Well into Christopher Brown’s exciting new novel Tropic of Kansas, the title itself is described as, “…the line in our heads where ingenuity runs into loco.” Well, yes, we crossed that line and not recently. As a nation of boiled frogs, we are finding it harder and harder to understand not only how we got here, but as well, where exactly we are in the first place. As the present becomes more incomprehensible, the necessity for re-inventing it becomes increasingly urgent.
We first meet Sig, a kid in an America that is somewhere in the gray zone between discombobulated and dystopian. Sig is fierce to the edge of feral, and he’s being rounded up as an illegal immigrant and sent back home – to America. As we meet Tania, a (US) government employee with lots of questions about both sides of the matter, we begin to wonder, where in the hell is this taking place. Is this meant to be our future? It’s not exactly the future and that’s your first clue that Christopher Brown has something much more nuanced and interesting than “dystopian” prescience.
As hellish as things look; climate change, economic disaster, and Untied, not United States – Brown is happy to offer us some solace as well. Not everybody with a modicum of power buys into the madness. The possibility for real change is present, and low technology is there to help. The experience of reading Tropic of Kansas is thrilling not just because Brown is a masterful plotter with Sig (sort of) maturing into a genuine hero, the kind of character that makes readers want to cheer out loud. One of the major thrill here is realizing that this is not the future. It’s the present, lightly re-mixed, with a plot that reality sadly seems to lack.
It’s hard to turn the pages fast enough as you read Tropic of Kansas. Brown writes set-pieces with a powerfully cinematic eye, but remembers to invest them in character. And, as you are reading, Brown’s visionary writing and world will drop your jaws every time his perceptions laser their way into the heart of today. This happens early and often; importantly, the book was written well before today, so that Brown’s vision seems topical without resorting to “ripped from the headlines.”
It’s also critical that this is not Another Book About the Dire, Awful World. Things are bad in Tropic of Kansas, but not entirely so. There’s a soupcon of “getting-better-ability” even in the most horrific situations. This isn’t dystopian or utopian fiction, but just, what you might call “Topian,” which is to say a system that has Humans in it and thus is incapable of reaching Heaven or Hell. We can imagine both, but we know in our hearts that it’s Purgatory for us.
I first encountered Christopher Brown as the editor of the excellent anthology Three Messages and a Warning, and so was queued up early for his novel. I just admit that the novel really knocked my socks off, and it’s the kind of work that offers lots to talk about. When we sat own at KQED, there was so much to talk bout that I barely got time to mention his anthology – but we did some quality time to discuss both his novel and the anthology. You can hear our lightning-round interview to cover the basics by following this link, or listen below.
For a deep dive into the nascent genre of Topian Fiction, follow this link, or immerse yourself in the antidote for Our Topian World by listening below.