Christopher Brown’s TROPIC OF KANSAS (Harper Voyager, 2017) is a fun dystopian read about an alternate United States broken down by income inequality, environmental depletion, and various factions warring against a police state.
In this alternate USA, the Iranians slaughtered the hostages in Tehran and Ronald Reagan was assassinated in the early ’80s, resulting in Alexander Haig becoming President and endless war in Iran and the Americas. After him, the next President tried to dismantle the resulting police state but was overthrown on false charges, resulting in a civil war. The American heartland is now a DMZ called the Tropic of Kansas, policed by right wing militias, and now a brooding ground for rebellion, desperadoes, and experiments in self government.
Two protagonists emerge in this world as agents of its change. Sig, an orphan of political dissidents, who roams the Tropic one step ahead of the authorities until connecting with the people who will help him fight back. And Tania, his foster sister, a government agent assigned to find him, and who accesses a government secret that may change everything. Revolution is coming, but can it be won?
With endorsements from the likes of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow, I thought I couldn’t do wrong with this one, and I did in fact enjoy it. It’s a fun read with a thriller pace. The world building is terrific, and I loved that aspect of it the most. Sig and Tania are likable enough protagonists, though Sig in particular often seems invincible while at the same time unreadable as to what he really wants and why. He just bounces around from group to group and immediately gets into trouble with each, providing a tour of the Tropic of Kansas that leads to a lawless New Orleans. Tania’s far more interesting with excellent tracking skills, clear motivation, and a coherent story line that holds together the entire book.
In my view, the novel never really achieves the promised gravitas nor a meta take on modern times like say the film CHILDREN OF MEN did. Thematically, it hits on the struggle of freedom against tyranny, but hits it so lightly it seems the story winds its way to revolution rather than the revolution being a cathartic and righteous resolution to the story. What TROPIC OF KANSAS does deliver is a really fun, somewhat madcap ride through dystopia and revolution in a fully realized, intriguing world. Brown really went to town on it, providing a terrifically detailed vision.
I love that post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is making a comeback with Big 5 publishers and hope to see even more of it. TROPIC OF KANSAS stands out for me as one of the good ones.