The Prometheus interview with Wil McCarthy, part 2: On temptations of power, libertarianism, his favorite Prometheus authors and why he reads Reason every day

Here is the second part of the Prometheus Blog interview with Wil McCarthy, the 2022 Best Novel winner for Rich Man’s Sky.

SF author Will McCarthy in command of some sort of starship (Photo: Baen Books)

Q: Were you aware of the Prometheus Awards before receiving your first Best Novel nomination this past year?

A: I have been aware of the award, yes.  I used to think of it as a purely political award, which I think perhaps it was in the early days.  But when you see it going to people like Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) and Charles Stross (Glasshouse) — both excellent, thoughtful writers, and clearly not Libertarians in any traditional American sense — I think it’s easier to see it as a genuine literary prize that rewards great ideas and great storytelling.

Q: Looking over the track record of past Prometheus-winning novels, do you happen to have any favorites?

A: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Real Time and A Deepness in the Sky— both winners of the Prometheus Award — are two of my all-time favorite books.

The former introduced the concept of the singularity, which is now firmly embedded in the global vernacular.

The latter… well, it was an apolitical book about spiders.  If the Prometheus Award has room for all that, then it’s a big tent indeed.

Q: On your website, where you post links, one of them is introduced as “An introduction to Libertarianism, because it’s good for you.” Does that signal your sympathy for modern libertarian thinking, such as represented by Reason magazine’s commitment to “free minds and free markets”?

A: My website is a wreck, at least 10 years overdue for a major overhaul.  I have no idea where that link went, or what content it was meant to share.

I sometimes call myself a “small ‘l'” libertarian, because that’s a compact way of approximating what I believe.

Reason magazine is indeed one of the websites I hit every morning in my daily news sweep.

But the longer answer is, I want people to live healthy, happy, prosperous lives.  Sometimes big government and big religion and giant mega-corporations help people do that; they certainly have resources to throw at the problem that smaller institutions don’t.

But anything big and powerful is going to be tempted (perhaps more and more over time) to use its powers coercively, or else coercive people are going to worm their way in, to co-opt that power for themselves.  Or maybe they just get bloated and wasteful, producing an excess of economic friction.

So eternal vigilance really is called for, or people are going to get unhappy and un-prosperous in a hurry.  Smaller governments are certainly less of a threat, but you also can’t get too small or too weak, because failed states are really dangerous.

Q: By that yardstick, how does the United States stack up, compared to other countries?

A: Think of Switzerland; they’re surrounded by “small s” socialists, and they’re a tiny country with limited resources.  To ensure food security and energy security and general quality of life, they can’t just build anywhere or dig anywhere or throw trash anywhere they like.  Things have to be managed carefully.  And yet, the people and the markets are freer and more prosperous there than in other, similar countries.

America is a bigger place, so we can afford to be a lot sloppier.  Outer space is of course infinite, but the habitats we build there will be very fragile indeed.  What works in America or Switzerland may not work at L1, and I think Heinlein, for example, was really plugged into that idea, that some traditions will follow us into outer space, but alongside that we may need to need to invent some completely new ways of doing things.

Will McCarthy (Photo courtesy of Baen Books)

Check out the first part of the Prometheus interview with Will McCarthy.

Read the Prometheus Blog appreciation of McCarthy’s Rich Man’s Sky, the 2022 Prometheus winner for Best Novel.

* Prometheus winners: For a full list of 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.

One thought on “The Prometheus interview with Wil McCarthy, part 2: On temptations of power, libertarianism, his favorite Prometheus authors and why he reads Reason every day”

  1. I have to disagree with the suggestion that A Deepness in the Sky lacks political content. Yes, it has the story of contact with the Spiders, which is the classic SF theme of First Contact, and brilliantly done. But it also has two different human societies making that contact, and coming into conflict over it, and that conflict is very much political. It’s interesting, too, in being a clash of two different ways of being “capitalist”: the Qeng Ho are an embodiment of free trade, the Emergents of corporate managerialism. And at a more basic ethical level, it offers the fascinating paradox of Trixia Bonsol, who has been enslaved down to the neurological level by the Emergents’ brain control technology, voluntarily chosen to maintain that focused state of her brain for her own purposes.

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