Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006

The Weapon

By Michael Z. Williamson

2005, $25 , ISBN: 1416508945
Reviewed by Rick Triplett

The Weapon is an exciting and remarkable book. It’s exciting because of its many vivid battles scenes of “good guys against bad guys” and because its plot involves issues of justice on an interplanetary scale. It is remarkable, because it will challenge readers to think deeply about the tough issues of libertarianism, including "What is a just war?" What makes a victim innocent? and How should we deal with terrorists? It has been a long time since I read a book that engaged me as emotionally as did this decidedly challenging adventure.

The Weapon is set in the same universe and time period as Michael Z. Williamson’s earlier book, Freehold. It tells the story of Kenneth Chinran, a careerist in the citizen-controlled military of Freehold, which is a libertarian planet that seceded from the highly collectivized Earth government of a century or two into the future. Much of the narrative describes Chinran’s training in special operations and the employment of his military skills on several planets. Chinran is the “weapon” of the title, for he is so well trained that his home planet is able to use him as a weapon. Not all readers enjoy “military fiction,” but barring an active dislike of the genre, most will soon be amazed at Chinran’s extraordinary training and the dazzling exploits to which his career takes him. It would not be wrong to call this story an action story, but it is much more than that, for Williamson gives us a vivid indictment of collectivism and at least three tough ethical problems to wrestle with.

Libertarians love freedom, but they also recognize and love the responsibility that goes with it. Sadly, a great many people seem reluctant to grow up and take over from their parents the job of pursuing and fulfilling their own needs and wants. Williamson is expert and unsparing at dissecting the psychology of these people and in depicting the consequences of indulging the dependencies they crave. Here is a description of a wimpy bureaucrat he runs into: “He was a weasel-faced, soft little troll and had a whiny voice.” This sounds macho, but he adds: “Not that there was anything wrong with the voice, just with his inflection and attitude. He had the classic neo-feudalist blame-everyone-else-for-my-problems mindset. I detest it. It’s gutless and pathetic.” And he writes many pages over the excessive regulation on Earth; his criticisms are detailed and articulate—a joy to read. Here’s one example, on the anti-suicide regulation limiting the size of kitchen knives:

I have a hint for the overlords, as no other term applies to them: People on Earth don’t kill themselves because a knife happens to be lying around. They kill themselves because you have turned their planet into a festering shithole with no hope of escape, no hope of individuality, no chance of innovation and creativity, and not even the dignity of surcease in a clean death.

I chuckled with pleasure over Williamson’s blunt criticisms, but I was most exercised—as most readers will be—over three applications of military force that plunge right to the center of important controversies many people are averse to consider. The first of these takes place in a town called Mtali on a dismal planet beset with tribal warfare over competing, fundamentalist religions. Chinran and his team are there just to practice their skills in a real fight. This is a smart idea, but did they use force in a justifiable way? Chinran looks at arguments on both sides and ends up faulting himself on several counts for at least part of the killing. As a reader, I was caught up in Chinran’s conflicting feelings, forced to debate tough issues that need to be debated.

The second controversial military operation was the way Chinran dealt with terrorists. This is a topic we can relate to; it is a problem that is a long way from being solved. Chinran dealt with it carefully, thoroughly, brutally, and with assiduous attention to target selection. Is this a justified use of force? Can we trust our intelligence gathering? As a policy, could it be abused? Would it have an effect on terrorism? Williamson boldly thrusts us into a conflict that is as important to us as it is difficult.

The last controversy, and the author saves the big one for last, takes us face to face with the core of Just War Theory. Instead of revealing what happens in the story, let me ask you two questions: Under what circumstances is it right for one nation to engage in war with another? and How much force is justified when defending a nation? These questions were already old when they were raised concerning the atomic bombing of Japan. Williamson will raise them again for you.

Chinran’s values are thoroughly pro-freedom. That he holds these values passionately can be seen in many of his comments throughout the book. Referring to his home planet he says, “We defined freedom as the right to be stupid. If you aren’t allowed to ruin your life because of the ‘greater good of the whole,’ you aren’t really free, you’re a cog.” And about the bureaucratic future Earth he is eloquently contemptuous:

‘To understand all is to forgive all.’ I’ve heard said. Well, I understood just fine and I would never forgive. The more I looked at Earth, the sicker I got. The history, the roots, the few bits of scenery left unspoiled, buried under ant-like legions of ignorant, stupid, petty little bureaucrats determined to ensure that no one has a better lot than they themselves do made me want to vomit. The poor sheeple living under the yoke, flogged into basic modules to serve this machine filled me with despair.

There is much that is heroic in Kenneth Chinran, but there are flaws, too. Williamson has given us a character who has noble values and who is willing to risk his life and to take on large responsibilities. But we also agonize with this soldier over his difficult decisions and we sympathize with him as he learns from his mistakes. He hates fraud, pretense, laziness, politicians, terrorists, and people who stand around doing nothing while injustice grows like kudzu all around them. In short he is not an armchair libertarian.

I like to think that if I had lived in Thomas Paine’s time, I would not have been a “sunshine patriot.” And I hope that I will never have to literally fight for my rights. But I am by no means confident that the contemporary erosion of freedom can be halted without a physical struggle. So I am grateful to Michael Z. Williamson for reminding us that our struggle may become grim and for inspiring us to tough it out should that become necessary.

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