I have only myself to blame, but I only heard about Margaret Killjoy‘s forthcoming anarchist utopian novel A Country of Ghosts late last week and only over the weekend about his event tonight. Still, Killjoy, the founder of SteamPunk Magazine, co-editor of the essay anthology We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, and the author of the choose-your-own-adventure What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, found some last-minute time to answer a few questions about his book. (And he does so with considerably more insight than I was able to provide in asking my questions, not having read the book yet, I dare say.) I’m very much looking forward to the book and to his talk tonight (Tuesday, March 4) at Internationalist Bookstore and Community Center on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill at 7 pm on “the usefulness of fiction–with a focus on utopian fiction–in anarchist struggle.”
Interview by Samuel Montgomery-Blinn
Why utopian fiction? You’ve edited non-fiction books, written a Steampunk choose-your-own-adventure, but utopian fiction is notoriously hard: where lies the challenges that drive a story when society’s problems are “solved”?
Writing utopian fiction definitely presents some unique difficulties, and yeah, coming up with good conflict to move the plot forward and keep readers engaged is probably the biggest one. One of the dangers of utopian fiction is avoiding pedantry… my goal isn’t to just describe a great society, it’s to tell a good story. In A Country of Ghosts, the utopian country is being invaded, so there’s obviously conflict there, and the protagonist is a foreigner, trying to figure out his own loyalties. But I also wanted to include internal conflict within the country, where some of their principles are challenged. I don’t know how to get into that part too much without spoiling anything, however.
In trying to compare the book with its literary antecedents, I come up with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike, and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, but these all involve a much more advanced state of technology than the coal and iron of A Country of Ghosts, though some environmental themes seem to cross over. Perhaps a better antecedent there might be China Mieville’s Iron Council? And does technology help or hurt anarchism?
The Dispossessed, which is almost certainly the most famous anarchist utopia, was certainly an inspiration for me, and Huxley’s Island was maybe the most important book I read in high school. (As an aside, in the introduction to Island, Huxely says something to the effect of “what the world needs now is decentralization of a Kropotkin-esque nature,” which is to say, what the world needs is anarchism). The society I describe in A Country of Ghosts is somewhat less centrally organized than Le Guin’s, and probably has more in common with Starhawk’s utopian/post-apocalyptic The Fifth Sacred Thing.
But it’s true that all of those books, even Island, take place in worlds substantially more technologically developed than A Country of Ghosts, which takes place in a 19th-century analogue world. But, I would argue, the anarchism itself is fairly timeless. Strategies of survival and strategies of resistance and even methods of networking and communicating are going to be drastically different based on the technology available to a society, but I think ideas like autonomy and respect and mutual aid are timeless.
One reason I chose to set my book in a fantasy 19th-century world, though, is that I want to make it clear that A Country of Ghosts isn’t intended as a blueprint for society. That’s not what anarchism is about. It’s that old conflict–how do you tell someone to think for themselves without, you know, telling them what to do? An anarchist society is one of self-determination, on an individual and community level, so it would never make sense to just copy another person’s ideas. Hopefully, by setting my story in a world that doesn’t have too much in common with this one (in terms of technological level), I’m minimizing the chance that people might try to do that. Which isn’t to say I don’t want people to move towards freer societies–I just want us to figure out how to do it together.
It’s also a story of embedded journalism, a genre with which I am admittedly much less familiar. What makes Dimos the right person to tell this story through?
A journalist makes a great protagonist for this kind of story, because he’s someone whose skillset is questioning and observing what’s going on around him. Dimos comes from a monarchist, colonial country, and while he’s not deeply patriotic, he doesn’t hate his country or anything. He’s also got a history as a muckraker, but he’s seen the darker side of stirring up trouble, so when he’s confronted with the horrors of colonial expansion, he has some difficulty deciding what to do.
I’m sure most writers will say this, but Dimos grew on me quite a bit as I wrote the book. He is, in some ways, a success story–he pulled himself off of the street and made his career as working-class journalist. So he understands at least on some level what works and what doesn’t work about the country that he’s from.
Your book has received some fantastic pre-publication quotes from Kim Stanley Robinson (“An exciting and mysterious novel, a story of war and love.”) and Felix Gilman (“This is a fierce, intelligent, hopeful book—a fantasy (of sorts) of unusual seriousness, humanity, and wit.”). It does seem to me that your book sits quite well between theirs, between the utopian anarcho-socialism of Robinson’s works and the messy Steampunk wilderness of Gilman’s.
I think there’s this sort of specious idea that speculative fiction (especially the pulpier, more plot-driven) doesn’t address social issues. But obviously, that’s very, very untrue. And it means a lot to me that other people in the industry (particularly ones I look up to as an author!) aren’t shying away from a book just because it’s an anarchist utopia.
I also of course don’t mind the association I have with steampunk (having written a number of steampunk books and founded SteamPunk Magazine), but I admit A Country of Ghosts is completely devoid of clanking machinery. In fact, the anarchist country pretty much entirely eschews coalmining and industrial production.
You’ve been in the Triangle not too distantly for one of Davenport & Winkleperry’s Clockwork Balls. (And I think I talked with you at ConTemporal a couple of years ago?) What makes this area such fertile ground for Steampunks and makers?
You know, I’m not quite sure, but the Triangle absolutely has some of my favorite steampunk communities of anywhere. I like how low-key it is here: the events seem less like ways to get together to try to impress one another and more like ways for people to get together because they enjoy each others’ company and want to share ideas and culture. I love Davenport & Winkleperry, and one of my favorite things I’ve ever been part of was the release for our book A Steampunk’s Guide to Sex we had down there. Hellblinki drove out from Asheville just to play.
I’m a traveler, myself, but I always seem to come back to the Triangle, and don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.