Speculative Fiction can be a place where we dream about what is possible, or even what we think is not. Because it is about future worlds or alternative trajectories, it opens up our imagination to a fundamental change in our society. For better or for worse, it is a temporal projection where we can take seriously (or precisely un-seriously) what giant social shifts can result in. This may be part of why we are living through a massive surge of radical Speculative/Science Fiction, which adds a revolutionary dimension to this world building. It alternates between two perspectives, the dystopian, where we see through the conclusions of the human self-destruction we are witnessing, or its alternative, the utopian. The utopian Speculative Fiction is the much harder of the two, willing to take risks by imagining something provocatively different, better, than what we have now.
The big questions raised by Speculative Fiction and its ability to analyze and deconstruct our own, living world is at the heart of AK Press’ new novella series Black Dawn. The series started with adrienne marie brown’s book about Detroit Grievers, and followed with a reissue of Margaret Killjoy’s now classic book A Country of Ghosts. Her novella looks at a parallel world that mirrors our own at the turn of the 20th Century, where a colonial country known as Borolia is pushing its way into Hronople, a city and region defined by its refugees and a radical political ideology of freedom. The novella follows journalist Dimos Horacki as he starts to cover the warfront, only to enter Hron’s society, meet its people, and find his own path to a new way of life.
I spoke with Margaret about A Country of Ghosts, how it is inspired by utopian musings of her own, and why radical fiction is challenging our literary norms more than ever.
Shane Burley: A Country of Ghosts has a long publishing history; this is not the first time it was released. Where did the idea for this book come from and what was its journey to this AK Press published version?
Margaret Killjoy: So this book was originally published in 2014 by Combustion Books, which is a collectively run publisher that I was a part of. I wrote most of it in 2013 and it came out of conversations I had with a friend of mine named Kate Khatib. We were talking about how much we missed the utopian imagination of earlier radicalism and how much we wished that people were presenting alternatives. And not to create blueprints, or “this is what society needs to be like,” but instead to inspire and describe what we might be moving towards, what we might want to move towards. So originally, we were going to try and do a whole series called the Anarchist Imagination, and it was going to be a series of novellas around this subject. However, the publishing project continues to this day, but to a slightly more diminished degree than it was in the early years. We never ended up putting out any other books of the Anarchist Imagination.
I put out this book and, in many ways, it is my first sort of serious book. I had put out other books, such as another which is a “legally distinct” project from Choose Your Own Adventure (which is a trademarked term). It was an “Adventure of Your Own Choosing.” I had been writing for a long time and had done a lot of short fiction. So this book was the culmination of my skills as a writer as well as fifteen years of political practice. It came out in a pretty dark period in my own life where I was having a lot of mental health issues, especially with anxiety. No matter how bad my mental health would get, I always felt like, at least I finished this book. At least I said this. Not that this was the end of everything I have to say, especially since it was sort of the beginning of my writing career (ten years into my writing career). I didn’t see a huge response to it. It came out from a very small press and I was pretty much an unknown at the time, though it did receive some critical praise. The fact that Kim Stanley Robinson thought well of it meant a lot to me personally, because Kim Stanley Robinson has been a writer that I’ve admired my entire life.
There is a thing where, when you self-publish (or, in this case, collectively publish) you don’t go through a gatekeeper. No one’s stopping to tell you whether or not your book is good or not. That is one of the biggest dangers of self-publishing. Gatekeeping has some advantages, overall though I would say it has a negative effect on culture and society. But at least as a self-published author, basically the day I got the blurb back from Kim Stanley Robinson was the day that I was like, “Okay, I’m not full of shit. I do know how to write a book. All of these years of work and practice meant something and I can write a passable book.”
So I wrote this book and I liked it. And some other people liked it. And actually, some people liked it enough that people made a film out of it. There’s a bilingual, French and English movie called Hron that was filmed in Montreal, Quebec. But I still felt like it could use a wider audience. I approached AK Press, who I have worked with on non-fiction books in the past, about doing a version of the book and they were very excited about it. They had just decided to work harder on fiction. They had done various fiction projects in the past, but the past couple years has been a more marked, not transition exactly, because they are still doing all the same stuff they have been doing well now for over 20 years. But they decided to also be doing fiction at a larger scale. I was very excited to be included in the relaunch of their fiction.
Where did the anarchist society of Hron, which is the center of the novella, come from? How did you piece it together? There are distinctly utopian and non-utopian, or more realist, ideas represented there, and you’ve also said it is not exactly your vision of a perfect anarchist society.
It actually is. Hron is the best example of a society I wished I lived in that I have ever put to paper. I have written other anarchistic spaces at various points, but Hron is where I want to live (with some caveats). So I do perceive it as utopian, and I disagree with what society’s utopia should be. There is a reason that utopia means “no place” because we, people living in the real world, should not base our decisions off of blueprints. No one should set out to make Hron. You should set out to create anarchistic spaces, absolutely. But you should do it informed by a lot of things, not just an individual book, not just by an individual conception of what politics should be. So, in my mind, that is the point of an anarchist utopia. It’s a kind of attempt to say, always be questioning and always be coming up with new things and don’t set things down into stone. Obviously traditions and lessons from the past matter, but we shouldn’t be latched to the yoke of history. That’s why I would say it’s a utopian novel, but I don’t think that should mean people should copy it.
I’m thinking a lot about the way violence is discussed in it. It is a war novel, with a resistance militia fighting back a colonial force, so violence is clearly an important part of the narrative. I think people use utopia as a shorthand for something that surpasses a realistic or reasonable vision of what’s possible, even beyond a radical future. The way violence is discussed in A Country of Ghosts is much more grounded in reality, and the way death itself is discussed, rather than succumbing to the idea that this society exists post-violence or without force at all. How do you think that conversation about violence and warfare informed your vision in the book?
That’s actually a good point. A lot of people do see utopia as “here’s the perfect place.” But the perfect place, where nothing goes wrong, really does not exist. It’s a mistake to look for it or a mistake to try and control things to a degree that you assume nothing can go wrong. I was talking to an engineer the other day about climate change and people’s resilience to it. He was saying that “safe to fail” is a concept in engineering. I am not a pacifist. I don’t love violence, and I don’t want to celebrate violence. It’s not that I desire a society without violence, because that’s a meaningless thing to desire. It’s like desiring a society without weather. But instead I want a society without authoritarian systems of control or systematic violence and systems that exert violence against individuals or communities. I don’t think I’m agnostic or neutral, but I would say that I have a complex relationship to violence, politically and personally. I wanted to reflect that I guess by the frankness which I depict violence. I never want to glorify violence, even if sometimes there is something to glorify in struggle, which can include violence. The struggle to free oneself or defend one’s freedom or the freedom of those near you, is worth celebrating. But the physical act of destroying each other is complicated and messy at best.
The book has this sort of “confederation of difference” quality whereby very different communities remain together as interlocking partners, while often maintaining a certain cultural distinctiveness. I think we often have very few positive images of this dynamic, particularly since we are living through the frightening rise of nationalism. But instead, A City of Ghosts imagines a way of cultural distinctiveness through solidarity, equality, and cooperation, one where people often live with many intersecting identities that have porous borders. How did you imagine this dynamic when writing the book?
That’s really interesting. I have long appreciated the aesthetic idea of these different groups that work together. That’s the appeal of Lord of the Rings. Different groups that don’t share common motivations, but do have a common goal. Choosing to work together to fight against all systems of power. Lord of the Rings, for all its problems, there is a deep anarchist principle within. I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, and your priest and your thief are in the same party. They are trying to both accomplish the same thing even though their moral systems are not aligned. In the old cyberpunk, trashy fiction from when I grew up you would have like, the hacker, and the person who runs around with guns, and you have all these different concepts and different types of people. And what makes things interesting is when all of these groups are working together or in conflict with each other.
Difference and heterogeneity is where beauty and interesting things come from, from my point of view. But we do have this conception on the right, the left, and the center that preserving differences means setting up walls and setting up impermeable barriers between ideas. And that does not map on to reality.
(Of course all of this looks very complex in de-settling a colonized space like the United States, especially when colonized people doing something that, in some ways, looks like setting up walls, such as asking people to stop taking their stuff and appropriating what we do. Which is entirely reasonable considering the history of white settler colonialism.)
What I’m interested in is the spaces between cultures, while these cultures are real and distinct and separate and valued, but not necessarily a system where you create yourself by excluding others. Even the country of Hron, which is a country (I get a lot of questions about why my anarchist country is a country even if it is not a state) that doesn’t have fixed geographic boundaries, except de facto by the way the other countries relate to it. The protagonist of the book comes in as an outsider, ostensibly from the country that is doing the invading and part of the invading army, is now a part of Hron by the end of the book. The country is distinct, but anyone can join and be a part of it if they respect the principles of the society.
My family comes from Ireland, and people talk about the invasions of Ireland including, say, by the Normans. And, by and large, it looks like the modern conception anthropologically is actually not just that the Normans invaded, but that they moved there and Gallicized, unlike the colonization of Ireland that happened multiple times over different waves from the English. At other points in history, people would move to Ireland and then become Irish. And, of course, there is trading around, and culture shifts and moves, but the boundary of what is Irish does not mean you have to be X-percent of pure Gaelic blood from the druids, or some fucking Nazi bullshit like that.
In the Afterword you talk about, not so much a criticism of the book, but maybe a discussion of how the book addresses refugees and its relationship to colonialism. There is sort of a balance in the book between a future vision, one that seeks to build a society that really breaks from the past, and finding a place for deep ancestral traditions at the same time. How are those ideas parsed out in the book and do you have any criticisms of it now, such as the potential colonial narratives in it?
It’s funny, because when I came back to it for this edition I actually felt better about it than I had in between. When I wrote it I struggled with these questions a lot, and I wasn’t sure I nailed it. (I’m still not sure I nailed it. I’m always open to ways in which I didn’t nail it.) Because the utopian imagination ties into colonization a lot, and I’d like to think that anarchist imaginations, while not immune to it, are instead coming from positions that are more likely to be receptive to the problems of utopianism and work to address them.
But yeah, coming back to the book I was concerned about how this would read now. I came back to it and I actually think that the more I learn about history and the movement of peoples, I actually think it’s a decent position. For those who have yet to read the book, the country of Hron was formed when a group of refugees, who just lost a revolution in a neighboring country, fled into the hills, only to find out that the hills already have people who live there. All these different settlements and villages of different sizes all have their own traditions and things like that. And when a large influx of refugees come in, they all collectively work together, both the refugees and the different groups of people who already lived there, to come up with a common cause and defend the space against invasion and to protect the refugees from the people who might be coming in after them. So you end up with these very distinct, multiple cultures where they have a lot of political understandings in common (specifically, things that would be anarchistic), but in many ways as that’s maybe the end of what they have in common. One of the advantages of writing a Secondary World, is that this isn’t the future, this isn’t the past. It’s technologically the past, the technology is set around the turn of the 20th Century, Victorian technology. And the colonization that is happening in this space is meant to reflect English colonization of the world.
But by putting it in a Secondary World, I’m a little bit able to hand wave some stuff away that you wouldn’t be able to hand wave away in the real world. For example, there is a space for these people to build a city. And, certainly in the modern world, there is no way that you can go and build a new city and not be doing some nasty shit by doing so.
In what ways is A City of Ghosts Speculative Fiction?
I think the proper term for this style of book is Secondary World Fiction, which is a type of Speculative Fiction. It does not happen in the real world. There’s no fantastic elements beyond the sort of magic that I believe in personally, which is not very flashy or dramatic. And there’s no amazing technology. There’s no technology in the book at all that is beyond what exists in the real world. There’s some level of fantasy about, for example, giant mountain birds, and it doesn’t map one-to-one with Earth, but it’s Secondary World Fiction, which is one of my favorites.
Most Secondary World Fiction people are describing fantasy, or in some ways, science fiction, but in science fiction you can always hand wave and be “like a galaxy far, far away.” Star Wars is a Secondary World Fiction essentially, because it doesn’t take what’s on Earth. Earth isn’t around. Ursula Le Guin books are largely Secondary World. The Dispossessed is a sort of Secondary World Fiction, but it’s not technically since it’s Science Fiction and can get away with saying “Earth exists, it’s just way over there.”
What books and authors were you thinking about, or who inspired you, when working on A Country of Ghosts?
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is, of course, the most prominent and the best written anarchist utopia in English. (I’m personally not aware of anarchist utopian fiction in other languages, but I haven’t looked much into it. I suspect that the majority of anarchist literature is in other languages such as Spanish, Russian, and Chinese, which would be my guess. People were writing a lot more anarchist fiction at the end of the 19th Century up until now.) The Dispossessed is always on my mind when thinking of how to describe anarchism in fiction. In terms of people who’ve walked this ground before me and have amazing chops, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing is also present in my mind. In terms of literary style, I used to read an awful lot of Victorian fiction when I was more invested in the Steampunk subculture (though this book is not Steampunk) and this takes place in a similar time period. I think that writing style absolutely influences the style of writing in this book. Especially the Victorian protagonist who is off to journal the world.
Also Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a group of men stumbling into a feminist utopia. (Which also has awkward colonization aspects that are not well enough addressed by the author. She did conceive of herself as an antiracist, but didn’t always pull it off.) I think that this style of travel journal was on my mind a lot.
I think there is this sense that there has been a new wave of radical Science Fiction that has come out recently, which has been maybe disproportionate compared to the genre’s history. But maybe I have that totally wrong and those radical imaginations have always been a part of the genre.
There are almost two different questions in this. One is the anarchist movement presenting and creating cultural things, like fiction, versus the science fiction world or cultural scenes exploring anarchistic ideas. Both have value and I probably sit at the intersection and consciously move in both of those worlds. I think that a lot of anarchistic fiction is written by people who are a little bit more of one than the other, which is great. And I would say that we are in a wave of it. I think that there has been a huge wave of radical Science Fiction.
There was a series of magazines in pre-revolutionary Spain, starting in the teens and up to the 20s (when Stalin and Franco collectively destroyed any hope of liberation). There were two magazines, La Novela Libre and La Novela Ideal. They were coming out of the same publisher and they had print runs of 50,000 copies. They were, I think, monthly journals. They were basically zines that were getting out to 50,000 people and were different short stories and articles. And almanacs, they also made almanacs for farmers. (It’s referenced in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. They catch the partisans and find an almanac and the almanac says No Gods, No Masters.)
I would read about all of these anarchist fiction writers who were just pulp writers who never got lasting fame, but made a living and wrote 100 books. So there are all of these different versions of anarchist writers going on.
And then anarchism didn’t die, but did go underground after we kept getting murdered en masse by capitalists and state authoritarian communists. After they killed enough of us, we stopped being as much of a presence on the world stage as we were. I don’t think people understand the degree to which we were on the world stage, and I presume will be again, because of how much that history has been buried by the different forces of fascism, capitalism, and state communism who defeated us.
So the next wave, at least in my research, is actually coming out of the counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. You get the New Wave of Science Fiction, and a lot of those authors were coming from the Science Fiction world rather than the anarchist world, but were actually anarchists or inspired by anarchists. Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin, and others kept that flame alive and wrote good ideas into stuff. But the more self-consciously anarchist movement that grew up, I feel, in the 1990s and into the early 2000s that led to the current anarchist movement that is growing almost exponentially now, that movement was not focused on fiction. Its cultural elements were not movies, not plays, not fiction. It was much more nonfiction and ephemeral cultural stuff, and so there just wasn’t much of it. An interesting thing is that when someone’s main thing is being an anarchist, it doesn’t make them a good fiction writer. Those are very different skill sets. Whenever you think of activist fiction or activist theater, they think of things that are pedantic and badly written. And we’ve earned that reputation by being pedantic and badly written. (With the exception of punk.) So it’s a different specialization. In the past five years there has been an explosion of anarchist fiction and an explosion of radical ideas coming out. And I think what it took was that there was a wave of radicalization happening that included people whose thing was making these cultural creations.
This is sort of interesting because AK Press, the publisher, is sort of both these things: they produce anarchist analysis, but also really respected literature and writing.
It makes me so happy. We had this moment when Ursula Le Guin died and a bunch of us were texting each other, people who straddle this activist/anarchist world and the Science Fiction world. And we were like, what the hell do we do now? And the answer is that we step up, and it’s going to take a lot to fill Le Guin’s shoes. I put her on a pedestal way more than she would appreciate, but she’s dead so she can’t stop me. There is this growing number of either people coming from the activist background that put in the work to become good writers, going to workshops, self-publishing, working with traditional publishers, etc. Or, more and more, people who are interested in radical change, realize that the electoral system isn’t working, and are smart enough to look at the 20th Century and realize that authoritarian communism doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m not saying that anarchism is the only choice, there are many other incredibly valid choices, but most of them would be more sympathetic to anarchistic ideas. And I see an increasing number of people, including from this world of Science Fiction writing, who believe in direct action, who believe that the individual and the community don’t need to be at odds with each other, and who believe that capitalism needs to be destroyed. And therefore, they write really interesting fiction.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017), and the recently published Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.