Volume 17, Number 02, Spring 1999

"None of the Above"

Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

One of the libertarian movement's distinctive ideas has been that every election should offer the option of "none of the above." In past years, this option has been included in the Prometheus Awards vote; in fact, there was one year when it won, and no award was given. The "None of the Above" line was omitted from this year's ballot—which is regrettable not only in principle, but because this year it deserves to win. Or, to look at the reverse of the coin, there is good reason to deny the award to each of this year's nominees.

What do we want in a Prometheus Award recipient? To start with, it should be libertarian, showing us the advantages of freedom or the disadvantages of authority. Of this year's nominees, John Varley's The Golden Globe envisions a solar system where private law enforcement is represented by a planet of pain-worshipping killers and where human beings are governed by omniscient and effectively omnipotent planetary central computers whose own programming for self-restraint is the only safeguard for freedom. The Heinleinian references may have sentimental appeal, but in many ways this novel is a parody of Heinlein—both of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and of Double Star, with its actor hero raised by a father whose version of corporal punishment inflicts repeated near-lethal injury on his son. Ben Bova's Moonwar is pro-technology and portrays a Lunar independence movement sympathetically, but seems not to disagree in any substantial way with redistributivist liberalism, only with the personal corruption of some of its adherents. F. Paul Wilson, co-author of Masque, certainly has solid libertarian credentials, but this novel is basically an action thriller with only the most minimal intellectual content; its setting is scarcely more than a stage set.

We would also like it to be science fiction—and not just space opera, or sci-fi action, or technothriller, but to have substantial speculative or extrapolative content. None of these books is as strong as it might be, except The Golden Globe; the weakest of all is Don L. Tiggre's Y2K: The Millenium Bug, whose extrapolation looks ahead no further than last year's headlines and is already falling out of date. Technothrillers are a perfectly legitimate genre and one that many science fiction fans enjoy, but they aren't the same genre. Masque, Moonwar, and Michael Flynn's Rogue Star all have some of this quality as well, though they all contain more exotic images of the more distant future—all of them portray worlds based on trends and issues of today, not on working on a future setting as a coherent whole with its own logic.

Finally, we would like a Prometheus Award winner to be well written. This question could be approached at many different levels, from prose style to plot construction; what I find most memorable, though, is a sense of dissatisfaction with the characters, a sense that I was not dealing with actual human beings, or at least not with interesting ones. This was probably worst with Y2K: The Millenium Bug, especially its lesbian character who ends the story in love with a decent and honorable man and feeling that the sex of her partner isn't a crucial question—a stock titillation for the male reader, as is emphasized by the absence of any homosexual male character or relationship. Ethnic funny hats abound in this book also, and in Moonwar as well —I have no objection to the inclusion of ethnic details, but they are not a substitute for motivation or characterization. The characters in Masque seem to have been provided with motivations for the explicit purpose of dragging them through the storyline; there is little sense that they grow out of any actual personality. Rogue Star is somewhat more substantial, and if any of these books deserves this year's award it's the one; but I find myself unsatisfied with its central character, Mariesa van Huyten, whose motivation for space exploration seem to be entirely pathological anxiety about asteroidal collisions, a fear that is not so much worked out, for good or bad, as conveniently set aside. The only one of these books whose characters seem to have any life or substance of their own is The Golden Globe, which at least has Sparky Valentine and his monstrous father and the Central Computer.

Of course, we can still give an award to one of these books, and I expect we will; there is always a choice of "not as bad." But I really can't feel that when I look back at 1998 I will remember it as one when exciting books came into print that cried out for recognition from libertarians. It's more a case of "well, they had to give the award to someone." But we don't, or we used not to. "None of the above" was a valid and legitimate expression of critical judgment, one for which the advice not to rank a book that we didn't think merited an award is no substitute. I hope next year's ballot will return to listing this option—though I hope even more that too many good books will appear this year for anyone to exercise it.

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