The Big Idea: Christopher Brown

The opening sentence of Christopher Brown’s Big Idea essay for Tropic of Kansas hits awfully close to home these days. Buckle in.


What if the revolutions we watch ripping other countries apart were happening on our own streets?

America as Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela—that core conceit behind Tropic of Kansas drove almost everything else in the book.  It also taught me hard lessons about how speculative counterfactuals dictate the way you tell their story—and how your characters need to show you the path.

As I began to sketch out the book, my big idea was literally outside my door. The Austin leaders of Occupy had made the neon junkyard across the street into their secret base camp. Every day the news showed uprisings across the world, and increasingly stark political divisions at home. The distance between the peaceful protests here and the violent chaos on screen was nearer than geography would suggest.

You could see narratives of revolution lurking all over our pop culture landscape, from YA dystopias like The Hunger Games to the three movies that came out as I started the first draft about people taking over the White House. I wanted to explore that territory in a way that bit into the copper wire, in a mirror reality built from the mundane details of the observed world and charged with the motive power of the revolutionary creation myths we are taught in school. Done right, it would be the literary equivalent of a Syrian war zone smartphone video transposed to St. Louis.

I thought I had the perfect generic material to pull it off, by repurposing tropes of adventure fiction and political thrillers toward more emancipatory ends.  Rogue heroes and whistleblowers—a Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser for the age of Blackwater, a Glanton gang that rides to Washington instead of the border, a Night Manager undercover in dystopia, with old binaries busted to reflect 21st century diversity.  Those action-oriented archetypes seemed an antidote to the way characters in most post-9/11 fiction verbally defenestrated corrupt power but rarely effected real change.

I looked for the territory between the Nazi-fighting grit of 1960s adventure pulps and the grim memoranda of the Senate Torture Report. I found rich character trajectory rereading Eric Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a cross-cultural study of how thieves sometimes morph into social bandits (think Robin Hood) and then revolutionaries. I found an old button that said “Billy Jack for President” and put it on my desk. I made a note to myself on my Tumblr, a photo of three books next to each other: a Frazetta-covered Conan paperback, a post-financial crisis political manifesto, and a treatise on Anthropocene ecology. The caption: “remix your hypotheses.”

I started the remix, with gusto. And the initial result was kind of like when you are a kid and your mom or dad lets you loose in the kitchen to make your own dish, usually involving a lot of food coloring that substitutes for authentic flavor, the solution to which is more sugar. A compelling postulate does not automatically make a believable world, and a fresh archetype does not necessarily make a character anyone cares about. There’s no recipe—you need to intuit your own, using real ingredients available in the pantry of memory.  It’s not easy, and usually takes a few tries.

J.G. Ballard liked to say that the inverted worlds of his realist science fictions were drawn using the same skills he learned as an anatomy student dissecting human cadavers. I thought I understood what he meant until I tried to find my own way in. You have to take the clay of the real world and turn it inside out more than just one time. You have to see the threads that connect all the different pieces into a whole system. You have to figure out how character defines the world, is defined by it, and how the world of your story functions as a kind of meta-character. Outlines only get you so far—you have to write your way through it, and the harder it feels the closer you probably are.

The post-9/11 story I wanted to tell required a world without 9/11, in which all the dark energy of the war on terror was unleashed inside our own borders. The Sadr Cities needed to be run-down suburbs with rebels holed up in bullet-pocked strip malls. The American Spring required an America that looked a lot more like an oligarchic dictatorship than the civil society I lived in.  And the people that inhabited that world had to be found through their shimmering reflections in the liminal spaces of this one.

The oft-quoted Gibsonian aphorism about the uneven distribution of the immanent future is also true of dystopia. The parts of America turned Third World, the Yankee Gaza and DMZ, are there if you look for them. So are their inhabitants. The guy I met who lives in the abandoned building by the frontage road, the lady I know who called me about the deportation trucks rounding up her neighbors, the in-laws who told me about their college friends who got disappeared in the dirty war back home, and even the people grinding away in the corporate offices downtown could all point to the dark mirrors hiding in plain sight.

The land told the story of its own subjugation to industrial agriculture and petrochemical extraction. By finding the world of my book folded into the world around me, I was able to build a real portal to my imagined postulate. I learned how the coupling of realism and speculation can inadvertently produce worlds that seem prescient. And I learned how the injection of humanism into dystopia can help find the light that lurks on the other side of the unjust worlds we make, whether in the safe laboratory of the novel or in real life.


Tropic of Kansas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Christopher Brown”

  1. [Deleted because not on topic. As a rule of thumb, if you feel the need to preface your comment with “this is probably not on topic” or some such, maybe don’t post it — JS]

  2. Why would anyone post off topic when the topic is laid out like this?

    Very scary, especially as we have a oligarch attempting to take over our government for his own profit right now.

    But I actually expect the Intelligence Community to take care of us in the end. Maybe that’s too optimistic, but long ago I decided that life was way more fun if you try just a little bit to be optimistic. I think technology may be able to cope with global climate change, if necessary. It would be great if we just started to sharply reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but that may not be quick enough. I’m in my upper 60s already, so I should be able to get by and slip outta here before the world ends, unless they really do come up with a genetic cure for age-related problems!

    And these would-be robber barons are way too incompetent to get away with their really stupid intentions.

    I try to get here often enough to get a chance to post on topics I have something to say about. Sometimes I miss the window and don’t get a chance to put my $0.02 in, which is always a disappointment. I’ll try to be better!!

  3. OK, here’s a funny story that belongs on the big idea about 4 days ago. Sarah Kuhn on July 10th. She loves weddings, so you should share this with her even if you ban hammer it into oblivion.

    Weddings: Blessed occasion or battleground between the forces of good and evil? Why not both?

    I was at the funniest wedding ceremony in modern history a few years ago. Close cousins that I grew up with. Well to do, fancy ceremony, string trio, at a Hilton just outside Pittsburgh. The room was obviously often used for more mundane events, and so was located by a kitchen space.

    My closest cousin, and theater major, was the bride’s aunt, and so was asked to read a verse for the Episcopal ceremony:

    It’s a common Bible verse for weddings, and it starts like this:

    1 Corinthians 13:1-13

    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    At that very moment, right behind the door to the kitchen, someone dropped a tray full of stainless plate covers!! The sound was a huge clamor, and Cousin’s eyes popped, as did everyones. But like a trouper, she took a breath and finished her verse, while everyone, everyone laughed their – well, laughed a whole lot.

  4. Last year, I rewatched the Jericho TV series and lately, I’ve been thinking how what felt like a dystopian not-so-likely but interesting show … now seems too close to possible for comfort.

    Jericho had ironic foreign aid (airlift supply drops) from China, the EU, etc., and was in some ways realistic.

    I rewatched the 80’s Red Dawn movie last month. Oh, man, 80’s Cold War Reagan Era fears. Yet, hmm, whether you substitute post-Soviet Russia or some other power (or civil war) … wow. (I found the movie strange to watch now. It was strange back in high school and college too.)

    Then there’s Dark Angel, the James Cameron TV series that came out very near 9/11. I liked Dark Angel despite its wilder, wackier, had-trouble-finding-itself elements. I liked the 1st season more than the 2nd, but was sorry we didn’t get a 3rd season to mature the show some. — I still like the concepts and miss the show.

    All of those show some sort of dystopian post-disaster divided America (and world) recovering slowly.

    I really find myself wondering about the creeping, growing power of corporations. SF has long had multinational corporations becoming governments in their own right. And lately the control of people’s futures, insurance benefits, work history, I wonder if we’re already drifting towards corporate governments and ownership of people / employees.

    But all of that pales in comparison to the absurd freak show playing out on our national news about current national and world politics. Honestly, if we’d seen anything so ridiculous pitched as a novel or movie / TV show, who would have ever believed it? Too unbelievable, too crazy, too foolish, too wild and weird for fiction, right? Yeah.

    So it’s very strange to me how what would have seemed so unlikely and dystopian before now seems not so far-fetched, maybe a little too close for comfort now.

    I would like to be optimistic, but recent national and personal experiences both lead me to think I’ve been too naive and trusting that things would work out somehow. (Hey, I voted for the other candidate. I was shocked, dismayed, horrified that the current president won. And I dearly hope he’ll be impeached or otherwise disqualified by the Constitutional process, in a nice, lawful, tidy way, with things finally improving. But, eek, I’m not too thrilled by what either party has been doing. Much less happy with the Republicans.) So I want things to get better in our real world, before any of the dystopian fictions start looking even more like alternate reality close to our own.

    I’d seen the book title, but hadn’t looked at it. I’m intrigued, but as I said, the real-world situation is spooky / freaky enough. I may read the book. I still tend to enjoy some dystopian / post-apocalyptic fiction.

    (Oh, and I recently rented “The Ultimate Warrior,” an old 70’s era SF film with Yul Brynner. Oh my, how times have changed. The whole thing felt more like an indie / student / fan film, as well as a dim foreshadowing of other films, like Mad Max / Road Warrior. Ah, as well as an excuse to show off Yul Brynner’s chest at the start of the movie. But hey, not complaining there, haha. The kicker? Their far-future dystopia made in the 70’s was now 5+ years in our past, set in about 2012. Hah. So, no Ultimate Shirtless Warriors running around quite yet.)

    I may have to rewatch the Max Max 80’s films and maybe both versions of Lord of the Flies. Hmm….

  5. I certainly found the linked excerpt interesting, and I hope to read the entire novel soon. (Thank god it’s not in present tense – that would have repelled me instantly. I reached my lifetime limit of present-tense fiction some years ago.)

  6. My grandfather insisted that Warsaw would never get that bad, after all, it’s the Paris of Eastern Europe! My grandfather, who was shot in the street by the SS not many years later.

    I grew up knowing that no government or culture or civilization is forever. Never assume that things will be good and perfect forever.

  7. One reviewer called this ‘The Feel-Bad Book of the Year’, without intending any criticism. An unusual but interesting recommendation!

  8. ” it’s very strange to me how what would have seemed so unlikely and dystopian before now seems not so far-fetched, maybe a little too close for comfort now.”

    This reminds me slightly of Jack Womack saying, back in the 90s, that he was giving up writing SF set in weird near-future dystopias and was just going to write fiction set in contemporary Russia instead, because it seemed reality had rather exceeded his imagination.

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