Anarcho-capitalism on the Moon, intelligent nonhumans and libertarian sf: Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth & Causes of Separation, the 2018 and 2019 Prometheus Award winners for Best Novel

The Libertarian Futurist Society’s Appreciation series aims to make  clear why each Prometheus winner deserved recognition as pro-freedom or anti-authoritarian sf/fantasy. Here is William H. Stoddard’s combined Appreciation of Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation, the 2018 and 2019 Prometheus Award winners for Best Novel:

By William H. Stoddard

In 2017, Travis Corcoran funded the publication of two books through Kickstarter, and released the first, Powers of the Earth, which won the Prometheus Award for Best Novel. In 2018, he released the second, Causes of Separation. The two volumes are described as the first half of a planned four-volume series, Aristillus (named for a lunar crater), but they actually make up an integrated and self-contained story: Had they both appeared the same year, they could have been nominated as a single work.

It’s long been the policy of the Libertarian Futurist Society to give awards to “the work, not the author”: A book can win Best Novel even if its author doesn’t self-identify as a libertarian, so long as its theme is pro-liberty. A corollary of this is that “pro-liberty” doesn’t mean adhering tightly to a specific interpretation of libertarianism.

If a novel illuminates the meaning of individual rights and a free society, or suggests a way to establish them, or explores the functioning of such a society, or warns against the evils of authoritarianism, or critiques or deconstructs an ideology opposed to liberty – then it can be considered for a Prometheus award. Nonetheless, books whose vision is wholeheartedly libertarian are welcome discoveries, and the Aristillus novels were such a discovery.

In Corcoran’s backstory, antigravity was discovered in the mid-21st century and used by a libertarian dissident, Mike Martin, to travel to the Moon, where he dug the first tunnels of an underground colony.

At the novel’s start, this has become a growing city, inhabited by refugees from the economic authoritarianism of Earth’s major nations. Large populations come from China, Nigeria, and the United States. Other refugees include intelligent nonhumans who would face extermination if they remained on Earth.

But as the city grew, the government of the United States learned of it and came to think of it both as an ideological threat and as a source of wealth to prop up its failing fiscal regime. The first chapter begins with Martin talking with a friend about the need to prepare for invasion and for a war of independence.

With all of these elements, Aristillus obviously recalls Heinlein’s classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – one of the first two works to be inducted  in 1983 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

But Corcoran’s lunar scenario not a mere pastiche or retelling of Heinlein’s story. In the first place, it’s a different sort of colony, modeled not on Botany Bay but on the stateless refuges described in James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.

In the second, the technology of space travel is radically different and creates a different strategic situation. And in the third, one of its recurring minor themes is a critical dialogue with Heinlein, including several scenes where the enthusiasm of some colonists for the political and military methods of Heinlein’s “Loonies” is criticized.

In sum, Corcoran has written a novel in the same genre as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – but it’s a different and original novel. (The same can be said of Ian McDonald’s Luna series and of Andrew Weir’s Artemis. It’s an unexpected pleasure to see this kind of story finally flowering, after half a century!)

On one hand, the Aristillus novels are the most explicitly libertarian Lunar novels yet, portraying a society that was intentionally founded as a refuge from repressive and predatory government.

It has no authorities established by or supported from Earth, and its free-market economy is not pragmatic or accidental, but founded on anarcho-capitalist principles (though at the same time it explores difficulties of anarcho-capitalism, from title registration to common defense).

In fact, its central conflict grows out of the attempt by the United States to give Aristillus a set of Earth-based authorities, and Aristillan resistance to the attempt. And on the other hand, it ends more optimistically than Heinlein’s original novel, in that Corcoran’s Aristillans, unlike Heinlein’s Loonies, are still adhering to their free-market values at the story’s end.

The focus of the story is on Mike Martin’s role in leading the resistance. It should be said that Martin is not an idealized hero! There are things he’s not good at; he has character flaws; and in the course of the novel he falls into despair.

But he’s also – and this is ironic for an anarchist! – a classic True King, one who lives for his native land and is willing to endure any suffering in himself to protect it. And this same quality can be seen in many of the novel’s secondary heroes.

The freedom that Corcoran envisions seems to be above all the freedom to care about something and to act accordingly.

As this suggests, Martin is only one of a large cast of characters in this huge novel. There are scenes focusing on his leadership of the “Boardroom Group,” a committee of entrepreneurs seeking to organize a defense against invasion from Earth.

But many other groups are important to the story, from the young adults from Earth hoping to do a journalistic exposé of Aristillus to the Indian families who emigrate seeking economic opportunity to the dogs with enhanced intelligence rescued from a laboratory on Earth just before being euthanized.

With all these characters, the novel offers a panoramic view of a libertarian society – and in a lesser degree, of the forces on Earth that are hostile to it.

It’s worth noting that, like Heinlein’s Luna and the more recent Lunar novels, Corcoran’s Aristillus is ethnically and culturally diverse. In addition to Americans (including many Hispanic Americans), it has large Chinese and Nigerian populations, and acquires many Indian immigrants in the second volume – refugees from varied oppressive conditions on Earth.

Part of Corcoran’s story is their acquiring a sense of common identity as a result of invasion from Earth – becoming a nation without (so far) becoming a state.

This diversity also applies to the characters’ libertarian ideas. This isn’t the kind of ideological novel where all the protagonists have the same values and beliefs! The Boardroom Group spends a lot of time disagreeing on what policies and strategies they can adopt without fatally compromising their own values. And the libertarianism is shown as not simply a pragmatic economic stance, but an ethical one.

Indeed, one of the novel’s underlying themes is precisely ethics, and the plot often turns on one or another character’s ethical choices. Its portrayal of people struggling to do the right thing at a high cost is perhaps its single most appealing feature.

The Prometheus Award was established for an earlier generation of libertarian science fiction writers, not all of whom are still with us, or still writing. But with writers such as Travis Corcoran, Sarah Hoyt, and Dani and Eytan Kollin, this new century is seeing the emergence of new libertarian science fiction.

Travis Corcoran wins his first Prometheus Award Photo: Courtesy of author

Note: Corcoran is the first author to win the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in two consecutive years – for The Powers of the Earth (in 2018) and for its sequel, Causes of Separation (in 2019.)



* 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 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 volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive long-term) 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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