Volume 23, Number 03, Spring, 2005

Defining the Prometheus Awards

By William H. Stoddard

Once again, it’s time for members of the Libertarian Futurist Society to vote on the Prometheus Award and the Hall of Fame. That makes it a good time to think about an important question: What are our standards, as a society, for choosing worthy winners for our awards? The Prometheus Award is supposed to go to the best work of libertarian science fiction of the preceding fourteen months. What do we mean by “science fiction,” by “libertarian,” and by “best”?

One thing to bear in mind, in seeking answers to these questions, is that we give awards for a purpose. The answers we choose to accept—the definitions we use for our essential ideas—should be answers to help us to attain that purpose.

Giving a literary award to a book makes it more visible, not just to the group that gives the award, but to other readers as well. The Prometheus Award has been remarkably successful in achieving such visibility. Our award winners are announced in Locus and other publications in the science fiction community. Our award ceremonies are usually scheduled events at the World Science Fiction Convention. Publishers announce that their books have won, or been nominated for, the Prometheus Award, as a selling point, and provide copies of proposed nominees to LFS judges. The Prometheus Award has credibility as a mark of good writing; it’s not just a private ceremony among a few friends. That credibility is part of our capital, and we need to preserve it.

When we pick a book as “the best,” that’s a recommendation to potential readers. We’re telling a science fiction fan who’s curious about libertarianism, or a libertarian who’d like to read some science fiction, that that book is a good place to start. Our list of award winners and nominees is as close as there is to a Recommended Reading list in this field. We need to think both about whether we found a book worthwhile, and about whether it’s something we would recommend to a friend who wanted to find out more about our point of view.

And that purpose has to inform both of our other criteria. “Libertarian” and “science fiction” are pointers to the type of material we want to consider; they aren’t barriers to keep out good material that fails to meet some specific definition.

Genre words, like “science fiction,” exist to help market books more efficiently—which surely is a justifiable goal in libertarian eyes! By putting two books in the same genre, a publisher or a bookseller is saying that someone who likes one has a higher than average chance of liking the other. What defines the genre of science fiction is the existence of a community of readers for a certain group of books. For example, the 2003 Prometheus Award went to Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, which in terms of literary theory is not science fiction but fantasy—but the readerships for these two types of material overlap so strongly that bookstores almost always shelve them together. Pragmatically, a book is “science fiction” if it appears on the science fiction shelves and in specialty science fiction bookstores, is reviewed in publications such as Locus, and is read by science fiction fans and discussed at science fiction clubs and conventions. And the LFS has largely endorsed that kind of pragmatic definition. We’ve been willing to consider books that are published for, and marketed to, genre readers; we’ve also considered books marketed to general readers, if they have comparable themes and content—such as Atlas Shrugged, which was not marketed as science fiction but is one of the prototypes for the kind of book we want to honor.

So far as being “libertarian” is concerned, what we are looking for is books concerned with freedom—freedom as libertarians understand it, which has to do with individuals making choices for themselves, in a sphere where their larger society doesn’t control their actions. Such a concern can be expressed in several different ways. A book may portray a possible free society. It may portray an unfree society, in a cautionary spirit, showing the reader what harm is done by the denial of freedom. It may portray a movement or struggle aimed at creating a free society. Or it may deconstruct a nonlibertarian work, showing the hidden implications of its values—as Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis deconstructed Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, or, in a broader sense, as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange deconstructed the behaviorist ideas of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Any of these kinds of fiction might be informative and interesting to libertarians and to other readers interested in libertarian ideas. (I offer this list, by the way, not to exclude books that don’t fit into it but to suggest some of the diverse ways in which a book might be, and in which past books have been, found deserving of the Prometheus Award. Any book that persuasively dramatizes the value of freedom could be a suitable nominee, even if it doesn’t fit any of these categories.)

When you vote for the awards, do think about these two categories. If a book strikes you as not having anything to do with libertarian beliefs and values, or as not having any fantastic or speculative content—don’t vote for it. But if you find a book well written and compelling; if it makes you think about your libertarian beliefs in a new way, or appreciate your libertarian values more strongly—then vote for it, and don’t worry about technical definitions. That’s part of being free.

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