Heinlein’s Children: Tom Jackson’s fanzine essay on libertarians in sf fandom

Libertarianism and science fiction have been closely connected since their early history, a rich topic often explored here on the Prometheus Blog.

Robert Heinlein, a drawing (Creative Commons license)

Libertarian sf fan Tom Jackson explores their connections anew in his recently published essay “Heinlein’s Children: Libertarians in fandom.”

Published in “Portable Storage,” William Brieding’s sf fanzine, Jackson’s interesting and historically knowledgeable article offers a very readable introduction to the subject for the fanzine’s “The Great Sercon Issue Part One.”

Jackson, a veteran LFS member who has served with distinction for years as a Prometheus judge on the Best Novel Finalist Judging Committee, takes the opportunity to also describe the history and focus of both the Prometheus Awards and the Libertarian Futurist Society, founded to take over and sustain the awards in 1982.

Tom Jackson
His writing style is conversational, disarmingly transparent and friendly.

“The Prometheus Award has now been around as a regular award for more than 40 years, so it’s actually one of the oldest SF awards by now, predating other specialized awards such as the Otherwise Award (exploring gender, dating back to 1991) and the Sideways Award (for alternative history stories, founded in 1995.),” Jackson writes.

“I’ll tell you a bit more about the Prometheus Award by and by (if nothing else, it has called attention to some good books overlooked by the other awards.) But first I want to attempt to answer a question William Breiding posed to me recently: Where do all the libertarians in fandom come from? William commissioned this article to try to answer the question – it’s not my attempt to smuggle libertarian propaganda into William’s fanzine.”

In the process of answering those questions and describing the Prometheus Awards, Jackson mentions more than a few key libertarian-sf novels and classic winners. Among them: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, and Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun.

Plus, of course, Heinlein, who has been recognized seven times over the decades with various Prometheus Awards – and is a Hall of Fame finalist again this year for his novel Citizen of the Galaxy.

Jackson offers several reasons for the intimate relationship between libertarianism and modern science fiction.

“…So my main explanation for the presence of libertarians in SF fandom is this: While classical liberalism and individualist anarchism goes back to the 19th century and even earlier, involving figures such as John Stuart Mill and Lysander Spooner, the 1970s were a time when libertarians had a great deal of momentum and energy, and this influenced fandom and other parts of the culture. And too, Robert Heinlein, very libertarian in many of his beliefs, was perhaps the domination SF author of his time. Many of his readers would have been interested in his beliefs, just as many fans of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps the dominant writer now, pay attention to Jemisin,” Jackson writes.

His essay – also charmingly personal by weaving in some autobiographical threads about his own coming-of-age as a sci-fi fan and libertarian – enhances his central thesis by quotes key insights as well from LFS member Eric Raymond’s early debut essay of the Prometheus blog: “Freedom in the Future Tense: A Political History of SF:”

“In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future. SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action… and for storylines in which… as in Heinlein’s archetypical “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1951) – scientific breakthroughs and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole.”

And, as a veteran Prometheus judge who appreciates the difficulties of finding strong candidates for an award with a dual focus, Jackson also makes clear one of the Prometheus Award’s constant and big challenge:

“The idea is to find a novel that has literary merit but also deals with libertarian ideas. In practice, it can be difficult sometimes to find a work that is both very libertarian and very good as a work of fiction,” Jackson concludes.

(To quote the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz: “Ain’t it the truth!”)

By the way, this “sercon” (or seriously focused) issue of Portable Storage is worth checking out not only for Jackson’s article, but also for several other articles of potential interest to LFS members.

Among them: “Dale Nelson Dives Deep Into Tolkien” (related to “The Lord of the Rings,” the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner), “Paul Di Filippo Does Delaney” (about Samuel Delaney, a New Wave African-American sf writer whose novel Neveryona was a 1984 Prometheus Best Novel nominee); and “Justin Busch Goes all H.G. Wells” (about one of the godfathers of modern sf).

* Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners, finalists and nominees – 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 the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* 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.

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.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human 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.

3 thoughts on “Heinlein’s Children: Tom Jackson’s fanzine essay on libertarians in sf fandom”

  1. Thank you for this nice appreciation. I should probably point out that although the cover of the zine makes this confusing, the zine Michael is writing about is called Portable Storage; my piece was published in Portable Storage #6.

    All seven of the issues published so far, by longtime fan William Breiding, are available here as PDF files:

    https://efanzines.com/PortableStorage/

    My high opinion of William’s zine is generally shared; at the 2022 FAAN Awards, Portable Storage was named Best Genzine:

    https://efanzines.com/TIR/Incompleat2022results.pdf

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