This weekend, the United States plays host to yet another incarnation of that every-four-years event, the inauguration of a new president. And while in every case, that has meant a large percentage of voters spend the day grumbling about their preferred candidate losing out, the 2017 inauguration is certainly more fraught than we’re accustomed to. Which is why it seemed a good time to peek into the grim political future of Tropic of Kansas, Christopher Brown’s forthcoming novel about a near-future American dystopia that feels ripped straight from a panicked Tweetstream near you.
Below, find an excerpt from the novel, due out July 11 from Harper Voyager, in which we get a glimpse of a landscape altered by a few other what-if? inaugurations. Keep scrolling past the official summary for a few words from Brown, who introduces one of his novel’s key characters in the excerpt that follows.
Acclaimed short story writer and editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominee Three Messages and a Warning eerily envisions an American society unraveling and our borders closed off—from the other side—in this haunting and provocative novel that combines Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, Philip K. Dick’s classic Man in the High Castle, and China Mieville’s The City & the City
The United States of America is no more. Broken into warring territories, its center has become a wasteland DMZ known as “the Tropic of Kansas.” Though this gaping geographic hole has no clear boundaries, everyone knows it’s out there—that once-bountiful part of the heartland, broken by greed and exploitation, where neglect now breeds unrest. Two travelers appear in this arid American wilderness: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents, and his foster sister Tania, a government investigator whose search for Sig leads her into her own past—and towards an unexpected future.
Sig promised those he loves that he would make it to the revolutionary redoubt of occupied New Orleans. But first he must survive the wild edgelands of a barren mid-America policed by citizen militias and autonomous drones, where one wrong move can mean capture . . . or death. One step behind, undercover in the underground, is Tania. Her infiltration of clandestine networks made of old technology and new politics soon transforms her into the hunted one, and gives her a shot at being the agent of real change—if she is willing to give up the explosive government secrets she has sworn to protect.
As brother and sister traverse these vast and dangerous badlands, their paths will eventually intersect on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light.
“Tropic of Kansas is a story about America—an America riven by civil unrest, ecological disaster, and economic failure, and ruled by an authoritarian corporate government with a war hero CEO turned fascist president at its head. But even in the darkest times, there are people brave enough to resist, and fight to build a more hopeful future.
“One of those people is Sig, a young fugitive pursued by citizen militias and autonomous drones across the barren Midwest as he tries to get to the revolutionary sanctuary of New Orleans. Another is his foster sister Tania, a government lawyer trying to fight the system from inside, in the heart of the capital.
“In this excerpt, Tania and her best friend walk past the White House—what’s left of it after a bombing. When the leader unexpectedly arrives, they remember Inauguration Day in dystopia, and learn what happens when you get close enough to the president to let him know how you really feel.” — Christopher Brown
Eagle One flew in fast from the west, then yawed back over the East Lawn, engines whining overthrottle, blasting air onto the ground.
Eagle One was the flagship of a new line of Anglo-American tactical aircraft the President had promoted as superior to the helicopter. It could fly faster and higher, with even better vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. All jet, no wings—just stabilizers at the tail. Manufactured by a company he still had stock in.
Tania tried to see through the cockpit window, to see if he really was the pilot, but the glass was as opaque as the midnight blue fuselage.
It was a beautiful and scary thing, with its Luftwaffe ’46 lines guided by 21st century electrorobotics. Visitor from a different tomorrow. She’d seen it on the big screens for the last inaugural, when it flew in from Camp David, but seeing it in person was a whole different deal. Pure wonder. Like some cross between a royal yacht, an experimental supercar, and a unicorn.
Piloted by God.
“Dark Apollo has landed,” joked Odile, barely audible through the noise.
Tania had been close enough to see him once before—two years earlier, on the day they swore him in for his third term, wearing his medals. Tania had watched the parade, just down the road, on an office balcony with Odile and a bunch of other silk suits cheering on their sugar daddy in chief. Tania remembered the snowflakes melting on the military robots as they rumbled down the street. The big land drones with their black beret Engineer escorts walking alongside. The double-wide floats with their maudlin pageants of the martyrs of Tehran, Seoul, Panama City. She’d seen a guy in the crowd throw a snowball at the Vice President’s limo, then watched the silver helmets swarm him.
“Which one’s your boyfriend?” she teased Odile now, as they watched the soldiers mark out a landing pad with their regimented bodies, so close Tania could almost reach them through the fence.
They felt the thrust as the turbine turned down, like a hot hard wind. The craft dropped fast, then slowed just above the flickering turf, gently moving through the final phase into a soft landing.
There were no tourists on this side of the checkpoint, but everyone around turned to watch. The President, even just the idea of his imminent presence, compelled your gaze.
The Secret Service detail assembled around the rear of the aircraft, waiting for the door to drop. The sanctioned cameras were right behind them.
Tania’s view was occluded, but she could see the colored light leak out from inside when they opened the hatch.
The personal guard emerged first. A detail of three. All tall, hand-picked from the best corporate security firms. One of them, a blonde woman with a white scarf instead of a necktie, looked right at Tania, through lenses that clearly read her face.
“Don’t forget to smile,” said Odile.
“You’re the one she should be checking out,” said Tania.
“Look,” said Odile. “The dogs!”
Sure enough, the presidential pets trotted out on cue. The wolfhound, then the ridgeback. Everyone knew their names. Ulysses and Lee.
The man who followed looked like the President, but wasn’t.
“Newton!” she yelled.
Others joined in with shouts and whistles. Tania gasped.
The man turned, flashing a white porcelain smile. Newton Towns. The actor who played the President in the movies. The one that popularized Mack’s narrative before he first ran for office, dramatizing his escape from the North Koreans after his fighter jet went down in the DMZ. Then the sequel, a miniseries about the Panamanian crisis of his first term. They were working on a third one now, about the retaking of New Orleans.
“He’s fucking glowing,” said Odile, and Tania laughed with her.
He wasn’t, really, but he had that aura. Opposite of what Tania expected, he was even better-looking in person. Beautiful, in an unreal way, yet there he was, magazine cover model of a good-looking, friendly white man, the archetype they wanted you to believe in. He wore a suit, but no tie. One of those suits built to your scan, that draped elegantly and suggested superhero bulges all at the same time.
One of the cameras came in close for the star, then moved toward the crowd. Not that you could tell what it was filming. There was more than one eye behind the black glass of those rotored orbs.
As she thought of it scanning them, Tania got anxious for a second, then remembered how that inspector sucked up to Odile. If they were watching them, it was probably to protect her.
Two women walked out. The girlfriends. Newton’s date, the country singer Ashley Lionel, and the Presidential companion, triathlete Patricia Wood. They looked rich, unnaturally young, and happy.
Then He emerged.
The Commander in Chief, wearing an old school bomber jacket with flight patches and the left arm pinned up over his stump. He didn’t look back. All business, the busy boss headed back to the office. His hair was going white. It looked like some of his skin was, too, scar tissue you could see on the back of his neck. He was shorter than they made him look on TV. And something about seeing him in the flesh, feeling him that close, made all your deep down feelings about him come right up to the surface.
She wished she could see his eyes.
“Yo, Tommy!” she yelled, insanely, uncontrollably, as if momentarily possessed by the rabble-rousing spirit of her mom. “Look at your people, tyrant!”
And as soon as the words left her mouth, Tania could feel she had breached the terms of their unofficial permission to be here.
Tania was right at the fence now, fingers through the chainlink, eyes on, like some crazy starfucker. Or assassin. She suddenly realized how very close they were to the most protected man in the world.
She glanced at Odile’s freaked out face, and the uniformed dudes gaping behind her, all staring at Tania.
But she got what she wanted.
She got the President of the United States to look right at her. They locked gazes. No more than a second, but long enough to register the judgment of those cold blue eyes.
It was not a safe feeling.
“Let’s go,” said Odile.
The President turned. Barked something at his guard. One of his dogs actually barked.
The blonde lady bodyguard was really watching Tania then. So were half the people around her.
Tania felt the shudder of fear come up through her body.
She looked up and around, at the cameras you could see, and the ones you couldn’t. One of the news cameras was on her now.
“Come on!” said Odile, grabbing Tania, pulling her hard.
“Yeah, okay,” said Tania. They turned, and headed back the way they came.
“What the fuck!” said Odile, glaring, as they walked as fast as they could without running.
“Sorry!” said Tania. “I think you just got me all riled up with all that crazy talk at lunch and hollering at Newton.”
“That was all you,” said Odile. “I say what I think sometimes, but in the right time and place. I thought you knew how this town works!”
“Same way the whole country works,” said Tania. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
She knew that was a lie, even if it was true.
When they got to Lafayette Square, they were waiting for them. Of course they were. The soldiers surrounded them, separated them, frisked them. Tania saw Odile crying as that same Inspector, Nichols, escorted her back behind the checkpoint. Then four Secret Service agents took Tania away in a car with windows tinted so dark she couldn’t see where they were.
She asked what cause they had to detain her, but they didn’t say anything. As she knew, they didn’t have to.
It was an emergency.
It had been an emergency for as long as Tania could remember.
Christopher Brown is a 2013 World Fantasy Award nominee for Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, the anthology he edited for Small Beer Press. His short fiction appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including recent pieces in MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows, The Baffler, and Stories for Chip. Brown maintains a strong presence online and in the genre community, and has a solid reputation and readership as a writer whose fiction and criticism explores interesting territory at the nexus of technology, politics and economics.