Political Indigestion: O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975),
Although I've presented very clear ideas of what sf might be, I've tried to avoid outright political bias. But I've just read a book that left me feeling very disturbed, and when I discovered that this book is still taught in schools and is clearly very popular among children, I decided that I would post a political commentary.
Reading what I've put below, please keep in mind that what bothered me so much was the dishonesty of the political argument in this book, the way arguments presented as being to preserve liberty actually serve to construct the beginnings of tyrannt. O.T. Nelson is still alive. A friend of his (Winnie Dawson) posted here to say he is considering writing a sequel.
O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975), pb.
A very straightforward story in which post-plague (which effects adults only) a girl leads a bunch of other children to create a city. Elsewhere, other kids do the same, but in each case but this one, what they create is violent armies and gangs.
As Lisa takes control of the other children she consistently pushes a "private property" angle, but she does so in ways which are really disingenous. Nelson is a good writer, but that's part of the problem. Every time Jill (another child) criticised Lisa I found myself nodding. One of the ironies in the final chapters is that it is Lisa's insistence on benevolent tyranny that will allow the city to fall. Had it been a democracy, they would have had other leaders to fight for when she was kidnapped.
This is a survivalist book and there are lots of really good things. Lisa thinks and plans. She consideres where food might be found, and she organises a militia to protect all the “child-families” but there is never once a suggestion that they should gather together in houses so they can share the burden. The implication is that Jill has handicapped herself by taking in orphan children. Lisa herself only helps her brother. Other people's ideas are always wrong. One thing Lisa dismisses is Craig’s long term desire for a farm, in favour of her plan to re-start civilisation, but actually, Craig’s plan is far more sensible, and as we shall see, in Lisa's ideology, had they gone for the farm idea, the farm would have belonged to Craig. A decision that is presented as "commonsense is actually highly political.
Lisa decides she will share her knowledge, but not for free. My concern here (politically) is that this is set up as fundamentally different from the gangs’ protection racket, whereas in fact it is competitive with, but essentially just the same. Lisa is also very quick to decide that what she finds is hers. Yet as she realises earlier, what she has done is essentially to loot. Nelson frequently has Lisa see other ideas and dismiss them. Like the best of tyrants, she refuses to consider moral equivalence (she accepts the gang leader, Tom’s apology for hurting her brother, but it becomes clear she never intended to admit the gang to the group—this entire scene could have gone another way.)
Lisa is right to tell Jill that the children should co-operate in their own survival, and her decision to bargain with the kids—go work and you get a toy—isn’t stupid, but it doesn’t have to be set up in direct opposition to Jill’s notions, and it is. Later she declares, “Freedom is more important than sharing.” (135) The alternative for Craig and Jill, she says, is that they can use their freedom and leave. Frankly, all this does is demonstrate that Lisa thinks they are supine. They could, after all, always kick her out.
pp. 132-133 is the most unnerving. Jill challenges Lisa as to why she regards the city as her property, despite the fact that all the children helped build it. Lisa exerts “ownership through discovery” for both the city and the supplies. Voting can’t be countenanced because it infringes on Lisa’s “discovery-ownership”, completely ignoring that fact that the truck that brought the children and the supplies to the fort belonged to the father of one of the children, that there are now scavenger groups contributing to the structure of the fort.
Lisa tries to make it sound equal by telling Jill that when she finds a hospital it will belong to Jill, but it is clear that Jill is unconvinced. After all, will Lisa return the sweat that Jill has put into Lisa’s property?
There is no sweat equity at all. What Lisa discovers is hers. What others discover is also Lisa’s. Far from setting up a libertarian community, and in sharp contrast to Lisa’s idea that a “king” in Chicago is dark ages stuff, Lisa has set herself up as a prince who has abrogated to herself pretty much all ownership. That nice little scene where she gives children toys, is not a scene in which children acquire property ownership. If we trace what happens in the course of the book, what Lisa has recreated is vassalage in which individuals “own” property on behalf of the monarch.
And just to cap it all, she invents debt peonage as well. The Constitution reads: “Each citizen was free to leave if he or she ever wanted to. But he had to leave free of debt. There was a provision for that. Everyone had to earn his place in the city by the means decided on by both parties—Lisa and the citizen.” (137)