The year is 2300 and Kansas City — as we know it — no longer exists.
The Eastern Empire — a loose federation of Chinese-led nations — has claimed the West Coast of the United States.
The refugee crisis from Americans fleeing east over the Rockies triggered a cataclysmic civil war, pitting the extremely wealthy against the extremely poor.
The very rich won, and the new nation that emerges has been restructured into a formalized, class-driven society.
In Kansas City, the wealthy elite — known as "the gentry" — rule the country from their enormous estates around Mission Hills and Ward Parkway. Nuclear energy helps power their lavish lifestyles and their Gatsby-esque parties.
And the Rootless — the oppressed descendants of the losers of the civil war — live in squalor in Swope Park. They’re forced to handle all the nuclear waste from the gentry without protection from the radiation. They rarely live past the age of 30.
The books follow the story of Madeline Landry, the teenage scion of the most influential family in the nation.
Her overbearing family wants her to get married (in keeping with the gentry tradition of marrying young), in order to bear heirs and secure the future and fortune of their estate, Landry Park.
However, Madeline wants to go to university before she gets married. She’s also struggling with her role in upholding these traditions and her burgeoning awareness of the inequities in her world.
A job during college at the Johnson County Museum helped inspire Hagen’s futuristic view of Kansas City.
“It’s such a small exhibit. The exhibit that had the Edwardian Era and the Gilded Era is right around the corner from the nuclear hysteria and Cold War panic,” she told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
“And after my seventh-hundred time walking through this exhibit dusting the Plexiglass, I started to get a vision of a world that looked a lot like the past but was fueled by futuristic technology,” she said.
Hagen was born and raised in Kansas City, and for her books, she drew on her experience with income inequality.
She grew up in southeast Kansas City, near Bannister Mall. When she was 14, she moved in with her father, who lived in Olathe.
She said she jokes that the culture shock of moving to Johnson County was like when Katniss from the Hunger Games goes from District 12 — a coal-mining area of extreme poverty — to The Capitol, a city of excess.
“It was just so vastly different and so comfortable,” she recalls.
“For a couple of years, I felt like I sort of lived in this in-between space where I remembered what it was like to go to Bannister Mall and people would be hamstrung in the parking lot, and then go to a place where you go to Barnes & Noble and get coffee and that’s like your biggest problem is ‘what kind of coffee am I going to get today?’”
Over time, she adapted to her comfortable surroundings. Then in college, she said she realized she came one of those sheep people that she made fun of as a teenager when she first moved to Johnson County.
“I had adopted a lot of those mindsets that, ‘Oh, Kansas City is over there,’ and ‘Kansas City is like a day trip, we don’t need to go to Kansas City.’ And that was something I felt really anxious about: My own sort of unconscious shift into privilege.”
In Landry Park and Jubilee Manor, Hagen channels Kansas City's past.
“One thing about Kansas City that I think is kind of interesting is the impact that a man named J.C. Nichols had on our formation,” she said.
“What he did was very intentionally create communities of privilege … he made enclaves for rich white people and really sort of engineered things that make Kansas City the way it is today. The parts that are very poor, the parts that are very rich — a lot of that is his legacy."
Her books stem from her anxiety that these divisions could be our future. In the 28 years that she has lived here, she said, things haven’t changed very much.
“I would like to see more fluidity, more dynamic growth,” she said.
“I would like this never to be the future.”
Hagen insisted that her novels needed to be set in Kansas City — despite a push from her publisher to set them in the South.
“If any city is going to have a dystopia of this size, it would be Kansas City,” she said.
“Kansas City is a complicated, contradictory, layered city. And there are amazing things and there are wonderful things — and they’re very frictive, they rub up right against each other. And I think that that makes it a city of possibilities, of potential."
To her, Kansas City is also a city of boundaries — east and west, north and south, urban and rural. It’s also the right size, with an intelligent, educated populace.
“I just really feel like if a dystopia was going to be overthrown, it would be here in Kansas City."
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.