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.
“Futurist as provocateur! The world is sheer batshit genius . . . a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”
—William Gibson, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author
“Timely, dark, and ultimately hopeful: it might not ‘make America great again,’ but then again, it just might.”
—Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling and award winning author of Homeland
“A unique blend of Philip K. Dick, Kafka (just a smidgen), and a whole lot of Christopher Brown. Adventure novel meets political satire and the finest elements of realistic sci-fi, and it’s so well written it goes down like a greased eel. It’s hopeful dystopia. What a book.”
-Joe R. Lansdale, author of the Hap and Leonard series
“Tropic of Kansas is the tale of a politically desperate USA haunted by a sullen, feral teen who is Huck Finn, Conan and Tarzan. Because it’s Chris Brown’s own imaginary America, this extraordinary novel is probably more American than America itself will ever get.”
-Bruce Sterling, award-winning author of Islands in the Net and Pirate Utopia
A midwestern odyssey of sorts with Tania and Sig on the road in ways, one on trail of the other, the other a most wanted man, one of skill and manoeuvrability and trained to defend and attack, an America gone topsy turvy in a haunting and alarming read.
The author has done a great job at reporting on a world that just one does not quite want and would hope is not something that may read as historical fiction in the future.
He takes you through a land where there is anarchy and fight for power between people with guns and varying agendas in wanting a different America.
Guns and militia on land and Drones in the skies terrify and policing, shortages of all kinds of essentials, and reader will be hooked in reading with the element of hope through to a silent and more free and peaceful America ultimately.
There is the thrill and dystopian sense of place, imaginative writing and the prose has brevity and some good craft in descriptivness keeping you reading with some thinking also, a thinking thriller.
Almost a reading I could treat as an addition to the Road by Cormac McCarthy as the other side of the fence, tale of the other citizens the world the realm of that we didn’t see, masterly envisioned, stark and haunting but beauty with the human struggle intertwined with hope at hand and some heart.
Sig (white, long straight hair, crazy green eyes)
Tania ( black, Sig’s foster sister)
Incursions of Militiamen
Hawk-Eye Self Defence Militia
Maxine Price author/revolutionary/separatist
Rogue corporate coup
Betterment of life
“The Mounties had nicknames for Sig, like Animal and Dog Boy, but they never called him any of those to his face. They didn’t know his real name. When they trapped him stealing tools and food from a trailer at the Loonhaunt Lake work camp a month earlier, he had no ID, no name he would give them, and they couldn’t find him in their computers. They still tagged him, accurately, as another American illegal immigrant or smuggler, and processed him as a John Doe criminal repatriation. They did not know that he had been up here the better part of seven years, living in the edgelands. The memory of that day he ran tried to get out, like a critter in a trap, but he kept it down there in its cage. And wished he had stayed farther north.”
“There were a lot of theories. It had happened when Maxine Price, Vice President of the ousted administration that had come before—and more recently leader of the separatist political experiment that took root in New Orleans after the flood—led a delegation for cease-fire talks at the White House. That much everyone agreed on. Theories about who brought the bomb, or if there even was a bomb, varied widely. The less people really knew, the crazier the stories they invented to explain things. What Tania was sure of was that Maxine Price was killed that day, whether by her own hand as the ultimate American suicide bomber, by a heroic Secret Service agent, by a rogue corporate coup attempt, or all of the above, and what was left of the idea of a real change in this town, and this country, disappeared with her.”
“Mainly, the people in the neighborhood got more organized than they had ever been. They shared information about food shortages and power outages, jobs and informal financial networks, traffic and weather, potholes and politics. They reported on police activity and arrests, and the incursions of the first militias as the bankrupt city, state, and federal governments started to look to citizen posses to do the jobs they could no longer pay for. The militia, unsurprisingly, were mostly white guys who already had their own guns. So the committee used the network to organize their own militia. Like a neighborhood watch with attitude, said Mom. They had their meetings in her coffee shop on the ground floor, which was also a bookstore, even if it functioned more like a library. They put a bunch of terminals in there for the people who didn’t have the right kind of TVs. Tania made a program to track the books in circulation—mostly so she could find who had the copies of her Max Price books when she wanted to reread one. Tania spent a lot of her time “on air,” as they called it, helping out as a community dispatcher.”
“It was motivating, not in a good way. You wanted to fight it, but the consequences were too grave. It made you feel alone. Looking up at the image on the billboard, at the smoldering ruins on which he was standing, Tania thought about the victims of that day, and other days since he had taken power. People who lost their lives, people who lost their livelihoods, people who just lost their country. Or, as Tania felt, learned what their country really was when you peeled off the mask of civility. What it always had been, if you read the history books that the school boards wouldn’t put on the curriculum. This city reminded her of the bad parts of her own past, the days when the fresh darkness announced its arrival and a lot of people put out the welcome mat, mistaking it for salvation. Hard times produced harder solutions.”
“The crowd she found inside was mixed, mostly young, all races, working on no races. None of the faces were familiar, which made Tania realize how long she had been gone, but the expressions were—starved and sad and strong all at the same time. Many had the tattoos of overseas service in military and MMC units, while others looked like veterans of these streets. A lot of them were milling in the side room, talking away from the music, and enjoying the snack-sized previews of the hot food Mell said was the main reason a lot of people went to these events. Twenty-five percent unemployment in the states affected by the farm failures, they said, and that didn’t count the people who’d stopped looking. People were hungry for more than food.”
“His job at the Fulfillment Center was to put stuff in boxes. “Care packages,” Billie called them. Shipments of material aid to New Orleans, St. Louis, El Centro, Tijuana, Managua, and other nodes in the network. No weapons, no matter how many times the young guys suggested. Mostly just things to help people communicate—net kits, little handheld televisions with the transmit boxes built in, memory, pop-up antennas, gear to power the networks with energy from sun, wind, and water. There were purification systems, packets of pure seeds, and tons of books and pamphlets.”
“THIS IS THE HAWKEYE SELF-DEFENSE MILITIA. WE HAVE PROBABLE CAUSE TO BELIEVE YOU ARE ENGAGED IN INFORMATION TERRORISM AND HARBORING FUGITIVE ENEMIES OF THE STATE. WE ARE DEPUTIZED BY THE FEDERAL GRAND JURY AND THE AUTHORITY OF THE GOVERNOR UNDER THE LIBERTY ACT TO SEARCH THE PREMISES. EVERYONE COME OUT NOW WITH YOUR HANDS UP.” The vehicles ejected armed men, and a few women, scrambling for the doors. Must have been a dozen of them, big pork-fed white people acting like police or border patrol even though they were neither. Which made them more dangerous. They dressed like farmer-cops, Carhartts and overalls mixed with Kevlar and tactical gear. Their trucks, hats, and tops flashed images of sharp-beaked hawks with weapon wings, omniscient eyes, and a little bit of bling.
“As she drove through the bleached-out flatlands where Minnesota dissolved into Iowa, she was reminded again of why she left. Back east they called it the “Tropic of Kansas.” It wasn’t a specific place you could draw on a map, and Kansas wasn’t really even a part of it, but you knew when you were in it and you knew just what they meant. Which wasn’t a compliment. The parts of the Midwest that had somehow turned third world. They tried to return the Louisiana Purchase to the French, the joke went, but it was too damaged. They were still arguing about what caused it. Entire political movements had grown around different theories, but the truth was no one really knew.”
“Cedar Rapids was one of the regional centers from where the recolonization was managed. When you approached it from the north it looked like you had arrived at some industrial ruin of the twentieth century. Weathered concrete towers of grain elevators and food factories rose up over the wide expanse of the railyards, tattooed with the fading logos of dead corporations. Some were retrofitted with new infrastructure—the chromed pipes, black sealants, and aluminum glands of the new biofuels processes. Even with the windows closed, the town smelled, like cotton candy burning into some toxic gas. You could see the river from the overpass as you came into the old downtown, and you could see it was dead. Something about the color, like chemical mud, the gelatinous texture of the current, the way all the banks were devoid of flora and even the adjacent urban blocks appeared to have been cleared out.”
“The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life. It helped if you remembered that they were as miserable as the people they were policing. Guys, and a few gals, who had grown up in these blighted quarters neglected by capital and had no ticket out. The kind of people who believed it when the politicians who worked for the businessmen—or were the businessmen, using their fortunes to buy another flavor of power—told them that the source of their suffering was other people living among them, the people who had even less than them and were trying to cut in line. Having a black woman in a big-city suit show up at their door was not quite as exciting for these guys as having aliens land, but Tania tried to use the shock to her advantage, and to make herself feel as alpha as she could manage among this predatory gang.”
“Before every commercial break, they showed a one-minute life of one of the sixty-six. Newton Towns narrated the sequences about the military response, with documentary voice-over solemnity.
Tania felt the programmed feeling coming on. Empathy for this long-dead young woman’s life cut short. Felt the cry coming up inside, even though she knew she was being manipulated. She wasn’t just crying for this dead American diplomat with feathered hair. She cried for her own dead future, in sudden recognition that her entire career was a misguided emulation of these childhood icons of nationalist virtue, noble public servants whose own innocence masks the sins of their master. She cried for Mom, the soul-tired in her eyes from fighting her whole life against a leviathan she could not even scratch. She cried for Moco, the spirited kid learning the ugly lessons about what they did to those who tried to freely move, especially if they came from one of the camps. She cried for Tracer, the teen who had the foolish courage to challenge his own family’s privilege. She cried for Sig, out there roaming Lord knows where, surviving like an animal, alone. She even cried for untouchable Odile. And for America, her country gone cannibal.
Her radical white school friends used to say Martyrs Day was the event that broke the American heart and turned it black. When she repeated that to Mom over dinner, Mom said it just gave them permission to be more honest about it.”
“A new political system based on self-determination and real democracy doesn’t happen overnight,” said Xelina. “And a correction of predatory mercantilist monopolies takes even longer. The people are ready for free networks without bosses and rulers and the men with guns who serve them. The TAZ isn’t dead. It just went underground. And viral. With your help, by the way.”
“The victory condition is to make the whole country the TAZ,” said Sig. “We feed the people by liberating the food, and fuel, and money and property your friends stole from us.”
“Ex-friends,” said Walker. “How do you think you pull that off? March on Washington?”
“She looked at the picture of the Colonel, posed in the insurrectionary edition of her National Guard uniform, tough dark eyes and the brown skin of the global South. She was the force that really made Maxine Price’s TAZ possible, the one who saved the city after the flood and grabbed the power in the process, the face the streets loved the most, but who let Price do most of the talking in public. She had gone underground after the Purge, the one the feds said was leading the last pockets of guerrilla resistance to their new order.”
“She remembered the story, sort of. Something about a barge with toxic cargo. Tropical disease, strain unknown, carried in the trash. An accident. Thousands dead. Unsafe for fifty years. Quarantine.
Then the deluge. Deluges.
A smaller city they would have just cleared out the whole town, but this place was too important, especially after Maxximol really took off. Oil and human performance stimulants. Food for the machines and fuel for the workers. Draw a hundred-mile circle around the city and you could really see its economic necessity to the Zeitgeist. The military-industrial orifice through which they extracted what was left of the Tropic of Kansas and staged their way south looking for fresh meat.
She looked out over the ruined landscape. Maybe the end of the world already happened and nobody noticed.”