A great and logical heterotopia, with libertarian insights into optimization: Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, the 2016 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is the Prometheus Blog Appreciation of Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, the 2016 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

As an opening epigraph in Glory Road, Robert Heinlein quotes some lines by Bernard Shaw that include the sentence “He is a barbarian, and thinks the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” One of the things science fiction can do for its readers is to jar us out of such complacency, by portraying worlds with customs other than ours – not utopias or dystopias, but heterotopias, “other places.” Donald M. Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite is one of the great heterotopias.

In particular, Kingsbury’s 1982 novel is a distinctively science fictional heterotopia. Its differences aren’t just a collection of random exoticisms, chosen to be picturesque or provocative. Rather, Kingsbury’s imagined world and culture, Geta, is envisioned with careful logic – if not from the classic Wellsian “one impossible assumption,” then from a very small number.

In the first place, Geta is a desert planet, like Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (in Dune) or Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres (in The Dispossessed), but perhaps harsher than either. Beyond simply being dry, it has native life that’s biochemically different from humans, and largely toxic to them.

There are techniques for making carefully harvested native plants and insects edible, but the bulk of the diet is a few life-forms brought from Earth by a slower-than-light starship: eight “sacred plants,” bees — and in times of famine, other humans. An elaborate system of customs and rituals surround anthropophagy, designed to keep it from turning into a war of all against all.

Indeed, the novel starts out by recalling a funeral feast where its three heroes took part in eating the corpse of their larger-than-life father, the culture hero who gave their clan, the Kaiel, its distinctive rules and ethics. And the novel’s conflict begins when the next ruler orders them to court Oelita the Heretic, a clanless woman who denies her world’s religion and opposes cannibalism.

The resulting conflict explores all aspects of Courtship Rite’s central theme, which is the mathematical concept of optimization. Getans think in biological terms, and seek to improve themselves through the breeding rules of different clans, so there’s an evolutionary dimension to the theme.

The novel also explores organizational and institutional optimization through decentralized competition, not so much in the terms of economics as in those of public-choice theory. It suggests that culture also can be optimized.

And, finally, it seeks optimization in ethics, not by finding a static set of rules but by finding an ongoing process within which rules can be broken, when necessary, and improved upon. Over and over, it refers to its characters as seeking a trait called kalothi — perhaps a linguistically modified pronunciation of “quality,” and amounting to something like the neo-Darwinian concept of inclusive fitness.

Getan society isn’t libertarian in the normal sense: its custom of calling people in to commit ritual suicide in times of famine, so that other people can eat them, is almost the antithesis of libertarianism.

But its underlying concept of optimization through decentralized processes is one that’s central to libertarian thought, and in particular to libertarian admiration for market economies.

And it explores a variety of other ideas worthy of libertarian attention, such as the distinctive approach to representative government prescribed by the Kaiel rules, or the scenes where Getans discover historical records from Earth that tell them about war (Oelita’s reaction to this is perhaps the novel’s most dramatic scene). And its suggestion that free choice requires a measure of stoicism, a willingness to endure pain in the pursuit of one’s goals, is provocative.

Courtship Rite seems to have been allowed to go out of print, and I don’t know of any proposals to bring it back. I think this is a literary tragedy. I say this not just as a libertarian — the libertarian relevance of the themes isn’t the most important attraction of this novel for me.

I value it as an imagined world envisioned in unusual depth; as one that provokes the sense of alienness that I find appealing in science fiction; and as one that presents characters who fascinate me, not merely despite but because of their differences – characters who appear as embodiments of that elusive trait kalothi, and who, in the end, celebrate its triumph.

Note: Donald Kingsbury (1929-  ) is an American-Canadian sf writer and retired mathematics professor who taught at McGill University in Montreal from 1956 until retiring in 1986.
Courtship Rite, his first novel, was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1983, and was published in the United Kingdom under the title Geta. (Although not currently in print, older copies of the novel can be found in paperback and hardback from online sellers.)

Kingsbury, whose other novels include The Moon Goddess and the Son and the long-awaited The Finger Pointing Soward, also won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in 2001 for Psychohistorical Crisis.

Kingsbury’s stories, admired for their depth of characterization and rich explorations of future human societies, have been appearing since 1952 in Analog magazine.

For more about Kingsbury, read this 1984 interview with the author by sf writer Robert J. Sawyer, where Kingsbury discusses his novels, including Courtship Rite, and how he became an sf writer and got published in sf magazine.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s story Coventry, the 2017 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* 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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