Failed State's Christopher Brown on building utopias out of dystopias

Failed State's Christopher Brown on building utopias out of dystopias

Happy Friday! (or whatever day it is you’re reading this on.)

One of my favorite discoveries recently has been author Christopher Brown, author of Tropic of Kansas, Rule of Capture, and Failed State, as well as a whole host of short stories. He’s popped up in some interesting places — he writes a newsletter (which I highly recommend) called Field Notes, about the intersection of humanity and nature, and was recently featured in Apple TV+’s documentary series Home. You can find Brown at his website, his newsletter, or on Twitter.

His books are engrossing, thoughtful and observational reads about the state of the world, and how the ways in which we’ve set up our systems of government, culture, and legal system are pulling us in some darker directions, and depict a world in which revolutionaries and activists are trying to course-correct before it all comes tumbling down.

I recently spoke with Brown about his books, and we ended up talking about a wide range of things, from the nature of dystopias and utopias, how he got into science fiction and writing, and how his day job as a lawyer helps him envision these sorts of futures.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

To start off with, you’re a practicing lawyer in addition to being a novelist. What type of law do you practice?

I'm a member of the Texas and Iowa bars and am currently practicing on my own here in beautiful East Austin, Texas. I'm a kind of a technology lawyer, you'd probably say. I started out working in government — I went to law school on a Harry Truman scholarship, which is for people who show up with reasonably good grades commitment to public service. It pays for the last two years of undergrad and the first two years of grad school.

And so I went to law school back in my home state of Iowa on in-state tuition. That was low enough — $1100 dollars a semester at the time — to allow me to actually work in the public sector without having to be so levered up with debt.

So I worked for a few years out of law school in the US Senate. I worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee staff. My first project as a lawyer was working on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and also worked on Justice Ginsburg's confirmation hearings. And actually, Attorney General William Barr’s first round of confirmation hearings when he first served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

Anyway, I did that for a few years, and then I got married and I was going to be a dad, and I was very interested in in the internet. I remember going on a business trip to a meeting for the European Patent Office in Munich, and I read Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net on the plane over there and it just kind of blew my mind.

When I got back, I read an article about a company in Des Moines that was going to be like the Microsoft of interactive television, back when everybody thought the internet would never make it as a commercial thing, and that smart TVs were where all the action was going to be. So I landed a job there and kind of grew up in the technology business, took that company public, then moved to Austin and worked with a lot of different startups. Worked as a partner at a big law firm and then went in-house with another startup, more in the financial services or FinTech space and took that public.

And now I'm on my own, mostly working with like mission-oriented startups, a lot of nonprofits, and I do a lot of community work and pro bono work, a little bit of immigration stuff, and a lot of conservation-related work, which also involves a certain amount of kind of joining in on gentrification battles and whatnot.

So how does like how does science fiction figure into this? Were you a fan as a kid, or did that come to you later?

I'm very much the David Hartwell quote that “the golden age of science fiction is eleven,” and I really grew up with it. I'm kind of a child of the space age. I'm old enough to have watched the Apollo missions on TV and my first dream job as a child was to be an astronaut, and was sort of obsessed with the idea of planetary exploration. And I was very kind of deeply immersed in pulp fiction.

When I was a kid, there was this funny little new and used book, comic book and war game supply store, and so my buddies and I would take the bus down there on Saturdays and load up on Doc Savage and Robert E. Howard paperbacks and comics. As I got into adolescence, I continued to dabble.

But then really, kind of in my college years, I discovered a different kind of science fiction and to some extent, the cyberpunks, but also J.G. Ballard, and Walker Percy — who's not really thought of as a science fiction writer, but who wrote some books that I think are great examples of kind of literary uses of speculative fiction — were a big influence. And then, to a lesser extent, Doris Lessing, — I read her Shikasta books when I was in late high school, and that kind of blew my mind.

In my late 20s, early 30s, I started writing short fiction in a serious way, and when I moved to Austin in my early 30s, I got involved with the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, met writers like Bruce Sterling and Jessica Reisman and Don Webb, Howard Waldrop, And all the people they would bring in, like Ellen Datlow, Connie Willis, Cory Doctorow, and John Kessel. That kind of really brought me back into science fiction from the more slipstream kind of work that I was doing. And then I eventually figured out how to write a novel that I was happy enough with to send out, which brings me to the present.

Yes, all of the above. I mean, they're all sort of variations of what you might call like, an applied political economy in a way. My work as a lawyer partly is just work in the technology business, and if you're interested in technology, and the kinds of things that are the thematic concerns of cyberpunk and near future works, there are obviously deep and natural connections there.

I mean, spending 25 years at that kind of bleeding edge of the things that so-called disruptive startups are doing gives you a good sense of the real character of the kind of world that produces those things. And it gives you a kind of an interesting, ironic lens, as someone who kind of starts with reading about these things in fiction, and then sees how capital goes about the process of appropriating the liberatory ideas of those fictions and turning them to the material of our servitude.

So it gives you a kind of a cynical, critical perspective that I think informs the fiction in a fresh way. And working as a lawyer, you really get to see a lot of the worst things that people are capable of, both on an individual level and an institutional level. The way that institutions can become corrupt, or the way that bureaucracies and power structures work in real life wrapped in the rational clothing of the law and of due process — which are often really unjust. And so that can really help inform the fiction.

Writing fiction helps you think about character and the point of view of other people in a much deeper and more meaningful and empathic way than one is normally inclined to do.

Bleeding back the other way, I think that writing fiction helps you think about character and the point of view of other people in a much deeper and more meaningful and empathic way than one is normally inclined to do.

It requires the author to really occupy as best they can the mind of the character that they're writing about, and that kind of active empathy has tremendous gifts to everyday life. Especially if you're working in settings where you're working with people who are dealing with problems, and you’re coming at it from a very different point of view, as I’ve experienced when I when I worked inside the criminal justice system or whenever I'm in corporate settings. You're thinking about the people you're dealing with on the other side, be they working consumers or investment bankers. And thinking about it in the context of like fighting a fight against developers, on behalf of a diverse group of neighbors and trying to really understand the different ways people are looking at things.

So from that perspective, it's tremendously helpful. And lastly, it gives you a way of biting deeper into the copper wire, a deeper analysis of what's really going on. I really found that that marriage of the novelist’s way of trying to find what the story is really about, together with the lawyerly incision for me is a fun thing to try to pair.

I imagine that science fiction also gives you a unique perspective on time — thinking long term rather than what’s right in front of you. I studied geology in college, and found that that type of thinking and understanding geologic time is useful when it comes to like how we handle ourselves as humans. In the grand scheme of things, we haven't been around that long.

Absolutely. That sense of deep time that science fictional thinking compels can really help you understand the kind of preoccupations of the immediate moment, from a much deeper standpoint, and both in the sense of helping you to see things in a wider perspective, but also helping you to better understand what's really going on in a moment, informed by all of that long history. And that's really come through for me in the experience of writing these three books I've been working on in the past five years.

It feels like your your books fall into an interesting category in that they are they're clearly future focused, but not necessarily scientific. I absolutely hate that we’re compelled to pigeonhole books into these categories, but I'm curious how you approach stories — do you approach them as like a science fiction thing? Or do you look at them as a technology thing, or economic or political thing?

All of the above? I mean, it's a great question, and they’re kind of like the butterflies in my yard, you kind of chase after things that interest you or that draw your attention. For me, my background is much more in history, economics, politics, political theory, and law, than it is technology.

I'm interested in technology, but I'm interested in technology more as an expression of all of those things, as an expression of political economy, than I am in technology on its own merits. I don't have a particularly strong scientific background, though I have a very strong interest in ecology and natural history, but I approach it from a kind of a an amateur's point of view.

And so in my early science fiction, I was interested in technology, and it was kind of pretty post-cyberpunk and was often kind of like media punk avant pop. But I wasn't interested in technology per se as mush as the content that was being transmitted through the technology, and the way that the internet and with even just popular culture, the way that the technologies of mass communications create these layers of narrative in the spectacle that reframe reality and the kind of the more profound consequences of which we are experiencing now.

I've had this exact conversation with friends of mine when I used to work as a tech journalists. We had a couple of interesting discussions about the nature of our reporting and how we basically worked covering entertainment. One of the insights I had from some of those discussions was that it's very easy to fall into the trap of talking about technology on its own merits, like this computer can do X, Y, and Z. How fast it is, what features it has, etc. And that’s basically the beginning and end of the story. We were more interested in seeing how those technologies facilitated content.

Totally! There’s an irony to it in that my interest in technology and my interest in the early internet, working with kind of early startups where we would like download the beta copy of Netscape, all of that stuff ended up being a kind of a portal for me, into kind of a new humanism of like, to your point about us looking at those devices and then seeing what was really interesting about them was how they impacted human behavior, how they impacted the kind of stories that we tell and the languages that we speak.

Image: Harper Voyager

With Tropic of Kansas, it started out I wanted to write something about, Democracy 2.0 or Democracy 3.0, a political story in an age of ubiquitous high speed networks, where everybody is connected, what would a more authentically participatory democracy look like?

It ended up morphing into something very different, because I started exploring the people and what had happened to this democracy, and the landscape through which they were traveling. I found my way into not only just the more human and character-driven part of the story, but the way in which, behind this layer of spectacular shiny, mirrorshades technology was like the dirt of the earth, and that all of the social and economic problems that these people were living in with this shiny technological layer were all rooted in the really damaged relationship that people have with the land on which they live.

Let's go back up a bit: how did this world come about? What was the original impulse?

Well, partly what I just described, this sort of the idea the history didn't end in 1789, this lifelong fascination I've had with theories of revolution, the kind of cycles of political birth and rebirth and change. At the time I was working on it, revolution was in the air, all over the place. We had just moved to this neighborhood here in East Austin, which was kind of a neighborhood transitioning from industrial to newer uses, but had a lot of funky, rundown, old industrial lots — right across the street from us was an old neon plant, they were repurposing as the staging ground for Occupy Austin.

So there was like, genuine revolutionary ferment right around me. And then it was also the time of the Arab Spring and of all of these mostly peaceful uprisings that were going on the other side of the world, mostly in the Middle East. I was interested in the counterfactual: what would happen if something like that were happening right outside our doors? I had an idea of the kind of character type I wanted to use, a kind of a repurposing of the tropes of adventure fiction, almost like those Conan stories I read when I was a kid, the idea of that kind of a character, wandering barbarian picaresque.

And I realized that if you were gonna have a revolution in the United States, things would have to be a lot worse. Originally, it was going to be set essentially in the present and it morphed into a kind of a mirror version of the present, one in which some of the other emergent trends around me were more and more manifest, like the idea of CEO becoming an authoritarian president, autonomous weapons patrolling the skies, and the ecological exhaustion of the midwestern agricultural breadbasket of the country. And so that's how I ended up with this book that read to many readers as post-apocalyptic, when I thought I was just like reporting what I saw.

It seems like there’s more of a movement of very-near future science fiction that’s drawing directly on the present. You’ve got August Cole and P.W. Singer’s book Ghost Fleet and Burn-In, which work with a real purpose to highlight the issues we currently face. Then you’ve got works by people like Paolo Bacigalupi and Octavia Butler, which are uncannily accurate, or turning out to be so.

That’s because they’re telling the truth about what they see.

Yeah, it seems like if you have a better understanding of the present, the more relevant and more interesting your vision of the future is going to be.

There’s no question about it. You know, all science fiction is mostly about the present. I mean, I think that's largely true, but not always true — I think there's science fiction that's genuinely about the future. I'm very much a believer in practicing a kind of speculative realism that's drawing up your imaginary worlds from the material of the observed world.

I actively avoid trying to be topical! I work really hard to run away from the real world. If I'm going to write about the real world, I can write nonfiction — which I do, or I can write more contemporary stories. I'm trying to evade it, but it sort of like, just keeps catching up to me.

Image: Harper Voyager

I regret to inform you that you failed.

Yeah! I mean, my editor, David Pomerico at Harper Voyager, as we got into Rule of Capture, he started to be like “stop, I can't — you keep writing these things!” and I thought, some of the ideas in there were so like, implausible that I sat on the book for six months, that nobody's gonna believe this. And then it just starts happening.

With Rule of Capture, I tried to take things — you draw things from real life, but they're things that like have never happened here on US soil, at least in the past 125 years or so, and more like what you would have seen in like 1970s Argentina or Chile, which is really where I drew from while working on that book —  unidentified pseudo law enforcement and paramilitary types, showing up in unmarked cars and taking people away without habeas corpus or normal due process rights, unlawful arrests for basically protesting or for having it dissident political views, or just any kind of resistance to the status quo.

Failed State I think does a little bit better job of kind of like evading the present. Of the three books, it's the one that's most genuinely about me trying to get my head around the idea of what the future looks like. Whether it succeeds in that I don't know — that's for others to judge.

With Rule of Capture, what struck me is that it seemed to be a book that had a lot of echoes from the Bush and Obama administrations in that you extrapolated quite a bit from the heavy federal presence when it comes to law enforcement and border control and the military — the convergence of all those things. I'm curious: how did the past couple of years influence your worldview here?

Well, that's a great question because Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture are both books that are like really engaged with post-9/11 reality, each in different ways. And Tropic of Kansas is kind of doing a science fictional inversion of basically having the war on terror take place within the confines of the USA. That's kind of one of the fundamental little science fictional tricks explained.

Once you do that, you sort of look at our own country, and you see the qualities of what we used to derisively or paternalistically refer to as third world countries, and you need to start bringing out those elements that are like that, and that's the reason it seems pressing is because it is kind of like a third world country in a lot of ways, and becoming more so by the day.

It’s a book preoccupied with the point of view of the people who are the victims of the projection of state power

It’s a book preoccupied with the point of view of the people who are the victims of the projection of state power — the people who were at the wedding when the drone shoots and fires a hellfire missile at the wrong target.

Rule of Capture just takes the material of the legal thriller and mashes it up with the dystopian novel, but it's taking the injustices of the justice system and in particular, the injustices of the post 9/11 justice system, that kind of “justice system” that the detainees in Guantanamo find themselves in. It's generous to refer to that as Kafkaesque — it basically takes the law and procedure of those kinds of courts and literally transports them here. It’s kind of an expression of like moral outrage — maybe a lawyers cynical version of moral outrage — at the idea of living in a society in which lawyers are the principal facilitators of the failure of the rule of law in this country. We're where we are because to please clients, lawyers are using situational ethics instead of a fidelity to reason that it's supposed to guide the law, writing memos that said, “Sure, you can exercise power in that way,” and “You can do these things that really are obviously torture, but which we won't call it “torture” for purposes of this particular treaty obligation or obligation under international or domestic law.”

I'm just trying to take that out and stretch it out and use that sort of inversion to help people see how those things work, maybe with fresh eyes.

What struck me with the book is that the imagery and mechanics of an oppressive state — oppressive systems in science fiction has been around for decades — look at something like Star Wars, where all the stormtroopers are all wearing the same white armor and as you keep moving through the decades, that look becomes far more sophisticated by the time you get to Rule of Capture. In Failed State, you talk a little bit about the sort of militarization clothing, especially when you're talking about your mercenaries kitted out in military gear and have a mindset and culture sort of bleeds into the civilian market, which is something we’ve seen lot of in recent years.

It’s always fascinated me. I kind of grew up with an unhealthy diet of 80s action movies the all American love of playing pretend soldier and of that kind of action movie narrative. And to me, 9/11 really represents an inflection point where it's crystal clear how the narrative of those kinds of stories — which are, of course, an expression of our own sense of identity, — where the heroic good guys who represent democracy, go and save people. It’s the story of the western, where they go and round up the bad guys. 9/11 — it's sort of like innocent people are the victims of these bad guys, and we're gonna send our cowboy soldiers off to Afghanistan to hunt them down and bring them to justice. And then three months in, we don't get the bad guys, the bad guys get away, and then next thing you know, you're in this endless war, that's now full of torture, and flying robots that kill people from the sky, and the suspension of due process, the temporary state of emergency about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and so forth.

A big part of that is this commodification and fetishization of the idea of being the action hero, especially among cisgendered white men, where everybody gets their own Hummer and assault weapon.

And yeah, a big part of that is this commodification and fetishization of the idea of being the action hero, especially among cisgendered white men, where everybody gets their own Hummer and assault weapon, and that, that’s this like fundamental American right. So yeah, I mean, all of these books are trying to take that, which is an idea, a kind of a character type that's really, deeply valorized in our culture, even in the ways that nobody wants to talk about, the kind of “support our troops” kind of stuff, right?

You know, it's just everywhere, and it's almost theological. Post-Vietnam, it's like nobody wants to go back to that territory where people question “is it good to have a military culture in the service of a state that's really focused on things other than moral justice?” We don't ever really want to look at it anymore. So we just sort of valorize the soldier archetype, and I'm trying to say “well, wait a minute, maybe those are pretty scary people.”

And they are, because that same archetype is like what's producing extrajudicial executions on your Monday morning social media feed. How do we reckon with it? That reckoning with it has a lot of different forms you can take, but one is through the stories we tell.

It seems like a lot of that also dovetails with other ongoing problems that we're facing in the US, like racism and classism, and how these various systems interact with one another in often chaotic ways, something, obviously, your books do.

Image: Harper Voyager

To turn to Failed State, you jump ahead a seven(?) years —

Yeah, seven, eight years after the events of Rule of Capture, and like two-ish years after Tropic of Kansas.

You mentioned that you wanted to sort of play with some genuinely futuristic ideas, and in it, you show off some sort of utopian experiments. How did that come about?

I'm really interested in — what we were talking earlier — about how I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I'm really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world from the Enlightenment forward is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it's that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitating in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can't even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that's sort of the problem it's trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

What I found interesting is that even though it’s designed as a utopian system, and it as such on paper, it seems like there's a lot of it’s also facing a lot of problems: the movement itself is sort of pushing out people that are that are loyal to it and is really sort of honing in on on some extreme ideas.

I mean, there's a tension between imagining an authentically plausible utopia and telling a compelling story and being honest about the challenges that exist. To me, it kind of concluded that utopia is not a place, it's a decision. It's a decision to try to build a more just society and in Failed State, you really have like two different versions of utopian societies. One is a kind of like neoclassical, neoliberal, corporate utopia — the scenes in Dallas represent one that’s unencumbered by any kind of government control.

The way I solve the problem of introducing conflict into utopias just to kind of throw in the one kind of character they never have: a lawyer.

Then the other one is this society of people in New Orleans, who are trying to liberate the Earth from human dominion, but doing so using the available tools at hand and that's the one that's closer to the people who are wrestling with the real problems. On one level, the story works almost like a Yojimbo-like story, kind of one wiley character trying to play the two sides off of each other, and in the process, trying to contrast them and chip away at their weaknesses. And the way I solve the problem of introducing conflict into utopias was to kind of throw into the utopia the one kind of character that utopian societies never have, which is a lawyer.

Even if you’re pushing it to generate drama, what I found really interesting here is how groups of people, when they’re trying to enact a plan, that internal culture really is what defines how that rubber meets the road, right? This is something I've been thinking about a lot — how do organizations or communities of people come together with their ideals, and then play them out? And there's always the blueprints and theory and then there's the actual, execution.

Totally, and especially when you're dealing with societies founded on revolutionary change, and a mission of a radically different future, those kinds of radical political changes, they have a real challenge in terms of how they go about accepting diversity of viewpoints within their community, right?

I mean, I was in Sandinista, Nicaragua in the summer of 1984, five years after the revolution, and I remember really being struck by how there was this community of people that had deeply held, authentic and maybe romantic beliefs of the better society they could found to overthrow, the colonial legacies of basically being dominated by a landowner class and with everybody else existing in a condition of almost serf-like servitude, and illiteracy, and sickness and poverty. But to do that, you know the story, they end up having to — every revolution has its potential Cambodia-like outcome. So

I read a lot of the really great utopian novels, and they almost all deal with variations on these issues. One of the masterworks is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and that does a great job of having a character who's a product of the putatively utopian society — not a lawyer questioning things, but a scientist questioning things through the scientific method, and in his journey to the other society, which they see as dystopia, but which the people of that society see as a quasi-utopia. Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, is another great example, and one really grounded in realism.

The problem, I think for the book is that these issues you’re citing about how difficult it can be to have a kind of successful experiments in community like that is that the issues that you're really wrestling with are so fundamental to how our civilization is structured. You’d have to go undo some of the precepts of the agricultural revolution, if you really want to tackle the real problems — speaking of deep time — and that's kind of what the characters and author are wrestling with in Failed State. I don't know that there are any perfect answers. They're just like anything in life.

I think we're all sort of making it up as we go along, and maybe cynically, there's no right and wrong with it, just like how do people put it together?

Yeah, but it's like: we've got to get back to trying! We’ve got to get back to the idea of collaborating as neighbors and around the idea of building a future we would actually want to live in for our children and grandchildren! I just think that many people are fighting for more justice in the immediate term, and I don't know that there's any kind of a coherent, shared vision of like, a better future we're marching towards. And I think that science fiction has an important role in trying to reignite that that discourse and conversation.

Thanks for reading — I’m putting together the audio as a standalone podcast (much like I did with Mary Robinette Kowal, although hopefully with far less of a gap between this and that) for subscribers, which will include a bit more that didn’t make it into this edition.

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Coming up, I’ll have a regular roundup edition for everyone next week. Also next week, I’ll have a short story that I’ve written that I’ll be releasing to subscribers called “Walk in the Woods.”

See you then,