in 1979, the panel selected F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels Within Wheels as its inaugural winner. Then silence fell. 1980 and 1981 went by. It seemed that the first Prometheus Award would be the last. In 1982, the Libertarian Futurist Society took up the job of administering the award, and the Prometheus was given once more, to Smith’s The Probability Broach. Since then, the award has been granted once per year (with the notable exception of 1985, when no book was deemed worthy of the prize). Four decades is an impressive achievement.

The complete list of winners to date can be found below:

1979 — F. Paul Wilson, Wheels Within Wheels

1982 — L. Neil Smith, The Probability Broach

1983 — James P. Hogan, Voyage from Yesteryear

1984 — J. Neil Schulman, The Rainbow Cadenza

1985 — No Winner (“None of the Above”)

1986 — Victor Milan, Cybernetic Samurai

1987 — Vernor Vinge, Marooned in Realtime

1988 — Victor Koman, The Jehovah Contract

1989 — Brad Linaweaver, Moon of Ice

1990 — Victor Koman, Solomon’s Knife

1991 — Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind

1992 — Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, Fallen Angels

1993 — James P. Hogan, The Multiplex Man

1994 — L. Neil Smith, Pallas

1995 — Poul Anderson, The Stars are also Fire

1996 — Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction

1997 — Victor Koman, Kings of the High Frontier

1998 — Ken MacLeod, The Stone Canal

1999 — John Varley, The Golden Globe

2000 — Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky

2001 — L. Neil Smith, The Forge of the Elders

2002 — Donald Kingsbury, Psychohistorical Crisis

2003 — Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

2004 — F. Paul Wilson, Sims

2005 — Neal Stephenson, The System of the World

2006 — Ken MacLeod, Learning the World

2007 — Charles Stross, Glasshouse

2008 — Harry Turtledove, The Gladiator;

Jo Walton, Ha’penny

2009 — Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

2010 — Dani and Eytan Kollin, The Unincorporated Man

2011 — Sarah Hoyt, Darkship Thieves

2012 — Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze;

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

2013 — Cory Doctorow, Pirate Cinema

2014 — Cory Doctorow, Homeland;

Ramez Naam, Nexus

2015 — Daniel Suarez, Influx

2016 — Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

2017 — Johanna Sinisalo, The Core of the Sun

2018 — Travis Corcoran, The Powers of the Earth

To quote the Libertarian Futurist Society’s standard press release:

For four decades, the Prometheus Awards have recognized outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy that dramatize the perennial conflict between Liberty and Power, favor private social cooperation over legalized coercion, expose abuses and excesses of obtrusive or oppressive government, critique or satirize authoritarian ideas, or champion individual rights and freedoms as the mutually respectful foundation for peace, prosperity, progress, justice, tolerance and civilization itself.

The current process is an interesting mixture of popular award (all members of the Society can nominate works for any category) and juried (committees for each category use ranked ballots to produce the finalist slate). The results are as remarkable as the award’s longevity. One might expect an award voted on and administered by people of a very specific political tendency to reflect that political tendency. Sometimes that’s true of the Prometheus Award, particularly in the early days. Quite often, however, the LFS ranges far outside the borders of conventional American libertarian thought—thus the presence of Stross, Doctorow, and MacLeod on the winners’ lists, as well as equally diverse selections on the nominee lists.

On April 6th, the LFS announced this year’s list of finalists. As listed on the official press release*, they include:

Causes of Separation, by Travis Corcoran (Morlock Publishing). In this sequel to The Powers of the Earth, the 2018 Prometheus winner for Best Novel, the renegade lunar colonists of Aristillus fight for independence and a free economy against an Earth-based invasion that seeks to impose authoritarian rule and expropriate their wealth, while the colonists struggle not to adopt taxation or emergency war powers. The panoramic narrative encompasses artificial intelligence, uplifted dogs, combat robots, sleeper cells and open-source software while depicting the complex struggle on the declining Earth and besieged Moon from many perspectives.

Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale (Ligature Pty Limited), including Order: Book One and Rules: Book Two. The author, a legal scholar, creates a world inspired by comparative law, rather as Middle-Earth was inspired by comparative linguistics. In an alternative Roman Empire, an early scientific revolution and expanding free markets led to industrialization, the abolition of slavery, increasing wealth, and modernity—and to clashes with more traditional societies. In one such clash, a Jewish preacher, Yeshua ben Yusuf, is arrested and tried on charges of terrorism in a narrative that makes ingenious use of the Gospels to reach an unexpected outcome.

State Tectonics, by Malka Older (Tor.com Publishing). This story explores questions of governance and legitimacy in a future world shaped by technology-driven “infomocracy” and subdivided into centenals—separate micro-democracies, each an electoral district with a population of 100,000 or less. A multitude of political parties vie for control of each centenal, as well as global supermajority status in a problematic system where access to approved news is ensured by Information, which also oversees elections. In this third novel in Older’s Centenal Cycle, various parties struggle not only over election outcomes, but also whether Information’s monopoly will and should continue.

The Fractal Man, by J. Neil Schulman (Steve Heller Publishing). The Prometheus-winning author (The Rainbow Cadenza, Alongside Night) offers a fanciful and semi-autobiographical adventure comedy about the “lives he never lived,” set in multiple alternate realities where people and cats can fly but dogs can’t, which in one world casts him as a battlefield general in a war between totalitarians and anarchists. The space-opera-redefined-as-timelines-opera romp, full of anarcho-capitalist scenarios, also celebrates the early history of the libertarian movement and some of its early pioneers, such as Samuel Edward Konkin III.

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) (including All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy). The tightly linked series of four fast-paced novellas charts the emergence of humanity, empathy, self-awareness and free will in an android, whose origins are partly biological and partly cybernetic. The android, who guiltily dubs themself “Murderbot” because of their past acts of violence while enslaved, fights for their independence but also is motivated to save lives by growing awareness of the value of human life and human rights in an interstellar future of social cooperation through free markets driven by contracts, insurance-bond penalties, and competing corporations.

This list is, I think, a reminder of just why following this particular award can be rewarding for readers of all stripes. Probably not every work above will be to your taste, but certainly some will be.

[*Editor’s note: The list’s descriptions have been slightly edited for clarity/correctness.]

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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