How to subvert authoritarian regimes? Astrid Bear’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech for Poul Anderson’s “Sam Hall”; NASFiC presenter Sarah Hoyt on writing about liberty

Astrid Anderson Bear, speaking from Washington, talked about her late father Poul Anderson and how to subvert authoritarian regimes, while novelist Sarah Hoyt, speaking from Colorado, discussed the importance of writing about liberty.

Both women spoke eloquently at the Libertarian Futurist Society’s 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony, presented Saturday Aug. 22 as a well-advertised highlight during the all-online Columbus North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC).

Hoyt, winner of the 2011 Prometheus for Best Novel for Darkship Thieves, had the honor of presenting the Prometheus Hall of Fame category for Best Classic Fiction.

This Poul Anderson collection includes his short story “Sam Hall.”

Bear accepted the award for her late father, whose story “Sam Hall” was inducted into the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Anderson’s 1953 short story was a prescient one exploring the political implications of computer technology that today are widely recognized.

Poul Anderson. Photo by Karen Anderson

“Sam Hall” won for Best Classic Fiction, in a ranked vote by Libertarian Futurist Society members, over four other 2020 finalists:
* “As Easy as A.B.C.,” a 1912 story by Rudyard Kipling;
* “The Trees,” a 1978 song by the rock group Rush
* A Time of Changesa 1971 novel by Robert Silverberg
* “Lipidleggin’,” a 1978 story by F. Paul Wilson.

Before announcing the finalists and the winner, Hoyt introduced the category with brief remarks about the importance of writing about liberty:

“It is important to write about liberty and to recognize books that emphasize or explore the idea of liberty because not only doesn’t liberty seem to be a natural idea, but it’s a relatively recent one,” she said.

Writer Sarah Hoyt. Creative Commons license)

“Humans are, after all, social apes, creatures of the band. From studying ancient civilizations – and some relatively modern ones – it seems to me the very idea of liberty, of doing something one wished to, outside the norms and purview of the band was alien to most of our ancestors.  As alien as the idea of not wielding full power over those under our control still seems to be for most people. And it is difficult for those in a position of power to laissez faire, to be honest.  Speaking as the parent of grown sons it is almost overwhelmingly tempting to say, “No, don’t do that. You can’t do that.  I did that. I know how that story ends.”

But we also know that recent though the idea of individual liberty is, where it is allowed to flourish it leads to the greatest freedom, prosperity and – paradoxically – security for most individuals.

And because perfect liberty exists nowhere, and liberty itself exists nowhere outside the human brain, it is important to dream it, define it, write about it, and most of all recognize it, particularly in the works we read for fun.

Because we cannot create what we can’t visualize.  And creating liberty repays the human race most generously.

The Prometheus Award does an exceptional job of recognizing writers who dream liberty into their works.”

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

Here is the full text of Astrid Bear’s acceptance speech, which she delivered via the NASFiC Zoom platform from the home she shares with her husband, prolific sf author Greg Bear (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, The Forge of God, Eon, Moving Mars), in Lynnwood, Washington:

“Thank you to the members of the Libertarian Futurist Society for this honor to my late father, Poul Anderson. Dad deeply valued the awards he received from you all during his lifetime, and I’m sure he would have been pleased to receive this additional honor.

Astrid Anderson Bear and author Greg Bear, her husband. Photo courtesy of Astrid Bear

“Sam Hall” has been nominated for the  Prometheus Awards Hall of Fame  several times previously , and it’s a testament to its staying power as a story that it has now won. First published in the August 1953 issue of Astounding  Magazine, it’s been reprinted many, many times, in anthologies as diverse as The Liberated Future, Computer Crimes and Capers, and Terrorists of Tomorrow.

Science fiction set in the future is often as much about the time it was written in as it is about prognostications.   Diving into both world and family history, we can tease out some of the threads that came together to make this story of the subversion of an authoritarian regime from within its record-keeping arm, and how that inspired revolution.

In 1953, we were less than 10 years from the end of World War II.  Senator Joe McCarthy was busy investigating citizens for wrongful thoughts and potential treason.   The early main-frame computer, UNIVAC, correctly predicted the winner of the 1952 presidential election. Dad’s brother, my Uncle John, was turned down for the US Foreign Service because of his Danish Communist aunt. And Dad wrote “Sam Hall.”

Computer-savvy folk of today will likely snicker a bit at the electromechanical whirs and buzzes of the government’s Central Records computer, nicknamed Matilda the Machine. Matilda holds detailed information on all citizens, tracking all transactions, travel, education, contacts, relationships.   The “Matildas” of today know a tremendous amount about us and our shopping habits, travel plans, and private emails.

For although Dad did a good job of thinking about the power of computers held by the government as data gathering machines, in 1953 he didn’t seem to have thought much about computers as gatherers of data for private enterprise.

The America of “Sam Hall” has closed its borders to immigration, gives its citizens loyalty ratings, assigns them each a unique ID number and demands that it is tattooed on the shoulder.  There is an underground movement, but, as our protagonist, Thornberg muses,   “It was supported by foreign countries who didn’t like an American-dominated world – at least not one dominated by today’s kind of America, though once ‘USA’ had meant ‘hope.’”

Thornberg, whose actions in changing Matilda’s records start by trying to protect himself and his son from the taint of a treason accusation against a relative, finds that his anger at the political reality he lives in requires him to go further.  He starts inserting more false information into the records and creates the digital rebel, Sam Hall.

Sam Hall is taken up by the underground as a Scarlet Pimpernel-like character, seen everywhere, doing everything, never being caught.  There is growing violence in the streets, then civil war. Thornberg finds himself getting in deeper and deeper, and finally decides to become a whole-hearted rebel himself, prepared to die if need be.

Ultimately the underground Libertarian Army prevails, and Thornberg is asked to work himself out of a job, dismantling Matilda . . . but saving just a bit of information, “strictly practical facts.”  We are left to wonder how long the new regime stays true to its principles.

The power of art is that older works can resonate with current events.

Today, we have unrest in the streets.  We have federal forces being deployed in cities under questionable authority.  We have borders that are narrowing the welcome to immigrants.

There are a lot of quotes from the late Congressman John Lewis that are relevant here, about finding good trouble, speaking out when you see injustice, having the courage to do what’s right.  But let me close with this, from his last essay in the New York Times. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

So please, be a force for change!  Vote.  Thank you.”

For those interested in reading or rereading the 2020 Hall of Fame winner, “Sam Hall” has been widely published over the years in quite a few collections, including:

Going for Infinity (TOR, 2002, a retrospective collection with autobiographical notes)

Machines That Think, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Patricia S. Warrick (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984)

The Best of Poul Anderson (Pocket Books, 1976)

The Saturn Game, by Poul Anderson (NESFA Press, 2010) (subtitle: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Volume 3)

Science Fiction Thinking Machines, ed. Groff Conklin (Vanguard 1954/Bantam 1955)

Note: Anderson (1926-2001), one of the most prolific and popular writers in science fiction, has won the Prometheus Award six times, the Hugo award seven times, the Nebula award three times and received the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Besides “Sam Hall,” the Libertarian Futurist Society has recognized Anderson for Trader to the Stars (inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1985), The Stars are Also Fire (the 1995 Prometheus Best Novel winner), The Star Fox (inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1995) and “No Truce with Kings” (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010).

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.

Coming up next on the Prometheus blog:  A report on the Best Novel category of the NASFiC and LFS 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony, presented by bestselling novelist F. Paul Wilson with an acceptance speech by C. J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher for their novel Alliance Rising; and posting of the video recording of the awards ceremony and panel.

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 enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page now contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners.

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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