American War by Omar El Akkad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a novel that hearkens back to the great days of serious and very dark future history, the kind that used be common in SF before it got taken over with fluffy (if dark) YA that is usually a lot more simple and caricature than serious.
So now we're back to the good and serious SF, no light tones here, and we fast forward to a history of America where its dominance in the world has sunk with a lot of its land, where ecological changes have turned the deserts into blasted lands, where politics has been turned upside-everywhere else thanks to the tail-end of the oil-energy crisis, and where plagues and war has ravaged America's soil.
A lot can happen in 70 years. This is what world-building is all about. Extrapolation, exploration, and detail, detail, detail. Akkad's writing is full of wonderful detail. Enough upheavals have altered the landscape of the world. China is dominant, as is a Northern-African alliance, but these details are just dressing to the real tale.
America is split between the blues and the reds, but the meaning of these are just as changed in another 70 years as they were 70 years ago from today. That's only realistic. What we have in this novel is a very Southern tale. It's not just mannerisms, but the kinds of things they find pride in, whether truth or lies. They're just standing up for what they believe in. In this case, oil. They're holding on to tradition and they've made this about identity, but what makes this a real cause isn't quite this narrative. Indeed, it's all about being abused and economics and especially poverty. Add plagues that have overextended an already hurting American Government and the result is massive areas of quarantines, angry and scared people. Add drones in the sky and angry bombers and refugee camps and it's no wonder that the war not only worsens but intensifies. Now there's more than real grudges at stake.
And our main character grows up in the lush world-building of the South during the early years as a kid and we see her grow from a courageous woman into one who's been broken by the system and then we see her get her final revenge. This is the main story. The world-building is absolutely fantastic, but the pain and the strength and the way she's broken and how she copes with it is the real treat.
I'm not saying it's easy or pleasant to put yourself in her shoes. It isn't. But it feels genuine. Seven years in a concentration camp in Georgia without due process and subject to torture nearly the entire time isn't exactly pleasing.
But it feels genuine. The whole novel feels genuine. Even the writing of the history of the civil war by this main character's nephew as a Future History is a wonderful detail, and he's one hell of an interesting guy, too.
A lot of these kinds of serious dystopias can feel like a dark warning, a cautionary tale, and those have a very fine tradition. This one avoids most of that. In fact, the tale is everything. Any kind of moral or ethical judgment we deem to take about the character's actions are entirely personal and not just a place for the author to soapbox. There's very little soapboxing here. Even the reasons for joining the Reds, the south, are purely personal. They stand up for what they think is right, even if they're wrong. At least they don't sugar coat and lie. It's a very southern attitude. That, and Don't Tread On Me. :)
In the end, I think this novel could be an anthem to that very idea even as it shows just how dark a path it can take.
What a delightful novel. Truly. Dark and very disturbing, too, but delightful nonetheless.
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