August 16, 2005

Reading List: Freehold

by Michael Williamson, 2004. Available online as part of the Baen Free Library.

I was planning to review the books I've read recently in order, but I just finished this and now I have to vent about it. Michael Williamson is one of the military sci-fi authors that have accumulated in Baen's stable over the past decade. They tend to write sci-fi that is less about interesting ideas and more about, well, the military.

In Freehold, Williamson creates a future society based upon libertarianism. (Go read that. Don't worry, I'll wait.) The first half of the book is about the culture shock experienced by a new imigrant from Earth. Williamson obviously knows that a libertarian society won't automatically be a utopia, and makes a creditable effort to put in place all the infrastructure a high-tech society needs. I just don't think he succeeds.

First, there are companies for everything. Some of them are so specialized that you'd expect only one or two to exist for every 100 million people. Unfortunately, Freehold is a frontier planet with only 3 major cities, which is cited as one of the reasons that Freehold is so civilized and such a pleasant place to live. I can see lots of specialized companies or a low population, but not both.

Second, a lot of these companies are insurance companies. Well-behaved insurance companies. In one example, our heroine gives medical assistance to the victim of a car accident, and recieves a cheque and thank-you note from the victim's insurance company the next day. Market forces are all well and good, in that they motivate companies to behave, or lose customers and thus profits. But those same market forces motivate insurance companies to pay out as little as possible to people who aren't their customers (and many aren't shy about screwing their customers too). If ever there was an "industry" that needed government regulation, the insurance industry is it.

Third, the people of Freehold are, in general, very civic minded. They are polite ("An armed society is a polite society"), help out when needed, and the crime rate is the lowest in the galaxy. Not that there aren't jerks, malcontents, and psychos, but they're in the minority and the "do the right thing" culture is dominant. This is actually the thing I have the least trouble accepting as possible. I just think libertarian philosophy, with its emphasis on individuality, personal rights, and a well armed populace, is likely to lead to so many people who put their own self-interest above anything else and have the weaponry to get away with it that society would break down sooner rather than later.

The second half of the book is more of a wet dream about what an efficient military could do. We're talking about a well-organized military that trains its soldiers to think for themselves rather than technological efficiency. In fact, there isn't even a space battle in the book, it's all focused on the ground war.

Anyway, enough about that. From the point-of-view of standard sci-fi, Freehold is sorely lacking, in that the only technological inovations are interstellar travel, air-cars (not even anti-gravity, they're just ducted-fan aircraft), and a few other evolutionary changes. But Williamson has built an interesting society and an inovative military, and the story is reasonably captivating.


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