Rich Man’s Sky, the 2022 Prometheus winner for Best Novel, brims with the excitement, adventure, uncertainties and anxieties of real-world entrepreneurship.
Wil McCarthy’s kaleidoscopic novel, which thrillingly ventures beyond our Earth to chart the exploration, colonization and industrialization of our solar system, realistically and insightfully portrays the inevitably messy and risky progress of free men and women pursuing various goals through the cooperation of free markets.
Yet, the 291-page Baen Books novel – which launches a projected trilogy – also perceptively contrasts markets, warts and all, with the grimier and darker realities of politics – which unlike the voluntary transactions of the marketplace, unavoidably involves various forms and degrees of coercion, outright violence or the threat of violence and thus leads to some benefiting unjustly at the expense of others.
McCarthy’s understanding of age-old human psychology as well as the challenges inherent in new technology grounds his episodic novel in plausible dramatic conflicts as fearful governments and competing interests plot to undermine some of the more audacious space ventures led by four very different billionaires.
As the billionaires (actually “trillionaires,” dubbed the Four Horsemen by Earth’s suspicious governments and media) propel humanity’s expansion beyond Earth, McCarthy’s writing conjures an epic mosaic of ambition, desire, fear and hope.
While one billionaire aims at settling Mars with a 100-person lottery, another plans more long-range for the first human interstellar trip to Proxima Centauri.
Yet another billionaire, of murkier motivations and accustomed to darker manipulations, is a Russian gangster-oligarch who runs a refueling station and is eager to seize control of lunar colonies and Earth-orbiting space stations.
Meanwhile, the British fourth Horseman, Sir Lawrence, has invested much of his fortune in developing a grand, near-city-sized aerial-balloon-ship, but his more ambitious plans largely haven’t gotten that far off the ground yet.
This latter subplot, one of several introduced in Rich Man’s Sky but not yet fleshed out much, sparks anticipation and expectations about how McCarthy may develop some characters and plot lines more centrally in his projected sequel, Poor Man’s Sky (Baen Books, January 2023) and Beggar’s Sky, the trilogy’s unscheduled finale that is now being written.
ENSURING FREE ACCESS TO SPACE
McCarthy’s rich and dense novel imagines a wide variety of such massive and expensive long-term projects across the solar system – set up on and off Earth, in near-Earth orbit, on the Moon, at L5 points, on an experimental habitat near the moon, and heading towards Mars and beyond. Overall, it’s a fascinating future, and one many people might wish to live in.
Such mega-projects demand new technology – for terraforming, interstellar propulsion and hibernation for long space voyages, among other things – and McCarthy makes such developments plausible and interesting.
Writing in his private diary, perhaps for posterity, one billionaire Horseman observes toward the end of the novel: “The very governments that have declined to meet the demand of ordinary people for access to space, are now throwing muscle around to prevent private parties from doing it for them. This shameful demonstration is no doubt meant to intimidate, and it succeeds handily…
“But it makes an opposite point as well, that space-based enterprise must do its level utmost to cut these ties and dependencies, so people like (the US president) can only watch and ask, as opposed to dictate.”
CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES OF THE RICH
Some of the “Four Horsemen” ultimately prove to be mostly admirable, and some not, but McCarthy makes all four real people, each with various strengths and flaws and a variety of ambitious goals, as they spearhead game-changing private-enterprise projects that governments aren’t able or willing to do.
Each aims to fulfill their dreams and get the job done, no matter what obstacles may arise from politics, economics, society, technology or science.
Mostly, the implicit libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes emerge slowly but naturally, as different interests maneuver and scheme and a fearful and controlling government sends a clandestine mission to subvert the most dangerous space effort involving a solar shield.
Despite its male-oriented title, Rich Man’s Sky focuses on several strong women characters – including one subplot in which female space colonists participate in a breeding experiment on a distant space habitat.
One of the most suspenseful threads in McCarthy’s mosaic follows a team of elite military women sent into space to infiltrate one billionaire’s visionary and idealistic space project before he can change the world – for good and (as some fear) for ill.
A focal point of the novel is Alice, a former experienced US Air Force medic assigned to violently take control of the solar shield. Built halfway between the Earth and the sun, the shield – if misused – could spark an ice age or threaten some parts of our planet with much colder or warmer weather, disrupting international politics.
Overall, this hard-science Heinlein-esque tale of State-threatened market innovations in space persuasively counters anti-capitalist stereotypes.
Beyond its implicit critique of what Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises billed as the Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Rich Man’s Sky further illuminates today’s real-world issues by dramatizing the vast possibilities for voluntary cooperation and progress based on investment, cooperation, and scientific/tech innovations.
Today, reflecting age-old prejudices and economic ignorance, many continue to vilify the wealthy (the super-rich, even more so). Yet, many of those same critics paradoxically excuse, minimize, hide or ignore State aggression, assassination, spying, sabotage and other abuses from “throwing muscle around.”
Rich Man’s Sky, by welcome contrast, exposes the limitations and downside of coercive government while fairly portraying each billionaire as an individual – and without demonizing the rich.
Biographical note: Wil McCarthy, a prolific sf author, has published the novels Aggressor Six, The Fall of Sirius Bloom, Flies From the Amber, Murder in the Solid State; the short-story anthology Once Upon a Galaxy and a non-fiction book Hacking Matter.
His acclaimed Queendom of Sol series encompasses the Nebula-Award-nominee The Collapsium and its sequels The Wellstone, Lost in Transition and To Crush the Moon.
A former contributing editor to Wired magazine and a lifetime member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, McCarthy has been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Seiun, Theodore Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick awards, and contributed to projects that won a Webbie, an Eppie, a Game Developers’ Choice Award and a General Excellence National Magazine Award. His imaginary world of “P2/Sorrw” was named one of the 10 best science-fiction planets of all time by Discover magazine.
McCarthy also has invested years in leading a solar technology company, served as science columnist for the SyFy Channel and chief technology officer for Galileo Shipyards, an aerospace research company. He previously worked as a flight controller for Lockheed Martin Space Launch Systems and later as an engineering manager for Omnitech Robotics. He holds patents of his own in seven countries, including 31 issued U.S. patents in The field of nanostructure optical materials.
Rich Man’s Sky was the first McCarthy novel nominated for a Prometheus Award.
Note: This Appreciation is an edited, updated and revised version of Michael Grossberg’s initial June 2022 review of Rich Man’s Sky, one of several reviews in the spring and early summer of the five 2022 Best Novel finalists, as LFS members were reading and voting to select the winner.
Read the Prometheus Blog preview of McCarthy’s projected sequels to Rich Man’s Sky.
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