Written early January 2022
A Country of Ghosts is the second book released by AK Press’ Black Dawn Imprint, an ongoing series of short (so far!) novels that aim to evoke and build on the stylistic and thematic features of Octavia Butler. I read the first one, Grievers, while on holiday in November, and immediately picked up my phone and pre-ordered the next one.
Grievers is set in a contemporary world, and explores pandemics and systemic prejudice and is a powerful and evocative work that expounds the moniker “speculative fiction”. Killjoy’s novel is very different, and more than anything it brings to mind Ursula le Guin’s Malafrena, in that it is a piece of fiction set within a very realistic and believable world essentially identical to ours, yet all of the places we see do not exist.
A Country of Ghosts is a strange novel in that it is intentionally didactic; not quite propagandistic, it is not seeking to trick or persuade, but Killjoy is (and acknowledges this in an afterword and it is printed bluntly in the blurb) deliberately trying to use fiction to depict an idealised, though realistic, anarchist society.
I’m an intellectual (I was once quoted in the New Yorker) and I hate punk music, so I obviously didn’t go into this thinking that anarchy was smashing things up and not understanding what the CND logo means, but it is rare to find a depiction of a utopia (rather than the ubiquitous dystopias) in contemporary fiction. It is also rare to be reminded of the possibility of Hope from a writer who is able to avoid idealism and – the most common adjective slurred at people who hope for a better society than this capitalistic nightmare we’re all currently trapped in – naivety.
The hero of Killjoy’s novel is Dimos Horacki, a young journalist who has worked his way from an orphanage to a steady position for a famous newspaper in the capital city of an expansionist colonial empire. After an early career set-back following some investigative journalism into corrupt institutions that got a little too investigative for the powers that be, Dimos – as “the best writer we can afford to lose”, his editor tells him – is sent off to be a war reporter, in the mountains that form the recently-expanded border of his country.
As you can imagine – as is almost certainly the case every single time irl – the soldiers are pricks, the “charismatic leader” Dimos is there to profile is charmless, sadistic and orders torture and war crimes. Dimos pisses him off (the soldier guy intercepts Dimos’ mail and reads his drafted article) and so Dimos and a handful of other people in the army who are less prickish than their leader are sent off on what is essentially a suicide mission into “bandit-controlled” territory deeper in the mountains. Dimos survives (no one else does) and he discovers that inside the mountains are not a few homesteads and villages of bandits and ostrich farmers, but a complex – though small – anarchist state, comprised of a city and several smaller towns, all of which exist under formal anarchic principles.
There is no formal government, there are no politicians, no police, there are only people who accept the responsibilities we owe other people who live close to us; there are only people willing to live alongside others with mutual respect, care and honesty.
Of course, it’s fucking perfect and it’s fucking gorgeous and it sounds like a far far better way to live than the world that we are in, and it is far more in line with many of the traditional beliefs and cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America, who were colonised by violent, greedy, corrupt exploitative capitalist individualists.
The world is teetering on the brink of ecological collapse (or has already fallen off said brink #shrug) because of the greed and hyper-consumption and capitalism’s meaningless – but destructive – obsession with “economic growth”. Our states and government bodies exist to protect the economic status quo more than they exist to protect the lives and – especially – the wellbeing of their citizens. Individuality and selfishness are the curses of capitalism, and as Killjoy excellently evokes here, these urges are incompatible with a society, a culture, that works for everyone living within it. “Rules” are facile and patronising and only exist because the expectation, the way we live in the “global north”, is that all we ever want to fucking do is break those rules.
We are treated as if we are selfish, self-serving bastards who would rather kick a stranger in the face than see a stranger equally as comfortable as ourselves.
We are taught to care about status and control and affluence and objects, but these things are bullshit: why do you think absolutely everyone you know who isn’t a probable sociopath is either deeply fucking depressed or terrified of introspection?
It’s because this (gestures at the UK over the ocean, the Canada I’m sat in and the accelerationist experiment happening at the eastern end of the lake my toilet empties into) doesn’t fucking work. It’s shit!
Capitalism is a hell of a thing, and it is rare to see alternatives to it that are depicted with nuance, intelligence and a real understanding that the militarised expansionist capitalistic empires of the world might just decide there’s no way they will allow it to happen.
Highly recommended. And I think I’m an anarchist now!