The words “science fiction” conjure images of mind-bending outer space vistas and strange alien travelers, of futures in which mankind voyages across time and space. The history of the genre doesn’t really bear that out, though—not entirely. Like horror, it’s one of our most small-c conservative genres: for every story of a bright future full of adventure, there’s at another full of potent warnings. The work generally considered the first modern sci-fi novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—well, it ain’t all chuckles. Both modes of sci-fi are important: sometimes we need a hopeful and inspirational vision to strive for, and others, we need a warning. Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas is very much the slap upside the head we need right now—a stark vision of a dystopian America that feels closer each day.
Brown’s debut eases us into a vision of an America made somewhat less great through the eyes of Sig, one of two primary point-of-view characters. The opening scenes set the tone, and provide a strong hint of what’s to come: Sig has been picked up and detained at a highly fortified, walled border crossing, one of many refugees in the queue to be deported back to their home country. As it happens, we’re in Canada, and they’re all being deported to the United States. Sig is to be turned over to U.S. Motherland Security, and from there, shipped off to the labor camps of Detroit. (There’s no place worse than Detroit.)
It’s a scenario spun out of an alternate history, one in which the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 was successful, and lead to the rise of one President Alexander Haig, the then-Secretary of State who, in our history, made what was ultimately a minor power grab while the president was in the hospital. Here, he takes over completely, and events proceed down a very different path. The internet is supplanted early on by a centralized network the government is easily able to suborn for purposes of state surveillance. The ensuing paranoia leads to decades of slow decline as the government tightens its grip, ostensibly in a campaign against insurgency. Though Brown makes that one twist of the dial to history, the outside factors that have influenced our world remain much the same: climate change and income inequality are very much still in play, exacerbated by a government at various stages of war with its own people.
Like all of the characters, Sig isn’t entirely sympathetic. He manages to escape from border control and takes to living off the land, as he always has. The child of revolutionary parents who met bad ends, he’s full of righteous anger and a strong will to survive, even if he’s not particularly thoughtful, nor bright. The book’s second thread follows Tania, his long-lost sister, whose life took an entirely different course. She put aside her background to work for the government in a job that she utterly despises—not surprising, when the president she serves is so transparently nasty. After a particularly bad day at the office, she’s given a new task: bring in her brother, Sig, who has become a folk hero and a focal point for the nation’s revolutionaries.
She pursues her erstwhile sibling through the heartland of America, including the titular Tropic of Kansas, a wasteland blighted by corporate over-farming and climate upheaval, where ultra-nationalists do daily battle with anti-government activists and insurgents, where anyone with an axe to grind has been given a uniform and, fed on a steady diet of propagandistic movies and TV shows, sent to fight for the ol’ red, white, and blue. Through Sig, we witness the methods and movements of the rebellion. And as Sid and Tania head toward a reckoning, so too are the rebellious forces moving toward a climactic confrontation in New Orleans. Brown’s dystopian view is rendered slightly more palatable by the action- and intrigue-packed middle section of the novel, as the rebellion races to stay one step ahead of the government. If the book wasn’t so provocative in its themes, we’d be talking about what an effective thriller it is. When it wants to be.
Though this dystopia begins with a specific triggering event, it all feels so immensely plausible (though, admittedly, less cynical readers may disagree). I’m not sure whether to think of it as prescient, timely, or both, but Brown’s vision of a deeply, deeply divided America under…let’s say controversial leadership has the ring of truth. Its stark vision won’t appeal to everyone (to put it mildly), but it’s a novel with a lot to say. This is science fiction doing the job science fiction does best: looking down a particular path, and suggesting we might want to think twice before heading that way. The opening turmoil at Canada’s border offers a chance to view contemporary events from a more personal angle, and also suggests we might not like what the future holds. There’s hope to be found for the characters in Tropic of Kansas, though you have to squint a little to find it. That doesn’t mean it’s an entirely pessimistic book (for one thing, it can be oddly, unexpectedly funny at times), but a warning, when heeded, no matter how dire, is about as hopeful as it gets.