Back issues of Prometheus, the LFS quarterly journal, offer a treasure trove of gems and libertarian insights

If you haven’t browsed through back issues of Prometheus, you should.
You’re missing out on a lot of fascinating and insightful stuff – with ideas and insights that often remain timely and surprisingly timeless.

A treasure trove of articles, essays, reviews, interviews, debates, acceptance speeches, con reports and letters was published between 1982 and 2016 in Prometheus, the journal of the Libertarian Futurist Society. (The Prometheus blog, launched in 2017, replaced the printed quarterly.)

The Prometheus page of the LFS website is being updated and made more accessible – thanks to the efforts of Chris Hibbert, Anders Monsen and other past Prometheus editors.

In an ongoing effort, Hibbert and other veteran LFS leaders have been volunteering their time to steadily digitize the Prometheus back issues. Most are now available to read free, either with direct HTML links to each article or with a PDF link to the entire issue.
Check out all the back issues and articles on the Prometheus Index page.


To whet your appetite, here is a fascinating and still-relevant excerpt from one of the earliest Worldcon reports ever published in Prometheus, which sheds light on sf, liberty and the complex relationship between libertarianism and liberalism.

“SF and Freedom,” published in the Winter 1985 issue of Prometheus (Volume 3, Number 1), reported on the 1984 Los Angeles Worldcon, where the LFS presented its Prometheus award ceremony before a packed audience of hundreds as part of a Friday night opening-ceremonies program introducing Worldcon guests of honor:

“What do Norman Spinrad, David Brin, James Hogan, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jean Lorrah, Brad Linaweaver, Julian May, Victor Koman, J. Neil Schulman, and dozens of other writers have in common? They have all written fiction with libertarian themes, and almost all of them talked about why they’ve been attracted to such themes at panel discussions and private conversations during the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim this year.

In the year of Orwell’s 1984, it’s no surprise that political issues were the focus of many of the Worldcon’s scheduled panel discussions and debates. But it may be surprising to some people to realize how many of the political panels explicitly raised libertarian issues—even when the panel theme did not explicitly focus on libertarianism, and even when none of the panelists were self-defined Libertarians.

For example, Norman Spinrad, David Brin, Donald Kingsbury, Frederick Pohl, and Warren Salomon participated in a fascinating panel discussion on “Beyond Communism and Capitalism.” Not one of them is a self-described libertarian. Yet, with the exception of Pohl, a consistently brilliant novelist who seemed uncertain about the very meaning of “freedom,” each panelist made some exceedingly libertarian remarks.

Norman Spinrad made a very interesting point that set the tone for the entire panel discussion: While there has been almost no literature describing a communist system, there have been dozens of novels describing various types of anti-authoritarian societies—from capitalist to anarchist.

Spinrad added that one obvious exception to his point are the many novels — the whole dystopian category from Orwell’s 1984 to Ayn Rand’s Anthem or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day — which do portray communism, but as a morally corrupt form of tyranny, not as an ideal. That exception, of course. only proves Spinrad’s point.

Spinrad, like many other liberals, is much closer to libertarianism at heart than he seems to realize. But he’s certainly beginning to realize it, for one of the funniest and most charming moments of the entire Worldcon was the crowd’s spontaneous reaction to another of Spinrad’s remarks.

“Government should only act like a referee in a pluralist society,” he said, “not as a (coercive) unifier of separate interests.”

That remark — which sums up rather well the essence of the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, if not the more radical 21st century liberalism that libertarianism truly represents — managed to generate more applause for Spinrad (or almost any other panelist) than anything else he said.

But the applause flustered Spinrad so much that he protested it. “I’m not a libertarian” he explained out of the blue, although no one had used that political label previously in the discussion.

“Society is much more complicated than any theory, whether Marxist, Keynesian or Libertarian,” Spinrad said, trying to disown the audience’s response, “and government must also protect the weak from the strong.”

From such remarks, it seems obvious that there are two major misconceptions about libertarianism shared by most liberals, even the more intelligent liberals exemplified so well by Spinrad.

First, libertarianism is much more complicated and subtle a philosophy than most liberals (and unfortunately, many libertarians) realize. Only libertarianism has built into it a deep respect for the limits of human knowledge (read Hayek), and thus the limits of any government scheme to centrally plan the economy—i.e. our lives.

While liberals. conservatives, and socialists tend to focus only on the more immediate linear consequences of a social problem, libertarians take a more long-range ecological view. realizing that most government programs are counterproductive precisely because of their unanticipated side-affects and coercive byproducts.

Second, like Spinrad, many liberals are rightfully concerned about protecting the weak from the strong — a concern certainly shared by libertarians. But they don’t realize that governments — by their nature as coercive, class-creating institutions — inevitably come to represent the strong not the weak. Nor do they know that the diverse, decentralized, non-coercive free-market system offers more real protection for the weak, the poor, the minorities and that smallest minority of all, the individual, than any other political system.

Although Spinrad identified himself as a liberal, he acknowledged that two of his novels have been extremely libertarian: Songs from the Stars, a Prometheus Award finalist that portrays an ecological anarchist culture, and A World Between, a Prometheus Award nominee that has strong free-enterprise elements in its imaginary utopia.

Libertarian elements also appear frequently in the novels of David Brin, a panelist who managed to outshine even Spinrad in his emphasis on libertarian ideas. Brin paid libertarians several left-handed compliments, all unexpected:

“Most sf people are extremely anti-authority,” Brin said. “I believe in taking pluralism to an extreme, just as long as you don’t offend people. We’re on our way to a situation where a free market might become possible. Libertarians believe that a free market doesn’t exist today, and they’re right. I wish Libertarians were the second major party in this one-party state.”

Brin wowed the crowd with his charismatic style and ideas, which seemed to be some kind of strange hybrid between Gary Hart’s neoliberalism—which grudgingly acknowledges that the free market is the engine of progress, but wishes to harness and direct it in government-approved “high-tech” directions—and Pierre Proudhon’s classic libertarian anarchism, which recognizes that intelligent, compassionate human beings do not need the coercive institution of government in order to live together in social harmony.

“How much authority is it safe to focus in a central government?” Brin asked, taking a skeptical, evolutionary approach. “How the hell do we get there [to freedom]?”

Despite Brin’s complimentary remarks about libertarianism, he calls himself a Democrat. “The reason I”m not a Libertarian is because they have no chance of getting power. The reason I’m not a Republican is because they talk about ending regulations, but Jimmy Carter deregulated five times as much as Reagan.”

Yet it’s clear where Brin’s sympathies lie in the long run. Just read his books. Brin won the 1984 Worldcon Award for Best Novel for Startide Rising, an epic intergalactic adventure mystery in which it turns out that human beings are virtually the only admirable — and libertarian — species in a power-politics galaxy of species enslaving each other. His Stardiver, which takes place in the same universe as Startide Rising, focuses on a human expedition into the center of the sun that is sabotaged by political intrigue, while his 1984 fantasy novel, The Practice Effect… tells the story of a scientist transported to an alternate world where he must fight to free himself and his loved one from an evil tyrant.

Frederick Pohl (JemStarburst, and Gateways and Donald Kingsbury (Courtship Rite) were two panelists who objected the most to any talk about freedom. Yet even their objections were illuminating.

“I’m not in favor of the lack of freedom,” Kingsbury said. “I’m just suspicious of anyone who tries to provide it. Marx was often wrong. But he was a good critic of our modern alienation.”

Echoing Kingsbury’s remarks, Pohl explained how throughout his life he’s heard all sorts of people — from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan — talk about freedom, but he’s never heard an intelligent, coherent definition of it. That certainly makes sense—if Roosevelt and Reagan are typical of those whom Pohl has heard mangle that subtle concept.

All in all, the libertarian tendencies of Spinrad and Brin had such an impact in setting the tone for the “Beyond Communism and Capitalism” panel, that even Locus, the leading sf-publishing trade magazine, noticed it.

Confirming the correlation between sf and anti-authoritarian ideas, this panel was far more engrossing than the boring Rand Corporation-type “Delphi future-casting session of the hour before,” commented Pascal Thomas in his Locus report on the Worldcon programming.”

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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