Naomi Kritzer’s “Liberty’s Daughter”
Tomorrow (November 22), I’ll be joined by Vass Bednar at the Toronto Metro Reference Library for a talk about my new novel, The Lost Cause, a preapocalyptic tale of hope in the climate emergency.
There’s so much sf about “competent men” running their families with entrepreneurial zeal, clarity of vision and a firm confident hand. But there’s precious little fiction about how much being raised by a Heinlein dad would suuuck. But it would, and in Naomi Kritzer’s Liberty’s Daughter, we get a peek inside the nightmare:
Beck Garrison is a seasteader, living on a floating platform built by libertarian cranks to get away from big government, taxes, and the idea that people owe each other care and consideration. Various kinds of market trufans have built their own fiefdoms: there’s a sin city, a biotech free-for-all, a lawless Mad Max zone, and so on.
Beck’s father, Paul, is some kind of local functionary. He’s wealthy and respected, both a power-broker and a power in his own right. He pays for Beck to get private tutoring (no public schools — no public anything) and if she needs bailing out from some kind of sticky situation, he’s got her on his account with Alpha Dogs, the toughest mercenaries on the sea (no police, either). An armed society is a polite society, after all.
Beck has a job, naturally (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). She’s a finder: for all that the steaders worship commerce as a sacrament consecrated to the holy Invisible Hand, there’s not a lot of retail at sea. California — the nearest onshore neighbor — has lots of pesky taxes, and besides, it’s a long ways off. Besides, space is at a premium on the stead, so people don’t have attics and basements to fill with excess consumer junk.
Instead, when a steader needs something — a shoelace, a fashion accessory, or any other creature comfort — they hire a finder like Beck to clamber around between the decks of the aircraft carriers, scows, yachts and other vessels comprising the stead. It’s a good way for Beck to earn spending money, and she’s a natural at it. After all, she’s been a steader since she was four, when her mother died in a drunk driving accident and her father took her to sea.
The story opens with a finding job. Beck wants a pair of sparkly shoes for her client, and the woman who owns them is an indentured servant whose sister has gone missing. Find the sister, get the shoes.
Indentured servant? Yeah, of course. Freedom of contract is the one freedom from which all the others flow, so you can sell yourself into bond labor. Hell, maybe you can earn enough to buy a share in the stead and become a co-owner/citizen.
This is the setup for Beck’s adventure, which sees her liberating bond slaves tricked into fatal work details, getting involved in reality TV production, meeting illegal IWW organizers, and becoming embroiled in a pandemic that threatens the lives of all the steaders. It’s a coming of age novel, told with the same straightforward, spunky zeal of Heinlein’s juvies, but from the perspective of the daughter, not the dad.
Kritzer makes it clear that growing up under the thumb of a TANSTAAFL-worshipping, self-regarding, wealthy autocrat who worships selfishness as the necessary precondition for market clearing would be a goddamned nightmare. She also thinks through some of the important implications of life in one of these offshore libertarian archipelagos, like the fact that the wealthy residents would be overwhelming drawn from the ranks of corporate criminals and tax-cheats, and the underclass would be bail-skipping proles ensnared in the War on Drugs.
But Liberty’s Daughter isn’t a hymn to big government. Most of the steaders are escaping the US government, a state whose authoritarian and cruel proclivities are well-documented. Kritzer uses the labor dispute at the core of the novel to reveal market authoritarianism — the coercive power that hunger and poverty transfers from the have-nots to the haves. Think of Anatole France’s wry observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, equally forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
If you’re familiar with Kritzer’s work, you won’t be surprised to learn that she tells a zippy, fast moving tale that smuggles in sharp observations about the cleavage lines between solidarity and selfishness. Her story “So Much Cooking” — published years before the pandemic — captured life under lockdown with eerie prescience:
More recently, her “Better Living Through Algorithms” is a dazzling display of knifework that’ll cut you a dozen times before you even notice that you’re bleeding:
If you habitually read Kritzer’s short fiction, Liberty’s Daughter might be familiar to you, as it is adapted from a series of stories that originally ran in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Kritzer’s YA debut, Catfishing on the CatNet, was also adapted from a short story, “Cat Pictures Please,” which won the Hugo Award in 2016:
“Libertarian exit” — buying a country, or an archipelago, or just a luxury bunker — has been in the air lately. It’s a major element of my new novel, The Lost Cause, which came out this month — anarchocapitalist wreckers try to sabotage the Green New Deal from the seastead they’ve moored to the tallest point in the drowned Grand Caymans and declared to be a sovereign nation:
Kritzer is great at catching that zeitgeist. Seasteading is part of a long, bitter dream of a certain kind of selfish person to escape society, a tale told in lurid and fascinating detail in Raymond Craib’s 2022 history Adventure Capitalism:
There’s a longstanding joke to the effect that you can shut down any discussion of the merits of a libertarian exit by asking three questions about the brave new world:
- Whether you can sell your organs;
- Whether you can sell yourself into slavery; and
- Whether there is any age of consent.
Kritzer tackles the first two, but tacks around the third. Instead, by giving us a young adult protagonist who has been raised in a rusting libertopia, she finds a decidedly less incendiary way to think about the role of autonomy in adolescents, and thus generates far more light than heat.
The result is a cracking read with a sting in its tail.
If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: