The American Zone, L. Neil Smith

Tor, 2001, 350 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87369-7

Complaining that L. Neil Smith uses his novels to indulge in libertarian propaganda is a bit like commenting upon the kinkiness, depravity and foul language in Chuck Palahniuk’s work: While true, it’s not exactly a new or enlightening observation.  Smith has long been a writer of explicitly-libertarian fiction, and if the result can be unreadable or silly, he can occasionally manage entertaining novels whenever he soft-pedals the rhetoric.

Perhaps his best novel to date remains The Probability Broach (1980), an action/adventure tale in which private eye William “Win” Bear discovered a gateway to another dimension where libertarian ideals had triumphed.  My fond memories suggest that the book managed an ideal balance between robust ideology and non-partisan entertainment: It was obviously a libertarian novel, but one that didn’t actively work to annoy whoever wasn’t in complete agreement with core libertarian principles.

The American Zone may be a direct sequel to The Probability Broach, but the years in-between the two books haven’t improved or softened Smith’s tendencies to discuss libertarianism in the middle, the side, the top and the bottom of his fiction.  It features Win Bear a few years after the events of his previous adventure, now solidly established in his new community.  Not that everything is utopian in Bear’s new world: The opening of the dimensional gates has created a new type of immigration, and not everyone can cope well with the freedoms of the “Gallatin Universe”: The titular American Zone is a Colorado urban ghetto where refugees from Bear’s United States tend to congregate when they can’t cope with the rest of the world.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of differences between Bear’s new and old worlds.  In the Gallatin Universe, the “North American Confederacy” is loosely presided over by an ape (uplifting being common, there are also a few dolphin characters), all levels of government are ineffectual by design and (this being an American libertarian utopia) there are guns, big guns, and beautiful guns everywhere for everyone.

But whereas The Probability Broach was a fun romp for all, with concepts that you didn’t necessarily had to buy into in order to enjoy the rest of the tale, The American Zone is a lot more shrill and dismissive of alternate viewpoints.  If you think that putting guns in the hands of everyone may not be a perfect idea, then you’re fit to be laughed at and dismissed.  One of the lasting impressions left by The American Zone is how angry Smith seems to be at whoever disagrees with him.  Grudges about Geraldo Riviera, Ralph Nader, the Clintons, Nixon all lead to so-called amusing passages in which analogues of those characters are ridiculed –which seems particularly curious in the case of the Clintons, since they only came to prominence years after the narrator left their universe.  (Not to mention the improbability of finding such characters in a parallel reality in which, say, Denver doesn’t exist.)  Even Canadians are targeted twice in similes, first as the narrator eats breakfast and feels “as contented as a Canadian” [P.64] and then later as a villain acts “complacent as a Canadian”. [P.136]

(This would be an ideal place in which to re-establish that as a French-Canadian working for the government, I consider Libertarianism to be a philosophy by aliens, for aliens.  Our world, simply put, doesn’t work like that, and no amount of folksy narration of a utopia whose rules have been stacked in favour of libertarianism can convince me otherwise.)

If you do manage to put ideology aside to look at the actual narrative workings of The American Zone, well, there isn’t much to gnaw upon.  The best SF ideas are carried over from the previous book, although there’s a little bit of interest in the description of how parallel universes travel is disrupting the way the citizen of the Confederacy live.  A novel on this topic would have been interesting, but The American Zone is really more interested in letting a feisty grandma explain why she should have energy handguns in her personal arsenal.

That’s not necessarily awful (despite my political objections to Smith’s novel, it’s not exactly difficult or unpleasant to read), but it leads nowhere, and that’s where The American Zone falters: Despite a gorgeous Martiniere cover, it feels hollow the moment you’re not already a libertarian.  It preaches to the choir, leaving the rest of the SF congregation looking bored.

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