A NATURAL HISTORY OF EMPTY LOTS

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m delighted to share the news that my new book, A Natural History of Empty Lots—”a genre-bending blend of naturalism, memoir, and social manifesto for rewilding the city, the self, and society” forthcoming in October from Timber Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group—is now available for preorder.

Drawing from the material I have been developing in Field Notes, the urban nature newsletter I’ve been publishing since 2020, A Natural History of Empty Lots is the record of my twenty-year experiment exploring, living in and documenting the edgelands where human cities and wild nature collide.

It’s nature writing, but not by a professional naturalist—I am a dystopian novelist, a lawyer, and a dad whose children helped him rediscover the outdoors without leaving the city.

The book tries to break through conventional ways we experience and think about nature, starting with language and narrative inversion. It seeks out the wild in landscapes marred by human industry, and finds portals to escape the alienated haze of everyday life.

It’s hopeful, but provisionally so—documenting the remarkable resilience of nature and finding paths to a greener future we each can help achieve, while reckoning with the incapacity of human power structures to get us there.

Here’s what some of the early readers had to say:

A loving, deeply pleasurable, and sprawling investigation of place, community, personal history, and larger contexts. A Natural History of Empty Lots  has the shape and liveliness of something organic, as if it has grown out of the neglected, teeming hidden places of the landscape Brown knows so well. An incredible book.”

Kelly Link, Pulitzer finalist, MacArthur Fellow, and award-winning author of The Book of Love

A Natural History of Empty Lotsis the best and most interesting book I’ve ever read about the spaces we often overlook. Christopher Brown comes to these places with a deep curiosity and understanding of both human and nonhuman history. An instant classic.”

Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times bestselling author

Too often, what we call ‘nature writing’ is nostalgic for what never was. Thank goodness for Christopher Brown, who sees the wonder in what is and what might be. A Natural History of Empty Lots is the nature writing we need now.”

Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction

And today through Friday, the book is one of the 2024 titles featured in Barnes and Noble’s preorder promotion this week—25% discounts for B&N Rewards & 35% for Premium Members (PREORDER25 at checkout). I’m honored to have my book in such great company in the Nature category—a bird book by Amy Tan (!), a collection from the amazing Atlas Obscura, hiking diaries from Annie Dillard, and whole lot of wolves and owls with their own books. And I’m especially excited to be on the page with Camille Dungy, whose talk I’m planning to hear this weekend while we are both passing through Des Moines during the local poetry fest, and whose new book Soil sounds incredible.

A wider array of preorder links is available at my main page for the book.

As a special preorder promotion, I’m going to be sending out a print version of the newsletter with content not available elsewhere—outtakes from the book, both text and photos, entirely new material, and probably a map and some drawings. If you’re interested in getting a copy of that, just email me your preorder confirmation at chris@christopherbrown.com along with your preferred mailing address. The response thus far has been so enthusiastic I think I’ll do the first installment sooner than I had planned, and follow it up with one or two issues before publication day on October 15.

Thanks to all of you for your support with this project and my earlier work. I’ve been hunkered down writing this one for the past couple of years, but plan to be more active here and on social media now that I have emerged from the bunker.

The Secret History of Empty Lots

I am delighted to share the news that my book The Secret History of Empty Lots, a work of narrative nonfiction about urban nature and how to find the path to a greener, rewilded future, building on the same material as my Field Notes newsletter, will be published by Timber Press, which is part of Hachette Book Group. We are targeting fall of 2024 for publication, and I am excited to get to work on writing this, after a busy summer developing the proposal. Here’s the deal announcement as it appeared in Publishers Lunch:

Thanks to my literary agent Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, and to Stacee Lawrence Gravelle and her colleagues at Timber Press for seeing the promise of this material and providing such a great home for the book.

On the pyre

In this week’s Field Notes, I mention the funeral scene from my 2019 novel Rule of Capture, which I was reminded of by this fascinating article in this week’s New York Times about the new trend in certain American quarters to have oneself cremated on a pyre surrounded by loved ones watching your body burn for hours. A surprising yet affirming thing to read about, since when I wrote a scene that imagined such neo-primitive practices being adopted by the home-grown fascists who are trying to take control of the country in that novel, it seemed like a slipstream detour from the grounding in the real I had otherwise been working to maintain. And of all the things in that book that later seemed prescient, this one at least causes no harm to others.

For readers of the newsletter who are interested in the full scene, I am excerpting it here—the opening paragraphs of Chapter 35, which comes late in the second act:

They’d had a regular memorial for Judge Elwood earlier that week, in the church his widow chose, but the real funeral was that night at midnight, on a closed-off overpass west of downtown, part of one of the private freeways reserved for the wealthy elite. More than a hundred friends gathered, more men than women, with their best classic cars from the golden years before the war, all tuned to the same private FM feed, blasting border metal at the city below while the judge’s body lay there atop the hood of his 1989 Cadillac Conquistador, which in turn had been raised on a pyre of rebar and mesquite doused with high-octane fuel drained from the tank of the car. The boys had gotten good at building those pyres in a way that you could drive the preferred chariot of the deceased right up there at the beginning of the fest and not need a crane or a bunch of floor jacks.

The judge was dressed in a chalk-striped charcoal flannel suit with a green foulard tie, white handkerchief, and the snake boots he wore for the hunt. His party lapel pin glistened like black gold, reflecting the moonlight. His favorite Glock was holstered right there in the waistband of his suit pants behind the sterling belt buckle monogrammed with an etching of an eagle clutching a rat in its talons. The nine-inch knife with its hand-carved handle hung from the belt in its handsome Brooks Brothers scabbard, and folded into his arms was the Beretta double-barreled .12-gauge with the inlaid silver image of Robert McAlpin Williamson, the Republic of Texas-era judge known as Three-Legged Willie for his primitive prosthesis, and for the Bowie knife he always wore under his judicial robes.

The judge’s friends lined up to pay their respects, leaving gifts with him to take off to the beyond. Cactus flowers, black and gold-jacketed bullets and shells, flasks of fine tequila and whisky, cigars, antlers and condoms. People talked and told stories about him, and then they turned off the music and his wife walked up with her bold blonde hair done up in a vintage coif with a fresh streak of silver through the bangs that matched the platinum sequins of her dress. She gave a talk about what her husband stood for and what he believed the future would be if they continued the fight to which he had committed his life, a patriotism made from blood and dirt and the melding of the Anglo and Spanish traditions of law, property and the enjoyment of the life of born leaders. Then the mistress got her turn, talking about some of the things he liked to do for fun, including an anecdote about the trip they had taken after the last diagnosis had come in, which involved three extramarital couples on a private jet loaded with spirits and firearms and a big-ass tent you could put up in the desert after you landed. His daughter talked about his most important decisions, listing some of the most dangerous enemies of the state he had incarcerated. And then they each kissed him in turn, intense goodbye kisses to warm dead flesh. They stood together after that, arms locked, and sang the Song, a cappella, so crisp and clear that it carried far from that vaulted freeway even though you could hear the tremors of loss in their chorale. When they were done, the men took the torches they had been holding, and put them to the pyre, as the feed came back on with “Judgment Day,” the last instrumental duel between Page and Gibbons before they went their separate ways. Somehow the flames engulfed the Caddy just at the part where the drums and guitar find their shared harmony and then the bass joins in and then the screaming wails, the unofficial anthem of twenty years of flag-draped victory celebrations, and you could almost believe in the mythic past these people accepted as true heritage.

For more about Rule of Capture, including links to longer excerpts and places where you can find the book, check out the book’s main page here.

 

In the news

Edgeland House, January 2022. Photo by Casey Dunn for Texas Monthly.

Our experiment in feral domesticity, Edgeland House, was the subject of a generous feature this week by the poet and independent journalist Julie Poole for the March issue of Texas Monthly. I was delighted to read her closely observed report on coming over to visit, and I appreciate her efforts to situate the project in the context of my work as a writer. And the photography by Casey Dunn really brings out the beauty and color of the house in midwinter. Full story here.

And over at Transfer Orbit, Andrew Liptak has the full transcript of a conversation he and I had a few weeks back about climate fiction, including a reconsideration of some canonical American novels as such. Andrew is an insightful interviewer and an incredibly hard-working independent writer, and his newsletter is perhaps the best out there on the subjects of fantastic fiction and the business of science fiction. This interview was originally conducted for Andrew’s piece about climate fiction for Grist, but my comments didn’t survive the editorial condensation, so it was nice to see the whole conversation end up as its own piece. (There are a few spots where my Midwestex mumbling confounded the transcription bot, but the ideas come through just fine.)

 

The Summer of Living Dangerously

In this week’s edition of my newsletter Field Notes, I talk about my 1984 trip to Nicaragua. I wanted to link to a piece I wrote in 2017 about that trip during the promotion of my novel Tropic of Kansas, but the mystery readers site where it was published seems to be defunct, so I thought I would republish it here.

THE SUMMER OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

When we told the taxi driver to take us to a hotel in El Centro, he said there aren’t any.  We insisted, with the full confidence of two Americans not yet old enough to vote but old enough to think they had a handle on the whole world. He looked at us in the rear-view mirror with eyes that had seen his country torn apart by revolution, said the Nicaraguan colloquial equivalent of “whatever,” and started driving.

We had come to Managua the long way, college kids posing as journalists, with IDs from our school papers next to our passports and Graham Greene novels tucked in the side pockets of our summer suits. Charlie and I had hatched the plan after watching a midnight showing of The Road Warrior, committing to spend the summer after freshman year touring Mexico by jeep. The idea grew up over the next two semesters—we would write news features from the war zones of 1980s Central America. Our parents agreed to not fight with us about this half-baked plan if we promised not to go to El Salvador. Deal.

We did not know that meant we would end our trip in a real-world mirror of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that had lit the original idea in our heads.

I took a night bus from New Orleans to Laredo, crossed the border by cab, and picked up the Aguila Azteca sleeper train through the mountains and into the old downtown of Mexico City—another “El Centro.” Charlie and I met up there, on the third day, at a pre-arranged place and time, the kind of thing we had to do when cell phones were the stuff of science fiction, and even a long distance land line call could break the budget of a student traveler. And from there we set out by budget buses, through Chiapas and into the jungle wars on the other side.

We talked our way into the company of real journalists, traveled by helicopter with the Guatemalan army into the highlands where indigenous people were being rounded up into model villages, had office visits with a military press officer who teased us about the dinnertime conversation he’d heard us have on a surveillance tape, met Iowan priests in secret bars who told us stories of torture by machete-wielding soldados rooting out the Mayan Maoists. We toured a military hospital at the edge of the U.S. air base outside Tegucigalpa from which the secret missions were launched, drank beers in a San Pedro Sula Holiday Inn with middle-aged dudes from Virginia who called themselves “contractors” with winking smiles, and danced with strangers to jukebox cumbia in an open-air cantina while we waited for the 3 a.m. bus to the next town.

The Nicaraguan border was DMZ, with the checkpoint pulled back 7 kilometers. There was one taxi making the run, and the truckers only gave rides to girls, so we walked, down the middle of what we thought was an empty highway, telling stupid jokes and singing songs. I am not sure which stupid song it was that got the soldier up on top of the hill to start shooting at us, but that turns out to be a very good way to get 19-year-old smart asses to shut up. We managed to get through the border crossing with wads of black market Nicaraguan cash stuffed in our pants, and arrived at our final destination as the sun went down.

The hotel the taxi driver took us to was straight out of one of those Graham Greene paperbacks, a revolutionary outpost in the ruins of the official city—a place where what hadn’t been destroyed in the earthquake a decade earlier got blown up in the long civil war that followed. The night manager wore her scarlet Che Guevara T-shirt in a way that compelled good behavior by the guests, while the leader of the junta lectured from the TV on the wall. The room had two bare mattresses, an open window, and a bare industrial-sized fan that looked like it could shorten your fingers. We packed it in early.

And in the morning, we looked out the window onto the ruins of the future.

I don’t know how many blocks the zone spanned, but from that vantage it looked almost like forever. This was where the colonial-era city had been, until it was completely leveled in the terremoto of 1972. The dictator took the international reconstruction funds for his own purposes, one of the many reasons even the business owners ultimately joined the uprising against him. But the people who really won the revolution were the committed ideologues who had been fighting in the jungles for longer than Charlie and I had been alive, people who believed they could build utopia from the material of their damaged polity. The Vice President was a poet, and the head of the intelligence apparatus was a guy who had gone to our prep school. And during that moment, the faith in the future was in full flame, even as the market shelves got emptier, and the cigarette filters had to be made out of sawdust. (We smoked them anyway.)

We walked out into the zona, past bombed-out buildings in which you could see squatters huddling in the shadows around oil drum fires. We saw an experimental kindergarten in the exposed basement of an old bank. A Sherman tank half buried in the dirt, covered in graffiti. Empty fields of browned-out weeds devoid of people—except for a platoon of North Korean soldiers doing parade drill on a plaza of cracked pavement. The cathedral that had once been the center of municipal reality reduced to a skeleton tagged with obscene images. The words of Ozymandias, translated through a peninsular prism in the last days of the Cold War.

We found our way to the suburbs that night, and the memory receded over the years, until two decades later I found myself beginning the book that became Tropic of Kansas. As I drove that winter on the back roads of the plains through towns in the process of being abandoned by the exhaustion of their economic potential, I recalled that morning in Mad Max’s Managua. Dystopia is not a real place, but you can see it from here. The dark road trip I wrote had to go back to that zona, through an American mirror. I finally figured out what those kids in the experimental kindergarten of 1984 had learned: that to find a better future, we have to navigate the way through our own ruins.

PKD Award and Norwescon weekend

As mentioned in January, my novel Failed State is a nominee for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. The awards ceremony will be at Norwescon again this year, but as suits our Dickian moment, it will be virtual, which means you can attend from wherever you happen to be (as long as you can jack in). The event will be Friday, April 2, at 7 p.m. Pacific Time, and will include a short reading from each of the nominees. Details here.

I’ll also be doing a longer reading from the book Friday at 6 p.m. Pacific, and joining a panel about the award Friday at 2 p.m. Pacific with Gordon Van Gelder and fellow nominees Alastair Reynolds, Christopher Brown, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and M.R. Carey.

Saturday, April 3, I will be participating in two panels: one about sentences, and one about “Beautiful Horror,” a topic of great interest to me lately.

I hope to see some of you there. Here’s the full schedule:

Friday, April 2
All About the Philip K. Dick Award
Mt. Rainier Stage
2–3 p.m.PT
Join award administrators and nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award discuss the award and its legacy.
Gordon Van Gelder (M), Alastair Reynolds, Christopher Brown, Adrian Tchaikovsky, M.R. Carey
Reading: Christopher Brown
Seaports Stage
6–6:30 p.m.PT
Christopher Brown reads from his 2021 Philip K. Dick Award-nominated work Failed State, about a lawyer juggling two intertwined cases in the aftermath of a second American revolution
Philip K. Dick Awards
Grand Ballroom Stage or Twitch
7–8 p.m. PT
The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually at Norwescon with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust. The award, for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States, is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Philip K. Dick Trust. Come hear readings from the nominated works.
Saturday, April 3
Sentences: I Walk the Line
Seaports Stage
noon–1 p.m. PT
Sentences are to fiction as bricks are to architecture. But unlike your average brick, a single sentence can stick in readers’ memories for the rest of their lives. Panelists will discuss great first sentences, descriptive sentences, last lines, and why these examples resonate with them (and readers). What is meant by varying sentence structure and what goes in to writing a great sentence?
Carol Berg (M), Corry L. Lee, Charlotte Lewis Brown, Nancy Kress, Christopher Brown
Terrifying Flowers in Sunlit Fields: Beautiful Horror
Mt. Baker Stage
2–3 p.m.PT
Horror is known for the dark and grotesque. But Midsommar and Annihilation are two recent horror movies notable for being colorful, gorgeous, and well-lit. Our panelists discuss examples of beautiful horror, and when it works or doesn’t work to show us all the monsters clearly in broad daylight.
Glenn Dallas (M), Evan J. Peterson, Leigh Harlen, Eliza Gauger, Christopher Brown

Recent pieces and upcoming appearances

Happy almost Halloween. In addition to my weekly Field Notes, from which this photo of a beautiful roseate skimmer comes, I’ve been keeping busy with the tail end of the launch of Failed State, and wanted to mention a few new items among my articles, interviews and appearances:

Over at Tor.com, I have a new essay up on the ways in which our darkest science fictions and contemporary headlines seem to be bleeding into each other, and how we can fix that: Dystopia as Clickbait: Science Fiction, Doomscrolling, and Reviving the Idea of the Future.”

Over at Transfer Orbit, Andrew Liptak has the full transcript up of a long interview we did about Failed State and lots of other topics related to my approach to SF and other themes: “Failed State’s Christopher Brown on building utopias out of dystopias.”

And tonight, October 19, I’ll be appearing with my colleagues Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling as part of the public lecture series Cory is doing to promote his terrific new book, Attack Surface. The theme of tonight’s virtual conversation at Anderson’s Bookshops in Chicago is  Cyberpunk and Post-Cyberpunk, and it should be a fun and wide-ranging conversation—Cory and Bruce are two of the smartest people I know, and old friend I always love to talk with. VIRTUAL EVENT: Cory Doctorow in Conversation with Bruce Sterling and Christopher Brown, 7 pm CDT, October 19, 2020, via Anderson’s Bookshops.

 

 

 

FAILED STATE—upcoming virtual events

Failed State

My new novel Failed State, the follow-on to last summer’s Rule of Capture, will be published three weeks from today on August 11. As you might imagine, it’s a challenging time to launch a book, with bookstores mostly closed, publishing staff and reviewers all working remotely, review copies and events all moving to exclusively digital and virtual formats, and all of us distracted by current events. In some ways, that suits the book, which takes place in the aftermath of a nation-breaking crisis, as lawyer Donny Kimoe finds himself trying to save his own skin by brokering a deal between two warring factions—one an autonomous community trying to beta-test a greener future in the drowned ruins of New Orleans, the other a cabal of Dallas-based biotech tycoons who want to feed a starving world from their patented seeds and get rich in the process. Here’s what some of the early reviews have said:

The novel is as tense and thrilling as any of Brown’s work, and as full of rage and hope. It’s a novel that truly reckons with the enormity of  both our climate emergency and the system that produced it – a tale of  human imperfection and redemption.” — Cory Doctorow, bestselling author of Walkaway

“[A] larger-than-life near-future legal thriller of environmental collapse and social rebuilding… Brown adds new layers to the wildly imaginative dystopian setting of his first two works, now with an emphasis on environmental law. The scenes of sunken New Orleans are vivid and will keep the pages turning.” — Publishers Weekly

Failed State is in continuity with my prior two novels, Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture, and ties together those storylines in a way that tries to germinate the hopeful seeds they planted and get closer to utopia. But while the books work together, each is a standalone, and can be read without the others, and/or be read in any order.

Two launch-related virtual events are coming up that I hope some of you will be able to join us at:

Second Life Book Club – July 22

Tomorrow, Wednesday, July 22, at 12 pm Pacific I will be on the Second Life Book Club with the amazing and prodigious British science fiction writer Paul McAuley and host Bernhard Drax. It should be a blast, assuming I can navigate my way around inside the Matrix okay. If you aren’t on Second Life, you can catch the event on YouTube here.

Virtual Book Launch – BookPeople Austin – with Cory Doctorow – August 12

On Wednesday, August 12, at 7 pm Central, Austin’s original indie bookstore BookPeople will be hosting a virtual launch for Failed State, and I am delighted to be joined at the event in conversation with my good friend Cory Doctorow. Cory has been a great supporter of all three books, and a big influence on them, especially through his championing of a less Hobbesian view of humanity and the possibility of more utopian futures. You can pre-register to join the event on Zoom here. And if you would like a signed copy of the book (or of any of my other books), BookPeople is taking preorders for me to sign before the event.

Thanks for your support and interest in my work, and I look forward to seeing many of you at one or both of these events.

 

Texas Monthly interview: Will Dystopian Times Inspire Utopian Art?

I recently had the opportunity to talk with fellow Austin author Nicky Drayden and Texas Monthly Deputy Editor Jeff Salamon about writing science fiction in the post-pandemic world, for the magazine’s future-focused July issue. A condensed version of the interview appeared in the print issue that hit the stands this past weekend, and the full transcript is now available online. I really love the headline they came up with, which is a theme I have been thinking about a lot, and I totally dig the illustration by Mark Pernice (included above), which channels the groovy spirit of the great 1970s sf paperback covers.

Texas Monthly: Will Dystopian Times Inspire Utopian Art?