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Tropic of Kansas by Christopher BrownThree and a half stars
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If the measure of a dystopian novel’s success ties directly into how easily readers can map the premise and events of the novel to our lives right now, with minimum effort required to suspend disbelief that this can happen here, then Tropic of Kansas may well be the most successful single work of dystopian fiction ever published. Christopher Brown — who has a back catalog of acclaimed post-cyberpunk short fiction written under the name Chris Nakashima-Brown — has constructed his debut novel in such a way that its sense of timeliness in depicting a shattered America revolting against authoritarian government is existentially terrifying like nothing else you’ll read, hopefully, for many years. It’s as if Brown was reading the tea leaves long ago regarding America’s slide towards the kind of wrapped-in-the-flag fascism epitomized by the Trump era. Tropic of Kansas just feels way too close for comfort.

Some backstory. As most of us know, and some of us remember, in 1981, a pathetic loser named John Hinckley took a shot at Ronald Reagan. While Reagan recovered from a collapsed lung, Alexander Haig, the hawkish secretary of state, made what many considered a little power grab, which, surprisingly enough, put no one at ease.

In Brown’s alternate America, Reagan did not survive the shooting and Haig went on to a militaristic presidency, smashing Iran and the Soviet Union in a series of wars and chartering “military merchant companies” to seize natural resources in Central America. The internet as we know it didn’t emerge. Rather, a government-controlled network was put in place, mainly used for domestic surveillance. Fast forward to the 21st century, and democracy is effectively over. America now has a dictator in the White House, a blustery ex-POW kleptocrat named Thomas Mack, so narcissistic he travels with the actor who plays him in propaganda movies and so extra-evil that the former vice president tried to blow him up in the West Wing, Operation Valkyrie-style.

We follow two protagonists. Sig is the 18 year old son of resistance fighters who has been mostly alone and on the run for half his short life. As the story opens, he is being deported back to America from Canada, where he will, for the rest of the book’s length, remain on the run. We see him escape from incarceration, then take up briefly with various groups of dissidents scattered throughout the heartland. It’s an area now known as the Tropic of Kansas, where the land has been chemically farmed to such excess, it’s no longer arable except to grow inedible corn for biofuels. Deputized citizen militias, consisting of exactly the kinds of people you’d expect, enforce what laws Washington pays them to.

In the other corner we have Tania, whose family briefly fostered Sig many years ago, a time culminating in the riot that led to Sig’s killing his first police officer at the age of eleven. Tania has since swallowed her pride and done her best to settle in, with a Beltway legal career. But she can’t keep the rebellious spirit instilled by her mother bottled up completely, and after she publicly heckles Mack on the White House lawn, she’s detained and offered a deal: her imprisoned mother in exchange for locating Sig, whom the Feds believe will lead them to the most active resistance cells throughout the Tropic. Their stories will ultimately converge in the battleground city of New Orleans.

Brown writes with a staccato urgency that stylistically recalls William Gibson. His language is sparse, his chapters short. Yet at the same time, detail is rich, and the pervasive sense of how profoundly a once great country has declined as it went to war against its own citizens is palpable. Don’t get too attached to characters, as Brown often dispatches them with a cold suddenness that makes George R.R. Martin seem positively humanitarian. Brown’s complete lack of sentimentalism is absolutely right for the story. There is no call for anything in the way of rah-rah heroics here, and the story makes it abundantly clear that even if everything goes entirely in favor of the rebels, any kind of victory will only mean the hard work of restoring the nation has just begun. And it will never go back completely to its former self.

But it must be said that the book’s greatest strengths are also its greatest liabilities. I expect a good dystopia to be grim and depressing. But at over 460 pages, Tropic of Kansas is well overlong, and the way in which Sig just goes from one brutal, violent confrontation to the next, rinse and repeat, ultimately creates more a sense of numbing monotony than nail-biting suspense.

And frankly, Sig himself is a problem. While it’s entirely in keeping with his character that he would be emotionally aloof — after all, a boy who never really knew his parents and has been a homeless fugitive since early adolescence isn’t exactly going to be the most socialized guy — it should have been possible to convey this without also making him such a personality vacuum for the reader. Sig gets more rough trade thrown his way than any one person should, but he doesn’t really elicit sympathy, and it can be hard to get a handle on his arc. While it’s laudable that Brown avoids turning him into the kind of Katniss Everdeen superhero that so many fight-the-power dystopias want to offer us, by the later chapters, when Sig is jumping onto drone tanks and disabling them by ripping out their wiring with his bare hands, let’s say the novel begins veering away from hard-edged realism at precisely the moment it should do the opposite.

Tania is quite a bit more well-rounded and human, and some of her scenes with her mother deliver the book’s most successful emotional engagement. And a number of the minor characters register pretty well, despite being seen only briefly. In what may be the novel’s single most incisive moment of truth, Tania’s mother describes how easily it is the bad guys win. Because the good guys spend too much time “compromising.”

…“By letting them divide us. They know how to get all the people who should be on the same side to fight each other over differences that aren’t even real. Race, religion, region, reason. And people got so poor and worn out they just gave up, at least on the idea of real change….”

In final analysis, Christopher Brown is a brilliant writer who has delivered a suitcase bomb of a novel that is undeniably important. But it’s imperfect, like its own displaced heroes, and some readers will be impressed by it without especially liking it, while others will likely find it all just too much to take. But then, maybe the gut-punch that Tropic of Kansas delivers is exactly the sort of alarm call we need. It’s easy — and foolhardy — to take freedom for granted when there are people in power very very skilled at getting you not to notice until after it’s been taken away.