Book Review Posted by: Dale Franks
on Thursday, February 23, 2006
I've just finished reading Michael Z. Williamson's military sci-fi book, Freehold. While it has some of the usual first-novel rough edges, overall it's an enjoyable and fascinating book, and I heartily recommend it. It reminds me very much of some of Robert Heinlein's work, especially The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Freehold is the story of Kendra Pacelli, who begins the book as a Senior Sergeant in the United Nations' military, who is falsely accused of embezzling funds. The UN that Kendra serves is effectively a world government, which has become mind-numbingly bureaucratic, and oppressively politically correct. As such, even though Kendra is innocent, she knows the probability is that she will be arrested and made a scapegoat for the senior UN officers who ran the embezzlement/black marketing scheme. The only place she can think of to run is to the embassy of the Freehold of Grainne, an independent star system from which the UN cannot extradite her.
The Freehold ambassador grants Kendra asylum, although Kendra will have to work as an indentured laborer to pay off the cost of her transport to the Freehold. Because, unlike the UN, the freehold is free. There is no welfare, no social safety net, and no public benefits. Kendra will have to reimburse the Freehold for the costs incurred in granting her asylum.
Upon arriving on Grainne, Kendra's indenture contract is bought by a city park, who put her to work as a landscaper. But the culture shock is severe. Kendra must adjust to a society almost completely different than what she has known under UN rule. Residents openly carry arms. The only taxes are user fees. There are no business or professional licenses. There are almost no government services.
What government there is, is run entirely by a small group of Citizens, people who have amassed enough wealth to purchase citizenship, then donated all of it to the Freehold in order to become citizens. Citizens wield supreme executive and judicial political power, and are therefore allowed no economic power at all, and who live off a modest income provided by the Freehold. Such elections as there are in the Freehold are non-binding, and are used to advise the Citizens. But, while Citizens have supreme executive power, they have no legislative power at all. In fact, no one on Grainne exercises legislative power, and the only laws in the Freehold are prohibitions on physically harming the person or property of another resident.
Kendra has to adjust from a bureaucratized, PC, unarmed society to the most completely free human society ever created. Through the first half of the book, we follow Kendra as she pays off her indenture, learns the joys—and pitfalls—of being a truly free and responsible person for the first time in her life, and begins to integrate into Grainne's society and Culture. Eventually, she realizes that she misses military service and wants to serve the Freehold, so she enlists in the Freehold Military Forces.
So far the book has been interesting, light and rather pleasant. It now proceeds to turn very dark, indeed.
The UN, being essentially a totalitarian state, despite its constant harping about "freedom" and "rights', cannot abide by having a prosperous, free, and independent Freehold, displaying what a truly free society can accomplish. So the UN must intervene militarily, in order to bring the "benefits" of free medical care, welfare, firearms confiscation, and regulation to the people of Grainne.
The rest of the novel is brutal, and brutally honest about the nature of warfare, what happens to the people who must fight in it, and the cost it extracts from them. There is no Hollywood happy ending. No return to a status quo ante. In Freehold, as in real life, Kendra must live with the consequences of what she's experienced, and what she has done.
The core of Freehold is the conflict between liberty and statism, and the eternal temptation some people have always had to wield power, and control the lives of others. It is a fascinating examination of what a truly free society might look like, as well as warning about what our society is on the way to becoming.
There are some problems with the book. Like Heinlein, Williamson shares a fascination with unorthodox sexual relationships, and dwells on them more than is strictly necessary. And, while Williamson tries to keep the politics to a minimum, and some political exegesis is necessary in order to build up the core theme of the novel, some readers will find it boring. Those who are attracted to Leftist politics will find it wildly improbable and utopian.
The book is also excessively long. It's really two novels, rather than one. Kendra's experience in assimilating into the Freehold, and her wartime experiences are in many ways, two different stories, each with a distinct, and contrasting tone and feel. What begins as a rather pleasant exploration of a libertarian society becomes a harrowing look at combat, death, pain and loss.
Overall, though, Freehold is a fascinating and enjoyable novel, and I highly recommend it.
And FreeHold would last about 10 minutes against the UN or any other government...Anarcho-Capitalsists ("An-Caps") and Libertarians have such trouble understanding or accepting that fact... that "Old Age and Guile, beat Youth and a Bad haircut every time." It may be unfair, it might be disheartening, but it is TRUE. So fewer Libertarian Utopias please and more Health Savings Acount....
I thought the book was quite good as well. As for Joe’s comment, I suggest you read the book. While the libertarians won, it was a quite Pyrrhic victory involving a decimated population and some rather disturbing things required for victory.
As a side note, I recently saw that there is a sequel available _The Weapon_. It’s really more of a simulataneous book from a different viewpoint, but it sounds good.