Interview: Frequent Prometheus-finalist Karl K. Gallagher on sf, growing up, and the roots of his Fall of the Censor series

SF author Karl K. Gallagher is in the midst of writing his ambitious multi-volume Fall of the Censor series, an interstellar saga set in the distant future.

The series, popular with libertarian sf fans, now includes four published novels, two of which became 2022 Best Novel finalists: Between Home and Ruin and Seize What’s Held Dear.

Author Karl K. Gallagher (Creative Commons license)

No stranger to the Prometheus Award, Gallagher previously has been nominated for four other novels – while Captain Trader Helmsman Spy, the latest in his Fall of the Censor series, is a current Best Novel nominee.

Storm Between The Stars, the first novel in his Fall of the Censor series, was a 2021 Best Novel finalist.

Meanwhile, the three novels in his interstellar Torchship trilogy (Torchship, Torchship Pilot and Torchship Captain) were combined by LFS judges into one nomination (since together, they tell one complete story) and became a 2018 Best Novel finalist.

Gallagher, who lives outside Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife Laura, daughter Maggie, son James and cat Kethry (named after the Mercedes Lackey character), recently was interviewed by Michael Grossberg, a Prometheus Blog editor.

Q: How did you get interested in science fiction/fantasy?

A: There’s an old joke about the golden age of science fiction being 12, implying whatever books you read first are the best ones. My father died when I was young and I inherited his SF collection, so for me the golden age spanned from the 19th century “Edison’s Conquest of Mars” to stories from the early ‘70s. Most were from the ‘40s through ‘60s, so I had a wide grounding in the classics of the field.


Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?

A: I was born in upstate New York, where my parents were attending
college. We bounced around for a few years, following my father’s
academic aspirations, and then settled on Long Island. I went to
college at MIT, majoring in Aero/Astro Engineering.

Q: Many of your novels – including your Torchship trilogy and your ongoing Fall of the Censor series – focus on space travel and space exploration. How did you get interested in that?

A: My father’s book collection included non-fiction on rocketry and astronomy, including references from his experiments with model rockets. Between them and stories such as (Heinlein’s) “The Man Who Sold the Moon” I was fascinated with designing and building spacecraft and planning missions to other worlds.

Q: You’ve earned engineering degrees from MIT and USC, designed weather satellites for TRW, controlled weather satellites for the Air Force, designed a rocket-ship for a start-up and done systems engineering for a fighter plane. Were there any historical events related to space that especially inspired you to go into engineering as a career?

A: My childhood reading was enough to convince me to major in
engineering. When I was a freshman at MIT the Shuttle Challenger
exploded, shattering many of our aspirations.

One of the investigating commissioners was a professor from our department, who shared a number of details about the investigation that didn’t make the news. That gave me a determination to make sure what systems I worked on were done right so we wouldn’t have such disasters again.

Q: What inspired your Fall of the Censor series?

A: As I was finishing up my Lost War duology, I cast about for ideas for the next project. I had a description of a world I’d made for an RPG.

There was a scene of a crew dealing with a breakdown on their freighter. And there were a couple of ideas I’d been kicking around: one for a more complex version of hyperspace, as opposed to the empty void it is in many SF stories. I wanted hyperspace to be someplace dangerous, forcing changes in spaceship designs and battle tactics.

The other concept was thinking about the problems people have in large, crowded societies. What would a large society look like if everyone was grouped into Dunbar’s Number size units?

Then I stumbled across the “Censorate” government agency in Chinese history (sort of an Imperial inspector general) while looking for a better name than “empire” and the whole concept came together.

Q: How would you describe the central themes explored in the Fall of the Censor series?

A: The stories on Corwynt are focusing on how a society of small clans can function with a modern population and economy. As the stories touch on other worlds, I want to show the variety of ways people can live, when each culture is effectively isolated from each other (the Censorate doesn’t care how you live, as long as you obey).

The Censorate side of the story is studying how a powerful bureaucracy cripples itself by not letting information rise through the
‘thermocline of truth’ and how destroying history ruins your ability
to function efficiently.

Q: Why do you think so many more writers today seem to write series or trilogies, rather than stand-alone novels?

A: Readers want them. I regularly see my greatest sales from the complete Torchship Trilogy omnibus. When writers discuss how long a series should be, everyone keeps finding that longer sells better.

There’s a caveat there — some readers have been burned by never-finished series and will only start one when the last book is out. But generally whenever a new book in a series comes out someone will start reading it from the beginning.

I’m not sure how much of this is a change in tastes versus the
Internet enabling readers to obtain the whole series. Decades back I
spent many hours in used book stores, and would occasionally pick up a
duplicate because I wanted to complete that series and wasn’t sure if
I had that volume at home. Now Amazon helpfully tells you if you’ve
bought a book already, and keeps the entire backlist available as
ebooks (Not, alas, true for all older books yet).

People will still buy stand-alone novels — Andy Weir (The Martian, Prometheus Best Novel finalist Artemis) is having great success with them.

But the hungriest readers will gobble down a ten-book series and ask for more.

For more information about Karl H. Gallagher’s current and upcoming novels, visit Kelt Haven Press’s website.

Coming up soon: Part 2 of the Gallagher interview, focusing on his Torchship trilogy, favorite sf authors and the impact of the Prometheus Awards.

* Watch the 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.

* Prometheus winners: For a 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.

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