The foundations of liberty (and of Cloud-Castles): Part 2 of Dave Freer’s 2023 Best Novel acceptance speech

The 2023 Prometheus Awards plaque and gold coin

Following the recently posted first part of Dave Freer’s 2023 Best Novel acceptance speech, here is the conclusion, in which the 2023 Prometheus winner describes his winning novel Cloud-Castles, how it reflects Australia’s outback culture and why he wrote it.


Cloud-Castles was born out of a libertarian to outright anarchist concept: that the best defense of liberty is the ability to leave any form of bondage easily.

Autocracies inevitably have barriers to keep people IN. The freer the society… the less they care if you leave. In fact, if anything, they have to try and keep themselves from being swamped by people who want in.


I have a theory that geographical and physical conditions shape societies. Societies which face regular periods of extreme hardship – heavy snow or even regular dry periods, have to prepare for these or they die. It becomes an ingrained part of the society or maybe even the genome.

Crowded, dense living condition shape very different societies to wide open ones.  It is harder – not impossible, but harder – for liberty to thrive under high-density conditions – which of course is why the authoritarians always push for those. They want you crowded in cities, dependent on public transport, obedient to their rules.

Dave Freer with his 2023 Prometheus Awards Best Novel plaque for Cloud-Castles (Photo courtesy of Freer)

Because I am a new Australian and intensely interested and proud of the heritage of the country that offered me a home, a refuge, I used something which is very much part of the history of Australia for my book: the settlement by convict transportees.

My human colonists in this story are themselves imports from an Australia of the future – crash landed onto a tiny landing point on a world with no habitable land – onto an alien relic – a few square miles of anti-gravity plate, once the meeting place and trading station of two inimical alien empires.

You see: Cloud-Castles was set on this gas dwarf world, in the habitable zone of the upper atmosphere, not just because it was a fascinating biome but because it offered the ultimate libertarian environment: one in which bondage was very difficult once you got out among the floating vegetation of ‘the outback’. Both sheer size and ease of movement made captivity, physical or even financial, difficult.

At the opposite extreme, set in this almost immeasurable vastness was the anti-gravity plate, or ‘the Big Syd’ – which had reached what I consider the endpoint of all autocracies, where thugs under the authority of their autocratic alien overlords (the Thrymi and Zell alien relic populations, descendants of the traders trapped there when their empires went into genocidal war) have the absolute power of life and death over their human subjects.)

The Big Syd is, as I believe all crowded autocracies become (and crowded places become autocracies far more easily), a rapacious, corrupt Dickensian hell-hole, producing little, and essentially parasitic on the vast ‘outback’… that they look down on as barbaric and inferior. The book is about the contrast between these.

Because I have never written a single-layer of book in my life, into this political geography I introduce a Candide-like character, the idealistic do-gooder, the youngest scion of a wealthy engineering family, blinkered with the idea that there is nothing bad in the poor, oppressed people.

He has the idea that poverty equals goodness. He is going to get an education that people are people – not defined by superficialities.

At the same time, I worked on something I have been blindsided by, myself: each side expects the other to think and act like themselves.

Our hero is something of a naïve drongo, but a nasty thought would never enter his head without a battering ram. Those he is dealing with in the Big Syd never had any other kind of thoughts. I created a comedy of errors – and a learning curve.

The characters finally do escape this hell-hole  – as our hero and his sidekick have their first taste of real slavery – before escaping this and setting out to really uplift the world through engineering and… commerce.

Our Candide-hero finds people whose mindset is not alien to his, and with his Big Syd sidekick (whose growth is as marked as his  – just in a different direction). Together, they  start making a better society – through trade, free association and technological development.

The book is, into the bargain, funny, full of terrible puns and plays on misunderstanding the Australian vernacular, with deeds of sometimes involuntary derring-do and even a touch of romance.

And that’s my book Cloud-Castles: I am delighted to win the Prometheus with it.

That I am here at all, is because I stood on the shoulders of giants to get here. There is a lot of truth in the mongrel simile, because I took a great deal from authors I revere – authors, oddly, who are very well represented in the Prometheus.

It got churned up with a mis-spent youth – there was never anyone who took Heinlein’s ‘Specialization is for ants’ more to heart. At least it means I know exactly how stupid my characters were being.

Dave Freer (Photo courtesy of author)

As English was something like the fifth language my infant synapses were imprinted with, I am allowed to be confused about the accepted way of doing things.

It is the norm to thank everyone first.  I would rather leave you with my thanks, as I have talked for far too long, and you’d likely forget the first bit.

As always, I owe most thanks to my dearest wife Barbara, who has always believed in my writing and put up with occasionally being called by my current heroine’s name.

For this book:  My thanks go the bureaucrats whose illogical and petty conduct and casual abuse of power furnished me with such fine villains. They inspired me to write a story in which we can live beyond them.

On the opposite hand, my thanks also go to the trainers and my fellow ambulance volunteers who provided me both with hero models and quite a lot of the drama.

Dr Alex John, and my good friend Dr Mark Baldwin stopped me from making too many medical errors.

Along the way I have had many cheerleaders for this book, and many publishers who turned the proposal down. I thank both parties, one side who helped me up and the other for stimulating my obstinacy, and pushing me to finally publishing it myself (via Magic Isle Press.)

The Prometheus seems a fit tribute to this: There is nothing more libertarian than the response to the central figures of authority in your sphere saying “you can’t do this” than saying:

“Try and stop me. I bloody well will.”

It’s knocked me down a few times, but nothing earns more respect in traditional Australian culture than the battler who gets knocked down and gets up and tries again and again. Being a battler is natural to me, which is just as well, because I’ve knocked down a fair bit — and our all being battlers is something freedom needs.

Dave Freer at home Photo courtesy of author

And now in final, finest Bilbo Baggins style: Thank you all very much, especially the Libertarian Futurist Society who organised this, and voted to make me this year’s winner.

I am honoured and delighted. Thank you.

Read the first part of Dave Freer’s 2023 acceptance speech here.

Coming up on the Prometheus Blog:

Every few days, we will be publishing more posts about our 43rd annual Prometheus Awards ceremony – which aired live on Zoom Aug. 19 and will be posted on Youtube and on the LFS website’s Video page. Among the posts:

Robert Heinlein (Photo courtesy of the Heinlein Trust)

* Acceptance speeches for Robert Heinlein’s story “Free Men,” voted by LFS members the 2023 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee for Best Classic Fiction,” from Art Dula, primary trustee of the Heinlein Trust, and John Tilden, president of The Heinlein Society;

Writer Sarah Hoyt. Creative Commons license)
* Prometheus winner and Best Novel presenter Sarah Hoyt’s speech about freedom, science fiction, this year’s Best Novel finalists (including her favorites), her old friend Dave Freer and his novel


* An introductory overview of the Prometheus Awards and its Best Novel category by LFS co-founder Michael Grossberg, who chairs the 12-member LFS Prometheus Best Novel finalist-judging committee.

* A sobering but inspiring introductory speech by LFS President William H. Stoddard, emcee of the 43rd annual awards ceremony, about the cycles of liberty and history and why the Prometheus Awards matter more today, even amid today’s disturbing authoritarian trends and regressions.


* 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.


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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