Last week, Christopher Brown published his third novel: Failed State, a quasi-sequel to his novels Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture. The three books are set in a near-future United States that’s been wrecked by a civil war, and follow the people who are forced to survive amidst brutal federal crackdowns, militias, and drones.
A lawyer by trade, Brown has injected his knowledge of the law into his dystopian futures. In this latest novel, he tracks a pair of legal cases in the aftermath of the second American revolution. In Rule of Capture, lawyer Donny Kimoe helped a dissident filmmaker get out of a terrorism charge after she saw an opposition leader get murdered by pro-government forces.
Last week, Brown stopped by Reddit’s r/Books for an AMA session, in which he talked about his writing process, how he found inspiration in creating a dystopian near-future, and more. Here are some of the highlights.
What inspired you to start writing a dystopian series, and how do you feel about reality edging ever closer to your fictional world? (from u/FoodForTheTruth)
At the beginning, I didn’t set out to write either a dystopia or a series, if you can believe it. But when I began working on the book that became TROPIC OF KANSAS, after I came up with the main character, I wanted to put him through the experience of a revolutionary uprising in the US—kind of like Occupy meets the Arab Spring (both of which were in the air at the time). And I decided that for that to be plausible, things would need to be worse than they were then (2012). So I imagined a more messed-up version of the USA, but made it from the material of the observed world—things I saw around me in everyday American life and in the exhausted landscape of the Heartland.
I initially thought the book was so implausible, with its crazy CEO president and Carharrt militias, that I sat on it for a while. So when the real world started to catch up with it, I was in one sense pleased in that it made it feel like I had successfully grounded my fictional world in realism. But as darker and darker things from the books get mirrored in real life, like kids being put in strip mall detention camps and protesters being picked off the streets and taken away in unmarked cars without due process, it just makes me want to work harder to find the better future on the other side. Which is what the new book tries to do.
William Gibson recently lamented that science fiction authors’ jobs have grown harder because of (looks around). How do you deal with this problem? (from u/NeoPrimitiveOasis)
That’s such a great question. As Gibson has also remarked (I think—and so have many others), all science fiction is really about the present. So when you can’t get a bead on the present, it’s really hard to envision the future. I mostly use two techniques to try deal with this: (1) stay focused on trying to imagine a future you would actually want to live in, and what the path there looks like (for me, it often travels through dystopia); (2) look to the deep past for anchors that help you get soundings on the real future.
Recent events aside, do you have particular inspirations you draw on when world building?
A second question, how have you found the pivot from your typically dystopian future to something more in the drive for utopia? (from u/bcorbettwriting)
The most important ingredients to building the worlds of these stories come from the real places I travel through and the real people I meet in my life—I try to craft my fictions from the material of the observed world. Wild nature is a big part of it, and I have started a new newsletter of urban nature writing to explore that in more depth.
Reading widely from a diversity of books is the other big source. Once I decide on the theme I will focus on in the book (e.g., revolution, criminal justice, rewilding) I look for works that will expose me to different facets of the theme. Some of it’s very focused—going to the law library to find real-world precedents for the dystopian and utopia legal regimes of RULE OF CAPTURE and FAILED STATE. And some of it is deliberately random—going to the used bookstore and finding a haul of related books from the random sampling they happen to have in stock. That’s where I get the best stuff, through a kind of oblique strategy.
As for your second question: utopia is hard! For dystopia, you can just take real-world horrors and dial up the mix—put a character in that and you have instant story. Utopia is like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”—”a place where nothing ever happens.” For my utopia, I had an easy fix to introduce conflict—I invented the utopian community (which was inspired by my own backyard), and then parachuted a lawyer into it. And what you learn is that as you switch between the two modes utopia and dystopia always coexist—even the grimmest dystopias have the promise of something else on the other side, and the utopias are always in tension with the possibility of their failure. All three of my novels are at least partly utopian, in the sense that they work to show the capacity people have to make change for the good in the world around them and build a more hopeful future, one battle at a time. But with FAILED STATE, I learned some of the unique challenges about making the conflict at the heart of the story the struggle for peace.
This year has its unique challenges, obviously, as the pandemic and quarantine have impacted publishing and bookselling in big ways. But publishers are still buying books, and people seem to be reading more than ever, so I think the overall prospects are good. And I think there is a tremendous hunger for new work from new voices, so the opportunities to break in are great. A major challenge in SF is getting a handle on what the future looks like when you can’t even get a bead on the present. Stories written during and after the pandemic will inevitably be more in touch with the Zeitgeist, and I think that opens up worlds of fresh territory for new voices that are able to imagine what kinds of futures we can expect on the other side of this reality-busting event.