As science fiction writers, Nicky Drayden and Christopher Brown believe that you can’t create a convincing future unless you keep an eye on the present. Dystopian novels, Brown has argued, depict the world “as it really is, through the refractive prism of extreme metaphor.” Classics of the genre, like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, are often described as prescient “not because their authors were practicing predictive futurism,” he has written, “but because they reported accurately on the character of the contemporary world they saw.”
At a moment when the world is feeling awfully dystopian, we asked Drayden and Brown, both of whom live in Austin, to offer some thoughts about what’s in store for us and what we might expect from science fiction to come. Drayden, a Houston native, has written four novels; the newest one, Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, is scheduled to come out in December. Brown, an Iowan who moved to Texas two decades ago, has published two books set in a dismal near-future Texas. His third novel, Failed State, which he says has a more utopian bent, is due out on August 11.
Texas Monthly: Tell me a little bit about what sources you go to to give yourself a sense of what’s going on beneath the surface of our world—and how that may be playing out in the future. Are you relying on mainstream media? Specialty journals, Reddit channels, primary government documents? Or is it just everyday observation of the world around you?
Christopher Brown: It’s a mix. I try to look at the real world around me and keep an eye out for, to use the science fiction writer William Gibson’s overquoted term, the “unevenly distributed futures”—things that have already changed, ahead of schedule. I’m looking for the things that are interesting, that don’t get a lot of attention. I like to think that speculative fiction can tell truths about the real world that social realism or mainstream realistic fiction can’t, maybe by putting a fun house mirror up to it or turning it inside out.
I get ideas from a mix of reading the paper and looking at the world around me. The core premise of my first novel, Tropic of Kansas, was, What if these revolutions that we’re reading about every day in the news that are happening on the other side of the world—it was around the time of the Arab Spring—what if those things were going on right here? And then I looked at the world around me, in East Austin, or as I traveled around the country, and tried to imagine under what circumstances those kinds of things would happen.
And then sometimes I’ll go deeper, I’ll go straight to the library and dig into good historical precedents for the kinds of things I’m trying to write about. Margaret Atwood has said that everything in The Handmaid’s Tale that seemed so implausible were things that she found from real historical precedents. My second novel, Rule of Capture, is basically a legal thriller, set in a U.S. in which a state of emergency has occurred. To craft that world’s elaborate dystopian legal system, I went to the UT law library and looked up very real examples. Most of the laws that I cite in that book are laws that are on the books today, maybe sort of slightly tweaked, for a more stressed situation.
TM: When you do that sort of research, is that just giving your fiction vivid details or does the research ever actually change your thinking?
CB: Both. With Rule of Capture, I had this revelation that a good source for modeling my dystopian court in a version of Houston that’s beset by climate change and political stresses were the military tribunals at Guantanamo. So I found this amazing book called The Guantanamo Lawyers, which is a collection of first-person accounts of these private practice lawyers who took on pro bono defenses of some of the detainees down there. And you get lots of this quotidian detail. Little things like what you’re allowed to bring to your client—if you go to Guantanamo, you can carry a bag of food on the plane, all the way from Washington. But your notes that you carry out are the property of the government. Sometimes you dig into the sources and you realize that a preconception you had about how things work is upside down, which is helpful when, as a writer, you want to turn the world upside down to better show the way it really is.
TM: Nicky? “Where do you get all your crazy ideas from?” as writers get asked all the time.
Nicky Drayden: My muse is overly active. I get a lot of ideas from dreams, which I think are probably just me processing a lot of what I’ve seen or heard that day. I get a lot of anecdotal stuff from friends and family and online, just seeing what people are going through and imagining them in that situation and trying to approach it with compassion and tell the story and portray the emotions that people are feeling.
Yesterday morning I woke up at five o’clock and I’d had this dream about this running woman and she just kept running and running. And I tried to figure out why she was running and I came up with this story about how the coronavirus had affected this small subset of people in a way that was different than how it was affecting everyone else. Instead of a diminished lung capacity, they ended up with heightened lung capacity. They were dealing with the effects of vertigo and the only way to remedy that was just to be in constant movement. I thought of thirty or so women who were just running through the city and they can’t stop or else they’ll get violently sick. This image just haunted me. And I’m like, “I really need to write this story.” So I literally started at 5 a.m. and finished a nineteen-hundred-word story at 8:30 a.m. The story touched on a lot of the things I’ve been hearing that other people are going through—these women are living in this post-apocalyptic world, but it’s just kind of the new normal.
The main woman in the story lost her house and she no longer had a refrigerator, and a lot of her internal monologue is remembering what it was like before—when we had electricity and you could expect to wake up and all the food that you put in this box would still be good. And how that changed to having to store food in a cooler, which she kept ice in and the ice cream was mushy and the meat was always questionable. And there are weeds growing through the pavement and all sorts of other details that don’t necessarily scream post-apocalyptic, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll see all these things that we have all this anxiety about right now sprinkled in there.
TM: So you don’t do any formal research for your books or stories?
ND: I don’t do any research until the second draft. On the first draft it’s all just whatever falls out of my head and then I try to massage it into something that makes sense later. And that’s when I’ll do my research and do a lot of the character development, and look at maps and see how the actual streets look and get a good visual idea of where everyone lives, and that sort of thing.
TM: So the research isn’t really to generate ideas, it’s to sort of make the details more accurate, more vivid?
TM: Do either of you have any theories of how history works, of how societies develop that inform your work? Or is it more just a sort of impulse, like you’re optimistic, or pessimistic or playful, that informs how you develop your ideas and turn them into a full-blown vision of the future?
ND: I’ve always been interested in the idea of who gets to write the histories and what things are omitted from histories. My third novel, Escaping Exodus, is set on a spaceship one thousand years in the future. But there are these little remnants of Earth culture that have survived, and the protagonist is a young woman who has been sheltered and has this one set of beliefs of what the world is like, and she’s in line to be the next matriarch. And her best friend is a worker who is much lower down in the class system. And she gets to see the disparity and they both see the eggs that need to be cracked to make this world work. And it’s a lot more gruesome than either of them had ever imagined.
So I like the process of seeing characters having to deal with how their roles came about and how the privileges they enjoy are built on the backs of other people who they don’t recognize, who are brutalized, and it’s a hard awakening for them. And what do you do about that, once you have that information? I really like playing with those tropes of history, digging through history to alter what you want the future to be.
CB: I once asked Bruce Sterling, the Texas science fiction writer, whether he was optimistic or pessimistic, and his answer was, “Well, I’m neither, because it’s like going through the world with one hand over one eye. You have to see it from both perspectives.” I tend to be pretty pessimistic about the things people are capable of doing, which is maybe why I tend to write fiction of a dystopian character. But I’m pretty optimistic about the resilience of the broader world and of nature and of the systems that aren’t just us.
To me, one of the things that’s really exciting about science fiction is that it gives you this narrative laboratory in which you can imagine how the world could be different, without having to conduct live human trials. You can imagine a revolutionary uprising in the world around you, without it actually happening, without anyone getting hurt except for your imaginary characters. And that’s a wonderful sort of sandbox to have.
But in its essence it’s not much more than drawing on the totality of your personal experiences—the dream you had last night, the things you saw when you were driving to the grocery, some meeting you were in five years ago where you heard somebody say something that was very revealing—and accumulating all of those things through this weird process of writing a story. Different writers vary in terms of how much structure they put into the process of writing. But for me, the best is when you just write your way into it and find where that world and that character want to take you.
I have a Dallas-set utopian novel coming out this summer, Failed State. And the hardest thing to do, for a cynical person like me, is to try to imagine a plausible utopian society. And I went out and I read all these utopian novels, and what you realize is there really isn’t such a thing as a utopian novel. They’re all kind of compromised utopias. But that act of having utopian aspirations, or trying to imagine how could you make the world authentically better—that, to me, is a really useful and important thing. Especially at times like we’re going through right now, where we have this really intense and profound crisis. And it’s coming at the end of two or three decades in my adult life, where, with the end of the Cold War, the whole idea of aspirational utopian futures has almost completely disappeared from our discourse, because people were convinced that we’d figured it out: free market societies were the answer.
On top of all that, we’re all living in this world where we each curate our own internet-based reality on a daily basis and none of us have a really clear sense of our shared future. And certainly not a really strong sense that there’s a better future that we’re working toward. So for me, that lodestone of trying to find my way into it, as a kind of moral decision, as a writer, is part of what I’m trying to do. But when you set out to do create a utopia, you realize that it’s really hard to overcome some of the challenges of what history tells you about how people are likely to conduct themselves.
TM: So that’s a pretty good segue into discussing our current pandemic moment and how that might affect the future. As people who think about the future, where do you think our current situation will take us? I’m thinking of the pandemic and the oil bust and border strife and climate change and the intense political divide between rural and urban Texas. If you wrap all that up, where do you think we end up five, ten, twenty, fifty years down the line?
ND: I am probably more of a pessimist. So many people have already been living in this dystopia and now the rest of us have caught up, so it’s been an adjustment for a lot of people. I think we’ll get through it, but I think it’s going to be a big adjustment for everyone. We’re going to have to look at things a lot differently. We’re going to have to try to become more self-sufficient. I think things are going to become hyperlocal. We’ll shop even more locally than we do now, and we’ll be more interdependent, which I think is good. Neighbors taking care of neighbors and that sort of thing, which we’ve gotten away from as America’s become all about independence and moving out of the house when you’re eighteen.
I think we’re going to see more multigenerational homes. Backyard gardens and bartering, sharing resources and pooling resources. A lot less consumerism. Hopefully there’ll be more secondhand swap meets. Learning how to get on with what you have, which is kind of how my grandparents lived. I think we’re going to return to that sort of lifestyle, where you’re washing your aluminum foil and reusing it.
TM: That sounds like a welcome change to you?
ND: I’ve been enjoying it; I’ve been getting out in the garden and I really like it. I’ve had a garden for a while, but it’s been neglected for a couple of years. And so for me, learning how plants work and how they propagate and the science behind seeds and how fertilizer works—it’s just been really interesting and I’ve learned a lot of things. So I think people are probably going to become more jack-of-all-trades and know a little bit about everything. There’s going to be scary parts, but I think there’s going to be good parts as well.
TM: That idea of increased self-sufficiency is very different from the predictions I’ve been reading that we’ll see a resuscitation of the New Deal state created by FDR and extended by LBJ that’s been hollowed out over the past four decades. And some of them are predicting that the populace is finally going to reject this sort of free market philosophy and demand a more robust, European sort of state with health care and affordable higher education, and so on. But you seem to be envisioning something very different.
ND: I would hope that would come out of it. But right now everyone’s at such polar opposites it’s difficult to have a conversation without tempers getting heated. I think we have to look out for ourselves and our neighbors and certainly worry about government surveillance and that sort of thing. Especially now that people are working on facial recognition that can see past the mask that you’re wearing and all of these scary things. And temperature checks, remote temperature checks and all of these kind of dystopian things are just knocking at our door.
CB: Speaking about the surveillance state: I have an adult son who lives in South Korea and we were there before the pandemic broke out. One of the things I observed was that it was, in an American science fictional context, almost dystopian in terms of the ubiquitous use of surveillance technologies, by the state and by commercial entities and nonprofit institutions. But you could also see how, in their particular social context, it really worked well—nobody minded it and it was more or less consensual. And then you see how that very system helped them withstand the outbreak of this pandemic with so much more success than we did.
I tend to be kind of where Nicky is, though, in terms of whether this is an opportunity to bring back a different role for the state or the nation-state. Creating a different role for the nation-state is an issue that animates a lot of my work. You mentioned the border; I spend a lot of time around the border, and there’s a good argument to be made that the main reason border walls exist is to reinforce the increasing fiction of the existence of the nation-state in a world of threatened sovereignty. We’ve organized the world around nation-states since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and you can really feel that system creaking right now, which is a scary thing in the short term because it creates so much uncertainty. It leaves so many people so much more vulnerable during this period, when we’re between the way things have been and whatever is on the other side.
To me, the most interesting thing about the pandemic is the stories I’ve read that suggest that at the heart of this is a local real estate problem, of human beings expanding their habitat rapaciously just one bridge too far or one subdivision too far. Like that project in and around Wuhan that dislodged some bats and caused a virus they were carrying to cross over to humans.
Solving all of these issues of thinking about our relationship with each other, of thinking about our relationship with the state, about our relationship with the environment, gets back to what was the biggest surprise for me when I was writing my novels. When I set out to write Tropic of Kansas [published in 2017], I thought I was writing a work about politics and what would democracy 3.0 look like? And I ended up looking at this world that I was inventing through the eyes of my characters and realizing that in the world they lived in, and the world that we live in, all of the injustices were ultimately rooted in the damaged relationship people had with the land, with the environment they live in. And with the things they do to exploit each other, to extract from that environment.
I don’t know how you go about hacking the agricultural revolution—it’s the foundation of human civilization. But I think that rethinking those things, along the lines of what Nicky is talking about—more community-based systems and so on—is an opportunity that the pandemic provides us.
TM: Why have you used Texas as the setting in two of your books? Is it just because it’s what’s at hand for you or do you think there’s something specific about Texas that lends itself to certain kinds of speculation?
CB: Both. For Tropic of Kansas, I created this minor character, a lawyer who just happened to live in a dystopian version of Houston. And when I decided to write a new book featuring that character, that’s where he was. But then I thought that Texas is a particularly interesting place to look at. One of the things that living in East Austin for the last decade or so made me realize is the extent to which I was living in a kind of colonized space.
East Austin is a colonized landscape, and there were layers of intense history right there, just hiding in plain sight, if you look at them right. Like the revelation that, as I got to know some of my neighbors and work with them on projects involving neighborhood activism and environmental activism, that many of them really self-identify as indigenous peoples, that their family histories went back a lot further in the land than I could ever really have imagined. And when you start to see the world around you in that way, it opens up the idea of how you can play with that material and hack the possible histories of the future, that might make for an interesting story.
Texas is wonderfully diverse in all these different ways: the diversity of people who live here, the diversity of the natural environment, the diversity of the landscape. It’s kind of a Texas joke that we’re a whole other country. Maybe to a science fiction writer, Texas is its own planet.
TM: So, Nicky, unlike me and Chris, you’re actually from here. I don’t think you’ve written about Texas in any of your novels. Does it interest you as a setting at all?
ND: I actually have a project that is underway about Austin. It hasn’t gotten very far yet, but it’s on my to-do list to explore all those hidden things in the city that are, like Chris said, in plain sight, but we just walk past them every day because we don’t know how to look for them. I’m excited to get into more of that to understand better where I live.
TM: I’ll ask both of you to put on your fiction writing caps and pretend that you’re sitting down at your desk and thinking, “What can I do with the current state of affairs that might work as a speculative short story or novel?”
ND: We’re already in this new space, where we have to redefine what types of problems our characters are going to have. I can see us going to the sort of situation that early cyberpunk writers like Neal Stephenson envisioned, where people are living in this kind of virtual world and we’d be having virtual world problems, where we have to redefine how we interact with each other. Because it gets lonely.
So I think we’ll see more virtual world–type fictions, to reflect a reality where most of us are spending more time in virtual spaces—like this Zoom call we’re having right now. I don’t think Zoom or any form of video chatting really does it for us; it’s just very hard for your brain to reconcile that this person you’d usually be sitting in a room with, they’re on this tiny screen instead. It’s just weird.
I think it’s exciting to identify those sorts of problems and see what comes out of that in future fiction. Everything is going to be very different for the children who are being raised now. This is their normal. They don’t have the same references that we do.
CB: I just drove fourteen hours across the country, through a contemporary American landscape that feels a lot like a postapocalyptic landscape. There are things on the frontage road of I-35 that resemble something out of a Mad Max movie.
Like, I stopped for gas at a Shell station north of Oklahoma City, and the place looked like a location scout had been setting it up for a dystopian movie. All the shelves had been moved out, there were one or two clerks, and they had masks on, and they were all behind plexiglass that looked bulletproof. And there was trash everywhere, like there hadn’t been anybody in there to clean in a long time. I was able to get gas, but there wasn’t much else to buy. Everything you need to survive between here and there you have to carry with you, and when you stop at the rest areas, people start to look a little bit like refugees in their own country.
And when you get outside of the big cities you see these signs that are a form of communication between the people who wear masks and the people who don’t wear masks. It’s becoming some kind of sectarian factional division. There was this big sign that said something like, “Don’t judge those who don’t have the same mask philosophy as you.” It was pretty strange.
And then there’s the absence of traffic. I mean, driving I-35 and there’s, like, three or four cars around you between Austin and Dallas? That’s maybe the only utopian outcome of all of this. Maybe all of this is an opportunity to try to get away from the same dystopian futures that science fiction writers so often turn to and try to imagine communities of people coming together.
ND: The science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower has communities going through very similar things to what we’re going through now and coming together in those sorts of ways—people raising their own chickens and scavenging. When I read that book, I was taking survival notes from it: “Oh, you can turn acorns into flour.” I’m like, “I might need to know this.” And right now, in our neighborhood, there’s a greenbelt area where wild onions grow. I’m like, “Well, if I need onions, I know I can go to the greenbelt.”
CB: That’s awesome. That’s a very science fiction writer–type of thing to think. It’s like the world is ending, so you pull your copy of Parable of the Sower off the shelf and use it as a manual for survival. For Texans in particular, it’s a really good opportunity, as governmental systems fail to deal with the situation, to try to find the right balance between that ethos of self-reliance and neighborly communities helping each other out. But we’ll see. It’s a lot harder to write fictions in which everybody’s being nice to each other.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.