June 11, 2024

Review: Liberty's Daughter

Liberty's Daughter Liberty's Daughter by Naomi Kritzer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is both a near-future thriller and a commentary on the politics of today, particularly an examination of and tearing apart the philosophy of libertarianism. The author sets up her world and follows through the implications to the end, and shows that a libertarian society is not one most people would like to live in.

Rebecca Garrison, or Beck, is sixteen years old and living on the "seastead," a somewhat ramshackle cobbled-together outpost of retired cruise ships/aircraft carriers/cargo haulers/artificial islands built and maintained by people who want to live away from the rules and taxes of most countries (and/or run away from the charges levied by said countries after breaking their laws). Since there is no public school system (or public anything, including basic services and health care--everything is paid for through fees, subscriptions and selling one's self into debt slavery), Beck has a job as a "Finder." That means she is hired to find the odd little luxuries not readily available on a isolated seastead. During her search for a pair of shoes, she is asked to discover what happened to one woman's sister, and this search and what Beck finds out not only upends seastead society but pretty much brings it down at the end.

This book is a bit depressing though, because even though the book's ending is hopeful, I cannot believe how supposedly intelligent people can be caught up in such a toxic idea as libertarianism. In this future, anyone can come to the seastead, but only those who have money really thrive there, creating a rigid system of haves and have-nots. The rich buy a stake to get in, and the poor are "bonded," having to work off their debt to live there. If a bonded person gets sick, their bond can be sold (without the person's consent) to anyone willing to pay for their treatment. (Obviously if you don't have money and no one will buy your bond, you just die, which is the natural outcome for a society that doesn't believe in any form of taxation for the public good.) This is what happened to the woman Beck is looking for: she fell ill and needed a kidney regeneration, and her bond was sold to a "skin farm," which uses dangerous caustic methods to create brand-new young skin for (again) rich people who can pay for it. This woman, Lynn Miller, ended up in literal debt slavery, chained to her station in the skin farm until Beck shows up to free her.

Our protagonist, Beck Garrison, is a well-written and interesting character. She's a sensible, down-to-earth teenager who was brought to the seastead by her father at the age of four (who is, as we find out, a domestic abuser/mob boss who tried to kill her mother and kidnapped her child, fleeing to the seastead with Beck). She's smart, practical, stubborn and persistent, and her great strength in this story is knowing how the seastead works and how its inhabitants think. This enables her not only to find and free Lynn, but when she gets involved with a "Survivor"-type reality show filming on the seastead, to find participants for the show who are secret union organizers, thus setting in motion the events that bring the seastead's leaders down.

This storyline pits the seastead's rich and ruthless bosses against the ordinary people who actually make it run, who want to live and work there without selling themselves into debt slavery. The bosses go so far to engineer a tailor-made "worker bee" nanotech virus that will force the bonded people to cooperate and be happy in their work, but it backfires into a plague that sweeps the entire seastead (and also sets off a cholera outbreak on one of the ships, the community of Lib, which is another result of having no taxation or regulatory apparatus for public safety). Beck helps solve this problem as well, working with one of the seastead's mercenary companies to get aid to Lib and discover the source of the "worker bee" plague.

Beck is able to do all this because as the daughter of Paul Garrison, one of the seastead's higher-up movers and shakers, she has a great deal of privilege. The story doesn't shy away from that, but in this case Beck has enough of a conscience to use her privilege for good. (It's also interesting, and telling, that most of the seastead's inhabitants are white. There's not a white-supremacy plot thread as such, but the uncomfortable implications are there, if a bit under-explored.) At the story's end, with most of the rich bondholders fleeing, Beck voids the bonded people's contracts and turns over the running and ownership of the seastead to them. She also reunites with her mother, who has come to the seastead aboard the aid ship, and goes to California to live with her. (Her father, the union-busting sociopath who was involved in the tailoring of the worker bee virus, escapes at the end for parts unknown, and good riddance.) Beck is going to live on the mainland at least until she turns eighteen, but she still views the seastead as her home (and has a bit of a budding romance with a boy there as well) and intends to return later on.

This is an interesting story because of Beck and her world, and the implications thereof. I have heard libertarianism defined as the "ultimate ode to selfishness," and this book shows that is pretty much the case. If you don't like political-tinged SF, you won't like this, but I think it has some cogent commentary on certain elements of our world today.

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