Robot rights, practical autonomy and character-driven comedy: An appreciation of Mark Stanley’s webcomic Freefall, the 2017 Special Prometheus Awardwinner

With this review-essay of the 2017 Special Prometheus Award winner, we complete the Appreciation series of past Prometheus winners, launched in 2019 with the Best Novel category, continued in 2020 with the Hall of Fame category and concluded* in 2022 with this final appreciation of our Special Prometheus Award-winners.

By William H. Stoddard

As the Libertarian Futurist Society began giving awards to works other than novels, one of the questions we faced was how to decide if a series was eligible.

It obviously wasn’t appropriate to give an award to an open-ended series, or to one that hadn’t been completed yet (though we might recognize a single volume, story, or episode). We were prepared to recognize a series that had been completed, such as Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. We also decided that we were prepared to recognize a bounded part of a series, such as one season of a television show. This decision proved applicable in 2017, when after nearly 20 years of publication, Mark Stanley announced that the first chapter of his webcomic Freefall had been completed with installment 2834.

Libertarian fiction’s philosophical or ideological content makes a lot of it serious, or even didactic, with characters discussing politics and economics in long speeches. Freefall, 2017 winner of a Special Prometheus Award, proved to be a happy exception.

Of course, there wasn’t room for long speeches in its three-panel format. But beyond that, its tone was light, with humorous elements ranging from character-driven comedy to slapstick, as in the memorable scene where Sam tricks the Mayor in saying “This is a direct order! Hit me with a pie!” in the presence of five beings who are programmed to follow the Three Laws of Robotics and therefore must obey her.

The character-driven comedy focuses on three central characters, all nonhuman:
• Sam Starfall, an alien from a race of land-dwelling cephalopods whose culture values scavenging, theft, and trickery;
• Helix, a somewhat naive robot who acts as Sam’s straight man;
• and Florence Ambrose, a humanoid uplifted wolf who is also programmed to follow the Three Laws, but who is developing increasing flexibility in doing so.

Florence’s involvement with Sam contributes to this, but also to Sam’s learning some human ethical ideas from Florence’s example. Both viewpoints also provide a vehicle for commentary on human societies and cultures.

A lot of the libertarian content comes in through this commentary, often in the form of little jokes, as when Florence tells Helix that in political bodies, “the mass of the parasites often outweighs the mass of the host”; or when Helix tells Sam that Asimovian robots, trying to make everything completely risk-free to human beings, were an intolerable nuisance until they were assigned to work for the Environmental Protection Agency.

There’s also a notable characterization bit where Sam says, “I’ve allowed the prospect of short-term profit to endanger my long-term goals,” and then panics when Helix points out that that sounds like something Florence might say. There’s not much sustained argument, but lines such as these will resonate with libertarian readers.

But there’s also the larger plot of the first chapter, which turns on the question of robot rights in a world where robots have an increasing measure of autonomy.

Stanley’s story is founded on the idea that creators of sapient beings will find it to their advantage to let those beings make their own choices. This seems to rest partly on ethics, but also partly on the idea that having to make all the decisions for a vast number of beings puts insupportable computational demands on the decision makers — an idea that can be traced back to Ludwig von Mises’ paper “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” which is still influential among libertarians. Libertarian readers will sympathize with the long and often surreal struggle over robotic autonomy.

Taking all this together, Stanley has shown that the presentation of pro-liberty themes need not be heavy-handed, but can be delightfully entertaining.

* Although our Appreciation series is now virtually complete, the LFS plans to update the series with more review-essay appreciations each year as new works are recognized in the Prometheus Awards. So stay tuned…

Note: Freefall also won a Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards in 2001 in the Outstanding Science Fiction Comic category and was a nominee in that category in 2002, 2005 and 2006.

As of 2015, at least, uthor Mark Stanley had a Patreon page for readers of his continuing Freefall webcomic series.

Stanley has been acclaimed for creating one of the more scientifically accurate science fiction web comics available today. Avoiding what he views as “magic” or “deux ex machina” devices common in sf (such as artificial gravity, transporter beams and warp drives, Stanley only allowed one comical and token technology into his comic to allow for the possibility of interstellar travel: the DAVE drive (whose letters stand for Dangerous and Very Expensive.)

* Read the 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.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* 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 . Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and 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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