Best Novel finalist review: Gordon Hanka’s provocative God’s Girlfriend explores coercion, consent, masculinity, femininity and basic instincts

By Eric S. Raymond and Michael Grossberg

Subversive and satirical, God’s Girlfriend challenges some of the deepest assumptions of today’s politics and culture.

One of five 2024 Prometheus Best Novel finalists, Gordon Hanka’s provocative sci-fi novel raises thorny questions about ethics, religion, coercion and consent, the nature of masculinity and femininity and the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The 540-page novel offers a taboo-shattering mixture of unorthodox libertarian provocations and Christian eschatology amid a life-or-death clash of two cultures: Earth humans and Wyrms, human refugees from another planet.

Subtitled “Sci-Fi that should not be published,” the novel blends SF and fantasy tropes from spaceships and advanced weaponry to the apparently supernatural, including Jesus’ Second Coming.

The story revolves around the rising tensions, conflicts and increasing likelihood of nuclear war between Earth governments, desperate to preserve their power, and the Wyrms, genetically modified to resist disease and political-psychological control.

As the failing nation-states of Earth threaten nuclear apocalypse to wipe out the Outback-style beachhead of the Wyrms in Australia, all hell breaks loose. So does heaven, with the Second Coming of God in the unexpectedly modern form of Joshua, who has his own notions of good and evil and shifting ideas about which side should survive.

REIMAGINING THE RAPTURE

Instead of being taken into the heavens for the Rapture, the righteous must migrate to Western Australia, where God’s chosen people have bought 9,900 square miles of arid desert to transform into a functional Wild-West-style frontier colony.

As Wyrms settle Australia’s desert, building a radically free and lawful but stateless colony to survive the End Times, Earth’s rulers scheme to avert social collapse.

What these nations – portrayed by Hanka as a vast looting mob run by ruthless and power-mad “Wasp queens” – fear most is the loss of millions of the world’s most productive men, who are emigrating to the Australian colony’s so-called “Galt’s Gulch.”

As the most productive emigrate (functionally similar to the rational and productive going on strike in Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged), the result in the Earth nations is progressively expanding incompetence, dysfunction, corruption and breakdown of their already destructively overregulated and overtaxed economies.

When desperate Earth governments fail in their devious efforts to infiltrate, disrupt and blow up the peaceful colony of Wyrms, their plans for war – including nuclear war – become a horrifying last-resort option.

BELIEVABLE AND UNUSUAL CHARACTERS

At the center of the story are two sympathetic, believable characters: “God’s girlfriend” Luci Dark, a cussedly independent-minded and somewhat unusual Wyrm trying to prevent war; and heroic Tom Pine, who has aided the Wyrms and now wishes to join the Wyrm colony.

Perhaps Hanka’s most audacious and unusual character is Joshua, revealed to be the literal child of God – and at least partly within the fundamentalist Old Testament view of a wrathful God. Yet Joshua also reveals himself to be very human, capable of doubt, frustration, indecision – and romantic/sexual relationships.

Libertarian Ron Paul, a former US Congressman, presidential candidate and author

Some of the story’s most engaging humor and wry repartee arise from Joshua’s complicated love affair, history and casual intimacy with Luci. Their droll attitudes and amusing comments amid wide-ranging discussions about the ongoing world crisis, theology and their own relationship do a great deal to lighten up and humanize an otherwise sobering and apocalyptic plot.

God’s Girlfriend also weaves into its tall-tale world-building such real people as Chuck Norris and Ron Paul – who show up at one of the colony’s gates in a recreational vehicle packed with pregnant girlfriends.

A SOBERING VIEW OF HUMAN MOTIVATIONS

The novel also challenges preconceptions about human psychology, especially Hanka’s merciless account of how motivations actually work.

Affirming a politically incorrect and even brutal realism based on evolutionary biology, the novel highlights how powerful and deep-rooted are our mostly unconscious instincts reflecting mating behaviors and the sexual drive.

Facing such realities becomes a key and revelatory theme.

Hanka finds both serious implications and rueful sobering humor in a transformative ritual that immigrants to the colony must undergo to become Wyrms – a risky process that forces them to directly face and experience the instinctual forces inside their own bodies and brains.

“Yes, when you look inside your mind, you will see your sex monkey, and yes, it does make most of your decisions,” a colony member warns a newcomer.

After so much build-up and mystery about the Wyrms and how they’re transformed in earlier novels in Hanka’s Gaia’s Wasp series, God’s Girlfriend finally takes us inside the process. After Pine enters the colony, he must undergo the drastic and potentially deadly multi-step ritual to become a Wyrm.

HOW HUMANS BECOME WYRMS (AND WHY IT MATTERS)

The Wyrm self-programming creates several levels of disinhibition, each evoked by specific stimuli that Wyrm ethics deem aggressive. The result is a ruthlessly efficient and automatic but graded system of deterrence against aggressors.

One of the most provocative aspects of Hanka’s novel is his portrayal of Wyrms, pushed past a certain point by violent attacks or explicit threats of invasive force, engaging in shocking but necessary violence in self-defense.

The novel incorporates dialogue and flashbacks revealing how this system evolved on the Wyrms’ colonized planet. On their homeworld, the Wyrms were a small minority coexisting with Wasps, humans with a dominant envy agent in their society of mind. Backed by large numbers, Wasp leaders hated and wanted to destroy the Wyrms, who therefore had to come up with an implacable counter-threat or face extinction.

While readers might quibble with the importance Hanka gives to his portrayal of the human subsystem he dubs “the Wasp,” the story persuasively dramatizes a society-of-mind model of human consciousness and behavior.

Perhaps most intriguing are the story elements showing how many of our mental processes are instinct-driven, taking place out of sight of the subsystem that thinks it’s “I.” (Every mystic, or regular meditator, learns this humbling truth.)

Writer Gordon Hanka (Photo courtesy of Hanka)

CAN RELIGION OR REASON ALONE SAVE US?

Although God’s Girlfriend takes seriously the existence of the son of God, one could argue that Hanka, an atheist, actually includes no supernaturalism in his world-building.

Instead, he recasts some of the Christian eschatology within the mold of pretty hard SF (while not even allowing a common but unscientific trope of much science fiction: Faster-than-light speed. Even “God” can’t break lightspeed!)

That mention of “Galt’s Gulch,” meanwhile, is just one among several mostly positive references to Ayn Rand’s individualists’ utopia in Atlas Shrugged.

Characters sympathetically discuss Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and note her libertarian followers. To some libertarian readers, the novel’s explicit references to both libertarianism and Objectivism may seem like catnip.

Yet a closer reading uncovers Hanka’s more nuanced perspective, at once sympathetic to yet critical of both systems of thought.

Among other issues, God’s Girlfriend asks whether Christians and libertarians are inherently enemies with radically opposed belief systems – or whether, just maybe, they have the potential to become friends and allies in saving civilization and freedom.

A DRAMATIC CLIMAX TO HANKA’S SERIES

God’s Girlfriend benefits from a few built-in advantages narratively, since it’s the fifth and final novel in Hanka’s Gaia’s Wasp series and brings his apocalyptic future clash of civilizations to a dramatic climax and plot resolution.

Writing under the satirical pseudonym Dr. Insensitive Jerk (also a fair and explicit warning to readers), Hanka previously wrote and self-published Gaia’s Wasp (Book 1), Dandelion Slap (Book 2), Sainthood in Sixty Seconds (Book 3 and a 2022 Best Novel nominee) and A Beast Cannot Feign (Book 4 and a 2023 Best Novel finalist.)

As in previous novels in the series, God’s Girlfriend explores the human capacity for self-deception, mocks the excesses of government regulation and bureaucracy, and as a cautionary tale, shows the tragedy of mutual misunderstandings that can spark conflict and violence between radically different cultures and mindsets.

In many ways, the entire Gaia’s Wasp sequence does something difficult, rare and of special interest to the Prometheus Awards: The series poses hard, frequently evaded questions about what it would take to make a fully free society actually work, and in the process, develops some novel answers.

POSING THE HARD QUESTIONS

As a former academic PhD economist and University of Chicago graduate whose free-market analyses and articles are cited over 1,000 times in peer-reviewed economic research, Hanka has been trained to go beyond the surfaces of human action and interaction while exposing popular misconceptions.

Writer Gordon Hanka (Photo courtesy of author)

In God’s Girlfriend, Hanka often applies that background to reveal fresh insights, often with a strongly satirical thrust.

His central insight and plot premise, developed throughout the progressively-better-written series, is that ungovernability is (or can be) a reflex that can solve the problem of collective action against tyrants.

Especially during Tom’s training in the colony to become a Wyrm, the story reveals exactly how Wyrms’ become ungovernable (i.e. strongly resistant to any form or degree of tyranny, while remaining peaceful and respectful of other people’s rights in normal and voluntary everyday social-economic interactions).

As described by Best Novel judge William H. Stoddard, those dialectical scenes of training imply that Wyrms have three successive tripwires:

First, a Wyrm whose property is held for ransom becomes irrationally violent and attempts to kill the holder, even at the cost of their own life.

Second, when facing a crowd that’s 80% Wasps (broadly defined as human beings who are parasites, living by harming their hosts), their shackles open. In such emergencies, they can kill the entire crowd, even if it contains some Wyrms, although they’re not irrrationally compelled to kill. If attacked with unprovoked violence, they can choose to kill the individual attacker (but in the latter case, it must be an actual attack, not a verbal threat).

Third, when a Wyrm faces a serious prospect of all Wyrms being killed, they are irrationally compelled to kill the entire collective body of killers.

DEFENDING FREEDOM AGAINST TYRANNY

Thus, God’s Girlfriend poses a challenge to conventional thinking about war situations, collective dangers and the basic libertarian principle of non-aggression. While many modern libertarian and classical liberal theorists advocate scenarios of minimal escalation in the proper use of force, Hanka will have none of that.

Instead, he suggests that if we truly want to be free in a world of ongoing tyranny, war, statism and mass-murdering collectivism, playing “nice” won’t do it. What will be effective in upholding life, liberty and justice for all, Hanks suggests, is a visible commitment to use overwhelming force against any developing threat of mob violence or mass destruction.

In game theory, that’s called a commitment strategy – and is viewed as extremely effective in many situations. In truth, that strategy may not be the only way to solve that problem, and it has some harsh consequences that may be difficult for many to accept.

Yet, by throwing into bold relief the key libertarian issues of coercion, consent, the use of force in self-defense and how to fight and end tyranny, Hanka forces readers to ask whether anything else could work.

Arguably, Hanka’s theory doesn’t depart from libertarian ethics, but offers simply a different and darker model than the current consensus allows among theorists – one that implies a stable solution for the classic iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Overall, Hanka means God’s Girlfriend to be not just provocative but shocking, even or especially to libertarians, to make us think about the hard questions to which too many of us believe we already have the answers.

READ REVIEWS OF ALL FIVE 2024 BEST NOVEL FINALISTS!

Check out the other four Best Novel finalists, which have previously been reviewed here on the Prometheus blog: Critical Mass, Theft of FireLord of a Shattered Land and Swim Among the People.

Capsule descriptions of all five 2024 Best Novel finalists are included in the LFS press release announcing this year’s Prometheus Awards finalists.

ABOUT THE CO-REVIEWERS:
* Eric S. Raymond was one of the pioneers of the modern open-source movement. His website is http://www.catb.org/~esr/

* Michael Grossberg, a veteran journalist and award-winning arts critic and newspaper feature writer/reporter based in Ohio, co-founded the Libertarian Futurist Society in 1981-1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards.

Both Raymond and Grossberg serve as judges on the Prometheus Award Best Novel Judging Committee, which selects the annual slate of finalists from works nominated by LFS members.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus on both quality and liberty.

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

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by imagining better visions of the future incorporating peace, prosperity, progress, tolerance, justice, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

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.

One thought on “Best Novel finalist review: Gordon Hanka’s provocative God’s Girlfriend explores coercion, consent, masculinity, femininity and basic instincts”

  1. That might be the best-written review I’ve ever read, and its observation are spot on. (I know, because I’m the author.)

    If you want to read the series, I suggest you start with Book 2: Dandelion Slap. The color hardcover is my cheap loss-leader, and you won’t have to slog through Book 1: Dr. Insensitive Jerk Learns How To Write.

    Soon I’ll put out a radically-pruned 2nd Edition of Book 1 that might be worth going back to.

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