First contact, social contracts, slavery and freedom: An Appreciation of Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, the 2006 Best Novel winner

To make clear why past winners deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy and how they fit the Prometheus Award, Appreciations of past winners have been written and posted. Here’s the Appreciation for Ken MacLeod’s Learning the Worldthe 2006 Prometheus Best Novel winner:

MacLeod’s inventive first-contact novel explores the politics and uncertainties involved from two perspectives: the natives of the planet and the “alien” (human) visitors.

In some ways modeled on classic Heinlein juveniles and a departure from his other future-Earth-solar-system novels exploring the implications of libertarian and Marxist ideas, Learning the World offers as a primary viewpoint character a teen girl living on an interstellar colony ship about to enter a new solar system.

As she learns more about the world, the reader learns with her.
Yet, her world isn’t stable, with the ships crew and passengers discovering unmistakable evidence of an intelligence race on one of the new system’s planets. That discovery sparks conflicts among the crew, the older generation of passengers and their children, who grew up expecting to lay claim to an entire solar system.

MacLeod also tells the story from the intriguing perspective of the aliens, whose strange cultures and science has parallels to and differences from human cultures and science.

Issues arise involving preparation for war sparked by first contact, and an especially disturbing aspect of the alien culture, which includes a long-established practice of slavery of a more primitive species. While recognizing slavery as evil, the humans are divided about how to stop it.

Meanwhile, MacLeod explores the radically libertarian and plausible idea of colonizing and industrializing space through a long-established libertarian body of law about the private appropriation of bodies in space, including future markets in asteroids, comets, terrestrial planets and other sorts of bodies.

Plus, in a fascinating application of libertarian principles, each human ship operates through an explicit social contract to which its crew and passengers must agree before signing on.

Yet, humans being humans, their libertarian principles don’t stop people under stress from turning from cooperation to coercion in a crisis.


Note: MacLeod also has won Prometheus Awards for The Stone Canal in 1998 and The Star Fraction in 1996.

Ken MacLeod (Creative Commons photo)

His Prometheus Best Novel finalists include The Cassini Division (2000), The Sky Road (2001), Dark Light (2003), Newton’s Wake (2005), The Execution Channel (2008), The Restoration Game (2012), The Corporation Wars: Dissidence (2017), The Corporation Wars: Insurgence (2017) and The Corporation Wars: Emergence (2018).




* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* 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 recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes links to all Appreciations of past winners.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual 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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