Kit Reed's The Baby Merchant is ruthless and intense. Like an unloved child, it doesn't forget and it doesn't forgive. It cuts to the black heart of a culture of acquisition and greed, with its ego-driven ethos that what you have is who you are, flays it, peels the skin away from its bones, and, having inspected it, judges it unworthy and throws its carcass to the dogs. Redemption is possible, even happy endings after a fashion. But as its troubled and driven antihero Tom Starbird comes to realize, there's no way to do it without hurting someone. Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons has a way of making it all so much more wrong.
This is a story about the extremes to which people can be driven by sheer need. The need for a child, so powerful and all-consuming in others, is something I take in as a curious detached observer. I'm a childless bachelor and couldn't be happier about the fact. The pitter-patter of little feet is something for which I've never had as much as a picosecond's longing. And I don't feel that my own existence on Earth has to be validated by passing my genes to a new generation. Mind you, I don't dislike kids. I just don't want one of my own. But I've seen how the desire to reproduce can rise to the level of unhealthy obsession in many people I've known, and I've had to acknowledge the reality of the reproductive urge, while breathing a sigh of relief that I'm not one of its victims. Or at least, if I ever do fall victim to it, I'd do so for the right reasons.
The Baby Merchant opens in either a near-future or alternate present in which global birth rates have plummeted and America has effectively closed its borders. To aspiring parents, life is as unfair as always. Unwanted babies are still born to poor women unequipped to care for them, while affluent couples who've concentrated on their careers while hitting the snooze button on their biological clocks have found to their dismay that time has run out. But waiting lists at adoption agencies are impossible, and the routine microchipping of newborns effectively rules out illicit purchases.
For couples whose time has run out but whose cash is abundant, there is Tom Starbird. His specialty is finding and stealing unwanted "product," and rehoming it with a family who meets his strict requirements. Starbird is as good at his profession as he is at the monumental self-justification it requires. If a client couple show any signs that the child will not come first at all times, they're out. If their motives are selfish, as they all too often are, they're out. If their home doesn't pass a site inspection, if there is anything in their backgrounds that doesn't check out...any number of factors could disqualify you. Starbird will only perform if he is convinced that the child is on its way to a better life than would have been possible otherwise. Private schools, trust funds...and pure unconditional love. It all has to be the very best.
We know early on that Starbird is overcompensating. An unwanted child himself, he knows all too well that when parenthood is all about whatever ego trip the parent is on, the misery for the child is incalculable. Growing up hoping to please someone who's already decided that you're the cause of their failures is hardly something a child can hope to escape from unscathed. And Starbird hasn't.
Starbird has more or less made up his mind to get out of the business (his services are so dear he has enough money to last a lifetime) when he is blackmailed by a blustery, arrogant television journalist to provide him with a baby. Ordinarily, the repellent, O'Reillyish Jake Zorn and his sweet but long-suffering wife Maury would be refused out of hand, if only for Maury's one past suicide attempt, the very background blemish that's led to their rejection by legitimate adoption agencies. But Zorn knows exactly which button of Starbird's to push. And pushing it, a chain of events is set in motion that can only spell disaster.
Reed's attention to (and empathy towards) character gives the novel its power. Starbird's mass of contradictions come to a head, putting him in a position of having to sort all of them out — mostly his conflicted feelings towards his mother, to whom he still feels a bond despite her attempts to abandon him as a little boy — before he can find any path to redemption. Zorn may seem a little one-note in his loathsomeness until you realize the subtle layers Reed has used to construct him. Fame has not simply made him an egomaniac, it has done so in a way that's validated the self-image he needs as a shield more than anything, the notion that he's the champion of the little people, defender of the defenseless. His obsession with getting a baby has become frighteningly manic, a need far more intense even than his wife's. (As a lawyer, she's trained to think of consequences.) But for all Zorn's I'm-doing-this-for-you posturing, it's all about him. For him, life is validated only by passing on his genes, and if he can't do that, at least he can demand an heir to order, as he's gotten used to demanding everything else in his life.
At the center of the oncoming storm is Sasha. The unwed pregnant teen who will unwittingly end up as the locus of events is no one-dimensional naif, but a simple girl whose aspirations to an art career have been sidelined by her condition, and who has to find the inner strength to adapt. (She's the opposite of Starbird's mother, who had him because she thought he'd inspire her poetry, and the instant he didn't, rejected him.) The first thing she learns is that her pregnancy is not respected as hers by nearly anyone. The baby's father and a domineering grandmother both want to control her and the child, and she ends up fleeing the unwed-mothers home where she's found refuge because they keep trying to force her to place the baby with couples she doesn't trust. Once she's out and on her own, she has to determine her own fate, to keep the baby or adopt him out. Circumstances will drive her choices.
Kit Reed has published in multiple genres since 1961, but she flies under the radar in SF circles. Otherwise her books would be getting a lot more attention from readers and critics, not to mention Hugos and Nebulas, than they are. The Baby Merchant is a wrenching and powerful work of character-driven, socially conscious speculative fiction. It explores the depths of human self-absorption and deception, and treats the commodification of human life with an unfliching eye to its disastrous consequences. It's a work of rare courage.