“Cormac McCarthy meets Philip K. Dick.” So says the new Booklist in their review of Tropic of Kansas. Pretty awesome and humbling to read a reviewer digging the book in that way. Full text at the link.
The view from the fifteenth floor of the airport hotel looks out through a frame of pebbled concrete bolted to the structure. The pebbles are shades of pink and grey, harvested from local rock to make the brutalist sun-shading of the 1970s. I wonder how long the rock was there in the earth before they harvested it to create a place for business travelers to sleep between flights and meetings.
The window looks out onto a wide ancient plain between the forks of the Trinity River which has been almost entirely converted into a platform for launching hairless apes into the sky. Sixty-five million of them a year on more than two-thousand flights a day. They start coming at dawn and never really let up, making their own tunnels of wind just over the hotel, lined up in air traffic controlled constellations of avionic light threaded out across the eastern sky. Wide freeways lead to the airport from every direction, and to the parking lots of the seemingly infinite number of corporate hotels, identical office parks and shitty chain restaurants that append the complex, terrestrial mirrors of the network of hundreds of other airports that send the planes here and accept its departures.
I brought my trail running shoes for my weird weekend in this zone, and as I look out the window I imagine lines through the green space allowed by this Anthropocene overlay that straddles two counties and four muncipalities. There is an empty field right down there, a triangle of maybe four or five acres. In the field are twenty-seven bales of hay faded to grey, left there a long time ago, hidden at ground level behind the towering sunflowers of late summer. On Friday as I arrived men were laying a new road next to the field, preparing to pave it with every square foot of impervious cover the municipal development code of this particular suburb allows.
The water towers of Irving, of which there are many, each feature an image of wild horses running across these plains. And as I jog over the fresh-mowed Bermuda grass that grows in the rights of way, I imagine when it was like that here, with herds of fast mustangs roaming free, ready to be harvested like found money by enterprising pioneers. I am old enough now to realize how recently in time that was, and maybe even how brief a period a time of this place between the rivers was, because really the horses were as invasive as the imported grasses under my feet, an accidental gift of the Spaniards to the people who had walked here from the other side of the world.
Running along the grassy median of the road that follows the southwestern fenceline of the massive airport, you can see the people driving out of the brand-new subdivision of custom homes opposite the outer edges of the tarmac, and you can see that many of them are people who just got here from the other side of the world, or from the other class realities of this country. The sort of people who are not deterred by the signs in the lawns warning of the avigation easements encumbering the houses, agreements in advance to endure the noise of low-flying aircraft. They will not be here long, in these way stations on the way to American affluence.
Go mustangs, say the ball caps of the preppy old white people riding their BMWs to the SMU game.
On the other side of the George W. Bush Presidential Freeway, I noticed another wide field. As I stepped off the turf to cut through to it, I found native grasses coming up in a spot along the edge that evaded the bulldozers. The gentle grade of the field beyond that led up to an old billboard painted over black, accidental abstraction in a zone given over entirely to the self-expression of corporate persons. As I stopped to take a picture, a big hawk lifted off from the light armatures at the base, headed for a stand of exotic trees over there by the office park.
I came here for a weekend conference I thought was about imagining better futures, or at least other futures, but turned out to mostly be just another celebration of the repeat consumption of juvenile narratives of wonder by adults seeking escape from lives in the cubicles of those climate-controlled buildings. And on the last morning when I look out the window at the terminal to the sky, I realize this is that future that our predecessors imagined. I also remember the creek I saw flowing under the airport perimeter fence, and the prairie grasses I saw there holding out in a few square feet that the spreadsheets missed. I wonder how long ago it was that this plain was made by water, and whether these concrete creeks will overflow and drown the office parks sooner than the engineers think.
The Los Angeles Public Library has an interview about Tropic of Kansas up at their blog—some great questions that really bit into the material.
And the September 15 issue of the Times Literary Supplement has a roundup of new American dystopias, including Tropic of Kansas, remarking on the book’s “thriller-ish swagger,” “the rather richly imagined wasteland of [the book’s] mid-America,” and it’s “Twainian journey downriver to the Missisippi’s end,” and even pulling out Roland Barthes to explain the book’s narrative strategies for world building.
Texas Architect: “A Natural History of Vacant Lots”
Los Angeles Public Library: Interview with an Author: Christopher Brown
The Los Angeles Review of Books just posted a great long essay on Tropic of Kansas, with contributor Christopher Urban positioning the book as a rare example of a contemporary dystopia of resistance, and comparing it to both Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
Tropic of Kansas is an entertaining and engrossing read — and it shows that contemporary dystopian literature need not forgo aspects of ‘resistance’ but can, in fact, be all about it.”
This weekend’s Wall Street Journal included a nice review of Tropic of Kansas by Tom Shippey—an unexpected highlight of a great weekend that also included an exceptional installment of Armadillocon, Austin’s annual conference on imaginative literature.
And this morning, my interview with Rick Kleffel at the KQED studios in San Francisco is now available online (in both 1-hour and 7-minute versions), after airing on several Northern California NPR affiliates. Rick also has a generous review of Tropic of Kansas, asserting the book is neither dystopian nor utopian, but merely “utopian”—telling it like it is:
…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…”
Wall Street Journal—”Double Dystopia“
Narrative Species/Agony Column—”Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas: Topian Fiction”
I was pleased to learn today that my novel Tropic of Kansas topped BookPeople’s list of local bestsellers published in the Austin American-Statesman, in some humbling company. Thanks to all of you for helping get this thing off to a strong start.
Pic: Hometown crowd at BookPeople July 14 for the double header book launch of Tropic of Kansas and Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods
Thanks to everyone who came out to our book launch at BookPeople in Austin last Friday, and to my readings and panels at Readercon last weekend. We had a standing room only crowd at the launch, and sold out of books at both events.
I will be in San Francisco this Sunday, July 23, 3pm at Borderlands Books in the Mission, reading from Tropic of Kansas and in conversation with my friend and colleague the brilliant writer and physician Michael Blumlein. Please come by if you are in the area and interested, and pass this information along to any friends you think might like to know about the event. More details here.
Tuesday, August 1, I will at Third Place Books in Seattle (Lake Forest Park), reading and in conversation my my friend and colleague Nisi Shawl, Tiptree Award-winning author of Everfair and Writing the Other.
After that I will be back in Texas for Armadillocon August 4-6 and Murder by the Book in Houston on August 24, with fellow Harper Voyager authors Marina J. Lostetter and Patrick Hemstreet. Full event calendar here.
In other news, The DIY minimalist trailer I made for Tropic of Kansas was yesterday’s Book Trailer of the Day at Shelf Awareness. Check it out:
A frighteningly believable portrait of an American future that is closer than you want it to be.”
Delighted to see Tropic of Kansas in the latest roundup of summer reading recommendations at Kirkus, written by SF Signal editor John DeNardo:
In Brown’s all-too-plausible near future, the United States as we know it is no more. Instead of being a group of states ruled by the government, Middle America is a collection of warring territories where civil unrest and revolution are the new normal. The so-called Tropic of Kansas – described as ‘the parts of the Midwest that had somehow turned third world’ – is a demilitarized zone where civilian militias impose their own brand of cowboy justice. Into this arid wasteland comes Sig, the abandoned son of political dissidents, and Tania, his foster sister, a government investigator blackmailed into helping a tyrannical government hunt down her foster brother. Brown’s story moves quickly and he packs quite a lot of ideas and world building into every sentence. My advice: hang on and enjoy the dark but satisfying ride.“
Texas Monthly: “What to Read This Month—Summer reading, Texas style“