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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

“We can allow the future to influence our present. That opens up all kinds of new possibilities.” 

To celebrate the publication of Kraken Calling, the fiction debut of Canadian activist and author Aric McBay, we are proud to share a short interview with the author, whose previous book, Full Spectrum Resistance, told a comprehensive history of various social movements, offering both strategies for future actions and cautionary tales of what to avoid. McBay's newest book, a near-future speculative novel about direct action against a repressive regime, follows activist groups organizing in two different time periods, 2028 and 2051, and contending with a sharply increasing authoritarianism over the course of that generation.


Q: Your debut novel, Kraken Calling, spans two interconnected time periods – one 2028, one 2051 – to tell the story of activist groups attempting to organize and fight back against an increasingly oppressive regime. What compelled you to write this book with this sort of timeline? How does this asynchronous chronology serve the story? 

By telling a story in two different time periods we can sharpen the contrast between them. I wanted to tell two interconnected stories a generation apart – one similar to our own time, and one more authoritarian and wracked by disaster – to really tease apart the differences and heighten the contradictions between the two.

Of course, I could have told the stories in Kraken Calling one after the other, chronologically, instead of interleaving them. But alternating between the two created a more powerful dramatic result. 

First, it creates more tension for the reader, because we don’t know the fate of our favourite characters until late in the book. 

Second, interleaving the stories – taking characters a generation apart and placing them side-by-side – means that we automatically compare and contrast their choices and their experiences. It makes everything in the book feel more vivid. 

And third, it creates a puzzle, a mystery that the reader can try to solve. At the beginning, we don’t know all the connections between the different characters, we don’t know who we can trust. I really enjoy stories that reward thoughtful engagement, that encourage us to read between the lines. (I’ve even heard from a few people who finished the book, and then immediately went back to the start because they wanted to find all of the little clues and easter eggs that weren’t obvious on their first pass.)

I wanted to offer the reader the joy of puzzling out those connections – or they can just be swept up in the story, whatever their preference! 

Telling the story in an asynchronous way also mirrors a lot of my own experience as a non-fiction author and a student of social movements. I’m always looking a generation (or more) back to see what we can learn, and how decisions people made then affect us now. What could we have done better?

And as a climate justice activist, I have to look forward, to think about how our actions affect the future. I’m always looking in both directions. 

In Kraken Calling, there’s a 23-year gap between the two time periods. And as I approach middle-age, I’ve realized that 23 years can pass surprisingly fast. That can feel terrifying – not because of my own mortality, but because we have very little time to act to prevent climate catastrophe and rampant authoritarianism.

We usually think of time as a one-way process: our actions in the past (or present) determine the future. And that’s largely true – but through speculative fiction, by envisioning possible futures and experiencing them vicariously, we can reverse that causality. 

We can allow the future to influence our present. That opens up all kinds of new possibilities.


Q: Technological advances are integral to both the successes and failures of the activist movements throughout Kraken Calling. Can you tell me a little bit about the technology you write about in the book? Also, how do you see the relationship between anti-authoritarian activism and technology, particularly given our current corporatist (and arguably authoritarian) technological landscape?

The characters in the future of Kraken Calling live under an overtly authoritarian “Emergency Authority”. Repression and surveillance limits what activists can do, their ability to organize, to meet. 

In our highly technological society, it’s easy to forget that most authoritarian states in the twentieth century had rather primitive surveillance systems. For example, in East Germany during the Cold War, surveillance by the Stasi (secret police) was incredibly labour-intensive. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, up to 1 of 6 people in East Germany were serving as informants for the secret police. That’s a lot of people. And even with all those citizen-spies, the Stasi ultimately failed, and that authoritarian government was overthrown.

Those historical authoritarians were horrible, violent, and repressive, but their surveillance powers were weak by modern standards. These days almost every one of us has a device in our pocket that knows whether you are sleeping or awake, who you are with, where you go, what you are reading, every minute of the day.

We haven’t really been able to counter that effectively even now, and it’s not difficult to imagine how a truly fascist state could use all that information and power.

Hence, in Kraken Calling, activists living under the Emergency Authority have very few opportunities to communicate safely. Their daily movements are tracked and restricted, and the Emergency Authority (which emerged during a period of epidemics) uses contact tracing to find and destroy political movements. So dissidents have developed their own workarounds.

Perhaps the most important technology used by activists in the future is something called “Samizdata”. It’s a tool, a coin-sized solar-powered wireless module. It’s something they can slip into their pockets or hide on a rooftop. It produces a very slow, clandestine, ad hoc wireless network.

Samizdata allows activists to communicate with each other, to share news and information that they couldn’t through official channels. The name is inspired by samizdat, a secret communications system that people living under Stalinism used to share banned books – often copying them out by hand. 

However, the samizdata system also reflects the state of resistance in Kraken Calling – at least at the start of the novel. Resistance is isolated, sporadic, and mostly rather timid. But as the novel progresses, and resistance grows, samizdata becomes an even more important tool.

That said, tech is just a tool. Movements are made of people. And to succeed, we need to forge individuals into groups, and to mobilize groups to take bold action.

Good technology can facilitate movement-building, but it will never do that work for us.

Q: You have written extensively about the successes of, and failures of, activist movements throughout history, most recently in your two-volume tome Full Spectrum Resistance. What were some of the real-world activist influences on Kraken Calling?

I mentioned samizdat above; many historical anti-authoritarian movements influenced the book, including struggles against Nazi and Soviet authoritarianism.

I’m especially inspired by anti-colonial movements in the Global South. The structure of Emergency Authority reflects techniques the British used to colonize Africa, and in particular to deal with the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. I’ve also drawn a lot from the African National Congress and movements against South African apartheid.

But closer to home, and especially in the 2028 timeframe, much of the narrative is shaped by things I’ve experienced in my own lifetime as a grassroots activist. For example, the tactics that some activists in the novel use against a fossil fuel site – protests, sit-ins, mass defiance of police, and other forms of non-violent direct action – are all tactics that I’ve used (and taught) in my own activist career. (I wrote about those in Full Spectrum Resistance as well as in Direct Action Works with Pamela Cross.)

Of course, making that kind of action happen on a large scale involves some pretty complicated community alliances and politically strange bedfellows. Those often-tense dynamics are a key thread in Kraken Calling. 

Lastly, even in 2028 there are ample forms of government and corporate repression (surveillance, agents provocateurs, infiltrators, and so on), just like in real life. That was very much influenced by 21st century events like the Green Scare, the G20 Conspiracy case in Ontario, and many other examples.

Many of the movements that influenced the novel have been successful. But we can learn a lot even from (and maybe especially from) failures.


Q: Speaking of failures: Kraken Calling is not shy about addressing the mistakes and miscalculations of its characters, particularly when it comes to a general failure to recognize the urgency of the 2028 movements and organize accordingly. That said, while the 2051 of the novel is clearly dystopian in part because of that lack of urgency, it is not by any means a novel that presents a fatalistic or hopeless view of the future. Can you tell me a little bit about the way that failure factors into the story, and how this relates to where we find ourselves today, living in a period of significant backlash to the social progress of the past decade+? How do you see the relationship between hope for the future and political failures of the past/present?

There’s a quote from Latin American independence leader Símon Bolivar that comes up a couple of times in Kraken Calling: “The work of the revolutionary is to plow the sea.” In other words, social change or revolution is not an endpoint. It’s an effortful process, we have to keep doing it, or we’ll lose the progress we’ve already made.

It’s easy to treat social progress as some kind of historical inevitability. It would be nice if we could kind of sit around and just watch things get better no matter what we did. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that’s not a physical law – King was an organizer and activist, and he understood that the arc of history doesn’t bend automatically. If it bends toward justice, that’s only because of the struggles and sacrifices of many different people in many different movements. 

Social progress is never guaranteed. The belief that social progress is simply result of time, rather than struggle, is a really demobilizing and demoralizing idea. I see that as a fundamentally conservative belief, because it says, essentially: activism doesn’t matter. “We just need more time, and we’ll get there eventually.” And that’s very wrong!

In any case, backlashes are a critical part of understanding how social change happens. Because history is not a one-way straight line. Especially now, we see that in the US. But it’s happened many times.

Consider the end of slavery and the civil war in the US. After 1865, things actually started to get better for a lot of Black people in the American South. There was growing economic equality, and even Black legislators were elected. But that same progress provoked an enormous backlash, which led to the rise of the KKK and a massive level of state-sponsored terrorism to repress marginalized communities. It took a hundred years, and many waves of activism, before Black legislators were elected again and civil rights more firmly established.

The more you succeed as an activist, the stronger the repression is likely to be. I don’t say this to be cynical or fatalistic. Quite the opposite: It’s important to understand backlashes so we can be ready for them, and so that we aren’t naïve. So that we don’t just give up when things get difficult.

Things can get very, very bad – as they have many times in history – and we can still come back from that and build societies that are more fair, and just, and worth living in, and even beautiful. (Periods of crisis can actually yield major change, if we’re adequately prepared, and if we can use the principles of effective resistance I’ve written about in my non-fiction books.)

To return to the part of your question about the characters in Kraken Calling, you are exactly right: they make a lot of mistakes. And that was an intentional choice, because it’s realistic.

When we read a streamlined view of historical movements, a lot of the mistakes get left out of the summary. But mistakes are actually an essential part of making change, because if you are unwilling to make mistakes as an activist you’ll be unable to learn. In fact, if you’re too afraid of making mistakes you’ll never be able to do anything!

That’s important to remember, because some activist scenes can be perfectionist, rigid, and unforgiving. But it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty! That doesn’t make you a failure, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. The key is to learn, to recognize mistakes, to try to fix them. 

And crucially, to keep making new mistakes that open up new possibilities. And ideally to mostly learn from other people’s mistakes. If you can only learn by making mistakes for yourself, well, that’s a slow and uniquely excruciating way to create change.


Q: Is there anything specifically you would like the reader to consider while reading this book? What conclusions – or questions – would you like the reader to walk away with? 

I think – or hope – that people will be reflecting on the choices of the characters in the novel. Asking: What would I have done differently if I were these characters, in their shoes? What should they be doing next? And what should I do right now, in real life?

I want people to think (and feel) about the kind of future they want to leave the next generation, and to act accordingly. I want to prime them to think about authoritarian trends in a proactive way; not to just wallow in dystopia, but to consider what might happen in the world in the aftermath of pandemic, as climate change gets worse, as authoritarians become more bold, and to think about how we can best intervene.

The novel has twenty-four chapters – twelve in each time period. Kraken Calling begins in the future of 2051, but it ends in the “past” of 2028. That was a very deliberate choice. I didn’t want to end in 2051, where the dystopian future feels fixed or inevitable, like a fait accompli. 

I wanted to end the story near our own time, where we still have a chance, collectively, to change the course of history. To build and to fight for the kind of future we actually want to live in.


Aric McBay is an organizer, a farmer, and author of four books. He writes and speaks about effective social movements, and has organized campaigns around prison justice, Indigenous solidarity, pipelines, unionization, and other causes. You can find his work at aricmcbay.org.


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