Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas (2017) is grim political science fiction that feels like it could only have been spawned by the Trump presidency. Given the lead times of publishing, though, it must have been conceived well before that, which makes it feel alarmingly prescient as a speculative project. Set in a bleak American political dystopia, Tropic of Kansas is a violent, intrigue-filled road novel about Sig, a teenaged survivalist with an inconvenient past that makes him the target of the officious neofascist regime of a dictatorial U.S. president. This regime sends Sig’s foster sister, Tania, into the lawless Midwest to track her brother down. Tania is a lawyer from a toothless government oversight agency, a compromiser who’s been attempting to reign in corruption from the inside. But when her concealed discontent with the status quo erupts, getting her into trouble, she’s forced into the dangerous wilds of middle America, where various revolutionary stakeholders are working to bring down the system.
I would be hard pressed to categorize Tropic of Kansas as a fun read, but it’s an inventive and unsettling one, delivering a dark, alternate near future that seems only more plausible now than when it went to press. Brown’s world-building is rich, especially in the political arena, and his hard-nosed characters are nicely emblematic of intractable American political divides. Unfortunately, despite the inexorably converging narratives involving Sig and Tania, it’s a bit difficult to see the shape of the story in this one; a can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees problem, as the detailed nitty-gritty clouds the bigger picture, making for an occasionally distancing journey. But overall it’s an unnerving depiction of life after an American political apocalypse, both timely and convincingly rendered.