As part of the LFS’ ongoing Appreciation series of review-essays explaining how each Prometheus Award-winner fits the distinctive libertarian and anti-authoritarian focus of the sf/fantasy award and why it deserved to win, here is an Appreciation by author Karl K. Gallagher (a frequent Best Novel finalist himself) of Robert Heinlein’s story “Free Men,” the 2023 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
Many writers have “trunk stories”—pieces rejected so many times that the writer shoves them into a trunk and stops sending them out again. “Free Men” seems to have been one of Heinlein’s trunk stories.
The Expanded Universe foreword says he wrote it in 1947, just a year after Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. The story wasn’t published until 1966, in the Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein single-author collection.
I can understand why editors didn’t want it.
It’s a grim story, with the protagonist left bleeding out as his followers flee to a new hiding place.
The premise is a USA occupied after losing WWIII, by an enemy willing to nuke towns as reprisals against guerillas. The kind of story that makes readers put the terms “unpatriotic,” “defeatist,” or “advocating ‘better red than dead’” in the letters cancelling their subscriptions.
So why did Heinlein write it? And why do some readers love it?
It’s a tale of heroism.
Not the dramatic, medal-winning heroism of charging forward to smash the enemy. But the unsung, dirty, necessary heroism of refusing to give up, making the enemy bleed, and preserving the ember of freedom.
As RAH wrote in the foreword, “It is any conquered nation in any century.”
Maybe you’ve been defeated. Maybe you’ve been crushed. Maybe all the institutions you depended on to fight for you are gone. But you can keep fighting. You can make the conqueror pay for his wins. You can be an example for others who’ve given up and inspire them to start fighting again.
Do you fear being on the losing end of a war? As a teenager watching my country face off against the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, thousands of nukes being detonated was something that could have happened at any time. Even if we ‘won’ the war, we faced being devastated. But losing was also something we feared.
Reading “Free Men” in that time and place was an education on how to be a resistance fighter. Every trick used by the Barclay Free Company was one I could remember, and put to use in case that worst-case scenario came to pass.
The revolution in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was more entertaining, but not useable advice unless you had an artificial intelligence or un-tappable phone system. Dead drops, graffiti, hand carried messages, slang as code, double agents — those are practical methods.
The story also teaches the importance of politics on the large and small scale.
Captain Morgan leads the company because he was elected. That gives him democratic legitimacy to support the orders he gives — orders which send men to their deaths — but only for his company.
Albert Brockman declared himself ‘provisional president’ as the senior living heir to the elected president of the USA. How much authority does that give him? Will guerillas obey his orders? And can the country come back together if there isn’t someone to coordinate all the scattered guerillas?
(As much as I love decentralized management and spontaneous order, the history of warfare hasn’t shown them to be more effective than a campaign under a skillful leader.)
The Soviet Union has gone away. But the principles illustrated in “Free Men” still apply.
Perhaps a future war will see the USA occupied. But even without war, people find themselves losing elections and losing ‘culture wars.’
This story drives home that defeat isn’t the end.
Organize your friends.
Build something. And win the struggle in the long run.
For more information about Karl H. Gallagher’s current and upcoming novels, visit Kelt Haven Press’s website.
Read the Prometheus Blog review of Karl Gallagher’s Seize What’s Held Dear and Storm Between the Stars, both selected by LFS members as 2022 Best Novel finalists and both sequels in his ongoing Fall of the Censors series.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:
* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus 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.
* Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* 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, individuality and human dignity.
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, end slavery, drastically reduce war, limit other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.