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Mini-Reviews of the 2006 Prometheus Award Finalists

It's been a pleasure being a member of the Libertarian Futurist Society this year, and to vote in this year's Prometheus Award competition. For those interested in my take on the six finalists, I offer mini-reviews of each, organized in alphabetical order.

47, by Walter Mosley
An interesting but uneven historical science fiction novel apparently intended for younger readers, 47 offers a realistic glimpse into the life of a young slave boy. Plot twists emerge when he learns he's a chosen one, destined for greatness, and his seeming slave friend is an extraterrestrial. The historical elements are powerful, but the science fiction is less well done, and I was left wondering if a longer treatment of the material might not have produced a truly spectacular book. But I cannot be too harsh on any book that offers passages like this:

Deep in my mind an even more radical thought had begun to form. I realized that I was free even though I was clamped in chains and locked away. I was free because I had made the decision to run away if I could. Most of the slaves on the Corinthian Plantation would never actually try to run away. They knew that they'd probably get caught and whipped or worse. And I could see that the real chains that the slave wore were the color of his skin and the defeat in his mind. Neither master nor nigger be, Tall John had said from the first moments we met. There in the worst aspect of my slavery I came to fully understand those words' meaning.

I felt the thrill of freedom in my heart. [p. 146]

Harsh scenes juxtapose with subtle, crucial points—sometimes so much so that the subtleties might be lost, especially for younger or less careful readers. And despite coming to the end and discovering that the story will be continued in a sequel—a decidedly unpleasant dénouement in my view—I do recommend 47 for younger as well as older audiences, and will keep an eye out for the next book.

The Black Arrow, by Vin Suprynowicz
I've already said a fair amount about Suprynowicz's first novel, and because of its personal impact on me, I can't be terribly objective about The Black Arrow—but I'll try. Arguably light on the science, it's very good, swashbuckling-style fiction that successfully blends larger-than-life comic-book heroics and realistic challenges facing today's freedom-loving individuals in the USSA. If you like 60s-era pop music, you'll also find some subplot material fun. For those who get engrossed in Suprynowicz's near-future dystopia, the 700-plus pages will zing by. An inspiring story I enthusiastically recommend.

Chainfire, by Terry Goodkind
Learning from a friend that Chainfire is a middle book of a long series of Goodkind fantasies, I tried to relax my standards regarding lack of closure, but unfortunately I got nowhere near the end of Chainfire before the voting deadline. I tried to immserse myself in the story, but it was very difficult to overlook the near-verbatim repetitions of seemingly minor details I encountered just a few chapters in, as well as a near-glacial pace. Trusted friends have told me Goodkind does present Randian ideas that make his books of interest to freedom-loving readers ... but I didn't get far enough to see much evidence of them. If you like epic fantasies and have time to invest in the eight hefty books that precede Chainfire, you'll probably enjoy the series—sadly, I don't have that time and so it's likely I'll never know what I'm missing.

The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross
Another middle novel in a series, The Hidden Family proved better than Chainfire for me at providing sufficient backstory and moving forward. A young woman with a mysterious past begins to learn something about it after some people attempt to kill her. Moving between worlds—and between the factions of the Clan and the Gruinmarkt—left me a bit dizzy sometimes, as character development is often insufficient to keep the players straight, but there's a clear resolution that also leaves room for future installments. For me, it sums to an intriguing idea that's too lightly executed—and with atrocious copy editing that detracted from my enjoyment. The Hidden Family gets a marginal recommendation that would become a bit stronger if a future edition was cleaned of typos and similar errors. I've heard good things about another Stross book, Accelerando, and will probably read it soon.

Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod
Clearly the leader of the group in terms of science, Macleod's tale of first contact between humans and batlike humans was engaging but uneven. I've read a few other Macleod novels—including The Stone Canal and Cosmonaut Keep — and appreciate his quirky style. In contrast, Learning the World seemed ... tired, somehow. Despite fun names like Atomic Discourse Gale and Horrocks Mathematical, the human characters were largely undeveloped, particularly compared to their bat counterparts. The interesting plot seemed to dissolve into an unsatisfying legalistic resolution, although it could have been much worse. If I hadn't known Macleod is capable of much better, I might have liked Learning the World a lot more. All in all, though, a good hard sf story, but somewhat light on hardcore pro-freedom themes.

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone, by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman
I've already reviewed RebelFire 1.0, and upon reviewing what I've already said, mostly stand by it. Compared to the other Prometheus finalists, however, I'd say it's strong on the pro-freedom elements—not at all surprising—and rather on the light side for the sf criterion. As a coming of age story revolving around a fiesty boy who defies CentGov's proscriptions and prescriptions, RebelFire 1.0 probably resonates more with the younger rock crowd than it did with me. But it's a solid effort by Wolfe and Zelman, and, I fear, an eerie, on-target depiction of the very near future in the USSA. I recommend it without qualification.

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