Space exploration, A.I. and freedom: An Appreciation of Poul Anderson’s The Stars Are Also Fire, the 1995 Prometheus Best Novel winner

To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing a series of review-essays explaining why past winners deserved recognition and fit the distinctive focus of the award on Liberty vs. Power. Here’s our Appreciation for Poul Anderson’s The Stars Are Also Fire, the 1995 Prometheus Best Novel winner.

By Michael Grossberg and Victoria Varga

Poul Anderson’s 1994 novel offers a thought-provoking scenario in a distant future in which man-made artificial intelligences have come to dominate human beings, while many people still struggle for freedom and independence in a new era of space exploration.

The point of view of The Stars Are Also Fire alternates frequently over five centuries between an early 21st-century era of occupation of Earth’s moon and later Earth/moon conflicts as genetically-altered-human Lunarians seek independence from Earth’s World Federation and Peace Authority.

Although people are allowed personal freedom to a large extent, the world and beyond are run efficiently by the Overmind, a vast A.I. computer network.
A sort of sequel to Harvest of Stars, which focused on those leaving Earth, The Stars Are Also Fire focuses more on those who stayed behind.

As a few Lunarians and their supporters seek to uncover an old secret that could threaten the existing A.I. hegemony, their efforts are followed by a surprisingly benevolent agent of the cybercosm, the Earth’s AI government.

A central question is whether the stability, peace and prosperity of even benign rule by super-intelligent machines is actually compatible with the human spirit, or merely a new form of seductive tyranny.

What makes the novel of perhaps greater interest is Anderson’s portrayal of the doubts and humane intent of characters on both sides of the conflict without reducing any to obvious villains or simplifying them into one-dimensional libertarian heroes.

The complex, far-flung novel, written late in Anderson’s career and often full of technical language, revisits familiar Anderson themes, from distrust of government to a melancholy pessimism about humanity’s future but also a brooding romanticism about the human adventure.

The novel features many fiercely independent and memorable characters, as former Prometheus editor Victoria Varga observed in her 1994 review.

“Not least are Anson Guthrie, a man who creates his own world when Earth won’t allow him the freedom he must have, his granddaughter Dagny Beynac, whose children are the first true Lunarians, and Ian Kenmuir, a space pilot who must make a choice – for all humanity – between human freedom, or soulless, machine perfection,” Varga wrote.
“Stars delivers what Anderson does best: It creates and explores a society that is in the process of expanding technologically, geographically, and ethically. In other words, a future in which there is some reason for hope.”

Note: Anderson (1926-2001) also wrote Trader to the Stars (inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1985), The Star Fox (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995),  “No Truce with Kings” (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010), and “Sam Hall” (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020).

Poul Anderson with his wife Karen at an sf con (Creative Commons license)

Anderson received the first Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001, an award accepted for the ailing author by his wife, Karen, at the first LFScon in 2001 at Marcon in Columbus, Ohio.


* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us!  To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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