|Full disclosure: Jeffrey Mahr, head honcho of Infinite Imagination, is the guy what started TSAT and ran it for three years before handing it over to the current editorial regime, Bard and Long, who are also the reviewers.|
by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2003 Michael Bard and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
|Book:||Freedom City, by Phil Geusz (250 pp/1.2 MB -- includes a short story, Pilgrim, also by Geusz, and one chapter of Celrin's Quest, by Andy Hollis)|
|Publisher:||Infinite Imagination eBooks|
|Price:||$3.99 for download; $5.95 + (in the US) $1.00 shipping for the CD|
|Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0|
We're going to start off with all the bad stuff -- get the negative comments out of the way right now -- so that we can close the review with our good comments.
First off, Freedom City is an e-book; the review copy we got was in the PDF format that Adobe Systems uses for their Acrobat software. The biggest problem with e-books is that computer displays just aren't up to snuff for serious reading. Current displays aren't good for more than about 100-dpi resolution; you might be able to get 96-dpi, and resolutions as low as 72 dpi (or worse) are far from uncommon. Acrobat allows the reader to use 'anti-aliasing' to improve the appearance of the text, but in practice, given the comparatively low resolutions of current displays, this amounts to deciding whether you want the letterforms of the text to be blurry and washed-out (i.e. anti-aliased), or clean and perceptibly distorted (i.e. not anti-aliased). There are prototype displays capable of resolutions of 300 dpi and up, but until such time as these gadgets get out of the lab and onto store shelves, e-books just plain are going to be intrinsically weak in the 'visual quality' department.
It would of course be unjust to criticize Infinite Imagination for the (lack of) quality in the computer displays people will use to read their e-books. However, the production quality of the content is another matter entirely.
The e-book format does offer the potential for benefits unavailable in conventional books, but sadly, our review copy of Freedom City leaves these benefits largely unrealized. While a reader can use the built-in Acrobat text search functions to go directly to specific passages, no 'bookmarks' -- hyperlinks that would make it easier to get to specific chapters and so on -- are provided, nor can the reader make his own bookmarks. Likewise, Acrobat's 'thumbnails' feature (which is supposed to give the reader reduced-size preview images of all pages in the document, to help the reader decide where to go) is of limited use when, as is true of Freedom City, the thumbnails are uninformative, featureless grey boxes. Also, Infinite Imagination chose to employ a 'two-page spread' format, duplicating what you'd see if it were a conventional book. Unfortunately, this choice of format will prove annoying to the majority of readers, because it will force them to engage in horizontal scrolling, which one of us (Long) firmly believes to be an invention of the Devil. When you reach the bottom of a left-side page, you must scroll your window backwards and (sideways) to the right; when you've finished a right-side page, you must scroll your window (again, sideways) over to the left. Thus, your reading is interrupted every page by an unnecessary horizontal-scroll maneuver. It would have been better if Infinite Imagination had chosen to run with a one-page format, as Acrobat allows readers to display single-page-formatted documents as two-page spreads. That way, those readers who have ridiculously wide displays could take advantage of the two-page-spread format if they like, and people with normal-width displays would not be gratuitously condemned to the Hell of horizontal scrolling.
Owing to a significant degree of pixelization, the cover image has a rather amateurish appearance.
Freedom City itself seems to be free of typos, and the same goes for the included chapter of Celrin's Quest. Unfortunately the bonus story, Pilgrim, has more than a few instances of missing punctuation, and although the whole package is clearly supposed to be set in one type font (Times), one entire paragraph of Pilgrim is set in a different font (Bookman). Most readers probably won't be able to identify the fonts in question -- but they'll surely notice how different that one paragraph looks! The paragraph in question is a needless distraction that will stand out for no good reason.
Also, in Pilgrim Mahr decided to use a sort of 'scene break' graphic which is largely unrecognizable at anything like normal size; only when blown up to at least 200% enlargement does this graphic become visually comprehensible -- it depicts a few fish being tempted by a fishhook. Given the distortions inevitably introduced by (relatively poor quality) computer displays, it would have been better to go with a wholly abstract image, or the generic 'three asterixes', or a horizontal line, rather than a 'scene break' device that attempts to depict even a schematic diagram of real-world objects.
Enough of the flaws in presentation. What of the content that is presented?
Freedom City is a didactic novel. In part, Geusz wrote it to extol the virtues of a breed of libertarian philosophy sufficiently radical as to be difficult to distinguish from simple anarchy. Unfortunately, Geusz does not always resist the temptation to 'sell his birthright for a pot of Message'. There are more than a few points at which the narration and/or dialogue are but a thin veneer of fiction over concentrated political tract, perhaps most obtrusively in the bedroom scene which concludes Chapter 2. Now, there are any number of topics which a married couple with a healthy sex life might discuss in bed, but much of the dialogue given to Harvey Foote and his wife in that scene -- the line "Let's get some rest. Both of us have busy and productive days ahead of us tomorrow." being one of the worst offenders in this regard -- comes off as just about as artificial and stilted as any Soviet propaganda fiction of the Stalinist era.
It's very clear that Geusz wants the reader to compare his Freedom City milieu to the current United States -- and, more, that he wants the reader to agree with him that Freedom City is superior in pretty much every way imaginable. Of course, this depends on whether or not the reader agrees with Geusz' definition of 'superior'...
Freedom City's protagonist, Harvey Foote, is likeable enough -- on the surface -- but his actions reveal him to be, not just a flagrant hypocrite (which he is), but also amoral and power-hungry. Specifically: Foote requires that every person who works for him must have themselves remade as a human/rabbit hybrid creature. The one person Foote hires without demanding they become a rabbit right off the bat, he makes it clear that he expects they will undergo that conversion within the foreseeable future. Let us examine the corollaries and repercussions of this requirement.
The bio-conversion Foote demands of his employees is damned expensive. While Geusz never mentions any specific figures, he firmly establishes the process as being costly enough that most bio-converted people must borrow the money and spend years (if not decades) paying off this debt. 'Most', in this context, must include the lion's share of Foote employees-to-be, for the simple reason that in the Freedom City milieu, virtually everyone who's wealthy enough to pay for bio-conversion out of their own funds is a successful entrepreneur who wouldn't want to work for anyone else -- not even the esteemed Harvey Foote. Since Foote himself makes a fetish of his own absolute lack of indebtedness to outside financiers, on the grounds that those outsiders would inevitably interfere with his right to run his business (and life) the way he, Foote, sees fit, it is curious that he will not hire anyone who hasn't taken on a multi-year debt. We can be fairly confident that virtually all of Foote's employees have borrowed the money from Foote himself; not only is it perfectly normal for Freedom City employers to do that sort of thing (as did the employer of bio-converted catwoman 'Stripes' McKee), but it strains the reader's credulity to think that Foote, a street-smart individual who honestly believes that 'outside indebtedness equals outside control', would not realize how bad an idea it truly is to hire someone who borrowed their bio-conversion fee from someone else, hence could all-too-easily be a clandestine agent of some hostile competitor.
By a remarkable coincidence, Foote just happens to own a bio-engineering clinic which can perform any bio-conversion operation... and in the one case we know the details of, a new Foote employee known as 'Kitten' was, in fact, bio-converted in Foote's own facility. Naturally, this service is not provided gratis; Foote doubtless charges a fair market rate for whatever bio-conversions his facility performs -- which, as previously noted, almost certainly must include every one of his employees. Freedom City has many other bio-engineering facilities, of course, but given Foote's multiply-noted distaste for allowing outsiders to have any sort of influence over his affairs, it's hard to believe that Foote would allow any other bio-engineering facility to have a shot at any of his employees.
Finally, we must note that the Foote-mandated bio-conversion is a drastic alteration of one's very self. A Disneyland staffer can take off his cartoon-character 'fursuit' at the end of the workday, but Foote's employees are permanently stuck as rabbit-like creatures, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, until they can scrape up enough cash from wherever to pay for having themselves restored to their former (human) state. And it's not just the external appearance which changes; Geusz goes out of his way to establish that the bio-conversion process has significantly altered Foote's employees' brains, hence their thought patterns and basic personalities. In Freedom City, Foote states his belief that all of his employees get along with each other extremely well because of a rabbitlike 'mob instinct' which came with the bio-conversion; in Pilgrim, we learn that all of Foote's bunnies regard him as the 'alpha male', hence lord and master, of the 'warren' that is Foote's business empire.
In summary: According to all the data we have, Foote demands that every last one of his employees encumber themselves with a multi-year debt owed to Foote himself, a debt which not only gives Foote the financial power over their lives which he himself does not allow anyone else to have over his life, but also buys them the privilege of allowing Foote to alter their neural architecture so that they are biologically incapable of disagreeing with anything Foote says or does.
This is slavery, and worse than slavery. It's Brave New World with cheerful, shiny, utopian 'chrome' -- and the way Geusz presents it, it is desirable in damn near every way.
Ostensibly, Freedom City holds freedom of choice to be the highest ethical value -- anything at all goes, absolutely anything, provided that all of the people involved made a voluntary choice to be involved, utilizing only those resources they have legitimate access to (which includes whatever resources they could persuade others to voluntarily allow them the use of). Coercive force is strictly forbidden in all contexts, except that of defending oneself from someone else's use of force. All of which may sound fine, but certain events in the narrative beg the question: Exactly what is the meaning of 'voluntary'?
Harvey Foote's wife wanted him to undergo a particular bio-conversion which he was vehemently opposed to... and she did it to him anyway. Not only was this a flagrant violation of Foote's freedom of choice, which he had plainly expressed on numerous occasions, but she went out of her way to ensure that neither Foote, nor anyone else, would ever be aware that it had occurred! Had it not been for an assassination attempt which would have been successful in the absence of his unwanted bio-conversion, Foote would never have known that his wife had remade him against his will. Did Foote object? No, probably because he was too busy being grateful for the fact that he still lived. Apparently, "your voluntary consent or your life" is just fine, by Freedom City standards, and so is retroactive consent -- agreement after the fact.
In other words: You can do anything you like to any victim you like -- sexually abuse him, torture him, vivisect him, anything whatsoever -- and as long as you make sure you've also brainwashed the poor bastard so that he can 'willingly' agree to it all afterwards, you have not done wrong by Freedom City standards! In fact, one could argue that Freedom City does not consider cold-blooded murder to be an intrinsically wrongful act; all a murderer needs to do is produce a statement from the victim to the effect that "yes, I wanted to die", and that killer is in the clear!
Freedom City's ethics are incoherent. Early in the story, Foote expresses reluctance to engage in a course of action which would, as an inadvertent (yet unavoidable) side effect, inflict grievous financial harm on a friend who has committed no offense other than running a business that competes with Foote's; his wife sneers at this sentimental weakness.
There it is, stated plainly: Screw friendship, forget the idea of not hurting the innocent, to Hell with everything but sheer, raw economic efficiency... and if someone gets hurt, not only is it their own damn fault for being too wimpy to compete, it is, in fact, right for the strong and powerful to stomp those weaklings out of existence as quickly as possible.
Freedom City is unique on the planet, in that its culture seems to be the only one which holds 'chasing the Almighty Dollar' to be the ultimate social value. One might expect that all other nations/cultures would therefore be at a significant competitive disadvantage with respect to Freedom City, and one would be correct; Geusz acknowledges this, most explicitly on p. 136. Therefore, why should those other nations not bend every effort to obliterate Freedom City, right now, using every resource at their disposal, before this upstart 'pocket nation' becomes a true threat to their economic well-being? By Freedom City's ethics, there is no reason whatsoever for them to avoid doing so -- and, in fact, the failed assassination attempt was performed by an agent of the United States, one of those hidebound nations that Freedom City will surely eclipse.
This, then, is the incoherence: By Freedom City's 'economic efficiency uber alles' ideal, there is only one thing wrong with the USA's unprovoked attack: It failed. On the other hand, Freedom City's 'no first use of coercive force' ideal categorically forbids physical assaults such as the USA's (except, of course, in cases where it can be shown that the victim of that use of force wanted to be subjected to it). Thus, the two pillars of Freedom City's ethics are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Worse, the 'no first use of coercive force' ideal is, in practical terms, disturbingly dependent on reliable knowledge of a victim's true state of mind, which makes it a trifle too 'iffy' to merit building a solid ethical framework upon.
Here is Freedom City's greatest hidden weakness: In common with every other economic system that has ever been tried, capitalism does have certain unpleasant side-effects... but Freedom City has explicitly rejected any and all measures which might ameliorate those side-effects. Thus, just as happened at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, all wealth and power will be absorbed by the upper classes, and the lower classes will be forced to agree to any terms their masters choose to impose on them, simply in order to survive. It is the failure of the novel that this problem is swept under the carpet. Freedom City stands, and eventually its economic dominance will drag the world down into a spiral of horror that we can hardly conceive of.
Now for the good bits.
The e-book format may have its flaws, but it also offers significant benefits. By default, Acrobat Reader's Find function allows its users to zero directly in on any piece of text they please, which is a marked improvement over the lengthy and tedious page-turning one must endure when searching for specific text in a conventional book. As well, Acrobat allows its users to display their text larger than life-size (any degree of enlargement up to 16* normal), which not only is an acceptable solution to the visual problems caused by low-resolution displays, but also is a boon to any reader who happens to be visually impaired. Even better, Acrobat offers an array of features over and above the simple (and useful even so) Find function; in addition to bookmarks and thumbnails, there's also the possibility of expanding the basic Find function to cover thesaurus-type searches for text similar in meaning to what the user provides. We foresee great things as soon as Infinite Imagination gets up to speed on the full panoply of features e-publishers can take advantage of.
Perhaps the best thing e-books have going for them is how easy it is to edit things, to fix mistakes. At minimal cost, Infinite Imagination can easily identify and correct every typo we mentioned, every lapse in features, within a matter of hours -- and even better, they can make the corrected edition available to all customers at full Internet speed! This is an advantage conventional books simply cannot match -- not as long as printing presses are needed to create the new physical artifacts (i.e. the corrected books), trucks are needed to distribute them, etc.
Unlike some other libertarian authors, L. Neil Smith among them, Geusz does not ignore the nastier corollaries of his chosen philosophy. He openly acknowledges that yes, some people will abuse others unless they are stopped by force, and if that force isn't wielded by the Government, it may well be that no one wields it. Granted, it may be unclear whether or not Geusz fully thought out all the ramifications of Freedom City's ethics, but it speaks well of him that he made an effort to identify any downsides of the political theory he's stumping for.
It also speaks well of Geusz' ability as a writer that most of the content-related problems we noted in the first part of this review are (in director Alfred Hitchcock's evocative phrase) 'refrigerator logic'. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, it refers to those plot-glitches that only occur to you when you're at home, long after you've left the theatre, searching your refrigerator for the makings of a midnight snack. In other words, 'refrigerator logic' is all those glitches you couldn't be bothered to recognize while you were absorbed in the story. Now, a perfect story would not have any glitches at all; but since perfection is not attainable in this life, the best you can hope for is that the author's storytelling skill is such that you simply don't notice the glitches at the time -- that the author carries you along, and that you believe in the author's invented world for the duration of the story -- and by this standard, Geusz rates very highly indeed.
Since Freedom City is a didactic tale, it's worth considering how Geusz' tale will affect its readers, what Real World actions it will persuade them to take. Ideally, it will spur some of Geusz' American readers to work out a middle path which avoids both the slow, socialist strangulation of his future US, and the omnipresent, unconstrained cut-throat hostility of his Freedom City.
One cannot deny that Geusz has made a sincere attempt to solve a very real problem which has become increasingly prevalent in America in recent years: Such concepts as freedom, personal responsibility, and control over oneself and the rightful fruits of one's own honest labor, are eroding. The US is becoming ever more socialist, ever more hostile to innovative ideas and entrepreneurial behavior, ever more likely to trust centralized (State) control over the decisions of individual human beings. Geusz' solution, libertarianism taken to such an extreme as to make it virtually indistinguishable from full-blown anarchy, may not be entirely pleasant -- but can one honestly say it's worse than the problem he's trying to solve?
While it's true that Harvey Foote may (probably without realizing it) aspire to be an absolute tyrant, he has certain qualities which make him a sympathetic protagonist nonetheless. First off, Foote never set out to acquire power over others; rather, his goal has always been nothing more than to run the best damn business he possibly can, and the power (financial and otherwise) came to him only as an incidental part of his continuing quest to reach that goal. As well, Foote has many admirable character traits. He isn't stingy with his wealth; he's honest; he's honorable; he's sincerely concerned for his employees' well-being; he even displays a bit of generosity every now and then. And for all the power over others Foote has accumulated, every bit of that power came from exploiting his own capabilities and honest deals honestly made, and he has largely refrained from using that power to force others into decisions against their will. We say 'largely' because Foote is not reluctant to use his vast wealth and power to persuade others, and it's not entirely clear how strong 'persuasion' can get before it becomes functionally indistinguishable from 'coercion'.
Interestingly, for all the inhumanity of Freedom City proper, Geusz' characters are very human indeed. Perhaps his point is that the details of the system don't matter -- what's truly important is the people who make up that system, and even the most amoral culture can be worth living in, as long as its people are good to each other.
Conclusion: A thought-provoking novel that's at least one or two cuts above the usual run of didactic fiction, Freedom City is well worth any reader's time.