The Big Idea: Naomi Kritzer
How is the ocean like space? Naomi Kritzer knows, and in her new novel, Liberty’s Daughter, she uses those similarities to the advantage of her tale – and for the adventure her protagonist finds herself on.
Liberty’s Daughter takes place on a seastead – a collection of micronations in human-made structures floating in international waters. I usually tell people that seasteading is real-ish, in the sense that people are actually trying to do it. I don’t usually go on to explain that I first heard the term from my sister, who went to college with Patri Friedman, the main person responsible for popularizing the idea.
Patri describes the idea as “homesteading the high seas” and the thing that’s absolutely fabulous about a seastead from a science fiction storytelling perspective is that the whole concept is just plausible enough to allow for a near-future setting that’s almost as bonkers as a space station. You can have isolation, totally dysfunctional self-governance, defiance of any and all current legal standards, and deeply weird oligarchs running stuff, and you don’t even have to go to the moon. You can stick it on a decaying cruise ship anchored in international waters.
The problem, of course, is cruise ships require a lot of diligent maintenance. Oceans are full of salt, which will corrode every surface it touches, from the bottom of your boat to the instrumentation inside. Preventing a seastead from sinking into the sea would require endless manual labor. Who would do this work? For that matter, which people on a seastead would cook the meals, wash the dishes, care for young children, scrub the toilets? If there’s a tourism industry, who launders the towels? If there’s a hospital, deals with the bedpans?
The people who fantasize about life on a seastead are mostly imagining themselves with a lot more personal power than they have as citizens of the US (or whatever country they live in) – they’re not fantasizing about scrubbing floors. I started thinking about the people on the seastead who would have much less power – because they’re living in precarcity or even debt slavery, or (as in the case of the protagonist) because they’re the teenage child of someone who can wield money and influence to control her.
As I was pondering the setting and possible characters, one of the employees at my grocery store vanished, and everyone pretended she’d never existed.
I did my grocery shopping on the same day every week, and I’d gotten into the habit of seeking out a particular checker because I liked chatting with her. Then one week she wasn’t there, and the next week she didn’t come back. And when I asked about her, the other employees acted like they had no idea who I was talking about, which was surreal. This woman had worked at that store for years. I assumed that she’d been fired, and that everyone was afraid to talk about it, and since I didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble, I stopped asking.
But that weird, frustrating puzzle fell into the world I’d been piecing together: Beck, the teenage girl protagonist, became a detective hired out of desperation to investigate a missing person case. A teenager who grew up sheltered, who felt safe because of who she was, Beck could refuse to take the hints that she’s not supposed to keep asking. Instead, she turned her curiosity and privilege towards the task of finding the missing woman, coming face-to-face with aspects of life on the seastead that she’d never looked at closely before. Everything fell into place.
About a year later, I asked again about the woman who’d disappeared – I had a new regular checker and a bunch of time had passed.
“Oh, yeah,” the guy said. “Management moved her to a different store because she had a stalker.”
And suddenly all my assumptions about her were flipped on their head. Of course I got stonewalled – they didn’t know that I wasn’t the person stalking her! Their silence was not fear; it was protectiveness. Even management wasn’t the bad guys here – they hadn’t fired her, they’d moved her somewhere she’d be safer.
In the years since I started writing this, several people have attempted to create seasteads, including a small group of crypto bros who bought a cruise ship during the pandemic (and discovered that there are actually an astonishing number of regulations for cruise ships). There’s now a book about the “Free Town Project,” in which libertarians moved into and took over Grafton, New Hampshire; the result was the town winding up overrun with bears.
The irony of the grocery store checker’s disappearance inspiring this story is that I initially assumed it was a story about capitalism finding someone disposable – instead, it was a story about a community pulling together to protect someone vulnerable. And in fact as Beck’s story continued, it also became a story about a community pulling together – the workers form a union, and when things go very wrong and the people with money and power use it to get the hell off their island, the people left behind start trying to solve things together.
I am, as you may have guessed, not a libertarian. But I have a lot of faith in people and community and that’s a big part of what this book wound up being about.