Some notes on "Liberty's Daughter"
The current issue of F&SF has one of my stories: "Liberty's Daughter," which is either the first in a series of short stories, or the opening part of a novel (I have a lot more stories to tell about Beck, Thor, and their society.)
The story is set on a seastead. Seasteads are real-ish: they don't exist yet, but there are people who are trying to make them happen. The basic idea behind seasteading is that since all the land is claimed by existing countries, they'll build themselves an island, or a whole bunch of islands, and experiment with government systems the way startup companies experiment with entrepreneurial ideas.
The really cool thing about seasteading, science fictionally speaking, is that it lets me write a colony story in a near-future setting, because the characters don't have to be colonizing other planets.
So that's one piece. As far as the second piece goes -- well, that brings up an interesting story.
I do the grocery shopping, and I always go on the same day and usually at around the same time. This means that over time I get to know the grocery store checkers, and I have a set of favorites. For a long time I had a particular favorite, a woman named Cheryl, and I would always get in her line.
Because I was a regular, Cheryl was chatty with me, and I knew a bit about her life. For instance, I knew that she'd saved for retirement, at one point, but had been forced to liquidate the savings in order to pay for a bunch of medical bills when her son became seriously ill as a teenager. (This came up because we were discussing tax deductions.) She worked two jobs -- one at the grocery store, one at a gas station some distance away. She worried about being fired for spurious reasons, even though she'd worked at the grocery store for years.
Then one day, she vanished.
I didn't ask about her right away; sometimes schedules get shifted around, or people get sick, or whatever. The second week I was there that she wasn't, I asked a bagger, and he said he thought she was on vacation. I found this surprising but didn't pursue it. A week later I asked again and the grocery store checker looked right at me and said, "who?"
I said, "Cheryl. She's white, wears her hair in a bun, has a wrist brace..."
Completely blank look. "The only person I know who wears wrist braces is Kay." (Another long-time checker: she's Asian. Obviously not the person I was asking about.)
I got the same blank look from everyone I asked. It was unnerving, and I assumed that she had been fired, probably for something stupid, and everyone else was forbidden to talk about it and were afraid of being fired, too. Loading up my groceries, I thought about how much corporations resembled a fascist state. Punishments are swift, disproportionate, and applied unpredictably. People disappear, and you aren't allowed to talk about it. There's no freedom of the press, so everyone relies on gossip (but there's no freedom of speech, either, so the gossip is covert.) Admittedly, when you disappear, you just lose your job, instead of being shipped off to a gulag for the rest of your life. If corporations ran everything, though, you COULD wind up in a gulag of sorts.
I packed my groceries into my minivan and put away my cart, pondering the missing-person plot and the character who'd go looking, and things started to fall into place for the story.
But there's a coda to this that's sort of hilarious.
I have a new regular checker, and a couple of months back I asked him about Cheryl, saying that she was my regular checker for ages and then one day -- probably two years ago now -- she disappeared.
"Oh," the guy said, scanning cereal, "she moved to another store, in one of the suburbs. Maple Grove, I think."
"She did?!" I said. "People acted like they'd never heard of her before when I asked about her."
"There was a customer who was stalking her," he said. "Threatening her. Some creepy guy. She was pretty scared. I don't know what's wrong with some people."
And suddenly the blank looks and stonewalling I'd gotten looked completely different.
(The disappearance was still a good story idea, though.)