Liberation: A Review
Here's the pitch for Brian Francis Slattery's novel "Liberation":

It is the future. After an out-of-nowhere economic collapse destroys the dollar forever, the United States declares bankruptcy, shuts down, and falls into brutal despotism run by a New York autocrat known only as "The Aardvark."

A former underworld boss, the Aardvark shrugs at the rule of law, and instead reinstitutes slavery in order to keep the economy going. The only free city left in America is Asheville, North Carolina, where the country's libertarians and intellectuals retreat (if they can get there before dying of hunger).

All hope seems lost. But offshore in a prison ship, a grown-up child soldier "with problems" kills all the guards with an assegai and sails the ship back to America in order to reunite the five other members of the country's most famous underground criminal syndicate (the "Slick Six").

Their goal: to rescue the country from its own latent poisonous impulses and reboot America. Their method: the big heist!

The Slick Six! There's a caper mastermind, a con artist, a numbers genius, a hacker, a lawyer, and an assassin. They are scattered all across the U.S. -- some in prison, some enslaved, some running their own rackets in America's entrails.

Once assembled, will the Slick Six be a match for the Aardvark and the other factions now loose in a post-crash America, including the New Sioux and Dr. San Diego's Americoids, a group of psychic washouts who travel the country in a magic hippie bus, delivering the best drugs to the downtrodden?

Or have things gone too far even for the United States' best criminals to set right?


If that premise isn't something you want to read, then we probably can't be friends anymore.



Given this crackerjack idea, how about the execution?

First off -- is this really science fiction these days? Everybody's jittery in this country about the economy. People are checking plane timetables, learning new languages, practicing their gardening skills, stocking up on beef broth, sizing up their neighbors. Post-apocalyptic literature is as American as atom bombs and baton twirling. We don't do half-measures; if we are going to play a new game, we have to upturn the table.

The curious thing about "Liberation" is that it is a chronicle of a slow economic meltdown as opposed to the violent physical crack-up that most apocalyptic novels deploy. The thesis is that right below the surface of the American economic system already lies a strange combination of slavery and anarchism, and that if you take away the illusions, America is already living out the trashcan barrel-fire nightmare. More slaves than masters. More anarchy than law. The idea is that our shaky economic structure is more destructive than anything else that could possibly be used against us: any weapon, plague, or act of terror (what's up, China?).

"It's right out of a textbook. Big debt. Creditors get nervous, start asking for their money back. We don't have it. Dollar goes south. Creditors get more nervous. some of them take their money and run. Dollar goes further south. Feedback loop. Pow."

One of Slattery's other big questions is what does law mean, and how does there get to be progress in a legal system? Two of the characters are lawyers -- one chooses to lend her talents to the Aardvark, and the other moves to Asheville and gets into politics in the last free city.

If America can progress from slavery to freedom, from rights for the few to rights for the many, from an unjust health care system to one that reflects the means of the people who must participate in it, can things go the other way if times get wild?

And "Liberation" also gets at a harder problem, a problem about empire: are our gains for civil rights and justice good things in our country, or do they weaken us and leave us open to incursions by the rest of the world and by our own greed? Can America become "enlightened" by itself, or is the country only as free as its neighbors?

The theme of interconnectivity doesn't just play out on a macro scale in "Liberation." The characters are also all seeking to find one another and synch up with what they love and what they fear. The Slick Six criminal syndicate was once a lucrative and powerful faction, but its existence presupposed an America where it was possible to be a sociopathic predator preying on the lives of the sick and feeble. To reunite may be the only way to fix things, but at what cost?

Zeke Hezekiah, the numbers guy, sizes up the human condition:

"There was a woman in Monaco, the wife of a textiles magnate, who wanted me; I don't know why. And a man who lived on a yellow sailboat wanted her. And no doubt somewhere in the Mediterranean someone wanted him; some poor woman, or a man, in Alexandria, or Beirut, maybe. Her to the sailor, to the wife of the textiles magnate, to me, to Kuala Lumpur, to you. And on and on, until the chain loops back on itself, connects up again. A big ring of desperation around the planet. But for us, it's just the people we want, and the people who want us."


This isn't a slam-bang sci-fi thriller full of action, adventure, chases and wit. There are too many ghosts of America's past hanging around to make death much of a threat here. In "Liberation," America's god is something called "the Vibe," and you either hear it or you don't, and if you hear it, you'd better follow. As with any book with a determinist heart, the characters choices don't seem to matter, and so you stop caring about the characters very much.

Really, "Liberation" follows the grand tradition of many science-fiction novels ("Atlas Shrugged," "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," "The Disposessed," "Snow Crash," "Alas, Babylon") and covers a radical economic thesis with adventure and intrigue. This is a book about globalization and the catastrophe of a world with permeable borders, where a country can have all the economic squalor of the global have-nots, and all the panoptican, paranoia, and sado-masochism of the haves.

So the characters don't have much personality beyond the defining execution of their criminal superpowers. The story is secondary to the poetry of the collapse, and an analysis of what America would be like if things drifted back into confederation as opposed to a federal system, what everybody would LIKE to do if the government wasn't watching.

New York is one big party and world bazaar, for instance. Texas, on the other hand, is total war.

Before the collapse, when the Slick Six were on top of the world, they were globe-trotting amoral sensualists -- oysters every night, cocaine every morning, always in a different city. They had legitimate genius, and yet they used it only for personal gain. The book is about growing up, learning to live differently, learning to see that your talents have a purpose beyond fulfilling your own desires.

In some ways, this was a huge bummer, because I would love to read a fun, fast-paced novel about criminals of the future taking down America as one last big score. Something like "The Stainless Steel Rat," but with more sex and violence. However, what Slattery has done instead is forgivable and worth a read, if you can get over your initial annoyance. It is more "Grapes of Wrath" than "Martian Chronicles."

"Liberation" is still a fuck of a lot of fun and took some guts to write, even if it doesn't exactly pay off on its promise. It gets you thinking and it takes you somewhere new. Everybody is trying to survive America's demise the best way they know how, even if the available options don't always make a lot of sense.

A running gag in the book, for instance, is that no one knows how Marco Angelo Oliveira, assassin for the Slick Six and the book's central protagonist, is able to survive explosions and walk away unscathed.

My guess? He doesn't know either.

Posted by miracle on Wed, 13 May 2009 07:06:42 -0400 -- permanent link

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