Bewildering Stories

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L. Neil Smith's The American Zone

reviewed by Jerry Wright

Title: "The American Zone"
Author: L. Neil Smith
Tor Books October 2002
Trade paper, 351 pages
ISBN: 0-312-87526-6
Price: $15.95

I like L. Neil Smith. He is (quite rightly) considered one of the "Children of Heinlein", and he has written a number of fascinating adventure stories with a Libertarian bent. The Probability Broach (1980) is the first of Smith's Libertarian books, and a rollicking good read. His Libertarian "utopia" is well drawn, and his polemics against various forms of government don't interfere with action.

Sadly, this isn't the case with The American Zone. When I found this book, I said, "Wow, a sequel to The Probability Broach!" And I grabbed it and devoured it. As I wended my way through the pages, my first thought is that to a libertarian, human life doesn't have much value. Of course, the terrorists who are trying force a government (any government) on the anarchist North American Confederacy have no concern for human life either, but on a much larger scale. Of course, the lives of one's friends are massively important, but I'm not too sure how well the maxim "an armed society is a polite society" would turn out in truth. Of course, I'm not too sure about the realities of "the Old West", but I don't recall it being >that< polite.

A brief overview of the book:
Win Bear, a consulting private detective (from a world much like ours), and Will Sanders from the Greater LaPorte Civil Militia (think Texas Rangers) need to find out who is blowing up buildings and causing train-wrecks and killing thousands of people and fomenting the belief among immigrants (mostly living in the eponymous American Zone) that "somebody oughta do sumpin", and that somebody should be (shudder) a government.

Anarchist Lucille Kropotkin comes back from the Asteroid belt to help Win and Will, but for some reason, even though she'd been rejuved from her real age of 136 to about 25 at the end of the first book, appears as a crotchety old lady with guns almost as big as she is. Don't quite get that part...

Oh well, they discover the master plan of the bad guy who are really multiple versions of the same guy from different universes. Harum Scarum and battles ensue, and the good guys finally win, but in an unlikely way.

I've read several reviews of The American Zone which caused me to think that the reviewers haven't read the various books too closely, as it was obvious in the first book that the protagonist "Win" Bear was NOT from our space-time, but from a closely related alternative. Therefore much of the governmental problems that Bear faces are simply an exaggeration of our own. Nevertheless, in The American Zone many of the author's diatribes against government ring true. Unfortunately, the NAC as a solution is (dare I say it) impossible.

The story moves by fits and starts, with much attention to weaponry, and a nice little advert for the (quite real) Chris Reeve Knives. Much of the action is hamstrung by the need of the author to preach. Yeah, sad. Libertarianism is Smith's religion, and he definitely has faith. Still, I enjoyed the book, despite some lapses. I don't think I'd care to live in the NAC as it sits, but on the other hand, it is better than a lot of the alternatives. Including where we live now.

Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Wright