Review: Exploring freedom on the frontiers of Free Space, the first explicitly libertarian sf anthology and first Prometheus Special Award winner


“Now we dare the great
Promethean sin
And bring fire back to heaven
on our rockets.”
– Robert Anton Wilson
“Free at Last,” from Free Space

By Michael Grossberg

Free Space, the first Special Prometheus Award-winner in 1998, has the distinction of being the first explicitly libertarian sf anthology.

Published in 1997 by TOR Books and edited by Brad Linaweaver and Ed Kramer, Free Space generated immense excitement among libertarian sf fans.

Today, almost a quarter century later, quite a few of its stories remain worth reading (or worth rereading) by freedom-lovers and, for that matter, anyone who enjoys interesting and imaginative sf speculations about humankind’s future in space.

The 352-page collection, dedicated to Robert and Ginny Heinlein, offers a wide range of stories and short fiction by 20 writers reflecting several generations and multiple perspectives.

Ray Bradbury in 1975 (Creative Commons license)

Among the most notable: Poul Anderson, John Barnes, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, John DeChancie, James P. Hogan, Robert J. Sawyer, William F. Wu and Robert Anton Wilson (who ends the book with a too-brief poem “Free at Last.”)

In addition, the anthology naturally showcases stories by the then-younger generation of explicitly libertarian sf writers, including Victor Koman, William Alan Ritch, J. Neil Schulman, L. Neil Smith and Linaweaver himself.

F. Paul Wilson, a bestselling libertarian sf writer (and one of the few not included in Free Space), endorsed the anthology as one that has been a long time coming, and long overdue but “worth the wait.”

Harry Turtledove, meanwhile, praised it for sparking plenty of thought “and plenty of arguments, which may be what SF does best.”

What’s interesting, in retrospect, about this anthology is how broad and diverse are its authors and their range of speculations.

SF novelist Brad Linaweaver in 2006 File photo

The collection admirably reflects how open-minded libertarians are about ideas by including some meta-critiques of common libertarian assumptions – especially by Barnes in a meta-fictional story (that includes himself and Linaweaver as characters) and a self-referential interview-style short-fiction piece by Linaweaver himself that provides a useful snapshot of turn-of-the-century libertarian thinking.

Billed as stories of humankind’s struggle against tyranny on the final frontier, Free Space was a far more ambitious anthology than one that merely selects the best of already-published short fiction.

Instead, Linaweaver and Kramer impressively fulfilled their self-assigned mission of seeing out entirely new fiction – and moreover, new fiction commissioned to fit within the book’s shared premiere that by the 23rd century, our species will have escaped Earth to explore, colonize, industrialize and live in space.

The different stories vary wildly in setting, theme, and tone. Yet, they all explore future societies facing new challenges – some on a planet and others floating free on space habitats – as potential tyrants sadly but predictably continue to be born.

In this 23rd-century scenario, large space habitats have evolved without formal governments in a federation called Free Space. Yet, even without government, people still face challenges, come into conflict and argue over freedom and responsibility.

“Free space can refer to many things. A rent-free park. Elbow room. A sign on a kid’s room saying PARENTS KEEP OUT. In this book, it refers to the life mankind will make for itself in outer space,” Linaweaver wrote in his introduction.

But free to do what, and with what?

Linaweaver (who sadly passed in 2019 from cancer at 66) reminds us that free men and women must have some kind of property as a prerequisite for making and keeping contracts – a fundamental way that human beings learn to cooperate and keep their word.

“Free Space is a science-fiction answer to the historical problem. Is it possible to own the scenery? Humans who live in space will have a different perspective from what Heinlein called the groundhogs,” Linaweaver wrote in the introduction.

That’s a challenging goal to realize, and like every anthology of fiction, this one is a mixed bag. Although a few stories inevitably have dated somewhat, others explore timeless questions that provoke thought:

Poul Anderson (Creative Commons license)

* Can similar ideals mislead us? What happens when people have diametrically different concepts of freedom? And is one group’s resistance to tyranny always admirable – or is it sometimes the seeds of a different kind of rule?

To envision one poignant answer, read Poul Anderson’s aptly named story “Tyranny,” to my mind one of the most thought-provoking tales in the entire anthology.

Poetic but precise, the story begins by portraying some sympathetic human rebels risking their lives on a colonized planet to strike a blow against a rigid and tyrannical government that uses a computerized robot to restrict innovation and reform. Yet, Anderson skillfully shifts his perspective and incorporates plausible plot twists that remind us that opposing forces can speak the same libertarian rhetoric from quite different perspectives.

J. Neil Schulman in the 1990s. (Creative Commons license)

* Is it possible to resist tyranny effectively without falling into the trap of embracing violent terrorism? (To find out one answer, read Schulman’s ingenious “Day of Atonement,” set in a grim future where a power-hungry tyrant leading a reactionary force in the name of Orthodox Jews has taken over the state of Israel and imposed a fundamentalist theocracy that endangers both liberty and modernity.)

* If democracy is viewed as an unmitigated ideal rather than as a tricky and fraught means to the end of limiting abuses of power and achieving liberty, then what happens to a society that takes participatory democracy to  majoritarian extremes?

Prometheus-winning novelist Victor Koman (Courtesy of author)

(To envision one clever answer, check out Victor Koman’s “Demokratus,” a cautionary tale in which an interstellar space trader visits a backwater planet where even the smallest and most personal decisions about what to eat are made collectively via instant voting.)

Among the anthology’s other pleasures are the intriguing aliens in Smith’s “A Matter of Certainty,” the spirit of Heinlein juveniles in William Alan Ritch’s “If Pigs Had Wings” (a good story for younger readers) and the surprising inclusion of conservative columnist William Buckley Jr. with a surprisingly deft what-if wish-fulfillment short story imagining a Cold War-era coup for freedom if a cosmonaut demanded political asylum from Soviet tyranny during a joint space mission.

The styles of the stories also vary widely – from the poetic rhymes and rhapsodic rhythms of Jared Lobdell’s enjoyable “The Last Holosong of Christopher Lightning” with its portrait of courage and freedom against the odds, to the hard science and cold equations facing a resourceful space woman in Gregory Benford’s “Early Bird,” a suspenseful and entrepreneurial outer-space-crisis cautionary tale that suggests that early birds really can be first to get the juicy worm – if they can survive.

Ultimately, despite some darker outcomes and more cautionary tales, the anthology embraces the long-term optimism that has often distinguished libertarianism (and its close cousin, classical liberalism) from conservatism and socialism. Several stories, while fictional, seem even more possible today, when so many private space ventures are taking steps to send more people into orbit, and beyond.

Who knows? Perhaps in another quarter century or more, some of the more libertarian visions in Free Space may begin to seem at once prophetic and realistic.

* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40th anniversary of the awards and continues today.

* 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 enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* 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 evolution of 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.

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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