David Brin

Analog January/February 2005

If you’ve ever wanted a peek inside the mindset of the utilitarian pragmatist and unabashedly statist, then you would do well to read or listen to David Brin’s novelette “Mars Opposition.” Begun in 2003 with the launch of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER), and originally published in Analog in January 2005, “Mars Opposition” has been republished in audio format in episode 298 of StarShipSofa (free). It is a well-written tale, though predictable and unsubtle, and is superbly narrated by Dave Robison. Unfortunately, Brin uses the story as a vehicle for riding some of his political hobbyhorses:

  • defending government and its officials from antigovernment criticism,
  • making government smarter with the help of the technocratic elite (such as himself),
  • and smearing libertarians as dogmatic, asocial creatures who are clueless about the human condition.

Fair warning, what follows is spoiler-ridden.

“Mars Opposition” opens at Cape Canaveral with the landing of a strange spaceship. What follows is an even stranger first contact with 50-odd beings who claim to be Martians. They each bear a long list of human names and offer payment in exchange for being given the location of one person on the list. When one of these people — Bruce Murray, one of the founders of the Mars Planetary Society — happens to be present, the Martian looking for him promptly walks over and “shoots him dead.” Before long, the Martians are scattering in all directions, each hunting for the next name on their list.

Why are Martians killing these people who all happen to be space enthusiasts? The unidentified narrator (from here on referring to the POV character, not Dave Robison) eventually figures everything out and explains it to us as events unfold. As fresh and interesting as this take on a first contact story is, I won’t dwell on it and will instead turn to examining Brin’s political message.

Brin himself describes “Mars Opposition” as a creepy campfire tale. That would make the Martians the boogeymen of the story. And the Martians — the boogeymen — are, as the narrator calls them at the end, ultimate libertarians.

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David Brin

Can I look any more smug. Can I.

David Brin
David Brin

Oops, he did it again.

David Brin, whom some think of as a libertarian science fiction author, and who styles himself as such, but who really isn’t even close to being libertarian, and who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time these days attacking real libertarians like a jilted lover, was recently interviewed on Wired.com via the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Brin has a controversial take on Star Wars. For example, he calls Yoda one of the most evil characters ever. Well, okay, Brin does have something of a point when it comes to Yoda. The Jedi as a whole are pretty much useless, meddling busybodies who are directly or indirectly responsible for the fundamental political problems in the Star Wars universe.

But Brin’s main criticism of Star Wars and George Lucas is premised largely on his fetish for state-democracy (my term for democratic institutions and processes ossified as formal mechanisms in the state apparatus). Lucas comes under fire for always protraying the republic as corrupt and nonfunctioning, which he does because he despises democracy and favors benign dictatorship.

But, of course, Brin has staked his entire nonfiction career on his Platonic ideal of radical transparency allowing perfect knowledge in a state-democracy. Only when this ideal is realized will freedom be protected and capitalism work properly, says Brin.

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NEWS | Reason.tv Interviews David Brin Thumbnail

David Brin is the author of science fiction novels The Postman, the Uplift series beginning with Sundiver, and others as well as the ever-popular nonfiction work, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?. He recently sat down with Reason.tv’s Tim Cavanaugh to discuss his recent criticisms of “dogmatic libertarians,” his hobbyhorse of government transparency, and the subject of uplifting dolphins.

I have much to say about Brin’s attacks on “dogmatic libertarians,” by which he means followers of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand who worship property too much, but watch the video first and then continue on below for my commentary.1

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  1. It’s heartening to see that the video on YouTube has more dislikes than likes at the moment. 

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NEWS | Gregory Benford in Reason Magazine on Science Fiction in Light of Humanity’s Future in Space Thumbnail

Wernher von Braun's Vision

There’s an article by science fiction author Gregory Benford in the February issue of Reason Magazine (also available online at Reason.com). I hadn’t realized it, but Benford has written three other articles for Reason (see below for a list of the others).

In the article, Benford briefly discusses the role of Nazi SS officer and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun ((Benford doesn’t call Von Braun a facilitator of mass murder, but does mention that he ran “Adolf Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 programs, which sent more than 10,000 rockets into England in 1944 and 1945.”)) in the American government’s space program, from his popular promotion of his vision of man conquering space (interesting choice of war metaphor) to his running the Apollo program.

Benford discusses Von Braun’s vision for how man will conquer space, a vision that strikes me as impractical and expensive and that still lingers in NASA today. He also highlights the decline of NASA and its “ruinously expensive” nature of the American government’s space shuttle program, which suffered catastrophic failures and kept going long past its planned obsolescence.

Though Benford says that Von Braun’s vision lives on, I’m not so sure of that. If he means Von Braun’s  general vision of man “conquering” space, then yes, that vision is not dead. If he means Von Braun’s more specific vision of how this is to be accomplished, then no, I do not think that vision will live on.

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Prometheus Unbound

My name is Geoffrey Allan Plauché. I’m a philosopher and an academic. I decided to launch a libertarian review of fiction and literature as a sort of online “magazine” because I’m not aware of any other such site and I think there is a need for one.

The closest things I can think of to Prometheus Unbound are the quarterly newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society, similarly titled Prometheus, and a new blog called Austrian Economics and Literature. The former is print-bound and focused almost exclusively on science fiction, the latter online but narrowly focused on — you guessed it — Austrian Economics and literature. I’m glad these publications exist but, taken individually and even together, they’re not exactly what I’m looking for.

Prometheus Unbound will be entirely online. I think print-only is a dead and antiquated medium, particularly for a small niche publication with a heavy emphasis on science fiction (the literature of the future and change,1 science and technology) and catering to libertarians. We can publish more frequently online, in more discrete chunks, for less money, and reach far more people in a variety of ways (the website, myriad rss feeds, email, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and the like).

Prometheus Unbound will have a broader scope. Not simply Austrian Economics but libertarianism, albeit a libertarianism informed by Austrian Economics. Not simply literature but also popular fiction that does not (yet) qualify for that high distinction in the eyes of literary critics or the masses. Not simply science fiction but also fantasy and other genres, but still primarily science fiction and fantasy (as they are my primary interest). Not just prose but, probably to a lesser degree, other media as well — such as film, tv, comics and graphic novels, poetry, and games. Our focus will not be on libertarian fiction (though we are on the lookout for it) or fiction by libertarian authors (who are distressingly too few in number) but on reviewing and commenting on fiction from a libertarian perspective.

As I said, I plan to build Prometheus Unbound into something like an online magazine. I hope this will not be a one-man show. We will feature news, reviews, editorials and other commentary, non-fiction articles, eventually interviews (I hope), and, in the undetermined future, possibly some original fiction. I’m looking for fellow libertarians, particularly fans of science fiction and fantasy, who would be interested in contributing on either a regular or an irregular basis. We’re in need of editors, regular writers or columnists, and irregular or part-time contributors. Even if you only contribute a few reviews a year on your own schedule or lack thereof, we’d be happy to consider your submissions.

If you’re interested in becoming a regular or part-time contributor, you can send a submission query or contact me about a position via the Contact form. See the About and Submissions pages for more information.

Finally, a few words about why I chose the title Prometheus Unbound: I took inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s closet drama, a play not intended for the stage, of the same name. There also happens to be an episode of the science fantasy tv series Stargate SG-1 with the same title as well as a seminal book of economic history titled The Unbound Prometheus. The latter, by David S. Landes, was influential for labeling the Second Industrial Revolution, which was also known as the Technological Revolution for its abundance of innovations and inventions that drove modernization and technological development in Western Europe beginning in the mid-1800s.

While Landes’s book tells the economic-historical story of the results of relatively unchained minds — unprecedented progress and prosperity — Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound dramatizes a related political message in mytho-poetic form. Shelley’s play was inspired by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’s own telling of the myth of the Titan punished by Zeus for “stealing”2 fire from the gods and giving it to Man. But whereas Aeschylus had oppressor and victim reconcile, Shelley thought such an ending to be unfitting:

But, in truth, I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.

Instead of reconciliation, Shelley gives us a revolution “championing free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.” Zeus (Jupiter) is overthrown and Prometheus is thereby freed. But rather than replace one tyrant with another, as so often happens with revolutions, particularly exemplified by the recent (at the time) French Revolution, the play ends with no one in political power at all — an anarchist’s paradise.

On the importance of dramatizing our values (pdf), Shelley ends the preface to his play:

My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

Fiction plays important roles in our lives and I think it is an important medium for expressing libertarian values. Our Prometheus Unbound will aim to identify libertarian values dramatized in works of fiction and literature and to bring works that contain those values to the attention of our readers. But I also hope that by doing so Prometheus Unbound will help promote the inclusion of libertarian values in more published fiction.


  1. Science fiction author David Brin recently wrote: “Science fiction is one of the most “American” literary genres, because, like America itself, SF has a relentless fascination with change. In fact, I believe that this trait — rather than technology — is what most distinguishes SF from fantasy.” 

  2. More on this in a later post. 

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