All Jessica wanted to
do to celebrate her 19th birthday was go camping and test out her skills
navigating with a GPS. At no point during the celebration did she want to
include her passenger plane getting shot down from the sky and crashing in the middle of a war zone. But that's life. Her new home, Graveston, is the site of a Waco-style standoff between the Federal government and what the news is calling an
anarchist cult. Jessica is nursed back to life by a kindly priest living in the no-man's land between the lines, but to her perplexity he doesn't
seem to be too alarmed at the nearness of the terrorists. Nor, for that matter, do his amiable neighbors. When a Humvee crashes through the wall and dumps a
bunch of ATF agents, guns a-blazing, she
realizes why. Her rescuers are the
terrorists! She's not the only one in for a surprise, however: when one of the Federal agents left behind in the raid becomes captured by the 'cult', he too is taken aback by the lack of evil villainy. These people don't seem to be concocting any nefarious schemes; they're not building bombs, robbing banks, or planning the assassinations attributed to them by the media. Some of them are even pacifists! Something is rotten in the state of Arizona.
The Iron Web is a philosophical argument doubling as a thriller. At its heart is the titular iron web, which is less a terrorist organization and more a symbol of self-ownership and voluntary association. The book is peppered with conflicts between people and the will of the state, establishing tension that leads to good arguments. Argument constitutes the meat of the book, in fact, though it's no extended lecture; conversations occupy the intermittent quiet moments between the agents' assaults on the besieged community, of which Jessica and the ATF agent Jason find themselves unwitting members. Although the people they met hold to various and sometimes completing political philosophies (there are Constitutionalists, anarchists, and hippies are among their number), all agree to the same principle: no person has ownership over another. The 'web' is a visual representation of how people's lives are knit together through voluntary exchanges; in the story, the symbol is displayed by persons interested in dealing with one another off the books, creating an underground economy independent of the state. No bombing campaign could frighten the US government more than such subversiveness! Another viewpoint character named Betsy, an executive assistant attached to a senator about to be inaugurated as president, offers still more room for tension: the closer the senator gets to assuming political power, the more manipulative and abusive he reveals himself, and Betsy starts to question just who it is she's been following. He won on a campaign of fighting terrorism at home, but his plans for the future involve the effective abolition of free speech. Her disillusionment with the president-elect rises as the 'terrorists' are pushed to their breaking point, but this would be no thriller were the ending predictable. Just as the Iron Web is not a terrorist organization, so to are other appearances deceiving.
What makes The Iron Web work so well as a novel is that its ultimate villains are, in effect, the reader. The ATF agents persecuting the Iron Web are not out to perpetuate a police state and push around the weak; they sincerely believe themselves to be the champion of law, order, and justice. Jason becomes the Web's confederate, but he could have just as easily killed them at the state's bidding had he not been injured in an earlier attempt to subdue them. What altered was his awareness, and Larken's aim is to shift the readers'. Blame is laid, V-like, at the foot of the American people who have allowed the state to become God, who tolerate its invasion of every aspect of their lives, to allow its violence to become the norm. Not the violence of the ATF's campaign against the Iron Web, its pushing them further and further into the woods, burning their homes and shooting them down one by one. Confrontations like these are out of the ordinary. What's most insidious is the mundane tyranny of the state's agents that people encounter virtually every day -- creepy TSA agents, petty cops, corrupt politicians, and exacting IRS officials. The 'leader' of the Iron Web community, and Rose himself, urges those who believe in self-ownership to practice what they preach, and own up to the responsibility that comes with that ownership: resist. Few readers are likely to adopt, whole-cloth, the author's radicially individualist philosophy, but this is a book whose challenges are less preachy than fun. I've read it twice this year, and the ending was just as astonishing the second time around. This is absolutely reccommended.