The Prometheus Interview: 2022 winner Wil McCarthy on Rich Man’s Sky, Heinlein and his return from hiatus

SF author Wil McCarthy, the 2022 Prometheus Best Novel winner for Rich Man’s Sky, took a long hiatus from writing science fiction, but now he’s back – and happy to answer a few questions about his work.

In the first part of this two-part interview, McCarthy explains why he went on hiatus, admires Robert Heinlein and reads the leading libertarian magazine Reason every day.

SF writer Wil McCarthy Photo courtesy of author

Q: You’ve written quite a few sf novels and stories. Why did you go on hiatus and what have you written since you returned?

A: I took a long hiatus from writing to run a tech start-up, among other things. When I came back, the first thing I did was write two novellas, the second of which ended up winning the AnLab award.

Then I wrote two novels, the second of which is Rich Man’s Sky, so it’s nice to see people actually taking notice.  It’s a nice way to ease back in.

Q: What were some of the real-life trends and issues that inspired you to write Rich Man’s Sky?

Well, obviously private space programs are happening right now, right in front of our eyes, and with a speed that even I find alarming.  In the time it’s taken NASA to develop one next generation rocket and space capsule, SpaceX started from zero and lurched so far ahead that it’s hard to imagine NASA even staying relevant in human spaceflight.  So that part doesn’t take too much imagination.

But what happens if you keep making progress at that same rate for another 30 years?  What happens if strong personalities with different agendas are competing for some of the same resources?  And what do governments do in the face of irrelevance and new technology?  What does that kind of world actually look like?  Which institutions are going to survive, and which ones will prosper or wither or mutate?

So that’s a lot of trends and a lot of issues.  Mashing all that together, you end up with a sort of kaleidoscopic future that can’t be told from any one viewpoint.  I realized this pretty early in the writing process, and it really shaped the way the book came together.

Q: While your characters are fictional, to what extent were your four “rich men” billionaires inspired, however loosely, some of the world’s current super-rich billionaires – like Elon Musk, with his desire to go to Mars; Bill Gates; Richard Branson with his space tourism projects, and any of those Russian-oligarch billionaires?

A: What am I, nuts?  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.  Not saying anything more without a lawyer present.

Q: Several of the LFS Best Novel finalist judges wondered if there would be a sequel to Rich Man’s Sky, since you introduced several intriguing characters – like the monks on the Moon and the Branson-like British billionaire – that were not central to the first novel, but seemed ripe with potential for sequels.

So we were pleased to learn that you’re writing a trilogy. Are such characters going to play more central parts of the action in your announced sequel Poor Man’s Sky (set for publication by Baen Books in January 2023) and the trilogy’s projected finale, Beggar’s Sky?

A: At this point, Beggar’s Sky is only about 10% of a shitty first draft, so I’ll refrain from commenting on what may or may not end up in it.

Poor Man’s Sky, however, is 100% of a fourth and final draft, so I can tell you that Sir Lawrence and Brother Michael do indeed play prominent roles.

One thing that surprised me is that the characters at ESL1 Shade Station never showed up in the second book at all.  The stuff going on there was just… well, it turned out the best way to tell that part of the story was to show it from everyone else’s point of view.  ESL1 is kicked-over hornet’s nest, spinning out rumors but not actually talking to anyone.  To an outsider, it’s very mysterious.

Q: Your sf novels have been praised as reflecting the spirit of Robert Heinlein and his zestful, adventurous, pro-science, pro-liberty and optimistic philosophy. Did he influence you, either as an sf writer or in terms of your sociopolitical views?

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons photo)

A: When I was growing up, everyone read Heinlein, in part because there were really only a couple dozen writers producing good science fiction in any quantity.  Things are much more diverse now.

I’m certainly pro-science and pro-liberty, but (a) anything can be taken too far, and usually is, and (b) nothing exists without an equal and opposite reaction.

I may be too jaded at this point to just cheerlead for one side; what really inspired me with Rich Man’s Sky is that literally everyone had a different idea about how things should be, and in their own context, all of them were right.

Will McCarthy (Photo courtesy of Baen Books)

Even the villains in the story are building on traditions that reach back to the dawn of time and will be with us well into the future.  And to write those points of view, I have to immerse myself in them, to the point where my own views aren’t even clearly represented.

There’s no Wil McCarthy character in there who thinks exactly the same way I do.

Why would they?  They all have totally different lives.


Note: Check back with the Prometheus Blog next week for the second part of McCarthy’s interview.

* 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 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.

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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