Liberty, Ahoy!

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More than 40 years ago, Harry Browne published an open Christmas letter to his 9-year-old daughter with the startling words, “No one owes you anything.” That Christmas message to a little girl who was probably hoping for a doll or a bicycle may seem shockingly harsh, but “Harry’s intent was liberating: the sooner you realize that no one owes you anything, the sooner you will become self-reliant.

I was reminded of Harry’s letter to his daughter when I read Alex Modzelewski’s “Woman on the Moon.” The book is a dystopian novel set a few decades into the future, when government interventionism has completely taken over the United States. Somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean, there is an ersatz Galt’s Gulch called Moon City made of container ships and other vessels. The community’s motto is “We owe you nothing.” Other ships are welcome to tie up in outlying areas of the floating island. Their passengers can buy and trade goods for gold (no paper currencies are accepted), and they can receive emergency assistance. But no one is entitled to a place in Moon City. Only those who are vetted and invited can venture into its heart.

One of the Americans who still inhabit the continent is the protagonist, Pavel Bronski, a physician who is forced to cut costs, meet quotas, and participate in surgeries without essential drugs. (Anyone concerned about the healthcare debate should read this book.) As a physician, Bronski has access to fuel, extra food rations, and other luxuries, but ordinary Americans have to make do with constant shortages of these things. Governmentrun “Repose Centers,” reminiscent of opium dens, keep the masses sedated and acquiescent. But early in the story Bronski decides to leave America on his sailboat, taking with him a mysterious new friend, named only Sarah, who has her own reason for setting sail. Eventually they end up at Moon City.

Like Ayn Rand, Modzelewski uses fiction to present and discuss libertarian ideas. His characters’ conversations are intelligent, interesting, and philosophically sound; and they never become too long and drawn out. The story is suspenseful and exciting. Spies and bioweapons are involved, and Bronski, who has been involved in developing a drug for “Operation Remorse,” a program that turns soldiers into fearless, remorseless killers, is chased across the ocean by government agents.

The book has two flaws, one odd and the other just annoying. First, midway through the novel, the military bioweapon plot suddenly mutates. The same government agents are still chasing Bronski, but (the poetically named) Operation Remorse has apparently ceased to exist. Suddenly the whole plot line is dropped. Now they are after him for an entirely different reason: they want to gain control of an advanced electronics plant in Panama. Fiction always requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but this plot twist is simply bizarre.

The second, annoying flaw is the backstory of the female protagonist, Grace (who also uses only her first name). She is the strong, intelligent founder and leader of Moon City. But before that, she was the 16-year-old bride of the leader of a church that is “headquartered in Salt Lake City.” Early in the book “Brother Jeremiah,” a leader of this church, forces her to watch pornographic videos, rapes her beats her, and eventually kidnaps her daughter. But it’s more complicated than that. Grace’s family starts out in a small community of fundamentalists with lots of “sisters and cousins,” “like a litter of puppies.” Then they are “called” by their “stake president” to move to Ogden, Utah, where the Jeremiah character presides. He is not described as a polygamist, but the communities he directs are so described. Then he is called to a new position in Salt Lake, and he forces 16-year-old Grace to marry him. Later he is called a “prophet.”

Hmmmm. Salt Lake City, prophet, local churches called “stakes,” presiding officers called “stake presidents.” This is pretty specific. I wonder what the author might have in mind? Undoubtedly the target is the Mormon church, and the weapons directed against it are those of popular mythology and prejudice. Modzelewski asks in a cover letter, “Why are Polish jokes so relentless, even though population studies place our average IQ as the third highest in Europe?” I could ask him a similar question: why should Mormons be portrayed in the bizarre way in which they are portrayed in his book?

Yes, there are polygamous communities in isolated areas of Utah, Arizona, and Colorado, where women and children are overpowered by abusive men. The difficulty is that they are not “well respected” internationally (as Brother Jeremiah reportedly is), they are not headquartered in Salt Lake City (as Jeremiah’s church is), and they are not members of the Mormon church (as Modzelewski implies). The same kind of story line could be created about Episcopalians or Freemasons or Christian Scientists (or atheists, for that matter). The only requirement would be for myths and stereotypes to take the place of facts. But what’s the point? Fiction should be a mirror of reality, not a headlong flight from it.

But to return. Despite these flaws, “Woman on the Moon” is worth reading, especially for those who enjoy novels with a libertarian bent. And the cover art, a gold sculpture of a woman reclining languidly on a crescent moon, is exquisite. The book is worth displaying on your coffee table for that picture alone.

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