“The outback of Australia was a very individualist place. So: I had my model.” – Dave Freer
Dave Freer’s Cloud-Castles, the 2023 Prometheus Best Novel winner, offers a zestful and often funny coming-of-age adventure set on diverse habitats floating above a gas-giant planet.
The Australian author, who lives in Tasmania, considers himself “mostly a rational anarchist” in the tradition of Robert Heinlein. Freer was interviewed by email by Michael Grossberg, a Prometheus Blog editor.
Q: How did your life in Australia inspire the anti-authoritarian, individualist and/or rebellious spirit of some of the varied cultures you portray in Cloud-Castles?
A: Yes, the inspiration for the human setting was my new home, Australia, and its transported convict history.
Australia I feel offers a model: Individualists fled the dense settlements and their authoritarian governance, and headed out into the outback. The wealth of Australia flowed from her vast country, and her natural resources.
The outback of Australia was a very individualist place. So: I had my model.
And, as inspiration I had stifling claws of petty bureaucracy crawling out of the over-governed urban areas destroying pretty much every form of innovation and individualism. These urban areas are largely parasitic on the farming and mining of the rest of Australia – they’ve killed much of their manufacturing via bureaucracy.
Q: Through entrepreneurship, cooperative individualism and fish-out-of-water encounters with its transformative but unlikely hero, your novel reveals how markets work, why profits are moral and necessary in a free society and how societies flourish through reinvestment and market innovation. What else inspired the satirical story and characters in Cloud-Castles?
A: The other principal thread of Cloud-Castles is of course social engineering – very fashionable. Also a subject that is ripe for satire, given my point of view that social uplift is best achieved by the people you’re wanting to help seeing serious economic advantage in advancing themselves and not merely being dependent on handouts.
Playing for handouts requires maintaining misery, which rather does away with any incentive to really change the situation.
Q: What inspired you to write Cloud-Castles?
A: Look, the hard questions like: ‘how do you spell your name?’ are a challenge for me. And you ask me things like this?
It’s a complicated set of ideas, which I tried to express in accessible terms, and because humor is a tool to make that happen, make it funny.
Q: The far-flung story revolves around a mis-educated, socially awkward and well-meaning young man, brilliant but naïve, thrust into a succession of strange human and alien cultures and life- and liberty-threatening situations. With help from a street-smart sidekick, he escapes imprisonment and slavery and forges innovative, profitable businesses with decentralized, stateless people scattered through the planet’s clouds. What led you to create this fascinating character and his far-flung coming-of age adventures in such an interesting setting?
A: Being mostly what Heinlein would call a rational anarchist (in a book that was a Prometheus winner), I regard the individual as the best person to be responsible for their own circumstances and actions, I also realize that for the individual not to end subjected to the state or group… was to be able to leave.
Tyranny inevitably has walls that keep its livestock in. And if the livestock moves over the border – long odds they will try and get it back, or add that bit to their lands.
So: this was the genesis of ‘how do you get the biggest possible contiguous habitable area, which would be at least very difficult to restrain people from moving if they didn’t want to be your livestock.’
Q: How did you ultimately arrive at the novel’s distinctive setting in the vast clouds above a gas-giant planet in a far solar system?
A: I toyed with every possible setting – finding myself brushing again with Jack Vance’s ideas, until reading astronomer John S. Lewis’s Worlds Without End: The Exploration of Planets Known and Unknown, and concept of the upper atmosphere of a gas giant being a habitable zone.
The potential of the sheer size and three-dimensionality of that space made it the top contender. So, I began looking for ways in which that could be inhabited.
Q: What kinds of different societies and cultures did you think might evolve in such a setting?
A: Now I needed a repressive society for my setting – A ‘closed’ society in the midst of this where government followed the inevitable path it does without active intervention – from thuggish authoritarianism to venal kleptocracy with nothing to sell but what is considered ‘vice’ by other states.
Q: How does all that reflect your overall approach to writing fiction?
A: In a nutshell, that’s Dave’s creative process: find or be offered an intractable seeming problem. Find a solution.
Also: if there are two ways of doing things known… find a third.
As a biologist, I tend to look to selective evolution as having solved a good few problems for me, and planktonic species practice precisely the vertical migration of the floating plants on Sybill… I had my environment.
Q: Here’s a common challenge and question for most Prometheus Award winners: How tricky is it to write satisfying, entertaining fiction that may express some of your personal or social views without falling into dogma or preaching?
A: Very. Which is why it is always at the forefront of mind.
To show situations rather than telling them, and to let readers reach their own conclusions is life and breath to me.
Coming up soon: Part Two of the Prometheus Interview with Freer.
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