Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 

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Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover

“Once upon a time in a little town there lived two night-soil men — father and son. There weren’t any sewers there, only pits full of slurry. And they scooped that shit out with a bucket and poured it into their barrel, and what’s more, the father, as the more experienced specialist, went down into the pit, and the son handed the bucket down to him from above. Then one day the son lost his grip on the bucket and dumped it back on his old man. Well, his old man wiped himself down, looked up at him, and said bitterly, ‘You’re a total screwup, a real lunkhead. No good for anything. You’ll be stuck up there your whole life.'”

–“Andrei” in The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

(This “lost novel” appeared for the first time in English last year. Expect a review shortly.)


(The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 381 pp., $25.99)

After the last two Laundry Files novels, I thought the series was floundering. I was wrong.

The previous two books in this genre bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) series, The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks, marked a fairly sharp break from the five previous books in the series (not counting novellas and story collections), in that the primary narrator changed, and with it came a change of tone. The characteristic dark humor of the sardonic narrator, “applied computational demonologist” Bob Howard, was largely though not entirely absent, as was much of the pointed political and social commentary that marked the previous books in the series.

In The Delirium Brief, Bob Howard is back as the first-person primary narrator, and with him some of the humor. (There are also third-person passages from the p.o.v. of other characters.)  The tale is so dark, though, that the humor is somewhat muted. But it’s there nonetheless, as is the pointed political/social commentary, which was largely absent from the previous two books. At one point early in The Delirium Brief, Stross devotes nearly a full page to a wonderfully precise description of how privatization of public services screws the public, which is reminiscent of his description of how the banks screw the public in his very funny The Rhesus Chart.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plot of The Delirium Brief is so dependent on back story, so dependent on the reader understanding the references to events and characters from the previous books in the series, that The Delirium Chart does not work as a stand-alone novel.

I’ve read all of the previous Laundry Files books, plus much of the subsidiary material, and I had trouble remembering some of the essential references. It doesn’t help that the novels have been spread out over more than a decade, and that I’ve read at least 500 other sci-fi novels since the first Laundry Files book, The Atrocity Archives, came out in 2004, but still….. The upshot is that only readers fresh to the series who read all of the books in a fairly short period, or readers willing to reread the previous ones, will fully appreciate this very dark tale that leaves the reader hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

And damn it! I want it now!

Recommended with the above provisos.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a nonfiction book skewering Christianity, a translation of a nonfiction anarchist history book, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. (Stross’s latest such novel is just out, and I’ll review it shortly.)

Another similarity is that both the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  are employed by a super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


(Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Macmillan, 2017, 379 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes on one of the most vexing matters of our time: Automation (more broadly, technological advances) is, at an accelerating rate, making human labor ever less necessary.

But what will it lead to?

A post-scarcity, egalitarian, “to each according to their wants” economy of abundance in which working is a matter of choice? Or to a version of the present artificial-scarcity economy in which there are an army of the poor and oppressed, and a few super-rich individuals who will resort to anything to retain their positions of power and privilege?

In Walkaway, the answer is both. In Doctorow’s medium-near future, there’s both a drastically more repressive version of current society — to alter the famous quotation from Lincoln Steffens, “I have seen the future, and it’s worse” — and a (small “l”) libertarian and egalitarian alternative built by those who “walk away” from the dominant “default” society, a “post-scarcity” alternative made possible by sweeping technological/productivity advances.

Therein lies the main virtue of Walkaway: Doctorow’s convincing, detailed, and attractive portrayal of that post-scarcity society and its workings.

To get a bit politically wonkish, what Doctorow describes, though he never uses the term, is an anarcho-communist society (in contrast to the other flavors of anarchism: individualist, mutualist, and syndicalist).

Other virtues include Doctorow’s insightful treatment of technological advances, notably in the liberatory and repressive possibilities they entail, and in the book’s humor, which mostly appears in its first 150 pages.

One of the main points Doctorow makes in support of a post-scarcity, egalitarian societal set-up is that meritocracy, in both authoritarian capitalist society and in libertarian alternatives, is a very bad idea, as the following dialogue between two of Doctorow’s characters, Gretyl and Iceweasel, illustrates:

“Your people are all fighting self-serving bullshit, the root of all evil. There’s no bullshit more self-serving than the idea that you’re a precious snowflake, irreplaceable and deserving . . .”

“I’ve heard all this. My dad used it to explain paying his workers as little as he could get away with, while taking as much pay as he could get away with. . . .”

“You’re assuming that because [the rich] talk about meritocracy, and because they’re full of shit, merit must be full of shit. It’s like astrology and astronomy: astrology talks about orbital mechanics and so does astronomy. But astronomers talk about orbital mechanics because they’ve systematically observed the sky, built falsifiable hypotheses from observations, and proceeded from there. Astrologers talk about orbital mechanics because it sounds sciencey and helps them kid the suckers.”

“You’re calling my dad an astrologer then?”

“That would be an insult to astrologers.”

Two other notable aspects of Walkaway are the full-spectrum sexual diversity of the characters, and that Doctorow includes two explicit, well written sex scenes. (This is in stark contrast to the usual, annoying avoidance of such scenes in the vast majority of science fiction novels, where disgustingly graphic depiction of violence is perfectly acceptable, but — horrors! — not graphic depiction of sex; the only other sci-fi authors I can think of who include explicit, fitting sex scenes in their work are Richard K. Morgan and Walter Mosley.)

As for the plot, it would give away too much to say more than that it revolves around the brutal repression of the walkaways, and their use of nonviolent resistance in response, after they develop a technology that the ultra-rich of “default” society find threatening.

The description of this conflict takes up more than two-thirds of the book, which is likely too much of it. In too many places, the latter portions of Walkaway drag. After reading the first 225 or so pages, I found myself wondering when it would ever end; I kept reading only because I wanted to see how Doctorow would resolve the conflict between the walkaways and “default.”

Anther problem with the book is that it seems disjointed at times. This is in part due to Doctorow’s using five p.o.v. characters. This isn’t necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the amount of time devoted to the different p.o.v.s varying considerably; and, as Walkaway progresses, it all but abandons the p.o.v. of what I originally thought was the primary p.o.v. character.

It doesn’t help that there’s little if any overlap — no differing views of the same things, a la Rashomon — in the events described from the different p.o.v.s, which aggravates the disjointedness problem.

Still, Walkaway‘s virtues — especially it’s detailed, attractive portrayal of a libertarian post-scarcity society — outweigh its faults.

Walkaway is quite probably the best fictional description of a post-scarcity society ever written.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, and on an unrelated sci-fi novel, in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front cover

(He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad. Tor, 2009, 540 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(This is an expanded and, we think, better review of this novel than the one we ran two years ago.)

For decades, Norman Spinrad has been one of the most prolific and under-appreciated science fiction writers. He’s written dozens of novels, some great, some not so great–which puts him in good company: almost all prolific authors are inconsistent. (Even Shakespeare on occasion could have used a good editor.) There are some real jewels among Spinrad’s works, notably The Iron Dream and Mindgame, but He Walked Among Us is arguably Spinrad’s best novel.

It concerns a Borscht Belt comedian, Ralf (no last name), who bills himself as a time-traveling “comedian from the future” from “Deathship Earth” in the 22nd century, where the few wretched survivors huddle inside abandoned shopping malls on a poisoned planet; Ralf’s shtick consists largely of mercilessly berating his audience, “monkey boys” and “monkey girls,” for their stupidity and environmental irresponsibility.

While performing one evening at Kapplemeyer’s, a dive Catskills resort, Ralf is discovered by the novel’s most entertaining character, Texas Jimmy Balaban, an agent for second-string comics, who drinks a lot, is very “Hollywood,” and isn’t above using his position to get laid, but is basically honest and has always “tried to be a mensch”–in other words, he’s about as good as it gets as far as agents go.

Spinrad describes Balaban’s reaction to the audience at Kappelmeyer’s:

It was an audience that Texas Jimmy wouldn’t have wished on Adolf Hitler and Auschwitz Boys, an audience that he wouldn’t even have wished on the acts actually condemned to face it.

Ralf is the final one of those acts.

Very shortly, Texas Jimmy takes Ralf to Hollywood and lands him a gig hosting a low-budget TV talk show, The Word According to Ralf,  on one of the minor TV networks. Ralf, who always remains in character, and insists that he actually is from the future, quickly runs out of steam with his gloom-doom-and-abuse routine.

At that point Texas Jimmy calls in new age acting coach Amanda Robbin and hard/social science fiction author and screenwriter Dexter Lampkin to recast Ralf and to save the show. Very shortly, Ralf becomes the prophet from “Starship Earth,” who’s here to save the planet, and the show begins to gain popularity due to its more upbeat tone and the conflict between the new age flakes Amanda books as guests and the nerd types Dexter books.

As part of the attempt to save the show, Dexter turns to a community about which he has very mixed feelings: sci-fi fandom, as witness the following excerpts told from Dexter’s point of view:

Oscar Karel was a familiar figure at science fiction conventions. With his massive paunch flowing seamlessly into his enormous ass without benefit of a waistline and his narrow shoulders and chicken-chest, Oscar Karel was shaped like a giant overweight penguin. At a science fiction convention, his physical appearance would have hardly been noticed, since this was a dominant fannish genotype . . .

Most of the hotel personnel would never have seen so many grossly overweight people together at the same time, and even if they had, certainly not wearing T-shirts and capris and jeans and harem costumes in such perfectly blithe disregard of the exceedingly unfortunate fashion statement.

Globuloids, Bob Silverberg called them.

There are a great many similarly funny, mostly less acerbic, passages scattered throughout the book.

Without giving too much away, the remainder of He Walked Among Us deals with the conflicts between Ralf, Balaban, Amanda, and Dexter, their efforts to save the show, and an emerging desire to actually save the Earth.

One ingenious aspect of this novel is that while Ralf is the center of gravity around which all else revolves, he is not one of the point-of-view characters. Rather, the story is told from the point of view of other characters, including “Foxy Loxy,” a New York crack whore who, in an apparently separate story, descends into graphically described madness, degradation, and violence. The segments dealing with Foxy (aka “Rat Girl”) are riveting and all too easy to buy, but are unpleasant reading, made more so by the very close third-person narration in her segments. An example:

Practically at the the bottom of the fuckin’ can, there it was, half a Big Mac, meat an’ all, little green around th’ sesame seed bun maybe, not the kinda thing you wanted t’think about maybe with all th’ cockroaches come crawlin’ out of it when she snatches it, but she don’t have to, because Rat Thing don’t wanna waste the live protein, he has her shovin’ it in her mouth an’ chewin’ it down in three big mouthfuls before the last of the roaches can escape or she can even think about thinkin’ about it.

That passage isn’t much fun to read, but it must have been a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Through over 80% of He Walked Among Us, while dark suspicions grow, the reader is left wondering “How in hell will this tie in with the rest of the story?”

The other p.o.v. characters are Texas Jimmy, Dexter, and Amanda. Dexter, one strongly suspects, is modeled at least in part on Spinrad himself. (Spinrad intersperses a number of anecdotes about himself in Dexter’s sections.) Dexter is conflicted about his career, doing meaningless writing jobs simply to make ends meet, unhappy about sales of his sci-fi novels, and ambivalent about his fans, who he’s harnessing to promote Ralf and his and Amanda’s mutual save-the-Earth agenda.

Amanda is the least interesting of the main characters, though she, like the others is well drawn and believable–she reminds me of all too many new agers I’ve known over the years.

One weakness of the book is that He Walked Among Us is primarily a comic novel, and most of the sections involving Amanda are overly long and simply aren’t funny. The same could be said of a couple of the segments describing Ralf’s TV show.

Eventually, all the threads of the story converge, including the “Rat Girl” narrative, with all the dread it entails. How Spinrad resolves it is unexpected, but it works.

Until literally the final paragraph, I couldn’t figure out how Spinrad was going to end this book. But he does, and the ending is perfect.

Before ending, I’ll note that there is one curious thing about He Walked Among Us: based on its detailed descriptions of background, it seems almost certain that this book was written (at least in good part) well over a decade before it was published. For one thing, there are mentions in a few places of archaic day-to-day technologies (e.g., answering machines), but more telling is what isn’t there: neither cell phones nor the Internet are mentioned anywhere in this 540-page novel.

My hunch is that Spinrad started writing this book in the late ’80s or early ’90s, couldn’t figure out how to end it, set it aside, and finally finished it in the mid to late 2000s, at which point it would have required major revision — revision unnecessary to the plot — to accommodate those technologies.

It’s a testament to how well the book is written, though, that I didn’t even notice those missing technological elephants the first time I read the book. (This is very likely, at least in part, due to my having lived through the ’80s and early ’90s as an adult: the background seems entirely natural to me.)

In any event, I haven’t read a book in ages I’ve enjoyed as much as He Walked Among Us. It’s very, very funny, thought provoking, and in the end both touching and inspiring. In large part it’s a love letter to science fiction and its potential to inspire change.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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

Free Radicals front cover


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

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

In recent decades, dystopian novels have become nearly synonymous with 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 years promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their 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 see why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War, which describes the “second civil war” (2074 – 2095), is a far from standard tale.

El Akkad deliberately (I’d bet the farm on this) 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 the map was, “What the hell? Three poor, backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

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

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of petroleum products as 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. The underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades from now. So, El Akkad deliberately chose an extremely improbable background premise.

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, if they thought about it, 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 isn’t there even a vague reference to the “second civil war”? (It would be quite easy to add such a reference in a subtitle.)

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 second 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, American War is about the present. (Tellingly, there’s no mention of any technology whatsoever beyond what’s currently available.)

American War is not about the effects of developing technologies; it’s not about an even remotely plausible future in the U.S.

It’s 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, El Akkad reveals that the U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rained 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 El Akkad deliberately made his background — in this particular, the drones — implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such apparent sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of both action sequences and 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 El Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities, outlooks, and consequent actions of his characters, especially Sarat.

This story could be set in virtually any combat zone in any Muslim country. El Akkad set it in the U.S., using American characters, disguising it as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi dystopian tale, simply so that American readers will be able to relate to it on an emotional level.

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