In his 2017 novel Tropic of Kansas, author Christopher Brown paints a disturbing portrait of a near-future America shaped by the worst aspects of our present-day politics—and imagines what shapes the resistance to such a brave new world might take. In celebration of the release of Rule of Capture—the first book in a new series of dystopian legal thrillers set in the same world—Christopher joins us today to talk about sci-fi’s odd relationship with the politics of rebellion.
Frodo is a suicide bomber.
That may not be what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but that’s pretty much what’s going on, especially in the Peter Jackson film adaptations (released after 9/11). Frodo is on a secret mission to penetrate the borders of the evil empire, travel to the most important landmark inside its territory, and blow it up with the special device he is carrying on his body. He expects to die in the process. He survives, we are told in the context of the story, but what really happens is he is carried away to a magical paradise to live forever among angelic beings.
Science fiction and fantasy are full of imaginary revolutions that glorify the idea of resistance, usually at the expense of the insurrection having any clear political goal. Of course, there are many great works that ground their fictional uprisings in the compromised truths of real life—Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, and Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Children of Men come to mind. But most sci-fi rebels don’t really seem to know what exactly it is they are fighting for. They are kind of like Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, the biker who, when asked what he’s rebelling against, answers “Whadda ya got?”
It’s unsurprising that so many stories made in the U.S.—a culture weaned on its own revolutionary creation myth—use armed uprisings in imaginary worlds in their plots. But it’s a pretty intense idea, when you think about it—kind of the third rail of our politics—and maybe that’s why so many of those stories opt for the Disney version of what the uprising is really about. But sometimes our sci-fi uprisings have more substance than they realize—sometimes accidentally, and occasionally on purpose—at least when considered from the right angle. The following are but a few examples (with a free pass for all those YA revolutions, because YA).
Star Wars is the perfect example of a science fiction story that’s all about rebellion yet has almost no politics. It taps into other stories we know that take their politics for granted—dressing the Imperial officers in fascistic uniforms, showing the bucolic domestic life of hard-working homesteaders working a hardscrabble plot of land, sending stormtroopers out to patrol towns that want to be free. We see the Empire commit atrocities, but we never really know what either side stands for. The prequels purport to explain it all, with their convoluted backstory of the failure of democracy when trade conflicts allow a fascist Sith lord to seize power (sounds very 2020, now that you mention it), but really only muddy the waters. Maybe the Tusken Raiders are the real “rebels”—the indigenous people of Tatooine resisting the alien settlers.
The Lord of the Rings
Some years ago, McSweeney’s ran a hilarious and spot-on imaginary transcript of a DVD commentary track in which the radical political thinkers Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn watch Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, riffing on how Gandalf is obviously an exploitative drug dealer mainly interested in exploiting the hobbits to move his pipeweed, and the orcs are the proletarian underclass of that world. They had a point. The films can also be read as a grand inversion of the War on Terror: an ancient region of nomads and pastoralists who like to write long poems and follow the instructions of necromancers who live in towers and caves, versus a mechanized empire that tears the trees from the ground, uses fire to drive engines, wants to put everyone to work, exploits genetic engineering, and operates an omniscient surveillance network. Mordor is us, Sauron is seeking office again, and Palantir just raised its Series E venture financing.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
I personally love the insane David Lynch adaptation with Sting, Agent Cooper, and Captain Picard (plus a Steve Bannon lookalike as Baron Harkonnen), even as I love the dream of the Jodorowsky + Moebius version that was never made even more. There are multiple adaptations of the original book, made and unmade, and too many sequels in print to count. But they all share the same basic politically dubious premise—a colonized people’s struggle for independence depends on the arrival of an aristocratic messiah, the princely scion of the family that now owns the planet. That he gets high and rides the giant worm mostly makes up for it.
The Dark Knight Rises
Bane’s takeover of Gotham City is treated as something more like a heist, but it really wants to be an uprising. There’s a lot of talk along those lines, as Bane takes over the stock exchange and then the whole city, and a lot of class conflict in the storyline of Bane’s escape from the underground arena into the shiny world where Bruce Wayne owns it all—until Bane seizes it from his secret lair in the sewers. You kind of want that pumped-up Tom Hardy to start screaming “Attica! Attica!” through his insane voice-distorting mask. Bane is the anarchist Doc Savage, with a healthy dose of Bakunin. Too bad they couldn’t give him a manifesto.
Planet of the Apes
“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” So says Charlton Heston as astronaut Taylor, in his first words upon regaining speech after he is marooned on an alien planet that turns out to be future Earth—a future in which intelligent English-speaking apes use mute humans as slave labor. We’re supposed to identify with Heston’s character as he fights to free himself and some of the other humans, when he’s really the invader. The allegory is unsubtle, and the epic surprise ending gives the movie some Ozymandian oomph. Dr. Zaius was right. But it was only with the fourth movie in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, that the filmmakers bit into the copper wire, with a movie about an ape uprising that overthrows its human oppressors and lets you believe it’s a good thing.
Mad Max II: The Road Warrior
We never treat this as a movie about politics, but there’s a lot there, hiding in plain sight. At the heart of it is this seemingly utopian community of people holding onto the hope for civilization by occupying and maintaining an oil and gas reserve in the middle of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, keeping the savages outside at bay. We take it for granted that they have that property legitimately, but there’s really no basis for that assumption, other than the fact that they have better manners than The Lord Humongous, Wez, and the gang. And the fact that Max takes their side, but what do you expect—he’s a cop, so he always sides with property interests. The difference between Papagallo and his crew hoarding the fuel and Immortan Joe and his War Boys hoarding the water in Fury Road is tenuous. And another word for the wasteland is the commons. The real utopia Max never finds is out there, and maybe one of these sequels, they will find it.
Fire on the Mountain, by Terry Bisson
This one has not been made into a movie, but it should be. It’s probably the best American revolutionary story I have read, and the smartest and edgiest alternate history. The premise is that John Brown and Harriet Tubman succeeded in starting the uprising that in real life stopped at Harper’s Ferry. A hundred years later, the American South is a socialist utopia, and the protagonist is going on a trip. Get some popcorn. In an age flush with sci-fi dystopias, and short on utopias, books like Fire stand out to me as the kind of SF we could use more of. I’m excited to see what a generation of writers and readers weaned on Star Wars and YA revolutions will produce, when they decide to imbue those kinds of stories with more sharply imagined visions of the world they really want to live in.
Christopher Brown is the Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture, two novels that feature uprisings in an alternate America, both now available from Harper Voyager.