Review: Kung Li Sun, Begin the World Over (AK Press, 2022) & Robert Evans, After the Revolution (AK Press, 2022)
Javier Sethness Castro, author of “From ‘Trotsky in Tijuana’ to ‘Chernobyl’: Caution & Reason” said, “[t]he promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be.”1 Fiction falling within these two genres serve as a powerful medium writers use to understand and contextualize the systems responsible for the world we are born into. Because of this, fiction has never been able to evade the attention of the state, as it can either inspire revolution or lull us into subjugation. Fiction, specifically speculative and counterfactual fiction, offers us the opportunity to explore and contextualize different moments in history, governing systems of the past, present, and future, and serves as an artful disruption of the flows of power; it can inspire us to organize and resist a hierarchical system founded upon exploitation of the many by the few.
Begin the World Over, by Kung Li Sun, is a counterfactual novel that centers on an insurrection that sets the United States aflame with a Black and Indigenous led revolution against the fledgling American government in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Without becoming didactic or cliché, Sun shows us what an inclusive society which empowers Black, Indigenous, and queer people through solidarity, mutual aid, and direct action, can accomplish against the state. With the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision, the war on trans youth, and increasingly concerning calls for violence and civil war by white right-wing extremist politicians and militia groups, Sun’s text stands apart as an explicit call to action for the formation of an antifascist front bound in solidarity, mutual aid, and direct action against the tide of authoritarianism lurching forward in the US today.
After the Revolution, a work of speculative fiction by Robert Evans, takes place in a not-so-distant US, now Balkanized after a civil war. Evans’ debut novel is set in Austin, Texas. He elects not to explore the intricacies of the civil war and only reveals, through a high school history teachers’ lesson, that the resulting “American Federation” perceives the conflict that fractured America to be a civil war, while in the Northeast and “Christian States,” it’s perceived as a revolution.2 The history teachers’ illustration of the differing views on the nature of the conflict sets the stage for the rest of the novel, where Evans explores the conflict between two factions within Texas: the Evangelical Christian Fundamentalists of the Heavenly Kingdom, who coordinate multiple terrorist attacks in Austin on civilian populations, and The City of Wheels, the reluctant city of posthumans and the last line of defense against the Heavenly Kingdom’s Martyrs. Evans presents a stark future in which right-wing extremist politicians and leaders birth a competent and effective Christian fascist movement, continueing the nightmarish premonition of an America fractured by fascism he first conjured in his podcast It Could Happen Here. Evans shows us why we must organize and fortify our defenses against this threat from Christian ethno-nationalist fascists.
Counterfactual Disruption in Begin the World Over
Begin the World Over kicks off with the organization of what will become the successful insurrection at Charleston, South Carolina that will inspire a nation-wide Black and Indigenous led revolution. Sun’s primary cast is comprised of a version of Romaine the prophetess, a gender fluid rebel and self-proclaimed goddaughter of the Virgin Mother Mary; Red Eagle, who was born a woman and named Sehoy but presents himself presents himself as a Native American man; Denmark Vesey, a pirate captain; Mary, a former slave of Andrew Jackson’s set on avenging her sister; and James Hemmings, a former slave of Thomas Jefferson’s and classically trained chef. Sun’s counterfactual cast of characters differed greatly from their historical counterparts as each had never met the other. For example, James Vesey was never a pirate, he was a free Black man and community organizer that was executed after his plans for a massive slave uprising were discovered, and James Hemmings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s slave that gained his freedom but who fell into alcoholism and committed suicide in his early thirties. The stark contrast between the people Sun conjured for her story and their historical counterparts begs the question, why did she distort them so drastically?
Sun justifies her counterfactual distortion of the cast of characters primarily using the character Denver’s revolutionary conviction, which he expresses to James at the start of the novel. After a close call with a slave catcher in Nuevo Orleans, James reflects on Denmark’s revolutionary conviction that people like themselves are destined to end slavery.3 People like James and Denver cannot be contained in a singular category, as evinced by their dynamic character developments throughout the novel, and the same goes for Romaine, Mary, and Red Eagle as each represent different aspects of Black, Indigenous, and queer communities. By placing people like this at the center of organizing on both a small and large scale against the state, Sun makes it clear that for the revolution to succeed, a revolutionary front bound in solidarity across people of color, sexualities, and differing ideologies must be formed to ensure success.
This antifascist front forms rather easily among most of Sun’s cast, but whereas Romaine, Mary, Denmark possess a similarly intense revolutionary conviction, James Hemmings remains the most reluctant participant of this revolutionary cohort. Like his historical counterpart, James’ goal is to free his family by serving his master and obtaining the funds to buy them from Jefferson. But when the chance comes to participate in revolution that could spark the end of slavery, James declines and only finds himself with Denver on Captain Mai’s ship by chance, after wandering aboard in a drunken stupor the night before. The question we must ask now is why did Sun choose to begin they story of revolution with a happy accident instead of an explicit choice?
As a slave, James intended to move within the confines of the present system to free himself and his family, but within system that upholds slavery, such movements are impossible to execute successfully as evinced by the historical James Hemmings’ tragic end. Hemmings, as both historical and imagined, is what the controversial German soldier, author, and philosopher Ernst Jung, calls the anarch4 in his final novel, Eumeswil. A type of egoist of the Stirner tradition, which lies in complacent wait for his tyrant to either grant his freedom or for revolution to distract his oppressors enough for to escape and disappear from the conflict altogether. James, throughout Begin the World Over, resembles this reactive type, as his participation in organizing was mostly passive until after the violent uprising in Charleston. Sun’s choice to begin her story with an accident but have its ending culminate in an explicit choice tells us that while the seeds of revolution can be planted unintentionally, it can only be driven to completion by those wholly embrace that revolutionary conviction with their comrades.
We must understand that the line between fiction and reality has always been blurred. From the beginning, the stories we create and tell center on contextualizing the world and our place in it. If stories shape our reality and give it flesh, the danger in storytelling is it can be weaponized and used against us to impose a map of reality which only supports the hierarchical system that we now know as the modern nation-state. For evidence of this, look no further than the Netflix film, Purple Hearts, directed by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, depicting a revisionist image of the Marine Corps as soldiers fighting for the average American’s right to be free, while simultaneously depicting a career which excuses rampant misogyny, sexism, and racism. Another example of critical revisionist entertainment is the hit Broadway show Hamilton which further reinforces the idea that America was founded upon freedom from tyranny and the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. These are the types of narratives that run rampant throughout American entertainment and are used to project, promote, and impose an image which obscures America’s deep-rooted history in imperialism and racism.
If the map of reality woven from fictive historical narratives can be constructed and imposed upon a population, and that image is one which perpetually disadvantages one group and promotes and reinforces hierarchical systems of power, then counterfactual fiction serves to shatter the state’s carefully constructed patriotic veneer by inspiring the disadvantaged and subjugated to create a better world. With their counterfactual narrative inspired by slave uprisings and the success of the Hattian revolution, Sun’s narrative serves as inspiration for readers to carry that revolutionary conviction possessed by James, Denver, Romaine, Mary, and Red Eagle outside of the pages of Begin the World Over.
Nightmares and Premonitions in After the Revolution
Whereas Sun’s novel is imbued with revolutionary conviction and hope, Evans’ After the Revolution is a bleak warning of what could come to pass. Particulalry if we fail to organize and defend our communities from current fascist movements and threats posed by right wing extremist groups in the United States. The narrative is focalized through a small cast of revolving characters: Manny, a fixer; Roland, a traumatized and amnesiac post-human, and former U.S. soldier; and Sasha, a runaway teenager coming to terms with the harsh reality of joining the Heavenly Kingdom’s Christian Fundamentalist society. The point at which these three stories converge is in the Heavenly Kingdom, where Manny and Roland are gathering intel for a rescue mission behind enemy lines with Sasha’s help, retreating to the City of Wheels to prepare for a climactic battle between the posthuman residents and the Heavenly Kingdom’s Martyrs.
After the Revolution, as stated by Evans in his afterword, says his work is an exploration of his PTSD and is centered around the different ways people cope with trauma. While experiencing and living through trauma is at the heart of this novel, After the Revolution is more nuanced than Evans gives himself credit for. It offers valuable insight into the different ways the state exploits its citizens, as well as an exploration of what it may require to maintain a radical democratic experiment, without succumbing to the coercive and violent forces sent by the state to destroy it. As an exploration of trauma, we need to look at the trauma that Manny, Sasha, and Roland carry with them throughout the novel.
What ties the three together, despite their vastly different backgrounds, is that each has had their bodies exploited by the state for sinister purposes. This phenomenon of the state possessing and exploiting the bodies of those it governs parallels that of the obscure Ancient Roman figure, the homo sacer,5 an individual that belongs to the gods and can be killed but not sacrificed. The homo sacer in a contemporary political context as explored by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, is clearly seen throughout After the Revolution, with each of Evans’ revolving cast of characters. The most obvious, and literal case of a homo sacer, would be Roland, a former soldier turned posthuman super-soldier which resulted in a severe case of PTSD and his semi-permanent amnesiac fugue state. Manny, alongside Roland, while in the Heavenly Kingdom, nearly meets a similar but far more sinister fate as Roland’s when the two are separated and Manny is transferred to the Storm Battalion along with other non-white recruits to be experimented on. Outside of the state recruiting and using the bodies of its citizens for its wars, Evans also depicts the harsh treatment of women in the Heavenly Kingdom through Sasha, who is slowly stripped of the rights she enjoyed in the American Federation and witnesses women around her placed in arranged polygamous marriages to Martyrs and forced to have as many children as humanly possible.
Though the sacrifices demanded of Evans’ cast of characters seems unrealistic, his exploration and depiction of the “homo sacer-ization” is incredibly vital to understanding the dire situation surrounding bodily autonomy in the US today. While it would be easy to compare the Heavenly Kingdom to far-right Christian fundamentalist groups, the reality of the situation is much less grand but no less sinister. With over half of the states in the US introducing and considering legislation that will further advance anti-trans agendas, the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s recent introduction of a bill that would ban abortions after fifteen weeks nationwide, it is likely more state and federal legislation that would further cement the states’ power to “homo sacer-ize” its citizens will follow. The “homo sacer-ization” of a population is a tried-and-true method of control the state continually uses. It comes from lawmakers’ ability to place themselves in a state of exception, where they withdraw from being affected by the rules they create and impose upon citizens. This is illustrated by Evans with Pastor Mike and the Heavenly Kingdom as Pastor Mike places himself and his Martyrs above the law by preaching sermons that both legitimize and absolve the atrocities his army commits on the battlefield and at home since all is done in the name of God. However, with this in mind, our objective should not be equal application for all by the state, but freedom from it and the permanent destruction of the state of exception.
Side by side, each text compliments the other as both Sun and Evans explore how state sanctioned violence and revolutionary violence can be justified under a Christian banner. With Begin the World Over, we have Romaine the Prophetess, self-proclaimed goddaughter of the Virgin Mary, who inspires and justifies a violent uprising and insurrection by tying religious and revolutionary conviction together in the name of liberation. On the other hand, with After the Revolution, we have Pastor Mike, who uses his perception of God to create a Christian fascist state and justify countless acts of prejudice against women, people of color, non-Christians, and people who identify LGBTQ+. In light of what both authors have explored in their respective texts what we must ask, if the same deity can be used to justify both fascist and antifascist movements, where can we find the moral compass that will divine right from wrong; and moreover, if it doesn’t exist, what do we place our faith in, and how do we avoid becoming the very thing we fight against?
Neither author provides an answer to this explicitly in their books, but both depict liberated societies as places which have eliminated the homo sacer by dissolving the state of exception. In Sun’s text this is accomplished by freeing slaves during the uprising at Charleston and in Evans’ text, the hedonist City of Wheels is the ultimate beacon of liberty in Austin, Texas, where each resident has complete bodily autonomy as evinced by their cyber posthuman body modifications and excessive uses of drugs and alcohol for recreation.
The challenge we face after the eradication of the homo sacer is ensuring that the state of exception and any other mechanism which enables “homo sacer-ization” is never revived within liberated societies. Sun does not explore this in their work but Evans touches upon it very briefly through his character Donald Farris, a conflict journalist and human resident of the City of Wheels. While speaking with Manny, he expresses his doubt in the posthumans’ ability to keep their experimental society alive since he believes history is destined to repeat itself. Though no one offers a counter to Farris’ argument that the posthumans will develop a taste for war, Evans implicitly counters Farris through two rituals which are designed to shatter the romantic veneer of revolutionary violence. The first way Evans does this is by illustrating the inhuman cruelty required of the ritual where the faces of the warriors sent to battle are skinned and left behind with those who do not go into battle with them. Evans reinforces the harsh reality of war by depicting the residents of the City of Wheels watching snapshots of the lives of Martyrs killed in battle by the posthumans. Whether this is effective in keeping the City of Wheels from developing a taste for war is left unexplored as the novel concludes soon after, but nevertheless, the strange war rituals of the City of Wheels serve as an excellent illustration of the inhuman cruelty required by those who decide to resist with violence that is greater or equal to what the state has sanctions and enacts.
The power of the state in part lies in the governing apparatus’ ability to continue to “homo sacer-ize” its citizens and resources. Both Sun and Evans explore this through slavery, patriotism, and “martyrdom” respectively, and both show how using violence equivalent to or greater than the violence used by the state to oppress and subjugate can liberate or at the least, repel state forces. But developing a taste for fanatical violence spelling doom for radical democratic experiments, like Evans’ City of Wheels, is important to ponder. To argue that violence against the state is the only path toward liberty would be an incredibly ignorant statement to make. While violence and coercion are the currency which the state recognizes, they are not the only forces that can counter the state’s forces.
Evans, in an article titled “How Portland Stopped the Proud Boys,”6 explains how organizing against fascist movements and groups, paired with wide public support, drove away the Proud Boys and other far right fascist groups with both violent clashes and nonviolent confrontations. Evans writes, “Historically, fascists win when they decide to go for it, to throttle democracies, believing that no one is organized enough to fight them […] In Portland, people stood up and opted to call their bluff.”7 For the antifascists of Portland, the simple act of organizing to show that they would defend their community against the violence that the Proud Boys intended to unleash was enough to not only repel them but to prevent them from returning.
On a larger scale, we can look to the beginnings of what the Autonomous Area of North and East Syria (AANAES) has become today. Amid civil war, the Kurdish people organized defense forces and began liberating parts of Kurdistan within Syria from the Assad regime. According to Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, in Revolution in Rojava : Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, when the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG: People’s Defense Units liberated Kobanî City from the Assad regime in 2012, the liberation was “bloodless” since Kurdish defense forces took control of roads going in and out of the city and had amassed the people of Kobanî in front of the regime army’s strongpoint.8 Though much of the revolution in Syria that followed was not bloodless and, as in Portland, confrontations would become violent, these examples illustrate the effectiveness of organizing with a diversity of tactics.
Both Begin the World Over and After the Revolution achieve different objectives. They each are disruptive in their own way, as both Sun and Evans inspire a type of situational awareness that is otherwise neglected. If Sun’s Begin the World Over is a call to organize, and an example of what successful organization looks like, Evans’ After the Revolutionprovides a nightmarish illustration of what happens should we fail to effectively work against the current tide of authoritarianism.
Another world is possible. It has been dreamt of by writers and artists, and realized by revolutionaries, and it can be done again hopefully with exponentially greater success. Portland’s organizing against the Proud Boys, and the birth of AANAES, are proof of the possibility of success. What is left to us now, as readers, writers, critics, and activists, is to find each other, rally together, and stand in obstinate defiance of the lurching tide of fascism.
Dylan Patrick Delos Santos Clymer is Filipino-CHamoru and lives on the island of Guåhan, an unincorporated territory of the United States. He graduated from the University of Guam with a Master of Arts in English. He is a reader, writer, and fledgling anarchist.
(Featured art by by Tavia Morra)
1Javier Sethness Castro, “From Trotsky in Tijuana” to Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason”, (Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, online, Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2022).
2Robert Evans, After the Revolution (AK Press, 2022), 104.
3Kung Li Sun, Begin the World Over (AK Press, 2022), 54.
4See Ernst Jung, Eumeswil (Telos Publishing, 2015) by for a more in-depth analysis of his conception of the anarch.
5Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998). See discussion on the homo sacer in “Part Two: Homo Sacer,” 71-118.
6 Robert Evans,“How Portland Stopped the Proud Boys” (New Lines Magazine, 2022).
8 Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, (London: Pluto Press, 2016).