1981’s The Venus Belt came out the year after The Probability Broach. The astute reader can tell that Smith is now more comfortable thinking of himself as an author of overtly ideological fiction1. The lectures on libertarian right-thinkery are more frequent and more heavy-handed2, and the plot more perfunctory. The villains, on the other hand, are very villainous. Plausibility was never a goal but the result in this case is not all that interesting.
Within the book, twelve years have passed since Detective Win Bear was blown from his statist-run world to the libertarian utopia of the North American Confederacy. Rather than settle for finding a comfortable niche in his new world, he joins the effort to guide his former world away from statist hell towards the ideal that the NAC enjoys. While this is likely to be a time-consuming project, definite progress has been made. The Federal Security Police are much reduced in power, the libertarian Propertarian Party is on the verge of evolving from viable third party to winning the Oval Office, and every week, dozens of IRS agents are quietly murdered and disposed of.
Not everything is Cherries Jubilee and furtive midnight burials. Across the world of the United States of America, one hundred and fifty thousand young women have gone missing. This could just be a symptom of the corruption endemic to Bear’s old homeworld … although given that this is only a 211-page book and also that the missing women are mentioned on the back cover copy, that’s not the way to bet.
Normally, the North American Confederacy is a perfect land where everyone can sleep secure in their homes, provided they keep a pistol under the pillow and have hired a top notch security company. Sadly, malign forces are at work; Win gets a message from his old friend Lucy Kropotkin that Ed Bear, her husband and Win’s analog in the NAC world, has vanished.
Ed is only the first to disappear. One by one, people dear to Win vanish. Who is behind this and what they are up to are mysteries. “Where” may be answerable since the clues seem to point to the Asteroid Belt. He finds a Belt that is highly developed, home to two billion people of all kinds, and also the sort of wide open place where despite the crowds some pretty unpleasant characters have all the privacy they need to prepare an audacious, although completely evil, plan.
Win sets out to find his friends. He finds a shadowy cabal, a conspiracy spanning two worlds, and a plot to end freedom not just on the two Earths but across the universe itself.
(Something I always wonder about with first person books: who exactly is Bear addressing this narrative to? I don’t think authors who use first person spend half as much time on that question as I do.)
One of the main antagonists in the narrative is a thinly disguised Walter Cronkite, whose analog Voltaire Malaise is driven to evil because just anyone can try their hand at anything in the NAC without relying on experts or acquiring credentials first. (Evil University?) I’m not completely sure what a libertarian would have against Cronkite; it seems to me that at least as far as foreign adventures go, Cronkite and Smith should be on the same page. Maybe Cronkite got there the wrong way.
“Extremely evil” is a good way to describe the evil-doers’ cunning plans. Just the part where the bad guys kidnap and brainwash enough women to populate a mid-sized city is enough to convict them. But there’s more! “Needlessly convoluted” also comes to mind. Never mind meddling kids, the black hats in this book sabotage themselves, resorting to a complicated cover-up that should have been unnecessary had they made proper use of the two worlds to which they have access.
Malaise complains at one point that companies have far too much privacy, which made me wonder about something that didn’t come up in the novel. This is a world where there isn’t anything like the FDA. How often does this world have a repeat of events like the thalidomide calamity or the Minamata incident? I know the NAC is supposed to be a utopia, but the main deterrent to being an asshat about externalizing costs or ignoring risks is that the asshat’s neighbors will kill him (or her) if he (or she) gets too annoying — a potential deterrent which only comes into play after the fact. This is a world where private companies can and do reshape whole worlds, so the scale of possible annoyances/disasters is potentially quite large.
We do get an idea of how some smaller projects, like street lighting, are handled: house by house or perhaps neighborhood by neighborhood. The free rider issue is managed by the supporters of the project deciding which annoys them more: the lack of a streetlight or the fact Mean Old Man Johnson refuses to kick in his share.
Suddenly, I am curious how the NAC would weather a plague.
Speaking of the two worlds; at this point in the North American Confederacy series, they are pretty sure there are many, many universes but can only access two usefully. They know of a third universe where the Big Bang never happened but because that one lacks such features as time and the three dimensions of space, traversing it without getting hopelessly lost is an unsolved challenge. Add it to the list of books that feature hard-to-navigate hyperspaces.
Del Rey had enough faith in this book that they commissioned an Illustration of Ceres Central by Chris Barbieri which, happily for me, is rather blurrily reproduced over at Smith’s site. It’s interesting to see what goods and services were felt to be most thematically appropriate for a libertopian mall. While booze, (Del Rey) books, and pornography are definitely viable niches, the artist’s composition and the way the image is arranged in the book ensures that what first catches a readers eye are the two signs that read “weapons” and “secure systems”3. This is thematically appropriate to the book, which, to an even greater degree than in The Probability Broach, there is a pervasive atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the North American Confederacy — despite the fact everyone is armed to the teeth. I’ve actually had people try to kill me, but I don’t spend a hundredth the time that Bear and company do worrying about it happening (again).
The book is very particular about what sort of firearm the characters prefer:
Tactically, the pistol is a sword, most effective at a sword’s distance, intended for the same primarily defensive purpose, personal protection, rather than as a military or political instrument (one reason rifles are scarce in the Confederacy and why they are so conveniently immune in the United States). And, like a sword, a pistol comes to possess for its bearer a personality all its own, almost symbiotic with the personality it protects.
I would guess that the author felt the same love for his very own personal pistol.
This book is very much a curate’s egg. There is a fair amount of daffy super-science, from Mysteriously Efficient Fusion Rockets4 to our old favourite, the inflatable asteroid. We encounter whole-body-cyborging and a pretty ambitious planetary engineering project. Counterbalancing the cockamamie sensawunda, the lectures from both heroes and villains are more heavy-handed than they were in the first book of this series, and Bear seems to have become both less competent and more bloodthirsty than he was way back in 1987. This book was just less fun than The Probability Broach.
1: I am amused that if one googles “ideological fiction expostulatory,” L. Neil Smith is featured in the fourth hit.
2: So why did I like this thirty-odd years ago? Because I had had two acrimonious run ins with bureaucracy, one of which involved my orphan’s benefit being cut off for a fairly trivial reason (that was the year I spent dead) and I needed the money. Let’s all pretend this moment of “sense of entitlement regarding a monthly government check drives someone towards political lunacy” is nothing like Craig T. Nelson here.
3: I think the word is “secure”. The artist used a font in which the final letter in the word looks like two old-style phone handsets kissing.
4: Granted, MEFR are so common in SF their absence would be more noteworthy than their presence.