American War by Omar El Akkad
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I went back and forth on how to rate this book. There are many good things about it, things the author did well. At the same time, there's a giant elephant in the room the author ignored, to the book's detriment. I find this happens a lot when a so-called "literary" author ventures into the science fiction arena--to be done well (at least in my opinion), the worldbuilding has to be front and center. Not at the expense of the characters and plot, of course, but if you're writing SF and you don't have a believable world, all the pretty prose and deep characterization simply isn't going to make up for it. It's a trap I often see, and unfortunately Omar El Akkad has fallen headlong into it.
First, the good: This book is, indeed, beautifully written, with lovely flowing prose and stellar characterization. Our protagonist, Sarat Chestnut, is simultaneously a sympathetic and unlikable character, which is no mean feat. She does terrible things, but the reader understands why she does them at every point. This book is set in the latter part of this century, when climate change is really kicking in and the US has been balkanized as a result. Many coastal cities have drowned, the state of Florida has all but disappeared, Mexico has reclaimed much of its former territory and climate refugees from the coasts have streamed into the center of the country. In response to the passage of the Sustainable Future Act, a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States, five Southern states secede and the Second American Civil War rages for twenty years.
Unfortunately, at this point the speculative element breaks suspension of disbelief, and you can probably figure out why. This is because this book isn't primarily an SF story--it's a story of terrorism, and the stupidity of the War on Terror. (There's even a thinly disguised Guantanamo Bay called Sugarloaf, where Sarat is taken and tortured.) We see clearly where clamping down on "terrorists" backfires completely, only creating more of them, and making them more ruthless with each successive generation. Sarat's family, with one exception, is wiped out; she grows up in a refugee camp, and is thus ripe for recruitment into an organization that murders generals and eventually unleashes a ten-year plague on the remaining population of the United States.
All well and good, and tautly written. But the worldbuilding that leads up to this is simply not plausible, and this is because the author ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the corner: namely, the ugly strain of white supremacy and racism which has been present in this country since its inception, and is even now raising its rotten head yet again. To be frank, sure we could have our Second American Civil War, and this could even be over "state's rights" to continue to use fossil fuels, as heavy-handed and obvious a metaphor for slavery as this is. But it's a poor, unnecessary, and ultimately pointless metaphor, because no matter the ostensible reason for the five-state secession, you damn betcha the non-metaphor real thing of white supremacy and slavery would be coming to the fore in the Free Southern State once again. It's a disservice to the book, and something of an insult by the author, that he dismisses this predictable outcome completely.
This pretty much soured the book for me, as I kept waiting for the author to tackle this or at least mention it, and he never does. It's unfortunate, because as dark and bleak as this book is, it's exquisitely written. If he had just thought through his premise and its ramifications, he would have a four- or five-star winner. As it is, I can't really recommend it.
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