An Act of Solidarity
A journalist published a page-turning sci-fi novel--and gives it away for freeThe first shots of the second American Civil War may have already been fired, the investigative journalist Robert Evans argues in his 2018 podcast It Could Happen Here. Drawing on his experience covering civil wars in Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria, the iHeartRadio host demonstrated to millions of listeners that the United States is closer to a nationwide sectarian conflict than they had previously imagined. In his debut novel, After the Revolution, Evans imagines an America crumbling in the chaotic aftermath of such a war.
Evans’s publishing model is as revolutionary as his subject matter. He self-published the book in digital and audio formats in August 2021 and released them for free. “I don’t think I’ll ever sell a fiction book in the traditional sense,” he says. “I view it as an act of solidarity with other poor people who like to read fiction.”
The premise for After the Revolution came to Evans as an 18-year-old walking around his hometown of Richardson, Tex., on “an actually hallucinogenic dose of MDMA.” He developed the idea over the next 10 years while working as a writer, editor, and video producer for Cracked and publishing his first book, the tongue-in-cheek nonfiction volume A Brief History of Vice, with Penguin Random House.
But “it wasn’t until I went to Iraq that how to actually write [After the Revolution] started coming together,” he says. In 2016, Cracked sent Evans to embed with Iraqi Kurdish militias fighting ISIS.
In the novel, Evans envisions a United States fractured into at least 15 independent governments with different ideologies. Most of the action happens in a version of Texas inspired by his experience in Iraq. The area surrounding the left-libertarian Free City of Austin is powered by automation, but opportunity is scarce due to recurring assaults from the Heavenly Kingdom, a Taliban-like Christian state occupying the Deep South.Evans tells the story through three characters caught in the crossfire: Manny, a fixer guiding journalists through the war-torn Texas landscape; Sasha, a young woman recruited by the Heavenly Kingdom; and Roland, a heavily augmented (or “chromed”) cyborg supersoldier numbing memories of his violent past in a fugue of drugs, booze, and self-imposed exile.
Despite the postcollapse setting, Evans was determined not to write a pure dystopian or utopian story because “that’s more realistic.” He contrasts the Heavenly Kingdom’s oppressive theocracy with new societies based on leftist principles that rise to oppose it.
The most radical example is a nomadic anarchist commune called “Rolling Fuck.” It’s as if Burning Man were permanent and mobile and had the most advanced technology on the planet. The city is a haven for the “chromed”—transhumanist cyborgs, some of whom can switch genders at will—where they drink beer laced with LSD and regularly have polyamorous “fondle boat” parties. The Fuckians are sophisticated warriors, but their progressive culture reckons with the responsibility that comes with their technological power.
After the Revolution’s thrilling action scenes are tempered by the trauma Evans witnessed in Iraq and Ukraine. “A big influence was watching the United States military bombing Mosul,” Evans says. “I spent one morning watching airstrikes land in the Old City, then minutes later walked through and there were live munitions, bodies in the rubble, all that shit.” Evans says he took direct fire at least three times, and he recalls at least one incident when bullets whizzed past his head while he was embedded with a federal police mortar unit.
The violence, combined with other personal issues, took a toll on Evans. At the end of 2017, he and his wife broke up. “I started having outrageous PTSD, just years’ worth of not taking care of my mental health compounding, and that’s when I wrote most of the book,” Evan says. “It was primarily written as a way to process my post-traumatic stress disorder and my grief at the end of a relationship.”
Evans chose to release After the Revolution for free because the story was too intertwined with his trauma and growth to look at as a financial instrument. Evans could have taken After the Revolution to a major publisher—he has another nonfiction book deal in the works—but, thanks to his six-figure social media following and 10 million monthly podcast listeners, he didn’t have to. “I don’t think this book could have possibly sold without the person writing it having a significant audience already,” Evans says.
His decision was also inspired by such copyleft literary heroes as Attack Surface author Cory Doctorow—who lauded the book—and Evans’s mentor and editor at Cracked, John Dies at the End author Jason Pargin. Both authors are known for providing their books at no charge. Pargin first released chapters of his novel, later adapted to a feature film, as a pioneering comedy blog, and Doctorow gives away many of his books to readers.
Though profit isn’t his primary motive, Evans’s approach is paying off. He brought After the Revolution to his producers at iHeartMedia, where he hosts popular shows including Behind the Bastards and a daily edition of It Could Happen Here. iHeartMedia agreed to release the audiobook as an ad-supported podcast, and now it’s the network’s most popular fiction series. On August 16, 2021, the company launched a new progressive subnetwork called Cool Zone Media with Evans as the creative lead.
On May 3, Evans will release a paperback edition of After the Revolution through AK Press, an Oakland-based anarchist collective that has been publishing leftist literature for over 20 years. “Robert is in a unique position. His voice has found a pretty large audience, and he’s using it to push people to change, not just be entertained,” says AK Press collective member Zach Blue. “After the Revolution is a timely companion to the host of great nonfiction books out now, and coming soon, that investigate the radicalization of the right and the increasing threat of violence in the U.S.”
After the Revolution reveals a large audience hungry for stories that acknowledge the threat of fascism. That audience has already financed the After the Revolution sequel, raising nearly $50,000 on GoFundMe—more than double Evans’s $20,000 goal.
“After the Revolution shows that the way that the book trade operates is not the only way,” Blue says. “Publishers complain about large entities like Amazon, but they can always do things differently, and authors can do things differently. The work Robert does is proof that there’s more than one way to get art out into the world.”
Beckett Mufson is a journalist, copywriter, and cofounder of creative agency The Auxiliary.