Christopher Brown: Five Things I Learned Writing Failed State

In the aftermath of a second American revolution, peace rests on a fragile truce. The old regime has been deposed, but the ex-president has vanished, escaping justice for his crimes. Some believe he is dead. Others fear he is in hiding, gathering forces. As the factions in Washington work to restore order, Donny Kimoe is in court to settle old scores—and pay his own debts come due.

Meanwhile, the rebels Donny once defended are exacting their own kind of justice. In the ruins of New Orleans, they are building a green utopia—and kidnapping their defeated adversaries to pay for it. The newest hostage is the young heiress to a fortune made from plundering the country—and the daughter of one of Donny’s oldest friends. In a desperate gambit to save his own skin, Donny switches sides to defend her before the show trial. If he fails, so will the truce, dragging the country back into violence. But by taking the case, he risks his last chance to expose the atrocities of the dictatorship—and being tried for his own crimes against the revolution.

To save the future, Donny has to gamble his own. The only way out is to find the evidence that will get both sides back to the table, and secure a more lasting peace. To do that, Donny must betray his clients’ secrets. Including one explosive secret hidden in the ruins, the discovery of which could extinguish the last hope for a better tomorrow—or, if Donny plays it right, keep it burning.

Utopia means nowhere, but you can write your way there

There’s a scene early in 1969’s Easy Rider where the protagonists, Wyatt and Billy, visit a commune—the home of a hitchhiker they pick up after their big score. It’s really a series of scenes of life in the commune—young people hanging out, trying to live by their own new rules and be self-sufficient. Free love and free food.  Critics often refer to it as one of the weaker sections of the movie, but I don’t think the movie would really work without it. It’s a vision of utopia that provides a counterbalance to the all-American dystopia the rest of the movie travels through. Its memory is there in the negative space of the abrupt ending. But conventional wisdom would say you couldn’t make a whole movie branching off that scene.

I watched that movie again as I was beginning work on my new novel Failed State, trying to find good examples of fictional utopias in popular entertainment. When I pitched my editor three years ago on the idea of a mash-up of the legal thriller with the dystopian novel—“Better Call Saul meets 1984”—he dug the idea enough to ask for a proposal for two books, set in the same world as 2017’s Tropic of Kansas. The proposal for the first book was fully fleshed out, and became 2019’s dystopian Rule of Capture, whose story of a burned out defense lawyer defending protesters imprisoned for their politics in a country gone mad seems more topical now than I could have imagined. For the second book, I had a plot mapped out, but all I really knew was that I wanted to make it more utopian—to realize in fiction the better world the characters had been fighting and dying for in the previous books.

Dystopia is easy, in the sense that all you really have to do is look around and report on the messed-up things people do to each other and their environment in real life, and putting your characters into those situations creates instant drama.

Utopia is harder. Utopia means nowhere, a setting that’s like the Talking Heads song about Heaven: “a place where nothing ever happens.” The novel is a literary form driven by conflict, and focused on the experience of the individual in society. Writing one about people living in harmony, or one that transcends the idea of the self to focus on community as protagonist, is a challenging undertaking. But science fiction is the literature of the possible. It has unique tools to tackle those sorts of problems. And in a world where the very idea of the future seems to have mostly disappeared, in part because it’s so hard to even get a fix on the present, the idea of imagining a world we would really want to live in seems like a worthy undertaking. It’s something we talk about doing in the field more than we actually do it.

One path is to break out of the constraints of novelistic form. You can write utopia as political theory, as design fiction, or even as a kind of nature writing. But the most common path is to craft a compromised utopia, one that has made different tradeoffs, and is in tension with the world around it, or threats from within. That’s the solution of masterpieces of utopian SF like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, and of more recent efforts like Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and the Wakanda of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther.  Works like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road find a glimmer of utopian possibility in the grimmest dystopia—it’s the place the characters are trying to get to, even if it’s just a religious vision or a wishful mirage, and that tiny kernel of hope is what carries the reader and the characters through the difficult journey. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the characters find their way across the wasteland to the feminist ecotopia they seek, only to learn it has been destroyed by climate change. So they return to the warlord dystopia they came from—the one place that still has clean water—and realize a similar vision through popular uprising.

Utopia is not a place. It’s a decision.

The ending is the beginning

The dramatic inversion that results from that decision can help you rethink narrative norms. Like how many of those stories of survivors roaming the vine-covered ruins of our civilization are not as dystopian as you thought. They are expressions of secret wishes. The resurgence of nature is the return to our nature. And behind the Hobbesian fights that usually drive the stories set in those places is a recognition that they could be the restoration of Eden.

My first published story was a weird little slipstream riff about a gamer who builds a post-apocalyptic diorama of the town where he lives, and then drowns it with a garden hose. In Failed State, I went back to that place—with a real city drowned by climate change, populated by characters who embrace the resulting rewilding. It was a way to solve the fundamental science fictional conundrum that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a real change in the political system. The uncomfortable truth lurking in our post-apocalyptic fictions is that the “end of the world” is the path to real change. And that end is really just the beginning—one that starts with imagining things like, if you could go back to the dawn of the agricultural revolution and get a do-over, how would you structure human society to make it more just, or more ecologically sound? That’s the kind of speculative project SF was made for. No one book can solve those problems, but it can come back with soundings from other paths.   

Peace can be your conflict

As I began working on Failed State, I thought I had an easy way to guarantee the conflict the story needed to work as a novel, by introducing the one character type no utopia ever has—a lawyer.  There are no lawyers in utopia, because a society without conflict doesn’t need them. Or so they want you to believe. The truth is that almost all utopias are founded on codes so strict that they acquire the characteristics of religion, like the one the Lawgiver administers in the original Planet of the Apes movies. Those societies have no lawyers because they permit no disagreements. Introduce a character who challenges the infallibility of the utopian code, and you have all the conflict you need. It’s what Shevek does in LeGuin’s Dispossessed, even though the laws he’s trained in are the laws of physics. But the utopian framing surprised me again—by reminding me that the real purpose of lawyers is not to create conflict, but to solve it. Most lawyer stories are driven by the competitive win-lose binaries of litigation. A utopian legal thriller, I learned, is about brokering peace.

The best happy endings are sad

The endpoint of a utopian story can still be compromised, or non-redemptive. Just because you get the genie in the bottle doesn’t mean it won’t get back out. Classics like The Oresteia and Njal’s Saga tell the story of how societies ruled by blood feuds finally achieve peace by brokering settlements and trapping the spirit of vengeance in a system that resolves disputes without violence. But the struggle never ends—the characters by the end of those stories are just too tired and hurt to fight any more, and finally have acquired the wisdom to realize there’s got to be a better way. Peace is only really appreciated by those who have been through war, and the real secret to writing compelling stories of communities in harmony is to endow your characters with memory of the alternatives.

“We blew it, man”

The original script for Easy Rider had a happy ending. Captain America and the Cowboy ride off to their Florida paradise. The creators realized, one presumes, that was not true to the world of their story. And the ending they shot is a powerful one, an ending that kind of ended the whole idea of the Sixties with a literal bang. But there’s an untraveled third path lurking in there, in the scene where they leave the commune, watching the naive hippies planting seeds in fallow-looking ground and arguing between themselves whether the commune will make it. History argues they won’t—they will run out of resources, start fighting, have one of the founders turn into David Koresh. Failed State would argue they get on the wrong path as soon as they start planting seeds. But it’s interesting to imagine what kind of success could be possible for such an experiment, especially if it were informed by 21st century inclusivity and understanding.

In a world that feels more dystopian by the day, there’s tremendous opportunity for the reinvigoration of the utopian imagination. Not just because we need more hopeful futures to work toward. Solving the problems of craft that impede utopian storytelling can help you write your way to real artistic innovation—even if the perfection you are chasing can never be reached, in fiction or in real life. 

Christopher Brown: Website

Failed State: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N | HarperCollins