SEPTEMBER 2, 2017
IN THE AGE of a Twitter-troll presidency, Brexit, impending ecological collapse, and austerity politics, is it any wonder that literary critics (such as Jill Lepore and others) are currently fixated on dystopian fiction and beating the drum for a new utopian literature? It’s safe to say that constructing a convincing utopian world has proven more difficult for authors than the subgenre’s counterpart — and not just presently. George Orwell wrote about this disproportionate divide and the difficulties of portraying “other-worldly happiness” in his 1948 essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?” There he observed that “heaven is as great a flop as Utopia though Hell occupies a respectable place in literature, and has often been described most minutely and convincingly.” From Hades to Dante and Milton, up through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and beyond, it’s clear that hell has no shortage of representation in literature. The same holds true for the breadth of dystopian novels and their many cousins (such as post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and satirical narratives). And while the coming of Trump raises the stakes of the dystopia/utopia debate, it’s worth keeping in mind that novels take years to write and sometimes longer to publish, and of the dozen or so dystopian fictions to appear this year alone, all of them would have landed in a bookstore near you regardless of the 2016 election’s outcome.
Lepore’s insistence that dystopian literature “used to be a fiction of resistance” and has now “become a fiction of submission” doesn’t quite fit for Christopher Brown’s timely and gritty debut novel Tropic of Kansas. Not that the near-future United States depicted by Brown is one any American would want to live in. Armies of drones monitor the homeland skies, desperate citizens attempt to cross the northern borders only to be sent away by Canadian patrol guards, abandoned strip malls and empty hotels serve as military barracks, and a football stadium is even converted into a makeshift panopticon-like prison: a playful if terrifying nod to Foucault’s theory of a society under unceasing surveillance.
Beyond the successful assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, it’s perhaps telling that Brown doesn’t go into detail as to how his fictional United States has fallen into such a derelict state, or how its citizens could possibly allow for a fascist president to take office (not once or twice, but three times) and fill the domestic skies with killer drones. In a way, we already know the answers (further proof that Brown’s novel is meant to be read against our present times): too many wars abroad, a widening income gap, a broken political system, unfettered neoliberal capitalism, deluges and droughts, and the other catastrophic ills characteristic of our Anthropocene period. In other words, Brown mixes ingredients already present in our contemporary world to concoct his own dystopian recipe.
These grim elements aside, a story of resistance, centered upon a teenager of mixed Latino heritage named Sig, lies at the heart of this adventurous dystopian thriller. Orphaned, strong-willed, and soon to be a leading revolutionary figure in the underground movement, Sig does everything he can just to stay alive, relying on his extraordinary survival instincts. He travels to the center of the rebellion in New Orleans — now a DMZ territory — keeping a promise to his dead dissident parents. As he dodges drone strikes and deadly crews of militiamen (mostly dumb, white, and scary), we glean information about the growing underground movement along the way. Brown is at his best describing the inner workings of the resistance: the way revolutionaries carve out an independent media network, making use of charmingly outdated technology to communicate and organize offline (fax machines, payphones, discarded antennas), and build an army of clumsy yet powerful DIY drones from scratch. They even have their own digital cryptocurrency, a kind of remedial Bitcoin, called Snowflakes.
Sig’s foster sister, Tania, a young government investigator living in DC, begins to lose faith in her capacity to create a better world from inside the system when she’s asked to track down her “terrorist” brother. In exchange for pursuing him, the authorities agree to keep her mother from undergoing “reprogramming,” an interrogative tactic that sounds like something out of A Clockwork Orange. The process leaves those who undergo the treatment in a near lobotomized state. As Tania makes her way back home, a place where “Minnesota dissolved into Iowa,” she is reminded of why she left the Midwest in the first place: a decaying Corn Belt has turned the entire region into something akin to a third world country.
Structurally, the short chapters of Tropic of Kansas alternate between the brother’s and sister’s points of view and culminate when the two finally meet. Sig and Tania never stay in the same place for very long; the dangers are too great, especially for Tania, whose skin color draws attention as she passes through the country’s rural white areas. The accelerating pace of the story can give the impression that the author, too, seems afraid to stay with any scene for very long. However, Brown capitalizes on this rapid pace for thrilling results, such as when Sig escapes from a military school in the opening, and escapes again later from a mansion-turned-detention center belonging to a millionaire. At other times, however, some of the cliffhanger chapter breaks can seem a tad arbitrary. Nevertheless, the book’s breakneck speed allows for the fictionalization of notoriously difficult concepts to appear alongside the swashbuckling elements of the story without bogging down what matters most: portrayals of political economy, collective action, parallel societies, urban spaces reclaimed by nature, and the nuts and bolts of the resistance movement.
Brown’s economical prose style ultimately fits this narrative, and the story essentially unfolds as a road novel. Usually, American road novels, which are often concerned with personal freedom and liberation, have a free-flowing style to match (think Kerouac, Twain, or Wolfe), but in Tropic of Kansas nothing is poetic about the constant threat of commercial and volunteer “people hunters” and relentless drone strikes. If Brown’s sentences seem restrained, even ugly at times, perhaps this is because there’s not much beauty to describe in this world. One paragraph starts off promisingly, describing the rich wildlife of the southern Louisiana marshes, but ends describing “petrochemical extraction machines” that invade the peaceful biome “like giant robot mosquitoes.” Brown knows what he’s doing with all this ugliness, as he himself argued in a recent Lithub piece on dystopian literature. The goal of this kind of speculative fiction, he states, should be to report “ugly truths about the human society we live in” in order to “discover its real alternatives.”
The novel, with its pulpy plot and alternate history (or future history, rather) will readily call to mind Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (even if it’s not nearly as tightly constructed). However, Tropic of Kansas’s guiding principles of resistance and opposition, of fighting for survival and creating new societies — in other words, its hope for the future — reminded me more of the late Richard Adams’s Watership Down. Often wrongly classified as dystopian, Adams’s fictitious world of brave rabbits fighting to achieve not a perfect world but at least a fair and just one (much like Brown’s rambunctious characters hope to do) would be a better comparison. Incidentally, Watership would also make for a much better read during the Trump moment than similar speculative works like Dick’s novel or Orwell’s resurgent 1984, whose sales spiked 10,000 percent by inauguration day.
To Brown’s credit, he manages to avoid the Jamesonian dilemma that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.” The attempt to break free of capitalism in the novel doesn’t mark the apocalypse, but it is worth asking: what’s left? After all, it takes a second American civil war near the end of the book for the revolutionaries to gain autonomy, which ultimately results in the dissolution of the United States. The rebel territories, including parts of the South and the Midwest — from which the book’s title takes its name — form a sovereign nation inside the country. Plenty of blood is shed, but as one character puts it, not as much as one would have thought. The “crowdsource” flag that flies victoriously at the end of the book has a million tiny stars on it, ushering in a new era of participatory democracy. Of course, it will take more than a flag to put these utopian ingredients to the test: the kind of brave new world that emerges after the drones finally fall from the sky is only hinted at. Readers leave this newly built provisional government admittedly in “beta testing.” Nevertheless, Tropic of Kansas is an entertaining and engrossing read — and, contrary to what Lepore argues — it shows that contemporary dystopian literature need not forgo aspects of “resistance” but can, in fact, be all about it.