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.)