Comedy, coming of age and forging freedom high above a gas-giant: An Appreciation of Dave Freer’s Cloud-Castles, the 2023 Prometheus Best Novel winner

By Michael Grossberg

Few Prometheus Award winners are as much fun to read as Cloud-Castles.

The 2023 Prometheus Awards plaque and gold coin


Zestful and often funny but also imaginative and insightful in its visions of freedom, Dave Freer’s often satirical coming-of-age novel deservedly won the 2023 Best Novel award for its entertaining blend of adventure, comedy, sci-fi,  likable characters and nifty world-building.

The novel’s settings, distinctive and ingenious, offer ripe possibilities for varied, cross-cultural exploration of different human and alien environments. And Freer delivers.

A NOVEL SETTING

Part of the feisty and down-home charm of Cloud-Castles is the ways Freer was inspired by the “outback” frontier culture of Australia and Tasmania – which reflect his own home and heritage.

Dave Freer with his 2023 Prometheus Awards Best Novel plaque for Cloud-Castles (Photo courtesy of Freer)

A Tasmanian resident and the first author from the Southern Hemisphere to win a Prometheus Award, Freer has conceived a fascinating and credible scenario for both his central character’s against-the-odds journey and the depiction of plausible and positive stateless communities.

Cloud-Castles takes its well-chosen name from the diverse habitats floating among the clouds of a gas-dwarf planet with no habitable land – a planet much like Jupiter but distant from our own solar system.

The first of several vivid, richly detailed locales introduced in the peripatetic narrative is the “Big Syd,” a cramped urban hellscape situated on a tiny alien-relic antigravity plate named after Australia’s largest city (Sydney) by the descendants of a crashed convict transport.

A crowded foothold of rich and poor humanity in a vast upper-atmosphere landscape ruled by the remnants of two rival alien empires, the Big Syd isn’t a city that’s safe for newcomers – or even “welcoming” (unless they’re foolish enough and wealthy enough to be easily fleeced.)

A FOOL OF A HERO

Within this target-rich environment, Freer charts the unlikely progress and coming of age of idealistic Augustus Thistlewood – which can be enjoyed in the rollickingly satirical but affectionate spirit of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad.

A young do-gooder mis-educated among the elite of his wealthy engineering family and home planet, Augustus arrives on Sybill III with high hopes of aiding the poor and deprived.

Well-meaning but utterly clueless about social behavior, darker human motivations and how best to interact with strangers, the awkward young man undergoes a rough and risk-filled dramatic (and comic!) arc from naïve innocence to rueful experience.

Only in this unlikely hero’s picaresque comedy of errors, somewhat loosely inspired by the title character in Voltaire’s novella Candide, Augustus unconsciously assumes the mantle of a Holy Fool, seemingly protected by the gods (or at least by a new sidekick, who often saves him from himself.)

While Gus seems comically inept and mostly oblivious to the dangers around him – including both theft and attempted murder – the story ultimately reveals a persuasive rationale for his myopic behavior.

THE PURSUIT OF PROFIT – AND LIBERTY

Brilliant but naïve and perhaps even a bit autistic, Augustus finds himself thrust inadvertently into a succession of unusual and risky human and alien encounters that threaten his life and liberty.

With help from his street-smart sidekick Briz, who has unrevealed motives for tagging along beyond short-term profit, Augustus manages somehow to escape violent assaults, criminal encounters, imprisonment and even alien slavery.

In the peripatetic process, bumbling Augustus and ragamuffin Briz create innovative, profitable businesses that improve the already functional communities that have evolved among decentralized, stateless people scattered through the planet’s clouds – far from the reach of most corrupt or bureaucratic authorities.

Like a well-seasoned and spicy stew, the story is enriched with an Australian-outback-inspired slang that reveals the culture and different perspectives of these high-floating farmers. (If Freer has a bias, it may be the obvious side he prefers to take in his decent-country versus corrupt-city dynamic.)

Among the most interesting – and most libertarian – communities that the pair discover, join and help are highly decentralized groups of agrarian outbacker humans who have learned to live, grow food and develop other resources within the airborne thickets of vegetation and floating beasts that drift repeatedly through the gas giant’s upper atmosphere.

Through such free-market cooperation and entrepreneurship, Cloud-Castles  reveals how markets work, why profits are moral and necessary in a free society and how societies flourish through reinvestment and market innovation.

IDEALS VERSUS REALITIES

In both amusing and illuminating ways, Freer deftly contrasts false ideals and harsh realities in Cloud-Castles. Whether the many different societies he depicts are dystopian or more positive (albeit never utopian), they offer real-life lessons for both Augustus and Freer’s readers.

For instance, the somewhat dystopian Big Syd lacks government, leaving order to be maintained by the various street gangs that run different neighborhoods, often with an unfortunate use of force.

During Augustus’ many narrow escapes with bad actors and other misfortunes, it slowly starts to dawn on him how different people are from his preconceptions built up over years of mis-education back home, where his academic studies virtually indoctrinated him with the worst illusions of sociology and progressive-left dogma.

One subplot of libertarian interest involves the enslavement of Augustus and Briz and their efforts to free themselves from the aggressive Thrymi, one of the two alien races whose warring remnants continue to exploit the world’s resources and don’t mind exploiting stray humans to do so.

Not only will the fight for freedom and independence never end, Freer suggests, but even the most functional stateless societies will be far from perfect. Why? Cloud-Castles implicitly answers that question by continually rubbing his characters’ noses in the messy facts of human fallibility and ignorance in an imperfect world.

AN INSPIRING COMEDY

At a fast-paced 352 pages, this sf adventure (a comedy according to Aristotle’s definition) doesn’t wear out the reader’s patience. A good part of the reason: the smiles and laughs that Freer sparks with his rip-roaring and ultimately inspiring tale.

That’s truly something to savor – since Cloud-Castles joins only a handful of Prometheus winners that have achieved a significant part of their impact through comedy.

Among the most amusing Best Novel winners: Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch and John Varley’s The Golden Globe.

Among the most amusing Hall of Fame winners: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” F. Paul Wilson’s story “Lipidleggin’,” Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy and Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

When his novel was nominated for the Prometheus award, Freer himself confirmed to the LFS that one of his goals in writing Cloud-Castles, dedicated to the Australian men and women of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, was to offer a satire about politics and varied political systems “within an SF-glove.”

“Humor makes it a lot more entertaining to read and is something of a Fifth Dimension to authoritarians, meaning it saunters past their censorship and prohibitions. Besides, I take delight in doing it,” Freer said.

Australian writer Dave Freer (Photo courtesy of author)

RELATED READING

* Check out Freer’s 2023 Prometheus Awards acceptance speech: Part 1 and Part 2.

* Read Making ‘em laugh for the sake of liberty: Which Best Novel winners best incorporate comedy?”

 

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.

* 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.

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.

2 thoughts on “Comedy, coming of age and forging freedom high above a gas-giant: An Appreciation of Dave Freer’s Cloud-Castles, the 2023 Prometheus Best Novel winner”

  1. Thanks, Bill, for your excellent suggestion.

    In fact, Russell’s The Great Explosion does rank among the Prometheus winners that have a wonderfully comical dimension.
    So I’ve updated the review to include it above, along with an added web link to the Prometheus blog’s Appreciation review-essay describing the novel, how it fits the distinctive dual focus of the award on both quality and liberty and why it deserved its early induction into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

  2. From the list of Hall of Fame winners, I think Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion also deserves to be considered as an outstanding comedic work. Indeed I can’t think of any other winner that comes as close to the tone of Cloud-Castles.

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