One comes to books through many routes. I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by fellow bibliophiles who often come bearing wonderful gifts of books I may not have run into otherwise. Some of my favorite titles have been introduced to me thus. But occasionally I will follow up on a review or an author interview and buy a book simply because I like the sound of the writer, or the premise of the novel sounds like nothing I’ve heard before.
It was on The New Yorker Radio hour that I came upon Omar El Akkad, a Canadian writer of Egyptian descent, and his debut work, a speculative novel called American War (Penguin Random House). Akkad tells an audacious but scarily plausible story. The events of the novel take place some sixty years in the future, in the midst of a second civil war. The battle lines, once again, are drawn between the north and the south. And once again, a key economic driver is at the heart of the conflict–as it perhaps always is, in any war. Not slavery this time, but energy. The South refuses to comply with the Federal government’s ban on fossil fuel and instead takes up arms against the new Unionists lodged now in Columbus, Ohio, with climate change having eaten away the coastlines and the borders having moved inland, after “the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself”. And while America self-destructs, two competing powers rise in the East, the Bouazzizi Empire (recognizable as the Gulf nations) and an Asian giant (China?) whose interest lies in keeping the war going.
In its somewhat futile but stubborn rebellion, the Southern army recruits idealistic young people willing to serve as suicide bombers and assassins, their anger fed by the North’s merciless attacks that destroy whole communities and break families. Sarat Chestnut is one of them, and her story, at once heroic and hopeless, is told by her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, one of the “miraculous generation” to survive the years of violence and disease and emerge into a period of uneasy peace to study the history of his nation and his people.
Akkad uses a mix of storytelling techniques. There is Benjamin’s memoir, told partly in first person and given over partly to a third person reconstruction of Sarat’s life. There are government bulletins, some heavily redacted, that make a distorted mirror of the times. And there are the dispassionate war reports from journalists trying hard to be objective. But it is Sarat who dominates the novel; we meet her as a feisty six-year-old playing in the rising waters of Louisiana and follow her as she turns into a taciturn teen in a refugee camp, and watch her turn ripe for recruitment into the rebel cause. She represents, in many ways, the heart of the rebellion, and the spirit that keeps it going over the twenty years of its playing out.
Despite the compelling premise, the book calls for a fair amount of patience and a willingness to wait for its promise to be fulfilled. It is possible to get confused by all the detail–some chapters mimic a history textbook–and keep some of the minor characters straight. But sticking with it proves rewarding, in the end, even if somewhat depressingly so. And the thing about dystopic–or speculative–fiction is, it is all frighteningly possible, even probable.