Chris Brown — long known as a writer of perfect, jewel-like demented cyberpunk stories — makes his long-overdue novel debut today with Tropic of Kansas; a hilarious, dark, and ultimately hopeful story of a terrible authoritarian president whose project to Make America Great Again has plunged the country into an authoritarian collapse that’s all too plausible.
Brown’s alternate America diverges from our own with the assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, which leads to the ascension of President Haig and the beginning of the end. The Internet is never realized — instead, it’s supplanted with a surveillance-friendly, centralized system run by AT&T that quickly becomes an organ of state surveillance.
The post-assassination America’s authoritarian paranoia drives hordes of refugees to Canada, to be hunted and deported back to the USA — where, inevitably, they are viewed with suspicion as potential foreign agents.
Enter Sig, a feral child whose radical mother was imprisoned and ultimately murdered for her politics, who has been living off the land in Canada for years, until he was caught and committed to the tender mercies of US Motherland Security, who mark him for the forced labor camps of Detroit.
After a daring escape — the first of many — Sig is free, living off the land again, drifting in and out of the radical underground, pursued by his stepsister, who has foregone her own radical ybouth to become a government agent. As the two of them whirl across America, Brown paints a picture of a pirate net, complete with its own cryptocurrency, living off of mutated phone phreak technology and secret messages in the vertical blanking intervals of pirate TV broadcasts.
The uprising — and counterrevolution — that is sweeping across America has both of them in its tailwind, providing for enough much adventure, hair’s-breadth escapology, jungle melee and down-and-dirty fighting for three hairy-chested men’s magazines, but with an ironic, reflexive distance that makes it all the more delicious.
Brown’s novel is just what you’d hope for from a long-awaited debut like this: a book that excites, provokes and terrifies.
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