Christopher Brown’s two-book set (Rule of Capture and Failed State) about his hapless yet strangely effective dystopian lawyer, Donnie Kimoe, may come too close to our dystopian present for comfort, but they also shine with ideas about a better way to envision the future. As he put it in a recent essay in Literary Hub: “we need to write our way through our own ruin to have any hope of finding what could be on the other side.” He does that brilliantly in these two fast-moving legal scifi thrillers.
And what ruin he depicts.
A war with China has broken up the country. The Midwest has collapsed from climate change. Millions of refugees have fled south, only to be confined in fenced zones where their labor can be forcibly extracted. A presidential election has been stolen, and its fate now seems to rest with the courts.
There is a Houston that has reverted to a half-wild state – subdivisions underwater much of the year, highways cracked apart, squatters in tumble-down buildings. But it’s also a ruin in which the rich retain their gated, heavily guarded communities.
The forms of a justice system survive while the laws guiding them strip away basic protections of the rule of law. Protest the system and your citizenship can be stripped away. Pose a real threat and you can wind up dead. Practicing law in this dystopia sometimes seems futile, and the dystopian lawyer is disparaged as much by his revolutionary clients as by the lawyers and judges who have embraced the new system.
The world of these novels presents not just a broken earth but broken people, like Donny Kimoe and many he knows and meets. Some have survived torture but cling to their belief in a new truth, a faith in a communal society where all are taken care in return for honest labor. Yet its members can resort to the violence and raw revenge they want to take on those they blame for ruining the natural world. Others have broken themselves to side with the wealthy who are trying to perfect their seizure of power in the name of forestalling anarchy.
Then there is Donny Kimoe, an expert on recreational street drugs who is often wasted or drunk, but who manages to talk his way out of one hard situation after another. Sometimes, it’s his use of legal strategy to protect his clients in court. Sometimes it’s his ability to distract people who are trying to silence him. And sometimes it’s his ability to cut a deal with the most hardened and powerful people in the new establishment.
In fact, Donny is a lot more effective than people usually give him credit for. There are so many scenes when he goes to see a onetime friend or lover or client only to be rebuked for being a selfish shyster willing to work for whoever would pay him. And Donny half agrees with their versions of his betrayal or abandonment of those friends and lovers and clients.
But he usually pulls through in amazing ways. Yeah, he wastes himself from time to time, but he knows deep down that he is still trying to follow some kind of truth he stubbornly clings to. It is about the law and its ability to deliver even the most imperfect remedy in the midst of revolution, repression and murder.
After a while I came to appreciate the honesty of his cynicism and acceptance of brokenness as a way of life. He winds up being appealing for his lack of pretense and search for justice in a rigged system. And a deeper change does creep up on Donny when he least expects it.
It starts in Rule of Capture while he is trying to keep his client, a young film-maker named Xelina Rocafuerte, from being declared a dangerous revolutionary and having her citizenship stripped away. When we first meet her, she is shackled far more heavily than her small frame can handle, yet she is completely defiant before the court. She doesn’t want Kimoe to defend her at first, and he screws up his initial effort to free her. But gradually, she comes round to working with him, and the films she’s made of her activist friends have a surprising effect on Donny. They slowly change his way of looking at the world.
He notices the details of nature she records as well as the activism of her friends that upsets the powers that be. She captures a “butterfly on a prairie flower, smokestacks in the background. … Vines and fungi growing up along the side of a petroleum storage tank. Camera eye climbs to the top edge. Inside, soil and new foliage flowering, like some secret valley in the world’s biggest accidental planter.”
As he gets more deeply won over to a new way of looking at things, he sees a coyote staring at him, standing still but “radiating life, the wild life that the city hides in plain sight through the partitioning of time and space.”
“And when Donny shifted, the coyote broke its gaze and moved, and the way it shimmered as it disappeared made you understand why the people who had lived here before the pavement thought perhaps it traveled across the dimensions. Because really, it did, if you thought about it the right way. It was another visitor from the future —one that portended how green that future would be, as all the life we had crowded out returned to the spaces abandoned by our collapse.”Rule of Capture, Kindle edition, chapter 63, location 4381
In the end of each book he works out a deal and commits himself more and more to a broadly idealistic vision of the future. It’s a beautiful vision that starts with people changing their whole relationship to the land, basing it on reciprocity and respect, in the hope that such a change would spill over to the ways people treat each other. Some forms of “property” like seeds becomes open source, no more patents on genomes. And the plantation model of forced labor on huge agricultural holdings is to be replaced with independent farms. Donny wants to kickstart a new ecology.
In Failed State, the activists have managed to set up their own experimental free state in New Orleans, yet there are big problems there. The leaders, including Donnie’s ex-partner and his former law associate, take the group in a more uncompromising direction that can’t tolerate his deal-making with the devil. They abandon him in a swamp to die, but as usual he gets out of that jam and finds a way to help the agents of change achieve a lot of what they want.
My only problem is that all this happens in hand-wavy off-stage scenes as a result of deals lone Donny works out with some of the powerful titans of industry and government. I can’t quite believe, amid their movement of troops and armor, their sheer power, that these people who constantly resort to strong arm tactics, are scared off by a filing with an international court or a threat to reveal a lot of documentary evidence of corruption.
Apart from the wishfulness about the future in books full of cynicism and cogent efforts to make the best out of twisted legal systems, both Rule of Capture and Failed State are exciting to read. They are also thought provoking on many levels. Brown’s first novel, Tropic of Kansas, has a different set of characters than these books, but is set in the same world and fills in some of the action and (alternate) history they refer to. It’s high on my TBR list, as will be anything else Brown produces.