Thursday, November 30, 2006

David Friedman, Harald

David Friedman's novel Harald has been nominated for the Prometheus award. It will probably be a finalist, but the libertarianism is muted. It's an enjoyable read, though not deep or with a very broad scope. Harald is accepted as a leader among his people, though they don't have any formal government. He is wealthy, and a brilliant (unerring) strategist and tactition. Actually, that's the biggest weakness of the book; Harald always out-plans the opposition. When they occasionally try to think one step ahead of him, those are the occasions on which Harald has planned two steps ahead. Harald is also an accomplished field doctor, though no one else seems to even be familiar with the rudiments of first aid. He knows a story for every occasion, and is a charismatic leader. For some reason his extraordinary abilities stand out even compared to the standard hero stories we're used to.

But if you're willing to forgive this conceit, it's a good adventure story, with plenty of pitched battles, a few battles won by stealth, and a plausible depiction of how a society without government might defend itself. Unfortunately, we can't tell whether it would work if they couldn't count on the constant attention of a superior general. Harald is alway monitoring developments, and imagining what his old enemies might do if they were to decide to attack again.

There are plenty of incidents showing people making choices freely, and bearing the consequences of their choices. No government intervention, except among the citizens of the emperor. Even those who live under kings seem to be allowed to live their own lives, and choose to accept the protection of the local ruler as long as it's worth the cost.

In this society, women are warriors on a par with men, though they maintain their own separate force ("The Order"), and join the battle only when their leaders decide that their interests are at stake. The conflict starts when the young king tries to take control of The Order to ensure that they will help him if the empire attacks. If Harald hadn't stepped in, the king would have ended up with a rebellion, cutting his forces rather than augmenting them. Harald shows him that persuasion works better than force.

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