Will McCarthy’s 2023 Prometheus Award acceptance speech: The nutritional value of literature

Here is the acceptance speech by sf writer Wil McCarthy, winner of the 2022 Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Rich Man’s Sky. McCarthy presented his speech Aug. 13, 2022, via Zoom as part of the LFS’ annual awards ceremony, which included two-time Prometheus winner Travis Corcoran as presenter of the Best Novel category.

BY WIL MCCARTHY

Howdy.  I’m very happy to be here, and I’d like to thank all of you for inviting me.  Yours is a great organization with a noble purpose, and I can only imagine the energy that goes into it.  I think it’s ironic that I’m the one getting recognition today, when you all are the ones doing the work.  My only regret is that I’m not able to thank you in person.

Rich Man's Sky
Rich Man’s Sky

When I look back at the past Prometheus Award winners, I have to say, I’m pleasantly shocked to find myself on any list that includes names like Stephenson, Doctorow, and Stross… Vinge, Varley, and Niven.

And that doesn’t even count the Hall of Fame winners!

Even if RICH MAN’s SKY is the worst novel that ever won this award, it’s a huge honor.  I can’t tell you how much that means.

I’d like to thank (Baen Books editor) Toni Weisskopf for buying an unwritten novel based on nothing but a 7-page outline and her belief in me as a writer.

I’d like to thank the rest of the Baen team for making the book happen.  You guys are awesome.

I’d like to thank Dave Seeley for the jaw-dropping cover art that, in my opinion, perfectly captures the tone of the novel.

I’d like to thank my wife, Evangeline, for not only serving as a subject matter expert, sensitivity reader, editor, and love of my life, but also for leaning hard on me to start writing fiction again.  I think it’s fair to say: if not for her support, this book would not exist.

I’d like to thank all the friends who edited and critiqued the work in progress.  You know who you are.

THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF LITERATURE

What I’d like to talk about today is the nutritional value of our literature.  In the animal kingdom, one habit that’s unique to humans is that we take the foods in our environment, and we refine their components into an assortment of white powders.  Then we remix these powders into glommy masses that nature never intended and that our bodies aren’t really designed to process.  Oh, these “foods” are yummy, but they won’t leave you better off.

We do the same thing with literature.  A little sugar, a little salt, a little flour and cocaine, and you’ve got a highly addictive confection that will keep readers coming back for more.  But is white powder really better than an apple?  Is a croissant going to feed you the way a bowl of oatmeal and mixed berries would?

I think some people familiar with my work may sit up at this point and say: “Jeez, Wil.  You’re a white-powder kind of writer.”  And I certainly have been, at times.

Wil McCarthy in the cockpit of some starship (Photo courtesy of Baen Books)

But here’s where I need to digress, and talk briefly about my history.

In the mid-2000s, I was living the dream of the full-time professional writer.  I was a contributing editor at WIRED magazine and a monthly columnist for the SciFi channel, with two New York Times Notable Books under my belt, and standing offers to write for this magazine or that publisher.  It was a stupid time to walk away from my writing career, but that’s what I did.  Instead, I founded a technology startup, knowing full well it was going to consume 110% of my time and energy.  It ended badly, as such things often do, but that took a long time – ten years.

In the wake of it, I realized I hadn’t made any actual friends during that time.  I’d actually lost a few.  And yes, when the time was right, the VC’s fired me from the company I’d started in my own basement.  They didn’t need R&D anymore, or thought they didn’t.  Which is fine; I signed a contract.  All’s fair in love, war, and business.  But I was surprised that nobody stood up for me.  Nobody threw me a going away party, or even sent a sympathy card.  I was simply “out”.  I’ll confess to a certain degree of schadenfreude when the company crashed and burned two years later, without ever once asking for my help.

Will McCarthy (Photo courtesy of Baen Books)

It was around this time that I finally started writing again.  But after twelve years away, I found I couldn’t simply dash off a quick plot, driven by the white powder of bold characters and amazing science.  I mean, those things were still in there, but now the characters’ internal dialogues were taking a deeper role.  Not just a Korean-American woman on a secret mission in outer space.  Not just how it feels, moment by moment, to be a Korean-American woman on a secret mission.  But also, I think, a little taste what it feels like to be a human being at all, caught up in the machinations of other human beings.  White powder can’t authentically convey that kind of experience.

Also, this secret mission isn’t happening in a vacuum, so to speak.  I wanted to write about a future every bit as complex and ambiguous as the present.  White-powder science fiction takes one exciting trend and extrapolates it into the future, but honest science fiction, has to extrapolate everything.  It’s a lot of work.

When I came back to writing after that twelve-year gap, the first thing I produced were a pair of novellas, the second of which won an award.  Next, I produced two novels, the second of which won an award.  This award.  I like to think this means I’m on the right track.

Novelist Wil McCarthy (Photo courtesy of Baen Books)

When I set out to write RICH MAN’S SKY, all this stuff was floating around in my head.  I’d been watching the rapid progress of various private space programs, and wondering what it would look like if that same astonishing pace were maintained for another three decades.  The Four Horsemen of the novel don’t have to answer to VCs or governments, or even shareholders.  In terms of getting things done quickly, that’s a really good thing.  But that kind of concentrated power is also the very thing America rebelled against in 1776.

That tension between the positive and negative aspects is what the book is really about.

It’s been criticized as both too sexist and too feminist, too capitalist or too anticapitalist, too exploitive or too woke, too sexy or too prudish, too complex or too simplistic.  I think all of these criticisms are accurate, because all those viewpoints are present in the story, just as they are in the world.  That’s what whole food looks like, and again, these reviews (even if they’re negative) imply that I accomplished at least some of what I set out to do.

Wil McCarthy surrounded by books (Photo: Baen Books)

Is this a libertarian book?  Am I a libertarian writer?  Yes and no.  It’s important to remember that I’m not a character in the story.  None of the people in there have the same background or experiences I have, so their points of view – all of them – are different than mine.  I did my best to portray them honestly.

Now, I’m not Hemingway.  I definitely sprinkled some sugar and cocaine over the top of it, and if that keeps me out of literary heaven, so be it.  People like cocaine, but if you’re going to turn up the metabolism like that, you’d better also have some decent fuel for the fire.  Whole foods and blow, my secret recipe.  I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Read this earlier Prometheus blog about Wil McCarthy’s career.

Read this Prometheus blog review of Rich Man’s Sky.

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 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.

 

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