As Michael Z. Williamson is an author who makes the bulk of his living selling swords and throwing knives at gun shows, one might think a critic (particularly one slightly left of center) should tread carefully around one of his books. Well, throwing all caution to the winds, I'll acknowledge that Freehold has its entertaining moments, to be sure. But it's a dull and draggy exercise for the most part, offering up as much, if not more, self-indulgent political pontificating as storytelling. If you like novels that deal in broadly drawn archetypes and ideological proselytizing, then you'll be in heaven with Freehold.
Freehold is Libertarian SF first and foremost, but it really wants a much broader readership base than that. Overlong (at 660 pages) by half, its story meanders all over the place, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks and taking forever to find a dominant plot thread upon which to focus. Its heroine is Kendra Pacelli, a sergeant in the UN military — apparently Williamson's future is one in which neocons' ultimate nightmare of one-world government has come true — who finds herself one of several innocent soldiers framed in a cover-up involving illegal arms sales during a recent engagement on the rebellious planet of Mtali. Desperate to avoid an unjust fate, Kendra promptly goes AWOL and barges her way into the embassy of the Freehold of Grainne, the one truly independent former colony. She is granted asylum and spirited away to the planet to begin a new life.
The Freehold is a Libertarian utopia, where no one pays any taxes, everyone seems to have a job they dearly love, the food is great, rents are cheap, people walk around naked, crime is virtually nonexistant, and, best of all, everyone carries guns. Now I'm no political scientist. And there are some aspects of the way Freehold is governed that really make good sense and are even admirable ideas. But others seem a little too ideologically naive, informed by the kinds of wishful thinking that such ideologies thrive upon.
The gun thing is a good example. I'm not against gun ownership at all, although I do think that America right now has a real problem, not just with the ludicrous number of guns we seem to have in circulation but the culture of "violence solves problems" we've developed that encourages their wanton use. But I've never quite undertood the nearly worshipful fetishizing of guns by some of their most ardent supporters, the idea that there can be no more precious right in life than to own one. Williamson is a little rocky in justifying the omnipresence of guns in Freehold. When Kendra, whose ideas are of course all out of whack because she's from bad old oppressive, crime-ridden, fascist Earth, expresses alarm that a topless teenage girl in a city park is openly packing heat, Kendra's new boyfriend Rob (whom she's met on her first day in town) makes some sarcastic remark about rapists. The immediate question that flies to mind (mine anyway, not Kendra's) is that if the Freehold is a society where rapists are a genuine concern, then why is public nudity condoned? One would think that with all of the sexual permissiveness in the Freehold — where prostitution is not only common but respectable — you would have significantly less of the kinds of sexual repression and pathology that turns a man into a rapist. Anyway, Williamson offers another weak justification — that there are wild animals that occasionally wander into town. But it soon becomes clear that a dreaded future invasion from Earth is the real reason citizens are such devout marksmen.
This expected invasion comes, all right, but not until we are halfway through the book. For literally the first third of Freehold — just over 200 pages — I can safely say that nothing happens. Kendra quickly settles in to her new life in the Freehold's capital city (if a society with barely any government can be said to have such a thing) of Jefferson, meeting both a Perfect Boyfriend in the aforementioned Rob and a hot gal pal in Marta, a former military medic who now works as Jefferson's premier call girl and seems to make more money than Madonna doing it. There's much to be said for the value of strong character development, but Williamson gets a bit obsessive in accounting the minutiae of Kendra's life. For 200 pages nothing really happens apart from Kendra going to work, going out to eat, learning all about how life in the Freehold is better than anything could possibly be, going to concerts, going out for drinks, going out to a cabin in the woods for the weekend, etc., etc., etc. I couldn't escape the impression that it was only through the strictest editorial insistence that Williamson cut scenes where Kendra went to the bathroom and clipped her toenails. She also gets laid a lot. A lot. And she gets it on with Marta as much as she does with Rob, indicating that despite his tough quasi-feminist heroine Williamson's actual target audience are the guys who read Maxim and watch The Man Show.
A hundred pages of this kind of set-up would have been just fine; 200 is self-indulgence, especially when it is packed full of superfluous scenes (like one in which Kendra tags along with Marta one night to give the 'ho thing a try — she doesn't like it) that do nothing to advance the plot. And indeed, I found myself wondering for a long time if the book was going to get around to one.
It finally does when Kendra finds herself out of work one day (Williamson occasionally throws in something like job loss or wild animals to remind us that the Freehold isn't really a utopia) and Rob persuades her to enlist in the military. Actually, he doesn't persuade her; he just drives her to the recruitment office. At this point the book morphs from Gidget Goes Libertarian into Full Metal G.I. Jane. Kendra undergoes grueling training, which we learn the Freeholders work so hard at because they're convinced Earth will invade within the year.
Most of the book's political proselytizing comes at this point in the story, and though proselytizing as a rule annoys me, it would be foolish to deny that there are valid parallels to be drawn between the short-sightedness and incompetence Williamson depicts in his Earth government and the kind of staggering bungling we've seen recently from the George W. Bush administration ever since 9/11, particularly in the Iraq War, with its media manipulation and outright misrepresentation of fact. The point that it's patently insane to "liberate" someone at the point of a gun, especially someone who doesn't feel he needs liberating from anything, is taken. I can't say I agree with all of Williamson's ideas here — is he really suggesting that no government should ever provide any kind of social services, or collect any taxes, even if it happens to be a non-corrupt government and its citizens are okay with kicking in money to provide worthwhile social services, like health care?
What I think is wrong here is that the governments at war in Freehold — both the Freehold and the UN — represent ideological extremes. It's The Worst vs. The Best. Thus the book lacks many important insights in that real world governments are far more layered and nuanced, doing a lot right and a lot wrong, and no two systems seeming to do the same things right or wrong. Conservatives in the US deride Canada's health care as evil socialized medicine, but do the Canadians feel that way? The Norwegians seem to be a very happy bunch, with a literacy rate upwards of 95% and seemingly little crime; but their taxes are higher than any American would tolerate. Are they better or worse off?
Like most novels with political points to preach and a choir to preach them to, Freehold finds it easier to cast its principals in these clear-cut roles so as to make its points plainer, its heroes more stalwart and its villians more cartoonish. (And the invading Earth soldiers are depicted either as buffoons or loathsome rapacious scum.) But it does divorce the proceedings from reality more than it should.
The novel plays out in its second half like any number of "brave rebels fight the evil oppressive invaders" stories (you saw a lot of this kind of thing in the jingoistic 80's, with the Soviets invading America). Kendra leads a ragtag band of rural civilians in guerilla raids, and worries not only about the mistrust some Freeholders feel over her Earthly origins, but the likelihood her former bosses will find out she's here. It's at this stage of the novel that the pointlessness of much of those first 200 pages was made plain. For instance, Rob and Marta are missing and Kendra doesn't know if they're alive or dead. It was only after a while that I realized I wasn't the least bit concerned about this. Also, minor characters suddenly pop up and we are given the tale from their point of view, while Kendra seems to become a supporting player in her own story. Awkward.
Freehold is in some ways too well-written a book to dismiss — Williamson's military expertise is impressive — but in the end too obvious, didactic, rambling, and enervating to enjoy. But I did come away with the impression that Michael Z. Williamson would be a hell of an interesting guy to talk to over a pitcher of beer.