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on March 2, 2003
If you want to enjoy Smith's work, please buy ANY other book of his before this one. Especially the new edition of "The Probability Broach," the essays in "Lever Action," or his richly told "Forge of the Elders" saga.
~ Two massive terrorist acts have the detective protagonist, Win Bear, and his circle showing very little emotional reaction to them, beyond initial revulsion and bone-weariness. This rings false. Thousands have died instantly, and in a culture that is wholly unaccustomed to it. Win's lack of feeling undercuts one basic point Smith has made: that such mutual support flourishes, rather than wilts, in an individualistic and non-political culture.
~ The "stranger in a strange land" focus is weakened by a lack of vivid hints of the statist America(s) from which those in the "Zone" have escaped. Smith's stellar "Pallas" is clearly set in an alternate universe where that fact is never brought up, and his "Broach" makes this escape into one of high contrast -- and both novels are far stronger in that respect. This one is in a mushy middle ground.
~ Too many allusions are made to current American pop culture. These wrench us back too quickly to a dreary this-world present -- and we don't see how they're transmitted, nor from which alternate America.
~ The statist villains here are caricatures, introduced too quickly and pulled off stage too abruptly. Compare this to the luxurious portrait of John Jay Madison in "Broach," where you want to know him better, even while you mentally hiss him as in an old-time melodrama.
~ Names are too often tortured concoctions and are pulled too closely from "real" figures, without the intended satiric effect. "Bennett Williams" is made into a simpleton of an ideologue. William Bennett is not like this, despite his massive faults, and the point is lost.
~ Details of gunsmithery get in the way. In "Broach," they furthered the story without bogging down in a collector's zest for minutiae. Here, they end up diluting the vital point about weapons of self-defense adding to human dignity.
~ The main characters are undercut by our knowing that they show up in a half-dozen Confederacy novels set after this one. It's like knowing Anakin Skywalker is never in mortal danger in "Star Wars" II, when we realize he already was in IV through VI. (This is more distracting, though, for long-time Smith fans.)
~ The copyeditor and proofreader were out to lunch on this one. Misspellings, mispunctuation, shifts of tense, and over-repeated character backgrounds are constant and distracting.
Neither author nor reader deserves to have this highly flawed book discourage newcomers from sampling Neil Smith's talent and enjoying his utter passion for human liberty.
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on December 3, 2001
A new North American Confederacy novel at last. After a hiatus following THE GALLATIN DIVERGENCE, L. Neil Smith has finally returned to his most popular creation, the alternate world first visited over twenty years ago in his classic novel THE PROBABILITY BROACH. As fate would have it, THE AMERICAN ZONE deals specifically with how a truly free society would handle a spate of terrorist attacks. In the wake on 9-11, the issues LNS deals with are incredibly relevant for Americans today. All our favorite characters return, including Lucy Kropotkin and Will Sanders, plus numerous figures from our own world (or similiar realities) appear under different names. Half the fun is realizing which real-world public figure LNS is skewering under another name. As always, there's plenty of action, lots of laughs, and a fine mystery along with the libertarian philosophy. If you can stand to take your freedoms straight, with no chaser, this is the novel for you! Read and enjoy.
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on April 7, 2003
In The Probability Broach we have a really good mystery set in the background of a world where libertarian ideas flourished. The book set up a foundation for future stories.
Yet in The American Zone we have a badly designed plot thrust into the background while the libertarian ideas are pushed to the foreground. What I would of enjoyed is less of Lucy jabbering, and pissing off people, and more of a real plot set in new areas of the Confederacy or other parts of the alternate world. Surely Europe and Asia have developed their own forms of libertarian governments based on their own ideas, culture and history?
I'm sorry but some of the chapters could of been removed from the book without hurting the plot at all, a sure sign of a book that was written for something else BESIDES the story.
Come on, your preaching to the chorus! Turn around and talk to the rest, deliver the ideas of freedom and liberty WITHOUT scaring the day-lights out of them.
Lets face it, Lucy is slightly forward, if not sometimes rude towards everybody and anything she does not like or believe in. I love her, but many people, even from the same political parties, sometimes don't see eye to eye, this is not the best way to present a Libertarian, even if she is a person of fiction.
I would suggest you start out with other books by L. Neil Smith.
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on January 9, 2003
This is not the best of the North American Confederacy series. The book is supposed to be a mystery about some terrorist attacks in a world with no government where the people are free, responsible, and prosperous.
What the book really is is a set of political sermons mixed in the midst of a mystery. The mystery itself is incredibly weak. The investigators (good guys) do little more than ask the usual suspects (federalists) if they had anything to do with it and if they might know who. It's not until near the end of the book that a federalist turns traitor and comes to the investigators and explains everything, including who, why, when, where, and how. Some detective work!
This being said, the political sermons are interesting and thought provoking. Some elements seem contradictory. How can someone be sued for violating your rights if there is no law being broken? Who will enforce the judgements if initiation of force is not allowed? How can someone protect their trademarks, patents, or intellectual property if there are no trademark or patent law?
Still, the author's dream of a society built on freedom, individual rights, and minimal gov't is enticing and that makes this book worthwhile reading. Do yourself a favor and read the first and superior book "The Probability Broach".
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on November 20, 2002
The Probability Broach (1980) tells the story of Win Bear, a detective from Denver, who falls through a hole between universes, meets another version of himself and other interesting people, and saves the day for the good guys. It is very reminiscent of Beyond This Horizon, and other Heinlein stories, in both tone and politics, and the plot came right out of H. Beam Piper. Naturally I loved it and immediately bought every other Smith novel that I could find.

The American Zone (2001) continues this story with Win settled in the house and business of his intercontinual doppleganger. He has married Clarissa MacDougall Olson, a woman straight out of the Lensman series and the sweetheart every red-blooded American male yearns to marry, and his only problem seems to be keeping his weight down.

The novel starts with a bang, literally, as Greater LaPorte celebrates Independence Day. Win is watching the fireworks when a couple of potential clients show up to engage his services. Someone is smuggling videos across the universes that star their dopplegangers or have other actors in their roles. Since they are the local equivalents of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, this intercontinua competition is cutting into their royalties.

As Gable and Lombard are leaving, the sound and pressure wave of a huge explosion pass through. Someone has blown up the Old Endicott Building. And this is just the first in a series of manmade diasters. Who is using terrorist tactics against the North American Confederacy?

At this point the explanations begin. Unfortunately, these backgrounders mostly involve talking heads and some extravagant claims are made for the libertarian philosophy. This pontification got in the way of the story over and over again. While enjoying political discussions and intrigued with the possibilities of libertarianism, I would rather be shown the ideas than be told.

Heinlein did a much better job of weaving the ideology into the action. Even in Starship Troopers, which I consider his most political novel, he presented the philosophy as part of the daily life of the protaganist. Smith tries this approach, but the philosophy overwhelms the plot.

The plot, however, is very weak. Win and his friends reckon that the only people who would gain from these terrorist acts are the political fringe groups avocating more government and successively visit the authoritarians (and their monarchist offshoots), the majoritarians, and the fascists. Meanwhile, Win keeps following leads to the video smugglers. And somebody keeps trying to kill him.

After bumbling around, Win falls into the answers to both his case and the terrorist problems. We are treated to a few interesting treatises on guns, knives and technology throughout the story and meet a number of interesting and disgusting characters along the way. Nevertheless, the ending is just not as satisfying as I would expect.

The book title refers to the section of town settled by intercontinua immigrants who have not yet adapted to their new universe. The Hanging Judge is a restaurant in the middle of the American Zone where most of the political discussions and confrontations occur. The most effective presentations of the libertarian ideology in this book are shown by contrasting the actions and words of different immigrants. Some just want their governmental mommies and others want to be free of government controls.

Other reviewers keep referring to 9/11 as if such terrorist actions invalidate libertarian ideas. Smith's North American Confederacy is a form of limited anarchy and anarchy does not invite terrorist acts; the power is too distributed. It is vulnerable, however, to those who want to establish a government to exploit the people. Cecil Rhodes, Lenin and Hitler come to mind.

If you did not already know, this novel will show you why Smith is a favorite of the libertarian set. Unfortunately, the political diatribes get in the way of the story. While it may have been long awaited, this sequel of The Probability Broach is not as entertaining as the original.

Libertarians will buy this book to wallow in their philosophy. Readers of other political persuasions are more likely to bypass it. Overall, I think Smith has a bad case of preaching to the choir; he would be more successful as a political propagandist -- as well as a novelist -- if he provided more entertainment and less philosophy.

I am quite disappointed. However, the inside jokes -- e.g., Clarissa, Will Sanders -- and public jokes -- e.g., Buckley and Bennett Williams -- are funny.

-Arthur W. Jordin
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on March 7, 2015
Wow, I haven't even read the book yet but I can see from all the complaints about "sermonizing" that it hit a few nerves. That just may be a good sign. I've read plenty of novels that have a subtext that need glorious military conquests where the good guy empire quashes the bad guy empire, or the commoner space trader wins the had of the Princess of Nine Galaxies. This is subtle sermonizing.

But face it, complainers. ALL your science fiction is FULL of sermonizing. Some is subtle, some is not. Ben Bova once wrote that aspiring science fiction writers should avoid writing with religious themes. It was after that that I read through two of his novels. And surprise, surprise, they're full of dictatorships run by the New Torturous Pleasure-Banning Religious Inquisition. Of course his ideal world would presumably solve it by waging pre-emptive wars a la "Bush" with a New Torturous Pleasure-Banning Religion-Banning Inquisition where denying Darwinism would be a capital crime.

And don't forget SIR Arthur C. Clarke with his "Communism is the best form of government" in one pontificating novel, "if you lay aside the excesses of Stalinism". Excesses, mind you!! Just "excesses!" I guess 20 million or 60 million people slaughtered in the name of ideology and other hidden motivations. It seems he shows an example of the way the royal bloodlines and nobility class naturally move into the ruling class of socialism, as if natural. Socialism for the masses, of course. Not for him with his cozy island unto itself in his latter days off the coast of India.

So save your sermons about sermonizing. I just reserved the Probability Broach and will look forward to this one. There may be some sermonizing against Christians there, but I suffered through John Galt's interminable anti-God rant mixed with a good perspective on freedom outside of that. I will preach against any error of truth or fact myself.
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on March 20, 2014
In this nation of ours, do any of us actually know real freedom. Like a fish doesn't know it's wet, we don't know we are the property of the state.
This book turns that world on it's head. It makes one ask if we have any clue what glories we'd have if we were truly free.
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on May 27, 2015
I LOVED the Probability Broach. Bought it brand new paperback, and probably read it 6 or 7 times until it fell apart. Fast forward to this book, I tried to read it twice, and could not really finish it both times though I skimmed hard. WAY TOO PREACHY. I loved the Libertarian aspects of the Broach. But I think the time difference between the two books IN REAL TIME, and the failures of libertarians getting elected, made this sequel way too preachy for me. I got the basic concepts in the 1st book. Endless reiteration made the 2nd book unfinishable. I could tell who would win and lose, but I could not sit through the continuous America bashing sermon. America got nothing right according to Smith, as much as I would like to visit the Confederacy.
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on March 26, 2002
"The serpent in this Eden is a statist plot to generate so much fear of terrorism by cross-temporal immigrants that people will demand a (gasp!) government."
Publishers Weekly is right, of course. Nobody is claiming the government should have more power after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. There are no military tribunals for suspected terrorists. There is no new bureaucracy for "Homeland Security". Nobody is calling for a National ID. That, and Smith is the only person on the face of the Earth who ever wrote a fictional account of a conspiracy to grab political power.
It was a fun read (more fun if you get the inside jokes) and worth your time if you don't consider it blasphemy against the State (or don't mind blasphemy against the State).
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on September 8, 2011
First of all, truth in advertising: after I read this novel some years ago, I made it my business to correspond with Mr. Smith, and we have been corresponding ever since.

I have read everything Robert Heinlein wrote. This novel so impressed me all those 10 years gone, that I have done the same with Neil's works. Like Heinlein, Smith writes works that can be light or heavy or both. Heinlein's DAY AFTER TOMORROW, for instance, is much more serious than his MARK OF THE BEAST. THE PROBABILITY BROACH is a wonderful alternate-universe romp filled with the gusto of many of Heinlein's group adventure novels. But THE AMERICAN ZONE is a genuine thriller which forces one into a darker side of the defense of freedom. With BROACH, we are instructed in the ways of the North American Confederacy. In ZONE, the reader is challenged to find a rationale to perpetuate the found freedoms of Lt. Detective Winn Bear even at 20 years later.

Of course, L. Neil Smith is a Libertarian. I am an Eleutherian, and so believe in a strong volunteer military, good roads, and good voluntary attendance schools. Yet Neil's writing is captivating in its logic and expression. His characters are so well developed, you can almost see Lucy Kropotkin's wrinkles which have been healing for 20 years, the tunky Winn Bear and the slimmer Edward Bear, Winn's in-country doppleganger.

Some critics have axes to grind. I am simply glad that the spirit of the cantankerous wizard who created the term "GROK" lives and breathes in L. Neil Smith. Smith truly is a wonderfully entertaining guide to this stranger in his strange land - THE AMERICAN ZONE.
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