Tycoon flying to the moon? Private space programs have the last laugh, inspired by Robert Heinlein’s “Requiem,” the 2003 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here’s the Prometheus Blog appreciation for “Requiem,” Robert Heinlein’s short story, the 2003 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Eric S. Raymond

For a good 40 years – between 1957 and 1997 – the premise of Robert Heinlein’s 1940 short story “Requiem” looked dated and quaint, almost laughable.  Private space programs?  A tycoon flying to the moon? Absurd!  For those were the decades in which everyone was sure that space programs had to be vast government-run leviathans.

The Old Man had the last laugh.  In the new millennium government-run spaceflight is moribund; all the action is at companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. It is now the era of government-run-space programs that is beginning to look quaint, as the political will to push them evaporated with the end of Cold War competition in 1992.

But this story, and the related “The Man Who Sold The Moon”, resembles today’s reality in a way that is more than coincidence.

It is no secret that the billionares behind 21st century private space are all fans of classic science fiction for whome the character of Delos Harriman was a role model.  Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and their handful of near-peers are intentionally living Harriman’s dream, and aren’t even a bit shy of admitting it to anyone who asks them.

That makes this story important!  When and if future historians look for the root of the second wave of human enterprise in space, they’re going to find it here.  Heinlein’s views about the importance of space exploration to the future of our species are well known; had he lived to see this, probably would have considered this the most important consequence of his work.

As for libertarian content, we can do no better than to relay the quote that forms the emotional hinge of the story:

“It’s neither your business nor the business of this damn paternalistic government to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do.”

That’s the Robert Heinlein who would exert a shaping influence on libertarianism two decades later talking. The obstacles in this story are not technology or Harriman’s own failing health, they are a kind of government overreach that is, alas, more plausible now than it was when Heinlein wrote the story.

Nevertheless, Delos Harriman makes it to the Moon, knowing full well the trip will probably kill him.  His end is triumphant, not only because he finally achieves his lifelong dream but because he successfully asserts his right to choose his own destiny.  And in that is a message that shines through all the dated details of the story.

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his classic bestselling novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1983) and Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998),  and the story Coventry (in 2017.)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Vernor Vinge’s “The Ungoverned” the 2004 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

* See related  introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join   the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual 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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