Travis J. I. Corcoran’s Aristillus novels, The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation, are modern masterpieces of science fiction, with a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist core that surpasses Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in showing how free people can turn a wasteland into prosperity for all who seek liberty and defend itself against the envy and greed of those who would loot what they had created and put them back in chains. The two novels in the series so far won the Prometheus Award for best novel in 2018 and 2019, the first self-published novels to win that award and the first back-to-back best novel winners in the four decades the prize has been awarded. They were jointly fiction winners of my Books of the Year for 2019.
One of the factors which contributed to the success of the anarcho-libertarian lunar settlement at Aristillus was the origin of the crater in which it was founded, which, in the story was, 1.3 billion years before the present, by the impact of a 1.4 kilometre metallic asteroid in the eastern part of Mare Imbrium. The portion of its mass which did not vaporise on impact was thrown up into the triple-peaked mountain at the centre of the 55 km crater, where its payload of iron, nickel, and other heavy metals differentiated as the magma solidified. The Moon’s crust, formed from a mix of that of the Earth and the Mars-sized impactor (sometimes called “Theia”), is impoverished in heavy metals, which had already sunk to the cores of the impacting bodies and were not disrupted in the collision, so the impact which formed Aristillus was fortuitous, creating a concentrated source of material otherwise difficult to obtain on the Moon.
But a resource in the ground is of no value to anybody until it is discovered, its uses appreciated, and the technological and economic infrastructure set up to extract and exploit it. And so the treasure trove at the centre of Aristillus crater slept silently for all those æons until settlers, fleeing inexorably advancing tyranny on Earth, arrived to seek liberty and their fortunes on a new world. In the Aristillus novels the economy is up and running, largely based upon gold mined by Goldwater Mining & Refining and administered by Lunar Escrow and Trade, although being a completely free and unregulated economy, both have competitors.
This short story (44 pages in the print edition) fills in the back story of how that came to be. Robert (we never learn his last name), a field geologist who spent twenty years climbing the slippery slope of academia without a chance to do anything significant, decided to spend a small inheritance from from his father on passage to Aristillus on an outlaw ship and a minimal lab set-up. In three months, he’d done more real geology, in virgin territory, than in his entire career so far. Eventually the money will run out, but at least he’d know he could do the work and make real discoveries on his own.
Exploring the central peaks of Aristillus, he happens upon a shiny yellow rock. Iron pyrite, he figures, which might have some value. He takes it back to his lab and discovers he has found gold—and lots of it. (As this happens on the fourth page of the story, and the shiny rock figures in the cover illustration, I do not consider it a spoiler to mention it here.)
This discovery poses a multitude of challenges and potential problems, but compared to running out of money and having to return to the enslaved home planet, they’re the kind of problems you’d rather have. How are property rights defined and enforced in a society with no central government? How, for that matter, is property created from territory which is claimed by no one? And who adjudicates ownership in the face of conflicting claims?
Robert confides in Darren Hollins, the head of the nascent Goldwater company, who provides sage and honest advice right when he needs it most. But if the settlers of Aristillus left most of the lawyers, politicians, and greedy and coercive governments behind them on the Earth, the frontier has always attracted grifters, crooks, and con-men of all varieties in abundance, and as Robert undertakes to document and formalise his claim, he falls prey to one perfectly willing to see him die in order to jump the claim.
Robert must solve a life-or-death, fortune-or-penury puzzle of life support logistics and undertake a perilous journey to save his claim and life. The story is satisfying, fills in another piece of the origin of Aristillus, and provides additional insights on how free people can self-organise and do justice without top-down rulers.
For a short story of this length, the paperback and Kindle edition are expensive, but the latter is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Staking a Claim. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1-70996-940-9.