Best Novel finalist review: Devon Eriksen’s Theft of Fire blends hard SF, romance, suspense and comedy in story of conflict and cooperation

By Eric S. Raymond and Michael Grossberg

For a first novel, Theft of Fire is impressive.

Devon Eriksen is one hell of an SF writer. His prose is tight and energetic, his action scenes work and his world-building is more than competent.

Billed as the first novel in Eriksen’s Orbital Space series and nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel, this hard-sf space opera portrays a free-frontier space culture where big risks can lead to big rewards.

AN ENTERTAINING BLEND
Blending hard SF, romance, mystery, suspense and even comedy, Theft of Fire feels fresh even in its adroit reworking of such classic tropes as space travel, alien technology and artificial intelligence. Above all, it’s fun to read.

Eriksen has mastered the classic Heinleinesque mode of SF exposition by indirection, allowing his propulsive and inventive novel to focus more on its three well-developed central characters and their complex, evolving relationships.

Set mostly on an asteroid-mining ship headed toward the outer solar system in search of what may be hidden alien treasure, the story revolves around Marcus Warnoc, the ship’s stubborn captain, and Miranda Foxgrove, a smart and savvy heiress who’s hijacked his ship and locked him out of its computer controls.

Miranda hijacked Marcus’s ship after her discovery of a faint signal from the edge of colonized space that could lead her to vast further wealth and shift the balance of power in the alien-artifact wars that have previously transformed civilization – most notably, through the creation of fast fusion-drive spaceships that have propelled the solar system’s industrialization and colonization.

Coping with the limits of her gene-twisted, pint-sized and highly sexualized body and fiercely desiring success independent from her super-wealthy and privileged family, Miranda(allegedly Elon Musk’s great-great-granddaughter, though not named as such) struggles to forge her own destiny while remaining in control of Marcus’s ship.

A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP
Marcus, a resourceful loner operating as a pirate beyond the law and haunted by regrets about lost friends and family, finds himself simultaneously attracted to and irritated by Miranda amid his ongoing obsession with regaining control over his ship.

Marcus and Miranda’s love-hate relationship of mutual manipulation, betrayal, misunderstanding and denied attraction adds delicious subtext, charm and flavor to an already engrossing story.

As they test each other and scheme against each other in a shifting tug of war over who controls the ship and determines its direction, Marcus and Miranda amusingly start to bicker like Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. (Perhaps it’s no accident that Eriksen names his feisty, capable woman Miranda, another famous Shakespeare character from The Tempest, also a tale of hijacked and stranded characters making do far from home.)

AN ORIGINAL A.I. CHARACTER
The novel is notable for the plausibility and complexity of its original A.I. character.

Intriguingly, Miranda has developed a new prototype for stable AIs – with surprising results.  When Leela finally wakes up, she struggles to come to terms with her memories of being a 12-year-old girl who won’t ever be human again or see her parents again.

Just like biological adolescence, Leela née Lily goes through recognizably petulant and poignant phases as she becomes a full-fledged crew member in one of the most convincing coming-of-age arcs in recent science fiction.

AN INTERESTINGLY UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
Although each character comes fully alive – one of the biggest strengths and greatest pleasures of Theft of Fire – everything in the story is perceived through Marcus’s eyes and mind.

Here is an especially good example of The Case of the Unreliable Narrator – a nifty way for Eriksen to add aspects of a Sherlock Holmes-style puzzle to an already gripping saga by inviting readers to question Marcus’ decidedly self-interested point of view.

Among Marcus’ most notable biases: His serious misconceptions about Miranda, who proves more reasonable than he expects; and his suspicions of the capitalist elite, admittedly based partly in his own troubled history.

Here’s an example, a discussion between Marcus and Miranda about the corporations controlling the fusion-drive starship technology that’s made the solar system accessible (and also one of the few passages in the novel that explicitly addresses politics):

Marcus: “Oh, please. It’s a monopoly. We pay whatever they want, or we’re stuck using chemical fuel rockets… And we’re still flying about the solar system at a crawl. So we can’t compete…”

Miranda: “Where are you going with this, Marcus? Socialism? You want to form governments again? Like on Earth? You think that would fix all your problems?”

Marcus: “No, of course not. I’m not some statist zealot. I’m just telling you that the game is rigged in your favor, and has been since the moment you all got your hands on alien tech that we don’t and can’t have. It’s a monopoly that the so-called free market doesn’t fix….They didn’t invent anything. They just picked apart something that was already there, something we don’t get to look at.”

A PLAUSIBLE FUTURE
Overall, the novel offers a complex portrait of the pros and cons of its free-wheeling society where Belters conflict with corporate elites and their natural monopolies.

Although far from a utopia, this believable future has libertarian components – including free-market innovations that have created vast wealth, new forms of money no longer controlled by central federalized banks, and both formal and informal contracts that have become central to a new era of solar-system-spanning progress.

Of perhaps greatest interest to libertarian sf fans are the subtle ways that Eriksen’s story offers insights into agency, ethics, free will, self-ownership, contract theory, property rights and other human rights – all foundational to modern libertarianism.

A SUBTLE LIBERTARIAN BACKGROUND
Although most of the novel’s broader political and socioeconomic context remains in its background, Eriksen leaves little doubt about his anarcho-libertarian future.

Rather than “wearing” the libertarian background of his setting “on his sleeve,” as so many neophyte libertarian sf/fantasy writers tend to do, Eriksen prefers to show – not tell.

If Theft of Fire has a flaw, from the perspective of Libertarian Futurist Society members, it may be that its background is so subtle that some may miss it.

Yet, such fans can look forward to its sequel in Eriksen’s projected four-novel Orbital Space Series. Box of Trouble (Book 2, tentatively planned for publication in late 2024 or early 2025) is billed by the author as taking place all over the solar system with a larger cast of characters and locations. Thus, one can expect Box of Trouble’s broader picture of this future solar-system-wide civilization to bring its anarchocapitalist background closer to the center of the saga.

Meanwhile, Theft of Fire offers libertarians and other freedom-loving sf fans something they rarely get a chance to experience and enjoy: What it might be like to vicariously live in a free (albeit inevitably flawed and challenging) future, where most people can take their liberties for granted as widely recognized rights while focusing primarily on their own lives, livelihoods, personal goals and relationships – rather than politics.

AN ARC OF REDEMPTION
Instead of offering ideological lectures or info-dumps, Eriksen simply focuses on an exciting and twisty tale that ends up charting Marcus Warnoc’s redemption.

When we meet Marcus, he’s a damaged man, a thief, running from the mistake that killed his father. His complaints against the privileged and wealthy of society he lives in may be partly justified, but they also come across as self-justificatory whining by a man who never really fit in despite all the skills he piled up and all the rebel-pirate poses he struck.

The pivot point of this novel isn’t in any of the action scenes. It’s when Marcus realizes that despite Miranda having been a manipulative bitch who ruthlessly exploited all the weaknesses of his position, he finds that he cannot break his given word to her.

The voice of his dead father says to him “You can make any choice you want. You just have to look in the mirror afterwards.” And he realizes he hasn’t sunk so low that he won’t honor his word and hand.

DOING THE RIGHT THING
Libertarian values – you live up to your contracts.

With its focus on personal growth amid personal conflicts and tensions, the story revolves around a theme fundamental to the foundations of any free and functional society: people learning how to cooperate rather than resort to the initiation of force or fraud.

Doing the right thing, the libertarian thing, not only saves Marcus. It provides a moral example that saves Miranda as well.

For she too is damaged. Crafted and displayed like a jewel by a narcisisstic mother and absent father. Feeling the constant pressure to achieve. No friendships and damn little human contact. Being an arrogant, dominating princess is the only coping strategy she has ever had.

But Marcus won’t give up on her. And so – neither does she.

About the co-authors:
* Eric S. Raymond was one of the pioneers of the modern open-source movement. His website is http://www.catb.org/~esr/

* Michael Grossberg, a veteran award-winning newspaper journalist and arts critic based in Ohio, co-founded the Libertarian Futurist Society in 1981-1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards.

Both Raymond and Grossberg serve as Prometheus Award Best Novel judges.

Note: Theft of Fire is one of 17 2023 novels nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel. (Postscript: Theft of Fire was selected as one of the Best Novel finalists, announced in mid-April, 2024. Reviews of all five Best Novel finalists are being posted on the Prometheus blog)

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees, the recent blog reviews of different nominees, and read the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four  and Part Five of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-nominated authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature relevant to the distinctive dual focus of the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including 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 all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

* 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 (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for periodic updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

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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