American War by Omar El Akkad front cover(American War, by Omar El Akkad. Knopf, 2017, $26.95, 333 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Dystopian novels have become in recent decades, for better or worse, nearly synonymous with modern science fiction. It´s easy enough to see why: climate change seems to be accelerating, some areas (e.g., the American Southwest, where I live) are already feeling severe effects from it, and the results worldwide in coming decades promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their grotesque political co-conspirators; we’re well into a period of mass extinction; there’s runaway population growth actively encouraged by some of the “great” religions; modern weapons of mass destruction are far beyond “nightmarish”; technological advances are far outstripping social advances; and sadism and stupidity are running neck and neck as national hallmarks.

Given such conditions and such bleak prospects, it’s easy to why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, when I picked up the book I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War is a far from standard tale.

Even though the events described in it take place during the “second civil war” between 2074 and 2095, Akkad deliberately–I’d bet the farm on this–and from before the first page of text, sabotages the plausibility of his dystopia.

The first hint is the map in the front of the book showing the breakaway “Free Southern States” (FSS) of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as opposed to the rest of the U.S., with the Southwest mostly part of the “Mexican Protectorate.”

My reaction to this was, “What the hell? Three backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

Very shortly into the text, Akkad makes it very plain that he’s not projecting possible future developments in the United States, but is up to something very different.

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of fossil fuels. Again, what the hell? None of the three states are significant oil producers; we’re rapidly approaching peak oil production; most new production in North America (shale, tar sands) is much more expensive than pumping from the old, rapidly depleting oil fields; and the cost of renewables is falling like a rock. This almost certainly means that oil will go up in price and will be rapidly displaced by cheaper renewables. So, the underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades in the future.

Then there’s a glaring–and I mean glaring–absence in the social structure of the FSS: racism. Racism disappearing from the American South in a mere sixty years, and during a time of upheaval and economic desperation? What the hell?! Who could possibly buy this?

So, just what is Akkad up to?

The first clue is the title of the book, “American War.” That seems a bit ambiguous, and why not even a vague reference to the “second civil war”?

The second clue is provided by the book description on the inside of the dust jacket:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Fair enough, but the final sentence of the final paragraph on the inside flap reads, “It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its devastating weapons upon itself.”

Close, but not right.

Above all, the novel is about the psychological effects of the type of war the United States has been waging sporadically for decades, and nonstop for the last 15 years, in the Near East, Middle East and Northern and Eastern Africa. It’s about what happens to people who are torn from their homes, are forced into miserable refugee camps, are under constant deadly and random threat from above, and are kidnapped, imprisoned without charge, and brutally tortured.

Shortly into the narrative, Akkad reveals that U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rain down destruction during the entire two-decades-plus of the war, and are uncontrolled, because Southern “terrorists” destroyed the “server farms” controlling the drones. This is beyond ridiculous on several counts, and again points to the very high likelihood that Akkad is deliberately making his background implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of physical background.)

The point is that the drones are simply there as a constant threat, maiming and killing the innocent, seemingly at random. The point is the constant, year-in-year-out state of fear and anger suffered by those under threat.

The same holds for all of the other horrors Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities and outlook of his characters, especially Sarat.

There’s little point in saying more, except that if you want to understand the psychological roots of the hate and terrorism engendered by America’s foreign wars, American War is a good place to start.

This book is a masterpiece.

Very highly recommended.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover





by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Know-nothingism has become fashionable on the religious right. Many right-wing fundamentalists insist that assertions contained in an ancient mish-mash of a book are every bit as valid as carefully arrived-at, repeatedly tested scientific theories and conclusions.

In a striking bit of irony, some go even further and (unconsciously) mimic academic postmodernists, insisting that all “opinions” (including scientific conclusions) are equal. Thus willful ignorance among the least educated mirrors willful ignorance among the most educated.

Given all this, it’s good to remind ourselves of why facts matter, and why science is superior to religious faith.

Failure to take facts into account has real-world consequences. To cite a trivial example, if you believe you’re invulnerable because you believe you are, test your hypothesis by stepping in front of a truck. To cite a sadder, all-too-real example, science has established that the similarities between human beings vastly outweigh the differences, and that there’s no basis for assertions that any race is superior to any other. So, are the opinions of racists just as valid as  the scientific conclusion that the differences between racial groups are trivial?

To cite still another example of why facts matter, in the Middle Ages in Europe, with science at a standstill, many believed that disease and bad weather were caused by witchcraft. End result? Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of “witches” were brutally murdered for “causing” storms and disease.

There are innumerable other examples demonstrating why facts matter. And, yes, you can’t absolutely prove anything, but probabilities are so high in so many cases that it’s reasonable to act as if the probablity is 100%.

So, facts do matter. But why does science trump religion?

1. The scientific method is the only reliable way to arrive at the most probably correct explanation of almost anything. Scientists reach conclusions by formulating hypotheses, checking those hypotheses against observed phenomena, devising experiments to test the hypotheses, checking them for internal consistency, and checking to see if the hypotheses can generate accurate predictions. Then doing all this over and over again, with different scientists repeatedly testing the hypotheses (“theories” if they consistently pass all these tests over a prolonged period of time) through experiment, observation, and analysis.

This is a bit different than pointing to a hoary book written by iron-age slaveholders and asserting, “This is a fact! It says so here!”

2. Science is self-correcting. Religion isn’t. Science continually tests and refines hypotheses and theories to arrive at more accurate explanations. Religion doesn’t.

A good example of this is provided by scientific exploration of racial differences between humans. In the 19th century, some scientists asserted that whites were superior to other races. By the middle of the 20th century, other scientists had definitively debunked those assertions through observation, experiment, and analysis. (Yes, there are still a few racist scientists, but their assertions are knocked down almost as soon as they make them, and the vast majority of scientists now accept, in line with scientific research, that assertions of racial superiority or inferiority are baseless.)

The overt racism of the Book of Mormon slightly predates the racist assertions of some 19th-century scientists, with the Book of Mormon itself referring to caucasians as “white and exceedingly fair and delightsome” (2 Nephi 5:20-21); and as late as 1935, Mormon Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith asserted that “because of [Cain’s] wickedness he became the father of an inferior race.” (The Way to Perfection, p. 101)

Finally, in 1978, in response to widespread social condemnation (and undoubtedly a desire to increase the number of potential converts), then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball announced a new “revelation” that the church should abandon its racial restrictions on the priesthood (but not the “revealed” racist passage in 2 Nephi, nor the racist statements of previous “prophets”). That’s a bit different than the way science handled the matter, eh?

3. Science improves daily life. Religion doesn’t. One clear example of this is in the field of medicine. Scientists discovered the microbial nature of disease. That discovery led to use of antiseptics and the later development of antibiotics, which have saved the lives of untold millions.

In contrast, religion has led to no developments that improve daily life. (And please don’t start talking about the power of prayer and the peace it supposedly brings–we’re speaking here of demonstrable physical improvement.)

4. Science leads. Religion lags. A good example of this is our understanding of the universe beyond the Earth. Early scientists (Copernicus, Galileo, et al.) led the way to accurate description of the physical universe.

At the same time, the church was insisting that the sun revolves around the Earth, and hauling scientists who dared to state the opposite before the Inquisition.

Another example is the scientific versus religious attitude toward women. Science has established that while there are obvious and not-so-obvious differences between men and women, their intellectual abilities are almost identical (with a few end-of-the-bell-curve differences in a few specific areas).

In contrast, religion has insisted on the inferiority and consequent subordination of women from antiquity. To cite but two of a great many Bible verses denigrating women, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4) and “These [redeemed] are they which were not defiled with women.” (Revelation 14:4)

Today, some religions have acknowledged reality and accept the equality of men and women. Others have dug in their heels and still insist upon female subordination, though most are now wary of openly stating that women are inferior. And it’s safe to say that the more conservative the religion–that is, the more literally its members take their scriptures–the more likely they are to insist upon the inferiority and subjugation of women.

5. Finally, as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously remarked, science opens doors and religion closes them. Science not only leads to improvement in daily life, but to broader intellectual horizons; it encourages people to think for themselves, to question everything; it leads to one question after another.

Religion insists that all the answers are contained in ancient holy books, and that it’s wrong, dangerous to question those answers–that you have an intellect, but you shouldn’t use it.

It’s hard to conceive of anything more stultifying.

Of late, every vocabulary-deficient knuckle dragger on Craigslist seems to use the word “vintage” — often several times — when posting an ad for music gear. (I’m waiting with bated breath for them to start using the term “artisanal.”)

So, it seems like an appropriate time to remind readers of what the term actually means.

* * *

VINTAGE, adj. As used on Craigslist, old, overpriced, beat to hell. More simply, “shit,” as in “vintage guitar amp.”

* * *

–from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded)

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

INCOME TAX, n. A particularly painful form of economic sodomy inflicted upon the public during the IRS’s annual rutting season in mid-April.

 * * *

–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

Junior Parker

It’s hard to tell you how much I love the music of Herman Parker, Jr., better as known as “Junior Parker” (1932 — 1971), who died at a tragically young age of a brain tumor.

He was a great vocalist, harmonica player, and songwriter.  Today, he’s probably best known for the Grateful Dead’s desecration of his iconic “Next Time You See Me,” which done right (that is, relaxed, behind the beat, punchy on the stops) is one of the most enjoyable songs to play ever written.

(A particularly painful musical memory is of playing a more-or-less-okay version of the tune a decade ago at a pick-up gig, and hearing a bystander say, “I hate that Grateful Dead shit.” If they only knew . . .)

Junior wrote and recorded prolifically during his tragically short life. His recordings are marked by a very high level of musicianship. a hard-edged but smooth sound that was a mix of Chicago-style, jazz-blues, and R&B; and, oh yeah, he wrote dozens of wonderful originals.

His most recognizable tunes are probably “Next Time You See Me,” and “Mystery Train.” The one I love the best, though, is “Crying for My Baby,” which drives like a mother due to the pushed horn punches on the final triplets of the “2” and “4”; (James Brown probably learned a thing or two from Junior about horn punches.)

The best compilation of his tunes/performances is the long-out-of-print and now way overpriced “Junior’s Blues.” But buy damn near any of the collections, and you´ll be pleasantly surprised.


“You hammer homers. We hammer beers.”

–anonymous SF Giants fans at the game tonight

* * *

(This is on what would have been my dad’s 104th birthday. He would have approved.)

Tucson has a supposedly liberal city government — which okayed the brutal crackdown on Occupy Tucson six years ago — and a seemingly genuine good-guy, community-policing chief of police, Christopher Magnus, the gay former chief of police of mostly black Richmond, California.

One of my neighbors just passed her citizenship test. She’s over 50, so the government charged her a mere $1200 to do it, rather than the standard $1700.

Yes, they charge people $1700 to become citizens.  We’re talking about people who are mostly low income and an asset to society. How wrong is that?

Three weekends in a row my neighbor and/or her kids were racially profiled on First Avenue. Stopped in the university district for bullshit reasons. Nothing stuck. They were stopped for Driving
While Mexican. (In contrast, I’m an old long-haired redneck with peeling bumper stickers all over the tailgate of my 20-year-old truck — when I bought it I immediately de-choloed it for fear of racial profiling — and I haven’t been stopped in decades.)

The reasons? Apparent lack of insurance (wrong) on two occasions. On one of them, my neighbor, a 56-year-old woman living here for the last 20 years, who just passed her citizenship test this past week, was cuffed and stuck in the back of a squad car. For total bullshit reasons. They let her go after 15 minutes, but can you imagine the trauma? Can you imagine how she felt and how her 21-year-old son felt seeing his mom cuffed and tossed in the back of a squad car?

Now, my neighbors avoid the university district. They stick to Stone for the north-south corridor. At least there they stand a decent chance of avoiding racist cops.

Can you imagine how you’d feel seeing your mom treated in such a manner. Can you imagine it?

Yeah, imagine it — imagine seeing your mom in cuffs, treated so disrespectfully, and you’ll start to get what it’s like being black or Mexican in Tucson, in America.

And, yeah, as you’ve probably guessed, there’s no way on the Tucson PD site to contact Chief Magnus directly.

I did eventually find a complaint form on the TPD site and did fill it out, essentially setting myself up as a target. I think there might be as much as a 25% or 30% chance that the TPD will do something about the racial profiling rather than just put a bulls eye on my back and fuck me over, but I’m so angry about this that I’ll take my chances.