Tales Of The Self-Indulgent: The American Zone by L. Neil Smith

permalink         categories: books · tales of the self-indulgent         originally posted: 2006-12-08 01:22:07

It's time for another new feature here at Momentary Fascinations, what I'm calling "Tales Of The Self-Indulgent".

I like fiction. It carries you away from the worries of your world, aloft on fanciful tales of other people's lives. A momentary respite from the worries of the day. That is why I find it so thoroughly off-putting when an author throws in self-indulgent passages. It's like a deluge of cold water, snapping me out of the trance, slapping me in the face saying "Hey! Reader! Here's what you should think!"

What do I mean by self-indulgence? It might be passages where the author uses their characters as conduits to communicate their opinions to you. Or labored literary contrivances, be they circumstances or backstory, to make some point (important or not) that the author is too lazy to work in in a more seamless way.

Perhaps I can make myself clearer by example. Today's book, The American Zone by L. Neil Smith, is almost unremittingly self-indulgent. From cover to cover, it is a parade of thinly-veiled Libertarian polemic, one-dimensional characters showing the preferences of the author, and just to put the icing on the cake every chapter starts with a contrived quote from the "memoirs" of one of its characters. The writing style is modern-Heinlein-devotee with a dash of what I call "Ayn Rand Puppet Theater". The protagonists are all whip-smart, share the exact same opinions and world-view, are unrelentingly chummy, and very rarely disagree. The only characters with different opinions? Those gosh-darned evil antagonists.

Zone is actually a sequel, to Mr. Smith's most famous book The Probability Broach. Broach is a near-future novel in which the main character "Det. Win Bear" travels from his reality to another. His original home was a parallel Earth where America has a large, opressive government, few people have cars, businesses are regularly shut down by the Department Of Energy for unlicensed air-conditioning, "hoarding" silver and gold is a felony, and murders are committed over the "meat ration". He travels to a fantastic Libertarian paradise where nearly everyone wears either a gun or a knife (or both) at all times, and the free market has brought all its denizens an age of dazzling technology—uplifted chimps and dolphins, a thrillingly high standard of living, and for all practical purposes immortality. (You can read Broach online, in graphic-novel form, here.)

In Broach, Det. Bear meets his twin in this Libertarian dimension and they work together against the antagonists. And yet Det. Bear wonders how it was that they both existed! Given the divergence of the timelines several hundred years ago, the odds that two men with the same name and same parents should both exist are exceedingly unlikely. His best theory is that these changes in America didn't have much effect on those living on relatively-isolated Indian reservations, and since he's full-blooded Ute Indian his ancestry was unaffected.

Well, in Zone, Mr. Smith apparently decided this alternate-future divergent history backstory was a hinderance to his making inside jokes, so for all intents and purposes Det. Bear now comes from the reality you and I live in, and the Libertarian world is a fun-house mirror of ours when and where it suits his purposes. Hang on, here comes some rib-ticklin' humor! Like these timeless japes:

  • The popular book "Al Franken Is a Pathetic Little Wannabe by Rush H. Limbaugh".
  • Two of the antagonists of the book are the Williams brothers: Buckley F. Williams and his brother Bennet Williams.
  • A character who died in the first book, but was mentioned several times in the second: a small-time thief named Tricky Dick Milhouse.
  • The "Classics Illustrated" edition of The Story Of O.
  • "Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. Government is from Uranus."
  • "There were imported works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Lennon, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Saul Alinski, Pol Pot, Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donell, and other assorted left-wing locksteppers [...]"
  • A put-upon—now liberated—escapee from a particularly oppressive world, Demopublican Congressbeing Ron A. Paulchinsky of Montana.
  • A store-owner named Mr. Suprynowicz who (legally) sells morphine and guns to an 11-year-old girl. That name doesn't ring a bell? Here's some fun trivia: Vin Suprynowicz was the vice-presidential candidate for the Arizona Libertarian Party in 2000. (You wanna know who their candidate for president was? Why, L. Neil Smith!)

Ayn Rand Puppet Theater

As previously stated, all his protagonists hold the same beliefs (eerily similar to L. Neil Smith's own!). The book is an exercise in Libertarian polemic, much as an Ayn Rand novel is an Objectivist lecture with a thin whitewash of story. When the characters encounter folks who disagree with them, it's time to argue—and the other side always loses. Like when they interview the only "environmental activist" in their North Texas, the unpleasant ditzy tree-hugger "Birdie".

Or take this example from Chapter 14 ("Three Dollar Bill"):

Slaughterbush caught his breath. "But surely, Captain Sanders, a little reasonable, commonsense gun control—"

"The accurate term is 'victim disarmament,' Dr. Slaughterbush, and I'd appreciate your using it from now on, or shut up. You can't have a little reasonable, commonsense victim disarmament, any more than you can have a little reasonable, commonsense cancer." [...] So we were having another political argument with an interviewee, instead of asking him proper, detectively questions [...]

Why, so you were!

Product Placement

But only now do we get to Mr. Smith's most egregious self-indulgence. In the acknowledgements section at the front of the book, Mr. Smith thanks "Chris Reeve Knives of Boise, Idaho, for their valuable assistance in making this a more interesting book than it might have otherwise been." We actually encounter a Chris Reeve knife in Chapter 4 ("Taberna Est In Oppidum"):
"Tell me about that hunk of iron you were using last night." [...] "An import," he explained, "from one of our native worlds, yours and mine. It's a Chris Reeve Project I, made by a guy from Montana—by way of South Africa—not the guy who played Superman." [...] I refrained from telling him that in my world, most recently [...] Superman had been played by Keanu Reeves.
What a coincidence, that they're familiar with knifemaker Chris Reeve in their universe too! And, just for extra bonus, the author contrives this Wacky Joke, even though our hero is familiar with Kathleen Turner in Romancing The Stone, Mathilda May in Lifeforce, Cynthia Rhodes in Dirty Dancing, Bill Shatner in Star Trek, Robert Conrad in The Wild, Wild, West, George Peppard, the character Marge Simpson... again, Det. Bear's parallel universe is different only when it suits the author.

But then! Chapter 7 ("Lawyers, Guns, And Money") brings us this scene, set in a knife shop:

"The Chris Reeve Sable IV." Daggett bent down, reached into the case, and pulled it out, together with a heavy black scabbard. "Extra careful, Lieutenant Bear." He indicated the cast on my left arm. "You look accident-prone to me, and this thing is literally as sharp as a razor. Reeve knives are all that way."


Papers in the box said "Chris Reeve Knives, 11624 W. President Drive, #B, Boise, ID 83713, United States of America." Sure enough, one was a warning about how sharp the five and a half-inch single-edged blade was. It wasn't kidding. The trademark hollow handle was made from the same billet of steel as the blade, knurled so well you could almost use it for a file, topped with a threaded aluminum cap sealed with an O-ring. The whole length of skillfully worked metal was covered in a dark matte gray finish. I didn't know what I'd keep in that little compartment, most likely just some extra atmosphere, but it was nifty knowing it was there.

In shape, it was like a Finnish puukko knife, but what I liked best about the Sable IV was its size [...]

Det. Bear buys the knife, and quickly learns to depend on it—why, it saves his life twice that very day! Would it surprise you to learn that the Sable IV is a real knife, made by Chris Reeve Knives? And that that's their real address? No? Gosh, I wonder what L. Neil Smith thinks of Chris Reeve Knives.

Stay tuned for more: "Tales Of The Self-Indulgent!"

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