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The Weapon by Michael Z. Williamson

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel is not precisely a sequel to Freehold, since it does not take place after the conclusion of that novel. Rather, the two novels run parallel in time, telling complementary stories.

In Freehold, protagonist Kendra Pacelli briefly took a gig as a cultural consultant, teaching one Kenneth Chinran and his associates the ins and outs of Earth society, particularly in North America. Their close-mouthed manner and overall bearing led her to believe they were some kind of secret agent, but also that it would be unwise to inquire overmuch about their mission. At the end of the war she learned that yes, they were indeed sleeper agents, and that Chinran himelf was responsible for the massive death and destruction in her hometown of Minneapolis, which she declined to avert because she didn't want any favoritism to her own family.

The Weapon is Ken Chinran's story. It's told in the first person by Ken himself, and like Bandit Six in John Ringo's The Last Centurion, his voice is what really carries the story. Quite honestly, I don't think I could've gotten through it had it been written in the third person, because it's an exceedingly grim story, especially in the latter parts. It was only that sense that he was telling his story to me, and thus the sense of personal obligation to hear him out, that kept me going to the end.

At least we get to know right away that this is going to be a rough read when the very first scene is him dealing with a couple of guys trying to push him out an airlock without a spacesuit. Then we learn it's a training exercise, and after having gotten our attention he takes us back to his enlistment in the armed forces of the Freehold of Grainne.

At the time he was no great patriot, just a restless and aimless young man looking for a challenge. Given the noted toughness of even ordinary Basic Training in the Freehold military, he's going to get one. And he soon learns the danger of being a smartass and trying to work the regs to his own advantage. The instructors return the favor, holding him to every tiny detail of the regs for the rest of Basic.

But if you thought that Freehold boot camp was hellish, the training for those who would enter the Special Forces goes far beyond those standards. The troops are taken to the very limits of human endurance, and this is in a world with medical technology far in advance of that available in the Primary World. There's the element of being an elite unit that can do what no one else can, but there's also the practical asppect -- Special Forces often work in extreme situations in which they need to be able to endure all manner of horrors and keep functioning in order to complete their mission.

And that's just the first part. No matter how intense, training can take a military force only so far. At some point it must be blooded in actual conflict, and the leaders of the FMF want it to happen on someone else's turf, before the inevitible fight with UN-controlled Earth blows up. So they arrange for units of the FMF to assist in peacekeeping efforts on various worlds.

Thus Ken comes to Mtali, to the conflict that was in the backstory of Freehold. Mtali is a mess of a world, founded by idealists who ended up throwing a bunch of extremist groups in close contact. Needless to say, they don't exactly get along together. Far from it, they're soon at each other's throats -- and the peacekeeping forces are supposed to somehow keep them apart.

Ken's methods are unorthodox, to say the least. He doesn't bother with trying to be nice or treating the locals respectfully. When his unit's assigned to an area held by Arabs who just toss their garbage in the streets, he has his forces poop and pee in the streets as the urge strikes them, like dogs (how the women manage to pee as casually as men is never explained -- maybe they have mods that give them a urinary setup more like that of a female hyena, although it's said the FMF Special Forces avoids obvious mods that would mark them out).

When there's a rash of particularly ugly atrocities in which whole villages are systematically slaughtered, Ken decides to not just destroy the perperators, but also make everyone else too damned scared to even think about killing their traditional rivals. Using their stealth-fighting skills, the unit slips in and out of one village after another, terrifying the inhabitants until their reputation is soon spreading far ahead of them, of a mysterious force of shadows, maybe superhumans, maybe vengeful ghosts, who cannot be opposed.

And then they commit the unpardonable sin -- they become overconfident and let operations become routine. In that moment of inattention one of the team let someone get the jump on him, and suddenly their mystique is lying in shards. There's only one way to recover -- to actually carry out the threat they've been spreading, and wipe out an entire village, even the infants, leaving nobody who might inculcate future generations with a thirst for revenge.

If you can get through that scene without throwing the book away in disgust, you're probably going to be able to get through the final section, in which Ken tells us the story of the mission to Earth, starting with how he put together his team and trained them, and carrying through his time as a sleeper to the actual operation and its sequelae. Since he's telling it for an audience of senior officers in the FMF, it's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that yes, he does survive to be extracted. But the story isn't really about whether he survives, or even how exactly he pulls through, but what this does to him.

And that's really the heart of the story -- the price of securing his country's freedom. Yes, there's plenty of criticism of UN-run Earth, some of which may really be directed at present-day America. Earth under the UN in the Freehold universe is regulated like it wants to be the ultra-pacified UN Earth of Larry Niven's ARM stories, but so ineffectively that it instead has become a hellhole in which law-abiding people can barely turn around for all the regulations and live equally terrified of inadvertently breaking a regulation with a fine that will ruin them financially and of being assaulted by the criminal gangs against which they're permitted no effective defense.

Many years ago, Eric Frank Russell wrote a novel called Wasp, in which a human secret agent infiltrates the tyrannical Sirian Empire and destroys its military effectiveness by systematically disrupting their society. The attack Ken's team carries out is similar in basic concept, but far more rapid and deadly and quite devoid of the humor that marks the earlier work. I've rarely read such a grim story of civilian casualties.

Also, the protagonist's reaction to the havoc he's created is handled in a manner in keeping with the overall tone of the book. He's bought victory for his country, the preservation of all all he holds dear, but at a price that leaves him feeling more like a monster than a human being.

Overall, it's an interesting examination of the nature of assymetrical warfare and what it really means for a small nation of free men and women to go toe to toe with a much larger and more powerful tyranical polity. Here in the Primary World we are fighting a war to establish the principle that terrorism is not an acceptable means by which to fight a larger and stronger opponent -- which raises the question of whether what Ken and his team did should be considered (state-suppoorted) terrorism, or whether their position in the chain of command gives them a different status. Still, the fact that they were not fighting in proper uniform as declared forces of their star nation would make them spies, subject to immediate execution upon capture.

There are a few places where I have issues with the worldbuilding, slthough they're minor. My biggest regards the capability of their medical technology, and particularly regeneration. There's one scene in the middle section in which Ken and his unit capture some nogoodniks and subject the gang alpha to some particularly gruesome but survivable mutilations. It's subsequently said that if this creep undergoes extensive and painful regeneration therapy, he may look halfway human again, but it's strongly implied that his castration is irreversable. This leaves me wondering why -- I can understand that brain injuries would be problematical because of the risk of overwriting areas that control functions key to what makes the person an individual, but there's not anything like that about gonad tissue. The only thing I can imagine is that there's been a general consensus in that universe that germline cells are not to be tampered with, which has extended to regenerating lost or damaged gonads, and this taboo is so powerful that even rogue clinics in odd corners of the galaxy won't violate it, and anyone who tried to get such therapies illegally would be subject to such stringent ostracism that there's simply no market for shady doctors to exploit. On the other hand, it may be a purely narratological decision, based on the need to maintain sufficient levels of risk of irreversably crippling injury to make us the readers feel that our doughty heroes are indeed in serious peril, which is probably more critical in a work of military sf than a work such as David Marusek's Counting Heads, in which the cultural responses to super-advanced technology are really front and center.

I didn't have quite as much trouble with the statement that the obesity epidemic is purely a North American phenomenon, since this story is writen in first person and thus it can be regarded as purely the (mistaken) impression of the protagonist. However, recent evidence increasingly shows that even formerly poor Third-World countries such as China and India are showing increasing levels of health-damaging obesity as prosperity creates a substantial class of people whose jobs involve sitting still all day doing brainwork and who have access to reliable, abundant food supplies high in starches and fats but low in protein. It appears that it's the result of responses which were adaptive in pre-Industrial times in which food supplies were scanty and unreliable but become maladaptive in a society with mechanized agriculture, leading to bodies constantly treating current abundance as a temporary situation and squirreling away fat against a famine that never comes.

Still, the problems are relatively small in comparison to the novel's strengths, so I have no real qualms about recommending it for thoe readers who will enjoy no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled military sf.

Review posted June 7, 2011.

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