“You can’t enslave a free man” – Heinlein Society acceptance speech for “Free Men,” the 2023 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

John Tilden, president of The Heinlein Society, spoke Aug. 19 during the 2023 Prometheus Awards ceremony to accept the Prometheus Hall of Fame award for Best Classic Fiction for Robert Heinlein’s short story “Free Men.”

Tilden spoke eloquently about Heinlein’s legacy in general and about the setting and themes of his winning story in particular, while shedding some fascinating light on its provenance and place in Heinlein’s Future History series.

For the record, here is a transcript of Tilden’s speech:


It is my pleasure to provide a few remarks on this occasion of Robert Heinlein’s short story “Free Men” being inducted into the Prometheus Award’s Hall of Fame. I add my thanks to the Libertarian Futurist Society for this honor.


John Tilden, president of The Heinlein Society File photo

I’ve been a Heinlein fan since I was a pre-teen, and I’ve been involved with The Heinlein Society since its inception in 2000 as a charter member and now a lifetime member. I’ve served on its board since 2012, and as its President since 2019.

Our charity exists to “Pay it Forward” through continued good works supporting the literary legacy of Robert A. Heinlein and those causes he supported during his lifetime.

John Tilden, standing with a Heinlein bust and memorabilia at the 2018 MidAmeriCon Photo courtesy of Tilden

We were created with the initial support and guidance of Mrs. Virginia Heinlein, Robert’s widow, and as an all-volunteer organization depend on membership dues and donations to support our programs. Those programs include discussing the significance of his works to both existing fans and helping to create new fans and keep Heinlein’s legacy alive.


“Free Men” is an interesting part of that legacy. It was written after his first novel Rocket Ship Galileo around 1947,  but was not published until the collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein in 1966.

In the introductory material to this story when republished in the 1980 collection known as Expanded Universe, Heinlein makes it a point to say that it is supposed to represent “any conquered nation in any century.”

The story is of the Barclay Free Company, a small collection of holdouts against a foreign invasion of the United States where nuclear bombs are readily used to keep the population in line.  It is clear that the company has men, women, children, and babies.

We meet the company Captain, see how the company conducts itself, and how it deals with threats.  There are some classic Heinlein elements in this short — reverence for Boy Scouts and the ability to make your way in the outdoors; using rules of order in a grassroots organization to conduct meetings and make decisions; the equal capability of women while still keeping to different gender roles. Pulling your own weight and fighting is what gives you the franchise in this company.

The company must deal with a member, Joe, who isn’t strong enough to stay hidden away; it’s hinted twice he’s not pulling his weight, and he proves it by leaving.

Most of the story tells of the consequences that ensue from Joe’s defection, making sure the company as a whole stays safe until the day that they can link up with the Provisional Government and have “unity…from coast to coast.”

The key to the entire story is in just a couple of lines:

“There’s one thing this has taught me: You can’t enslave a free man. Only person can do that to a man is himself.  No sir— you can’t enslave a free man. The most you can do is kill him.”

And a little later:

“Don’t you worry about [him]. A free man can take care of himself.”

In Jim Gifford’s Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion he notes that this story may have been completed from undeveloped story notes for “The Stone Pillow,” one of the ‘Future History’ stories that appeared as a title in Heinlein’s famous timeline published with several revised versions.

While not exactly the plot noted in Heinlein’s archives, the timing and circumstances of “The Stone Pillow” could also fit “Free Men.” The 1950 version of the timeline indicates that the timeframe for ‘The Stone Pillow’ was the year 2025.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

On that sobering note, I’d like to point out that Heinlein made some interesting predictions in his lifetime but he wasn’t right about everything!

It’s not surprising to me that the LFS would choose to honor a story that very clearly restates some very core libertarian ideals as a key part of its plot.

I suspect that Mr. Heinlein would have been incredibly pleased that its message is still being honored some 76 years after he wrote it.

Again, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this day.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Heinlein (Photo courtesy of the Heinlein Trust)

Coming up on the Prometheus Blog:

As part of our extensive coverage of the 43rd annual Prometheus Awards ceremony – which aired live on Zoom Aug. 19 and is now posted on Youtube and on the LFS website’s Video page – we will also be posting several interesting comments by Art Dula, primary trustee of the Heinlein Prize Trust, along with several exciting news updates from the Trust and revealing excerpts that Dula read from a 1947 letter that Robert Heinlein wrote about his vision of the future.

Part of The Heinlein Society’s library of paperback editions of Robert Heinlein’s books, housed with the Society’s Internal Archivist John Seltzer  (Photo courtesy of John Tilden)

* Read the Prometheus Blog appreciations of some of Heinlein’s other Prometheus winners, such as his novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Citizen of the Galaxy, Strangers in a Strange Land, Red Planet, Time Enough for Love and Methuselah’s Children, and his stories “Requiem” and “Coventry.”


* 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.

Watch  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.

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, end slavery and war, drastically limit other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for 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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