Power, liberty, galactic intrigue and how markets tend to reduce inequality and bigotry: A 40th Anniversary Celebration and Appreciation of F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels, the first Prometheus award winner in 1979

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society is celebrating in 2019, we are posting a series of weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our earliest Best Novel awards and moving forward to today.
Here’s the first Appreciation for F. Paul Wilson’s Wheels within Wheels, which won the first Prometheus Award in 1979.
At the end, we also include a few recent comments by Wilson, looking back 40 years at the very-different era and context in which he wrote his novel.

By Michael Grossberg
   An sf murder mystery hailed by the Library Journal for its “cleverly planted clues” and “all the satisfaction of a good Agatha Christie,” this 1978 novel was the first work of fiction to receive the Prometheus Award, initially established by writer L. Neil Smith to recognize more libertarian sf fiction.

With the benefit of hindsight, looking back at Wilson’s work from the perspective of the 40thanniversary of the Prometheus Awards in 2019, one appreciates this novel even more as part of a fascinating larger whole: Wilson’s LaNague Federation series, set in an interstellar future in which an imperialist central State is toppled by a decentralized libertarian social order that unleashes an era of peace, prosperity, progress and broad respect for individual rights.

At the center of Wheels within Wheels is a conspiracy threatening the freedoms guaranteed for Federation planets by the LaNague Charter, intertwined with a mystery about the Vanek, gentle pacifistic people who, contrary to logic, claim to have murdered the father of Jo, a woman who’s the CEO of a multi-planetary company.

Jo joins forces with mysterious Old Peter to counter the devious efforts of a shrewd Federation politician. The pair is threatened by dangerous psionic forces in a fast-paced story with clever twists that interweaves sophisticated insights about free-market economics and business with political intrigue, war and plausible sf tropes.

One example, part of Jo’s interior monologue, underlines the libertarian view that the market economy is really only one dimension of freedom, more broadly and properly viewed as a humanistic nexus embracing both physical and spiritual dimensions:
   The market. To some people it was the place where stocks and bonds were traded; to others it was the local food store. But these formed only a miniscule part of the market,” Jo thought.
“For the market was life itself, and the free market was free life, the active expression of volitional existence… every interaction and transaction – be it social, moral or monetary.

Although a power-mad villain and leader of the statist Restructurist movement, the politician has a high level of self-awareness coupled with arrogance, revealed in an interior monologue:
   He’d also have to contend with that other breed of nay-sayer: the ones who would point to history and say that economics and societies controlled from the top have never succeeded; that the impetus for a society must come from within, not from above. But he knew that no society in history had ever had a man such as (him) at its helm. Where others have failed, he could succeed.

Meanwhile, Old Peter warns Jo:
   If you look at the history of old Earth, you’ll find that very seldom, if ever, is any increase in government power temporary…. Your grandfather and I were able to make IBA [a successful interstellar enterprise] a going concern because of the Fed’s hands-off policy toward any voluntary transactions. It’s my personal belief that we Terrans have come as far as we have in the last couple of centuries because of that policy… I don’t want to see the Federation regress toward empire – it arose from the ashes of another empire – but I see it looming in the future if the Restructurists have their way.

Most reviews and discussions of the novel don’t highlight enough how Wilson’s libertarian vision condemns bigotry and racism (against the Vanek) while also affirming the empowerment of women.

Both in the intricate plot and its realistic but noble themes, Wilson dramatizes how the spread of free-market capitalism, and the technological innovations it unleashes, tends to promote greater functional social equality, the liberation of women and a reduction in racist behavior by making bigotry more costly and unprofitable through competition (or boycotts) in the marketplace.

Driving the complex plot are subtle but powerful economic and political forces that Wilson both dramatizes and explains with fresh insights, often through leading characters’ thoughts:

    The free market was neither good nor evil, selfish nor generous, moral nor immoral…. It played no favorites and bore no grudges. It had its own ecology, regulated by the inexorable laws of supply and demand, which were in turn determined by the day-to-day activities of every intelligent creature who interacted with another intelligent creature… The market’s urge toward a balanced ecology was indomitable. It could be warped, skewed, stretched, contracted, puffed up, and deflated by those who wanted to control it, and thereby control its participants; but not for too long. It always sought and found its own level. And if manipulators – invariably governmental – prevented it from finding its true level for too long, a great mass of people suffered when it finally burst through the dams erected against it. LaNague had taught the outworlds that bitter lesson.

F. Paul Wilson (Creative Commons Photo)

A final observation for historic perspective: Much has changed in the half-century since the mid-1970s, when Wilson was writing his early novel.

Looking back recently at his early effort, Wilson offered these comments about why he felt then that it was necessary to include some “didactic” aspects in his novel (such as the interior-monologue excerpts quoted above):
Wheels was written through 1976, sold in 1977, and pubbed in 1978.  People these days don’t realize (or have forgotten) that talk radio, as it is today, didn’t exist. Today you hear hosts discussing market forces and such all the time.  Back then it was never mentioned,” Wilson wrote in an e-mail.
“Back in the mid-70s we’d just come off years of Nixon’s price controls and his disallowing further conversion of dollars into gold.  Inflation in 1974 was 11%! (and 9% in ’75) from the government fucking with the economy.  Free-market capitalism was an alien concept back then, and where better to introduce an alien concept than SF?”   

Note: Wilson’s LaNague Federation series can be read in any order, and includes Healer (the 1990 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner); An Enemy of the State (the 1991 Hall of Fame winner); Dydeetown World; and several related stories. Wilson also won a Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Sims in 2004 and a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2015.

* See the LFS interview with F. Paul Wilson (from the Volume 29, Number 3 Spring 2011 issue of the old Prometheus print quarterly)

* Up next in this 40th Anniversary Prometheus Awards Appreciation series: A 40th Anniversary Celebration appreciation of the second novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award:  L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, the 1982 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary 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 Prometheus Awards honor-roll page of 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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