The most fantastical aspect of A Country of Ghosts is how it’s an earnest tale about an alternative society when dystopias fill today’s bookshelves. Full disclosure here: the author has written for Tor.com, and I did hold interest in reading his book once he described it to me as an “anarchist utopia.”
With that seed in mind, I couldn’t help but view A Country of Ghosts as the latest in a long tradition of utopian novels, starting with Thomas More’s as the most well-known early example (and a fantastic open source annotated edition can be read here).
Of course, utopias and speculative fiction go hand in hand. In the 19th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland envisioned a society of women. Alexander Bogdanov wrote about communist utopia on Mars in his 1908 book Red Star. Later utopian novels include Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on anarchism in The Dispossessed, Arthur C. Clark’s peaceful alien invasion in Childhood’s End, Aldous Huxley’s utopian counterpart to Brave New World in Island, and the fulfillment of the radical movements of the 1960s in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, along with many others.
In A Country of Ghosts a regional collective known as Hron (they’re only kinda, sorta a country) fights against a colonial empire, and Killjoy’s mix of politics and storytelling is at times intellectually engaging and at times winsome, though it’s also a curiosity to behold in the field today.
Dimos Horacki is a young journalist from the empire of Borolia, sent on assignment to the front lines of their war for expansion. He’s sent to the Cerracs, a mountainous region placed beyond the latest conquered nation of Vorroni. There, the Borol forces are working to subdue the remaining indigenous villages. Inexperienced and earnest, Dimos plans to write about Dolan Wilder, one of the nation’s war heroes leading this fight. But when his first story sticks closer to the truth than the commander’s liking, Dimos is sent to trail a scouting group – that soon gets attacked by a group of regional fighters. Dimos is captured by the Free Company of the Mountain Heather and discovers something that he never wrote in the Borol headlines: that these isolated villages weren’t just settlements, but made up the region of Hron, which is, much to his surprise, a country of anarchists.
The storyline can be guessed from here: the young outsider realizes that the empire’s motivations are terrible and joins the fight on the side of the indigenous rebels. What is refreshing is that while many of these narratives become White Savior complexes, A Country of Ghosts neatly sidesteps this as the point of the adventure (and to note, Dimos isn’t even white). While he does get involved in gathering a war council as the Borol army prepares to march on the Cerracs, he ends up staying on the sidelines and letting the people of Hron fight for themselves.
The greater part of the novel lies in his observations of the Hron people and their culture as he grows more sympathetic towards them, which is coupled with his anarchist education. The book is a bit bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in conveying its teachable moments, and a couple moments come across as ham-fisted (in one scene, a character gives a straightforward definition of anarchism that sounded like it came right out of a pamphlet). Still, I emotionally connected to Dimos and the soldiers he befriends: stern and grounded Nola, passionate Sorros, the youthful gang of teens lead by the musician Grem, the mysterious Jackal (and be warned: don’t you dare drink his brandy). And I got so caught up in the fate of these people at the battle front, I had to blink back a few tears at certain scenes.
A Country of Ghosts evokes the mindset of 19th century utopian movements, so there is a sense of barefaced optimism in this book these historical communes had embodied, unlike later attempts at creating perfect societies that only resulted in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. While Killjoy purposefully intends this to be a work of political speculation (why else would the subtitle read: “a book of The Anarchist Imagination”?), I still wonder how much of this is a romanticized argument for anarchism.
Hron works dependent upon the blunt self-interest and practicality that belies human nature. Unlike popular assumptions, anarchy doesn’t create chaos. Anarchists in general want to be left alone to seek their individual interests and exchange works on a gift economy. Hron individuals and villages help others because they want to or because social pressures force them to in order for a large community to survive. “Antisocial” anarchists are eventually kicked out of the greater nation to form their own city of Karak, a city that no other Hron inhabitant likes. Karak’s anarchist call for absolute individual freedom is tempered by a harder “dog eat dog” philosophy of putting the individual first that results in a hostile “survival of the fittest” environment more than a casual “live and let live” one. But even the people of Karak, while they come off not as kindhearted as some of the ones from Hron, are minor in contrast to Borol’s intense social and class divides.
The conditions for Hron’s birth and development are circumstances that would be ideal in any case of first contact: the revolutionary vanguards that had fled various empires as refugees meets a nation of loosely-connected indigenous peoples whose political culture is compatible to theirs. There isn’t a question of racial or ethnic strife or clashes based on cultural differences these immigrants may have carried with them. Eventually, the vanguard’s political thinking is assimilated into the region by the locals and contributes to their system of decentralization. The cynic in me wonders why in this case, the people of Hron refer to themselves as anarchists (the outsiders’ term) instead of a native equivalent to the concept of anarchy for any reason than for clarity of political arguments. It also felt strange that in a region where the village is the most-structured social grouping, there wasn’t a strong sense of village or tribal identification (which was a predecessor to nationalism).
Another question that came up is while Killjoy proposes that while cultural structure influences political structure and vice versa, the region of Hron is miraculously unaffected by any outside cultural influence despite its small size compared to its surrounding nations. I’m supposing that traders, missionaries, or the wayward adventurer from the outside hadn’t had much of an influence upon them over the centuries, or a strong success rate in crossing mountains. (It also made me think of how Thomas More conceived of his Utopia as an island, which makes a lot of more sense cultural evolution-wise).
Is A Country of Ghosts a reboot of the utopian novel? In a time when the dystopian has given a bleak view of our speculative landscapes, this novel is a sunny burst of new vigor. But a hint of melancholy still lingered for me after reading. In the case of More’s Utopia, many scholars have wondered upon the author’s intentions: is More’s “No Man’s Land” an impossible dream? Likewise, Hron in the novel’s indigenous language means “ghost.” Is Killjoy implying that an anarchist nation cannot exist outside of a fantasy? Despite the book’s hopeful ending, the country called Ghost brings to mind other nations and peoples that have been swallowed by empire. So should we take the title literally: this nation is a specter of the imagination, nothing more than to be treated as superstition by the fearful or the memory of a more optimistic past?
I can’t say for sure, but either way, a strange melancholic note rings inside its banner cry.
A Country of Ghosts is available March 22nd from Combustion Books