As an American political liberal with a lot of respect for the libertarian sensibility in American political life—and as a science fiction editor who grew up on Robert A. Heinlein and Poul Anderson—I’m very gratified that the Libertarian Futurist Society has chosen for the third time to honor one of Ken MacLeod’s fine, provocative, liberty-minded science fiction novels with the Prometheus Award.
Political discussion, argument, and analysis happen on several different levels. At the bottom of the stack there are the basic questions: should human society be run by a self-selected aristocracy, or should people run their own lives and make their own choices to the greatest extent possible? Those who believe the latter often wind up disagreeing with one another as to how to achieve those goals. An anarcho-capitalist will see in my advocacy of national health insurance the seeds of tyrannical centralized control, while as a liberal I worry that unfettered capitalism will lead, not to Libertopia, but to a world run by Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. Both of those perspectives are probably limited. Our descendants will almost certainly shake their heads and chuckle at us—if we’re lucky.
One of science fiction’s many glories is the way it enables us to pull back to the long view and, even if briefly, transcend our tribal loyalties and local shibboleths. Thus Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a core text of American science-fictional libertarianism, has the nerve to be a tragedy in which Libertopia fails. And a man of the Scottish left like Ken MacLeod can, through joyful (and ruthless!) play with American libertarian ideas, show us worlds in which our stale arguments are reborn as productive ones, in which the venerable question “When Adam delved, and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?” leads to societies of human power and freedom undreamed-of. We can change; indeed we will. I thank you.
It’s a great honour to receive the Prometheus Award, and a particular pleasure to receive it for Learning the World. Part of what inspired me to write the book was reading some of the works of the great nineteenth-century liberal historians Thomas Babington Macaulay—known as Lord Macaulay in Britain, where we still have an aristocracy—and Henry Thomas Buckle, as well as the more journalistic and more radical Winwood Reade, whose book The Martyrdom of Man supplied me with an epigraph. All of them had a great confidence that humanity would become more enlightened as well as more prosperous in the ages to come. This optimism is too easily dismissed as Victorian complacency. Indeed, the very idea that there are ages to come may strike many as quaint. For this audience I needn’t go over the reasons why I, and you, and most of the readers and writers of science fiction, take a different view of the matter. No remotely convincing argument has ever been advanced to show that the people alive today can’t do better than the generations before, and that generations to come can’t do better than we did. And, you know, over enough time that does add up.
So, to the Libertarian Futurist Society, my warm thanks for this award, and my best wishes for a long and improving future.
First, I want to thank you on Alan’s behalf for this award—though he’s very far away, I’m sure he’s here in spirit. Luckily, I was close enough to be able to accept this award personally, and I’m very happy to do so. We’ve been lucky enough to receive two awards so far for V for Vendetta—one from the French festival of Angouleme, and another, within the last two weeks, from Sweden, for the best foreign album of 2005. But neither of those two awards celebrated the thematic nature of the book, as this award does—So, in order to make this appearance of mine appropriate to the task, I want to tell you a kind of story.
I live in Brighton, which is a coastal resort in the south of England. Now, there are lots of good things about Brighton, but the beach, to me, doesn’t count as one of the best of them—because it’s entirely composed of pebbles. But closer to the centre of town, just by the pier, there’s a small, attractive area of wet sand that appears when the tide is particularly low.
A while ago, I used to find myself passing that spot when the tide was particularly low, when I’d always be on the way to some date or urgent appointment I had to keep. And I’d often find myself thinking as I passed it—depending upon what the weather was like at the time—that if I didn’t have to go where I was going at that particular time, it would be really great to go down to that place, take off my shoes and socks and walk around in that sand for a while. Frustratingly, whenever I did find myself walking past that spot with time to spare on a nice day, the tide was not particularly low, and that attractive area of sand was completely under water…but last Spring, at just about lunchtime, the wished-for opportunity arose…at last, I thought: I’ll get myself a sandwich and a drink, take them down to the beach, and when I’ve finished them, I’ll take a walk on that sand…
So, I got myself a sandwich and a drink, went down to the beach, ate my lunch, and watched—as other people enjoyed doing exactly what I was going to do very shortly. But, as I finished my drink, a problem arose. I though to myself, “I haven’t got a towel.” If I walk in that sand, I’ll get my feet wet and covered with sand and I don’t have a towel to dry them with.
Then I though: it doesn’t matter—I don’t live far away. I can walk back barefooted and they can dry as I go. It’ll be fine. But I wasn’t sure. And then, suddenly, I realized, I was not going to walk in that sand at all. Because what I really yearned for all those times previously when I’d walked past the pier on my way to keep those appointments I had to keep, was not really to actually, physically walk in that wet sand.
What I really yearned for was just the freedom to do it—to have the ability to do it. To simply have the choice.
So I didn’t walk in the sand. I walked away from it. But somehow I still felt as good as if I had walked in it.
I tell you that kind of trivial story because, for me, it illustrates the kind of freedom that V for Vendetta is all about—which is a freedom that is not supposed to lead to anything in particular, but a freedom that is simply—and importantly—just an end in itself.
The Special Awards committee submitted a recommended citation about Joss Whedon’s film Serenity that was subsequently approved in a vote of the entire LFS membership:
“To Serenity, writer-director Joss Whedon’s fun-loving and pro-freedom movie that portrays resistance fighters struggling against oppressive collectivism (based on the unfortunately short-lived TV series Firefly).”
Joss Whedon is busy working on a new film project and was unable to attend the Worldcon. But when he learned that Serenity had won a Special Prometheus Award, he passed on to his agent his general reaction: an appreciation that the recognition was “cool.”
We wish Joss all the best as he works on his new project.
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