Margaret Killjoy’s Fantastic Aesthetic Anarcho-Fun Heresy
Olympia is one of those towns subject to a relentless misdirection spell. No magician or witch cast it, though–it arose organically in the alembic of poor urban planning confronting wily land spirits and chthonic forces who will never quite care where you intended to go because they want you to show you something…or someone.
So my best friend and I were suddenly headed north through downtown Olympia, though we’d meant to go south. For the third time.
“Fuck,” she moaned, trying to steer the van into a turn lane. “Again?”
“It’s like something’s fucking with us,” I started, and then saw a figure crossing the street in front of us. I had no time to finish the sentence. The light was about to change, and the person would be gone.
“HeyI’llberightbackIhavetogosayhitosomeone” I blurted out, jumping out of the van.
“What? Where are you? Okay, I’ll park.”
Among heretics, few words are necessary. When something happens to one, the other just knows. My best friend can stare suddenly down an alley mid-sentence and I don’t need to ask what she is seeing. I can jump out of a van in the middle of traffic and she knows something’s about to happen.
I ran down the sidewalk, then suddenly slowed, remembering that I looked like a 200 lb shaved-head man chasing a long-haired steam-goth down the street. That looked bad. Besides, my target seemed happily oblivious, lost in thought, so jumping up from behind her like that seemed really rather rude.
“Hey,” I called, really clumsily. “Are you…? We’ve never met but you’re my hero.”
That was the best I could come up with. I don’t really have heroes, let alone get a chance to meet the ones I do have. So I don’t really know how to talk to them, and I’m anyway awkward as fuck. But a few seconds later, my companion was behind me. “Holy fuck, Magpie?”
Of course my companion knew them, too. Among heretics, there are no chance meetings.
If you’ve never heard of Margaret Killjoy, you’ve probably already encountered her anyway. There are a few humans who do things that make it so that other humans do things which then inspires others to do things. Like grandmothers, but not old enough to have grandchildren so they’re grandmothers to ideas and art and movements and ways of living. Margaret’s one of those people.
This is supposed to be a review of her new book, and it will be, I promise. But there’s that weird thing where reviewers are supposed to be objective and to disclose any relationship to the author they have, and that’s a really complicated thing to do here because I have to tell you some stories.
Stories like the one I began with, where I’m driving in a van with my best friend, who’s one of those people who also grandmothers existence into being, and then I see Margaret Killjoy crossing the street and jump out of the van and then my best friend comes up behind us and it turns out they know each other too, hadn’t seen or heard anything of each other for ten years and had been just as inspired by her as I was.
And there’s other stories, like maybe 15 years ago or more when I was trying to figure out how my anarchism and my Paganism fit together when all the anarchists around me were atheist and all the Pagans around me were bourgeois Wiccans. And then I read the introduction by Alan Moore to Steampunk Magazine (Margaret Killjoy was its editor), and then I realise that there are anarchists and occultists and they’re the same people. But I also realised there were anarchists who are into steampunk, not just into it because it was a cool aesthetic but because…well, because stories.
Because here’s why Margaret Killjoy was my hero for so fucking long (still is, actually). What she saw about an aesthetic built on fantasy and an alternative vision born of the industrial age is what every really good fantasist, but also every good theorist and mystic, sees: the world not only could have been different, it still can be. And not only can it be, but the certain sorts of people who give way too much time thinking about how it still can be different are the ones who have the potential to make it different.
Because steampunk ultimately was about what might have happened if all the clockworks and steam engines and airships didn’t go away just because the capitalist industrialists realized they were inefficient. We could still have had machines that made sense, whose workings you could watch, alien as they were to the peasants and townsfolk of Europe and its colonies. You could open up a clock and see how it worked, and because you saw how it worked you could have power over it. You could turn a valve that ran a factory and make the factory stop, or you could rig up your own brazier and basket and ask your geeky seamstress friends to stitch together a big canvas for you and next thing you know? You’re floating over the city with your friends.
Now? Now everything’s gotta be bought, even steampunk shit. The capitalists ruin everything.
Steampunk Magazine was an anarcho-anti-capitalist fantasy that felt just as true, just as possible as all the downtowns full of skyscrapers and stores full of credit card machines that ‘actually exist.’ There was something about the way it presented fantasy that made it feel less fantastic while making everything else around you seem like pure fiction. Why couldn’t the Luddites have destroyed the factories and replaced them with clockwork automatons so we all had time to build cool goggles and cobble together houses from machine parts or clothing from scraps, and then adorn it all in gilded Anarchy symbols made with cogs?
If humans can come up with the internet, Walmart, or nuclear waste, we humans ought to be capable of prettier shit, too.
That’s what I learned from Margaret Killjoy, back when I was a wee anarchist lad living in a crumbling two-story witch-house, planting sacred trees and hanging runes and sigils made from clock pieces and broken glass from their branches. Everything was possible, everything else was possible, and it could be beautiful and absurd and fantastic and fun and as anarchist as we wanted it to be.
Towards that end, Margaret put together a pretty awesome book, too. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers, a collection of interviews with and writing about anarchist fiction. For that book Margaret interviewed one of my other heroes, and even cooler got to stand next to that other hero and talk to people:
Because Ursula K Le Guin is another one of those people who tell you that it’s possible to have and be something else if you just convince others that they can also do it too, at which point there are enough of you to make that world.
That’s fiction. But it’s also myth. And more than anything, that’s what magic has always been.
So, oh. This is supposed to be a book review and not a slobbering fanboy propaganda piece (but it’s that too). Because Margaret’s got a new book out, published by that swanky fantasy publisher TOR.
The book’s called The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, and I think you should read it. You should read it if you’re an anarchist or a witch, and definitely if you’re an anarchist and a witch. And also you should read it if you aren’t, because it’s damn good.
It’s a novella, so I shouldn’t tell you too much about the plot. Except that it’s about squatted land in the middle of nowhere inhabited by people who decided to stop caring about gender or the State or buying and selling, and maybe also decided to summon a land spirit to protect their community against the police and people who might want to take over their utopia. And that goes wrong, just like many other utopias go wrong.
You get to read about some cops getting gored.
You get to read what it might be like to live in a world where gender and sexuality isn’t a thing people even think about at all.
And by reading it you’ll get to see what it might be like to live in a world where people write things like that, things that make you feel like even more things are possible, and that maybe one day we can live in a world where everything that we think of now as fiction becomes more true than what everyone else tells us is real. Because we’re already living in that world, in no small part thanks to Margaret Killjoy’s fantastic aesthetic anarcho-fun heresy.
The book comes out August 15th, but you can pre-order it from Red Emma’s. While you’re waiting you can read the first chapter here, and also read this short story by Margaret on Tor’s online site.
And check out everything else Margaret has done–it’s amazing, and maybe you’ll get as inspired as I’ve been.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch.
He lives in Bretagne.