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Interview: Naomi Kritzer on “The Silicon Curtain”

– This is your 6th Seastead story in F&SF; could you talk about the stories and the world of the stead in general?

I like to describe seasteading as “real-ish,” because there really are people who are trying to do this — to set up human-made islands they can govern based on their pet political philosophy. (Most of them are small-l libertarians.) In the world of the stead, the stead was built about fifty years earlier; they’re small, but well-established. The protagonist, Beck, is a teenager who arrived on New Minerva with her father when she was young. She’s grown up in this environment, and is smart, stubborn, and extremely resourceful.

 

– Tell us a bit about “The Silicon Curtain.”

The stead includes a cluster of micronations: one of them, Sal, is set off a bit and used as a research lab. Prior to this story, I think Beck had visited every other micronation except Sal.

Most of the micronations have a minimalist government. The exceptions are Lib (which is anarcho-capitalist) and Sal (which isn’t run by a government, but owned by a business and run by someone who was hired to keep it running.) The previous stories featured a public health crisis and the fallout from that crisis; in this story you get to find out what’s been happening over on Sal.

Sal’s official name is Silicon Waters, and the title is a reference to the Iron Curtain, since Sal is much more rigidly controlled than the other micronations.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story, and what inspired the series overall?

I do the family grocery shopping every week, and since I shop on the same weekday, at about the same time, week after week, I see the same grocery store staff people week after week. There was this grocery store checker years ago who I bonded with, and I would always pick her line, and we’d chat. One day, I went grocery shopping and she was gone. The first week I just assumed she was sick, but when she didn’t come back, I asked about her and got stonewalled. Every other employee gave me a blank look and told me they had no idea who I was talking about. I assumed that she had been fired, and everyone else had been told they couldn’t talk about it.

There was literally nothing I could do about it other than stew. Even if I tracked her down somehow, it wasn’t like I had a new job to offer her. So I just let it go and hoped she was okay. But thinking about tracking her down — how you’d find someone you only knew in the most casual way possible, based on random details she’d shared while chatting — collided with the idea I’d had for a story set on a seastead, and that turned into the opening story, where Beck is hired to find a missing woman, one of the debt slaves the stead refers to as bond-workers.

Each subsequent story came from questions I found myself asking (or someone asked me) about the seastead. What if the bond-workers tried to unionize? What if Beck’s father got so mad he kicked her out — how does homelessness work in a place with no public land? What if there were a really serious crisis, like a public health crisis? The question this time was, what’s up with Sal, anyway? And what if some of the people who’ve previously seemed trustworthy are also up to something shady?

By the way, years after that grocery store checker went missing (and I’d written a whole series of stories that came partly out of my conviction that she’d been unjustly mistreated), I bonded with a new grocery store checker and I asked him what ever happened to her.

And it turned out… She wasn’t fired. She was transferred to a suburban branch of the grocery store chain because she had a stalker, and everyone at my store was warned not to breathe a word — to protect her. So in fact it was a very different story from what I’d imagined.

 

– Are the Seastead stories personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Less so than some of the stories I write, actually. But everything is personal to some degree. For instance, I draw heavily on my memories of adolescence when writing about Beck.

 

– What kind of research, if any, do you do for these stories?

I live in Minnesota, which is pretty nearly as landlocked as you can possibly get. There are an awful lot of details regarding the practicalities of ocean life that are just foreign to me; that required a lot of research. I did a lot of reading on libertarianism when I was setting out to write these, and lurked on discussion boards filled with people who want to go live on a seastead.

One of these years I want to go to Ephemerisle. Ephermisle is an annual on-the-water gathering, founded by the Seasteading Institute and attended by lots of seasteading enthusiasts. It would be expensive to go (since I live nowhere near California). I’ve stuck with reading about it, because I can do that for free.

 

– What challenges and rewards do you find in writing a connected series of stories?

It’s been a lot of fun telling people I basically had a serialized novel published in F&SF, because how retro is that?

These stories have been really fun to write because some of the characters are just awesome. (Not just Beck; there are a bunch of really cool minor characters who I’ve gotten to bring back several times.) The biggest challenge has been not screwing up the continuity. I drew a map once of how all the steads were connected and laid out, and promptly misplaced it.

 

– What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a story in which a food blogger writes about a flu pandemic. (Complete with recipes.)

I’m also working on the next story about Beck. Back in California, her next big challenge is the petty fascism of public high school; I think her problem-solving skills will get her into just as much trouble off the stead as on.

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been asked a few times about whether I’m going to collect these stories into a book. I have, in fact, collected the stories into a book, and I’m tentatively planning to self-publish it this fall. I may do a Kickstarter to cover the costs of art and a print version. To keep up on that, people can follow me on Twitter at @naomikritzer or they can check in on my blog at naomikritzer.wordpress.com.

“The Silicon Curtain” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which you can order here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm.

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