Call it a libertarian, Western guy's nightmare. James Gaitis' dystopia is a post-testosterone, government-looks-after-you world.
The Nation's Highest Honor opens with a languid description of a federal government employee driving into the wilds of the Southwest. It's so languid, in fact, that you wonder if the unnamed driver in the government-issue sedan will ever reach his destination, and if it's the desert itself, with its ruts, caliche, cholla, lizards and blinding sun, that is actually the actor in this story.
Hold that thought.
The previous novel by former trial lawyer James Gaitis, A Stout Cord and a Good Drop, concerned the violent establishment of governance in the Wild West. The Nation's Highest Honor concerns the insidious establishment of nonviolence in the Wide World.
It's the future, 40 years after a tumultuous period of three world wars. Thanks to the enterprise and energy (not to mention unparalleled greed and egotism) of capitalist Philip T. Nolebody, a vaccine was developed that effectively blocked the human fighting instinct and put an end to war. With no threat of warfare, all nations agreed to co-exist amicably, destroy weapons and foster peace into perpetuity. Or until the vaccine lost its effectiveness. Which is now.
Which is why we find William Worthington driving out into the Western wilds. The president and members of his Cabinet have begun to see the effects of the vaccine's moribund half-life, and they fear a breakdown of social stability. A vaccinated populace was a tractable populace. Those in power lived a life of privilege. Those out of power didn't, and didn't know any better.
But incidents of unrest have already occurred, and the president has hatched an unlikely scheme to quell potential rebellion: He plans to quiet it through the opiate of the much-loved people's poet. If he confers upon the "people's poet" the nation's highest honor—the Nolebody Award—the president believes he can retain control.
However, the people's poet is unaware he's a celebrity (or that he's a poet at all); he lives a hermit's life in a shack in the high desert, assembling bird bones and cactus parts into objets d'humble art; and he manifests considerable cognitive dysfunction.
The action plays out, with two characters attempting to protect the naïve artist from government exploitation, and the artist inadvertently crossing an anti-government movement called the Nobodies.
Far-fetched, perhaps, but it is satire.
The novel presents in broad strokes, at an objective distance. Most of the characters are stock; the government figures aren't even given names. They're the minister of psychology (she pontificates on scientific fact upon which there is no empirical basis); other ministers scrambling to cling to the hierarchical Cabinet table; and the minister of culture—William's boss—who seems to desire acclaim without accomplishment. They're bumbling, self-important incompetents who pander to their equally pathetic boss.
The characters we come to follow do have definition. Two of them—Leonard Bentwood, the "poet," and Frieda Haster, a rural mailperson—live away from the government grid out in that high desert; although the third—William Worthington—is an inner-circle government employee, he begins to see the appeal of their choice.
Gaitis, who lives in (and clearly appreciates) the Sonoran Desert, waxes lyrical when he re-creates this natural setting. Nature provides life lessons that society has failed, and nature could prove its savior in the end.
For me, though, the politics and sociology of the satire create some unease. Reversing the lens, the society it would seem to recommend is also disturbing. In this book's society, the Nolebody vaccine blunts aggressiveness. Is Gaitis thus speaking up for aggression? This society fosters gender equality, and a fair number of the women characters are femi-Nazi-like. The fact that the people depend on government handouts is a commentary. Weapons control has left the people defenseless against the government. Dismantling the military has left the nation vulnerable.
Gaitis has played out an interesting question: What if we could inoculate humans against violence? If he's also suggesting that expanded government social programs, equal-opportunity legislation, gun control and a downsized military is equivalent to "violence vaccine," this, too, could make you shudder.