Pros: non-dystopian Libertarian science fiction, compelling characters, extremely well developed world
Cons: a little slow and long, battles a bit fast, proselytizes Libertarian views (but not overbearing)
Libertarian science fiction stories have become quite popular recently. Almost all of them are dystopias blatantly pushing the dangers of overly rigid governments and restrictive regulations. The entire point of the books is promoting these views and the authors often forget to actually provide an interesting story, compelling characters, or a well-defined world. They deal in archetype and allegory, clumsily putting together just those pieces needed to ram home their point and then hit you over the head with it again and again and then some more just in case you didn't follow the first three times. I hate them.
Freehold by Martin Z. Williamson is a Libertarian science fiction novel from a different mold. It still boldly features a society that regulates up the wazoo, that socializes everything and controls everything. However, for most of the book we're allowed to draw our own conclusions as we contrast that society with the free market and almost ungoverned Freehold of Grainne. While definitely biased toward the freehold, Williamson doesn't set up a gigantic evil empire that must be overthrown for the survival of mankind. He guides you to the viewpoints he upholds but recognizes that no one system is perfect and that despite its flaws there are also some advantages to the regimented system and it can yield good people. The folks in charge there are not portrayed as evil incarnate, but rather as somewhat misguided people trying their best to do what's right and we see some rather scummy citizens in the free society. Freehold is not a dystopia. It's a military science fiction novel with strong political underpinnings.
The biggest difference between Freehold and other Libertarian science fiction books, though, is that Williamson remembered that whatever his political leanings, he was writing a novel that needed to have an actual plot, three dimensional characters, a well-crafted universe, and everything else the discerning reader expects from a good novel. It all begins with Kendra.
Kendra Pacelli is a logistics officer in the UN, the governing body of Earth and its colony planets. She gets a hot tip from an ex-lover that she's going to be arrested and interred for a crime she didn't commit and hightails it out of her Minneapolis base. She knows that running is her only choice - she's guilty by association if nothing else - and winds up at the Grainne consulate.
Convinced of her innocence, they hide Kendra and arrange for her to emigrate to the freehold. At first they seem mercenary, requiring her to sell her car for parts to raise money for expenses and to indenture herself when she can't raise enough to cover the trip. We soon realize that's just the way it is in the Freehold. Everything has its price and if you can't meet it, you don't get whatever you're trying to buy. That goes both ways though - instead of taxes there are individual payments for services. Licensing is almost unheard of; if you can do the job you can have the job and get paid accordingly. You pay fees for everything but get fees or gifts for everything you do. Help save victims of an industrial accident? Expect a hefty thank you payment from the company involved. Just don't expect something for nothing. There's no welfare, no social security, no social programs at all. The few local bureaucrats pay for the privilege and get precious little power in return. The court system is used to settle disputes. All punishments are financial and based on financial damage to the wronged party. Murderers are fined the expected lifetime earnings of their victims. It's an interesting system.
Kendra finds this world difficult to grok. Even more than its odd economic underpinnings are its social mores. Nudity is common. People are more open and friendlier than back home but everyone is armed to the teeth. Sex is often casual and prostitution is a respected profession just like any other. Not only is group sex fine, long term relationships between three or more people are accepted. Kendra hooks up with Rob soon after arriving and Marta joins their group soon thereafter. Kendra finds herself swept along by expectations, finds herself wrapped up in rules and reactions she doesn't quite understand. Even after months and later years in the Freehold she still gets hung up on subtle differences in behavior and assumptions.
She eventually turns to the world she thinks she understands - the military. Like everything else, though, this military is very different from the one she knows. Here people are actually expected to follow orders. They're expected to train hard and work harder. There are no social mistreatment laws to get in the way of hazing and drill sergeants from hell. By the end of basic training, the surviving soldiers are lean mean fighting machines. Kendra moves into the logistics branch of the same unit her friends are in and settles into her new job. She's sent to NCO school and is startled to hear her commanding officer predict war with the UN within a year. Two weeks later they're at war.
Kendra must now fight against her former homeland in defense of her new world. Her internal conflict is very real, but it's helped by the boorish way the UN officials act toward the people they're trying to conquer. Not understanding why the locals won't cooperate when they're offered a basic standard of living guarantee and loans if they sign up as good tax-paying citizens, the UN here comes across as a bunch of clueless but well meaning idiots. This is both one of the most entertaining and most overbearing sections of the book. Williamson has a gift that way - the ability to take sections that really are proselytizing for the Libertarian way of life and still make them work in context and not feel too much like preaching.
I'm not going to tell you any more of Kendra's story - you'll have to read the book to find out what happens and how she deals with her conflicting loyalties. I will say that I found the resolution satisfying. The war segments felt a bit rushed compared to the earlier sections of the book which slowly meandered about, but the battles were interesting and Williamson did not shy away from the tough moral decisions sometimes inherent in war. We get to see some of the aftermath, too, and things are not presented as honky dory the instant war ends. Again, here, he shows good guys and bad guys on both sides and that men can act with honor while disagreeing or when circumstances place them on opposite sides of a dispute.
Freehold is a long book that starts very slowly. Folks looking solely for military science fiction might think the book drags. I enjoyed the early sections, the worldview setup and the slow immersion into the freehold way of life. It really allowed us to see the changes in Kendra and to believe her internal conflict when the freehold went to war with Earth. The actual war was perhaps a bit too fast for my taste, a bit too lacking in detail, but it was still an interesting take on planetary invasion and its repercussions. My only real complaint was that Kendra certainly spent a lot of time on the front lines for a supposed logistics officer, but what good is a military science fiction book if the main character isn't in the center of the action?
We're all products of the society we grow up in, and despite a general feeling of live and let live in these matters, I must admit that I found the group committed relationships and accompanying sex as accepted by the Grainne society much harder to adjust to than Kendra did. I freely admit that it's a hangup of mine - I think it was actually handled well by the author and presented in a way that makes sense within the framework of the society. If you're at all prudish this book will bother you. A lot.
That said, if you can deal with the free love elements of the freehold society, Freehold is a good book. It's significantly better than any of the rest of the recent spate of Libertarian science fiction (most of which I find unreadable). Although you are sometimes hit over the head by the author's views, he does so in a way that allows for disagreement. There's an actual interesting story here with compelling characters and a world that's extremely well developed and detailed well beyond most. It's perhaps a bit overlong, but I found the slower sections very enjoyable so I didn't mind at all. If you like exploring really detailed but very different human societies or military science fiction that takes the time to set up the war before fighting it, definitely check Freehold out.