The American Zone by L. Neil Smith
List Price: $26.95
Hardcover - 384 pages (December 2001) Tor Books; ISBN: 0312873697

Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Special Feature: L. Neil Smith Interview
Feature Reprint: Probability Broach

Author's Site: L. Neil Smith


Editorial License: The Men That Don't Fit In
More Anarchy: The Watch by Dennis Danvers

There's something tremendously attractive about the idea of a world where what you do is nobody's business but your own, and that's the kind of world that L. Neil Smith, award winning libertarian author and spokesperson, created in The Probability Broach and returns us to in The American Zone.

I got considerably more Libertarianism from The American Zone than I expected...or really wanted. A world where everyone carries a gun and is happy to brandish it at the imminent infraction of their personal freedom doesn't bode well for the future of humanity as far as I'm concerned. Heinlein's edict that "an armed society is a polite society" is a pipe dream that would result in crimes driven by passion on a much greater scale than we experience today. That's my opinion.

The only problem is that folks like L. Neil Smith will happily point out the flaws in any alternative you might imagine.

Smith's universe, or universes, are an infinite number of alternative realities, connected by the universe spanning technology introduced in the earlier book when Win Bear, a Policeman on an Earth reasonably similar to the one I'm writing on, is thrown through the first probability broach into an Earth where libertarian principles have taken hold and flourished. Ever since the farmers of Pennsylvania put down the impertinent demands of the American Government to receive taxes for whisky production in the Whisky Rebellion of 1794.

Since the first book, immigrants from more repressive realities have been pouring into the LaPorte Portal, mostly thrilled to be in a world where freedom reigns...but some bringing their cultural preferences for pushing others around, or being pushed around by others, with them.

The section of the city of LaPorte that these folks with adjustment problems wind up in is a shabby set of blocks known as "The American Zone".

Win, recently immigrated and happily settled with a beautiful wife named for an E.E. "Doc" Smith character, Clarissa MacDougal-Bear, is a private detective in a world that doesn't have much crime to speak of, and no police force at all. What they have is a small branch of the Civil Liberties Union that comes and carts the bodies away after gunplay determines who was right about what. Fortunately in Smith's stories, the good guys always shoot better, or are luckier than the bad guys.

Bad guys? In a world where everything you do is you business alone, how do you get bad guys? Those would be the folks trying to force their will on others, without asking for mutual consent first. Like whomever is committing acts of terrorism and fuelling the "Franklenite" party's demands for the creation of a government for everyone's mutual protection.

The story starts out with an attempt to blow up a skyscraper, which, though it doesn't fall down, killing thousands as we've seen so recently, it does enough carnage and damage to make folks scared. Scared enough to mobilize what little law enforcement they do have, namely Will Sanders, head of the LaPorte miliita, and clearly a cousin of the Texas Rangers. "One mob, one militiaman." 

Will lives across the street from Win, and they join forces to crack their respective cases, Win having been hired by this universe's still extant Clark Gable and Betty Grable to find out who's bringing alternate versions of the movies they starred in to sate the public's taste for alternate world stories. Personally, I can't quite figure out why that should be any worth more than a "Tsk, tsk, what a pity." for the only PI in this reality, but Win takes on the case and along with Sanders and Lucy Kropotkin, the improbable wife of famed anarchist Peter Kropotkin (at least in my world) he sleuths his was through shooting, bombings, and more discussions of political philosophy than you can shake a stick at. Stopping to admire a beautiful woman or field strip a handgun, or sample some tasty tidbit every few pages.

What we get out of it is a tour through Smith's world.  Unfettered by legislation, technology has solved the problems that we face. Bullet trains zoom underground across the country, Rockets take colonists out to the Asteroid belt and the Moon in numbers roughly equivalent to those coming across the probability broach, and medical science is considerably ahead of my world's, taking the fear out of smoking and any other morality inducing recreations. Texas farms bloom with luxuriant greenery and the only fly in the ointment is immigrants who aren't used to freedom.

Into this Garden of Eden, the snake that raises its head is a serpent trying to sell government, and to any right thinking libertarian, the merest hint of government is one foot on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, right or left, makes no matter.

Smith's world is a utopia, regardless of whether I'd choose it, and it has a lot to offer, including the freedom from mistakes that it takes a government to commit. The book is more pulpit than plot though, and though the characters are engaging, though I wish they were more so. The American Zone is  not a novel as much as a manifesto, and as a manifesto, it's more wishful thinking than cogent comment.

Naturally, Smith's careful not to let anyone win an  argument with his protagonists as they mow down, with logic or hot lead, the left wing, right wing, environmentalists, fundamentalists, and monarchists. Maybe even a few more "ists" I didn't mention.

It's like Heinlein on way too much caffeine and not enough sleep. 

Ironically, it reminds me of B.F. Skinner's Walden Two, which inspired a number of communes with the behavioral psychologist's novelized description of a community where psychology came up with all the answers for how people should live. Like a shadow boxer, Skinner never failed to miss his mark, or counter a punch. Everything he said seemed reasonable...but lacked the test of the real world to prove his point. At a number of points, Skinner pointed to his imaginary community and said, "There's your proof...see, it works."

Smith no doubt would say the same. Still, of all the realities joined by broaches, why does only one manage to maintain a functional libertarian culture?

The cyberpunk writing of folks like Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson replace states with enclaves with rules of their own, morphing government into corporation. Though libertarian in nature, they require a decaying world to feed off of, unlike the thriving reality in Smith's work. Personally, my favorite bit of libertarian writing, or at least writing about libertarians, is still Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed, where here characters have personal freedom...but scratching a life out is still a tough job. 

So, is there a point to reading Smith? Certainly. He attacks every form of government he can get his hands on in the course of the book, and his attacks and concerns seem valid and enlightening to me. I can always use some enlightenment, even if the alternatives offered don't seem any more practical than the scourge they replace. 

I love some of his comments on Democracy, especially one that asserts that voting is ritualized warfare, where we count up the sides and decide who would win if it came to blows. Certainly The American Zone offers food for thought, but it's hardly a balanced meal. 

I'd recommend starting with The Probability Breach, where you'll decide for yourself whether or not you love the cast of free thinkers that Smith assembles. If you do, then the subsequent stories, leading up to The American Zone, will be a lot more enjoyable. 

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu