Book Review: “A True Map of the City: Lost in Dystopia” by J. Guenther

Who doesn’t love a good dystopia? To read about, I mean.

The country (maybe more of a city-state) of Deres-Thorm is a bizarre, surreal nightmare, evocative of North Korea, East Berlin, and every other totalitarian dystopia. The unsuspecting narrator, Horus Blassingame, is thrown from one bizarre obstacle to another, whether it’s from the constantly changing street and building names, the two distinct dialects, or the constant paranoia of the security forces.

The book is darkly comic, with an emphasis on the dark. There are some scenes that are not too far off of Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, the narrator remains relatively upbeat, despite the torturous conditions he often finds himself in.

It’s a very funny satire on the kinds of horrors that can occur in a Stalinist bureaucracy. I’d call it Kafkaesque, although I’ve never read Kafka, so I may be wrong. But it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’ve heard people call “Kafkaesque.” (And, well, it says so on the cover.) It also called to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with its surreal and simultaneously funny and disturbing takes on political theory.

I like the book a lot, so I don’t want the following complaints to be misconstrued as reasons not to read it. But I have to put them out there all the same.

First, the only named female character (not counting the genderless Th’pugga) is a prostitute. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I swear, so much modern fiction gives you the idea that prostitution is always and everywhere running rampant. Yes, yes, I know; “world’s oldest profession” and all that; but really.

The second point isn’t even really a criticism, but more of an observation. The most significant exchange in the book, which sums up the entire philosophy governing Deres-Thorm, is when the main antagonist, Pokska, explains that citizens are bound by the laws of their own countries while in Deres-Thorm, just as all citizens of Deres-Thorm are bound by their laws no matter where they are in the world. The logic behind this, he elaborates, is that “the citizen is the property of the State.”

This is pretty horrifying, right? It’s close to a re-formulation of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” It’s basically the central concept of totalitarianism, and the reader is not slow in seeing how it can lead to exactly the kinds of horrors depicted in this book–not to mention in real life.

But, wait. What is the state? The state is legalized violence, because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. (Don’t take my word for it, take Max Weber’s, one of the founders of modern sociology.) In governments structured as liberal democracies and constitutional republics, the people consent to authorize the state to use violence. We issue them a badge, as it were. In other, more brutal forms of government, the state doesn’t need to show the people any stinkin’ badges.

This is an important difference, and I don’t want to minimize it. But… even in liberal democracies… the state still has the authority to deprive us of our freedoms, if it has some reason to do so. Theoretically, at least, the people can hold the state accountable so that it will use its terrible powers only for good. Theoretically. But it has terrible powers, all the same…

My point is, the state kind of does own the citizen, by definition.  It can pretend it doesn’t; it can put all sorts of accountability measures and checks and balances in place–and it should, and it does. But still.

And yet, not every state is a hellish Orwellian nightmare. So the state owns the people. So what? Just because you own something doesn’t mean you’ll destroy or mistreat it. Generally the opposite, actually. The problem is when the machinery of the state is controlled by psychopaths. Which, admittedly, happens alarmingly often. And even once is too often. Obviously, the power of the state is alluring to psychopaths, with results like those seen in A True Map of the City.

What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve by any means necessary the status of the ruling class.

What we’re really trying to figure out is, “what is the root of tyrannical government?” To determine exactly how creeps like Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm.

In an early draft of this review, I had a much longer section on this question, referencing Lord Acton and Plato’s Republic and lots of other stuff like that on the origins of tyranny. But I cut that, because it was wandering too far from the topic at hand. I didn’t want to do that to you. (Again.) But I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there are lots of big ideas in this little book. Maybe some powerful mind will do a truly cogent interpretation of it, like Christopher Hitchens on Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But as of right now it only has one review on Amazon, (5 stars, of course) so I think I can safely say it needs more readers.


  1. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” Jesus Christ. Greed is what motivates the 0.01% that owns 90% of all the money, and they can’t get enough of it. My two cents worth.

  2. Nothing against the writer and the book, but I honestly don’t fancy reading anything dystopian at the moment. Having said that, I would have liked to have read what you’d written on the origins of tyranny.

    1. Well, now, I suppose I can’t turn down a request. 🙂 Here you go. (In case it’s not obvious from the comment format, most of the text is mine; quotes from Plato and Lord Acton are in italics.)

      “What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve, by any means necessary, the status of the ruling class. This has happened innumerable times throughout history, so determining the mechanism that causes it is quite important. We know Lord Acton’s theory:

      “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

      I know I’m really scrutinizing this more than I should, but maybe it’s proper to say the absolute power wielded by the Deres-Thorm police force has corrupted them, leading to rule by monsters like Pokska and Th’pugga. The parallels with Hitler and Himmler, Stalin and Beria, are all too obvious.

      But then we’re left with another question: how did they get absolute power? And to answer that, and figure out exactly how Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm, we must go back long before Hitler and Stalin. Let us consult the guy who wrote the book on politics, Plato’s Republic, Book VIII:

      “Say then, my friend, in what manner does tyranny arise?—that it has a democratic origin is evident.”

      Wait, what?

      “The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy—the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government.

      The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.

      This is a bit of interpretation on my part, but not, I think, too much: when Plato says “democracy,” what he really means is “mob rule.” The theory is that tyranny arises from an atmosphere of anarchic mob rule. Like the October Revolution that eventually led to Stalin. Or the “March on Rome” that led to Mr. “Nothing Outside the State.”

      This is particularly interesting given how A True Map of the City ends. But I wouldn’t think of spoiling it! This is a clever and compelling little book. If I’ve done nothing else, I hope I’ve at least shown it’s a book that makes you think. Even if my high schooler-ish “compare the forms of Plato’s Republic to the assigned text” essay has failed to resolve anything, (I’d give myself a C-, personally) it should at least get across the idea that there are lots of big ideas here.”

      1. Thanks! 🙂 As I suspected, a good read.
        With what’s happening here in the UK, to that I’d add, complacency by the people, willing to give up their autonomy in the mistaken belief the state/govt can keep them safe, which adds to govt’s power while the govt keeps them on side with seemingly neverending handouts.

        1. Oh wow…sorry but I can’t agree with that. I live in Melbourne, Australia, and my city went from being pretty much covid free to 700 new cases of community infection per day. I know that is peanuts in comparison to the UK, US and huge swathes of Europe, but /we/ were heading towards disaster and the elderly were dying like flies. To cut a long story short[er], the Premier of our State put all of Melbourne into a hard lockdown, for months. 8pm curfew, 5 km radius for leaving the house, everything but essential services locked down tight. And we /beat/ it. We are virus /free/. And we’re living almost normal lives. That is our reward for caring for each other.

          Was our premier a Stalin or Mussolini? No. He put his political career on the line to do the right thing. Right thing? Yes, the right thing according to the science, the virologists, the epidemiologists and everyone who didn’t have a vested interest in dollars over lives.

          Living in a society is a social contract even if we aren’t aware of having signed it. We give up a certain amount of freedom in exchange for the safety of ‘the herd’. And it works because on our own, humans are pretty weak. Technology is our armour, but we’d still be hitting things over the head with sticks if society had not made it possible to develop science and technology. So we do get something back for the freedoms we give up.

          That said, if complete autonomy is what an individual wants then they are free to leave society and live on their own. Within society, however, no one has the right to take another’s life due to the expression of their autonomy.

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