Freehold by Michael Z Williamson
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
One of the most difficult challenges facing a fiction writer who wishes to tell the story of another world is how to introduce the reader to that world in all its complexity. You can't just dump them into your imagined world head-first, because they'll get so confused they'll abandon it in disgust. Equally, you can't explain it essay-fashion in the beginning, because that will just bore the reader and they'll close the book and walk away before they even get to the actual story.
And it doesn't necessarily have to be science ficton and fantasy to face this sort of problem. Anyone writing about a setting unfamiliar to the reader has to find a way to ease the reader into things fast enough to maintain interest without creating confusion. In Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian has to introduce the reader to the intricacies of the warship under sail, and does it through Stephen Maturin, an accomplished surgeon, naturalist and spy who is utterly unfamiliar with the technical details of sailing, an ignorance Jack Aubrey can legitimately rectfy, thus getting the reader up to speed as well
In the first novel of the Freehold of Grainne universe, Michael Z. Williamson uses a similar tactic to introduce his libertarian miniarchy. The UN-ruled Earth from which protagonist Kendra Pacelli comes is pretty much all the flaws of the present-day US taken to their logical endpoint. Everything is regulated to the nth degree to promote good order and the social welfare, yet the real criminals carry out their malefactions with impunity while the honest folks cower in fear. When Kendra is set up to take the fall for a superior's misappropriation, she gets just enough warning to be able to flee offworld and arrange passage to Grainne, a world she barely knows save by the reputation of its soldiers alongside whom she worked in the very peacekeeping campaign where she was supposed to have stolen equipment for illegal resale.
Thus she arrives on the titular Freehold with minimal resources -- dwindling funds, no personal connections and constrained prospects. A stranger in a strange land, she has to learn from scratch how to live in the society of Grainne and navigate things the locals take for granted. Even such simple things as civic terminology confuse her -- the term "Citizen," always written with a capital letter you can almost imagine hearing in their spoken language, is a title of an official of their minimalistic government, rather than the sense most readers would be familiar with. The ordinary people of Grainne are styled Residents, which means they have sworn the Oath of Responsibility and paid their annual Residence fee, the basic tax of Grainne.
However, the Freehold of Grainne is no perfect utopia, as Kendra quickly discovers. Because she is starting from nothing, she is enrolled in a temporary indenture system under the sponsorship of a Citizen, a program that will help her get set up for independent life. The employment agent who's supposed to be helping her get a job takes advantage of her ignorance of local custom and only quick intervention by her sponsor prevents disaster. True to her upbringing on rigidly codified Earth, Kendra thought of qualifications only in terms of her formal certifications, military specialties that don't translate readily into civilian employment. Once she learns that all her work experience, including informal work for family, will be taken into account in employment placement, she is able to land a job doing landscaping in the public park.
If she got a bad first impression of Grainne from that jackass of an employment agent, she soon learns the kindness of its people in assistance from a complete stranger. His name is Robert McKay, and he's her next-door neighbor. When he sees her quite visibly at sea and floundering, he helps show her around and get acclimated -- and in the process provides important information for the reader to understand the workings of the society.
A reader familiar with other science fiction authors of libertarian leanings, particularly Robert A. Heinlein and L. Neil Smith, will recognize the influence, whether conscious and deliberate or indirect, upon the society of Grainne. We have the theme of an armed society as a polite society which appears frequently in Heinlein's works, as well as the honor given to serving military and veterans, and we have super-tall graceful buildings of the sort we see so frequently in Smith's Probability Broach universe.
On the whole, this period of Kendra's life gives us the readers a good quick overview of the society of Grainne and its workings, as she goes from a nearly penniless refugee to a reasonably comfortable member of her adopted home's society. My only reservation is with the level of detail given to the development of her three-way relationship with her two new friends. While her exploring formerly repressed elements of her sexuality is an important part of her character development, the actual sex scenes seemed to drag. Maybe they would've been titilating back when I was a teen, but as a married woman of middling years I have to confess I found the detailed descriptions of lovemaking tedious and skimmed over them.
Although by objective standards Kendra would seem successful enough, she feels increasingly adrift, particularly after attending the militaty funeral of a friend of a friend. At length she decides to enlist in the Freehold's armed forces.
This decision was a move I could see a long way coming, to the point that I was just about saying "finally" when she actually did it. It was obvious that military service was a big part of her personal identity she'd lost in her flight from Earth, and she'd eventually want to replace it. It may just be a problem of overly heavy-handed foreshadowing, since it is a first novel, butI did find it frustrating.
On the other hand, the portrayal of her military training and service is one of the book's definite strengths. To what degree the Basic Training of thr Freehold Military Forces represents the author's ideal of what boot camp ought to be can only be speculated in the absence of definite Authorial Statements, but it is definitely portrayed as far superior to the UN Forces' training. Having served previously, Kendra had thought herself prepared, but the actuality of this demanding program came as much of a shock to her as it did to the locals getting their first introduction to military culture.
Another thing I really like about this section of the novel is Kendra's subsequent encounter with a bully, which shows how harsh and demanding boot camp is different from actual bullying. It's hard to articulate how a rite of passage differs from the marking out of someone as perpetually Other and contemptable, but these chapters really show it so we feel it.
And then we come to the real meat of the novel, in which everything Kendra fled comes back. Tensions between the UN government and the Freehold have been building for some time, since the tranzi masters of the UN cannot stand the idea that someone outside their fold should prosper. But then things come to a head and the UN dumps several ships of undesirables onto Grainne in order to create a humanitarian crisis they can step in and rectify by forcing the Freehold to accept UN authority.
Except the Freeholders aren't going to go down without a fight, and they intend to make it a very expensive one for the UN. Its forces may be able to hold the major cities, but the bulk of the FMF melts into the countryside to mobilize the populace to effective resistance.
This section is not easy reading, because the author does not pull any punches in showing us just what an insurgency means. People fighting a desperate battle for their homes aren't going to have the resources for moral superiority, so they'll end up killing surrendering soldiers for want of any way to hold them securely, or do other things that are technically war crimes.
And the effects of having to resort to these sorts of measures is reflected in the ending. A lot of novels end with the triumph of the good guys over the forces of evil, but this one carries through several more chapters to show us the real price of victory on the victors. In a society with medical technologies far advanced beyond our own, mere physical injuries such as lost limbs are no longer the permanent things they are in the Primary World. So our doughty protagonist and her two beloveds have deep psychological wounds to deal with, a loss of innocence and of abilities they took for granted which mean they can't simply pick up their lives and relationship where they left off at the war's start. As a result, we have a bittersweet ending in which the happy lies in the sense that the victory was worth the price.
Overall, it's an interesting exploration of a very different society. Whether it could actually work as described is more open to debate. One thing they have working to their advantage, at least in the beginning, is the simple fact that as a colony world they're a self-selected group of functional people with a strong commitment to making their society work. They're also going to be less likely than a random selection of people to be dealing with biological problems like congenital physical and mental illnesses, although they may have some problems as recessives combine to show up negative traits. Given that they have advanced medicine, this may not be as much a problem as it would be in the present day, although the exact limits (technical and ethical) of their genetic therapies are never delineated.
I would say that their biggest problems going forth will be dealing with all the orphans who are left behind, especially the ones far too young to fend for themselves as functional members of society rather than desperate ferals on its edges. Presumably in normal times extended family and friends would step into the breach when misfortune strikes down both parents, but the massive dislocations of the war mean it willl be harder for such connections to be made. On the other hand, given the relative lack of formal administrative systems in their culture, fostering and adopting orphaned children is probably as simple as accepting the responsibility for them, and if the arrangement doesn't work out, it can be dissolved just as easily.
Review posted June 7, 2011.
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