October 5, 2017

From Sweden, a strange science fiction novel

strange science fiction - amatka-karin-tidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.

On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”

Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.

Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.

In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.  

If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

September 25, 2017

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga #4), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, and if science fiction strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy the long series of novels in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice, the fourth book in the series’ chronology, is a case in point.

In the preceding entries in the series, we learned the backstory of its central figure, Miles Vorkosigan. He is the son of one of the most senior military and political leaders on the planet of Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia Naismith, a scientist and unwilling soldier who is a former enemy from the far more technologically advanced Beta Colony. In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.

Miles is surely one of the most off-beat and intriguing protagonists in all of science fiction. No doubt, the strange attraction we all feel to Miles explains how the author has been able to produce (to date) a total of at least sixteen novels in the series, plus a large number of novellas and short stories. And she has won numerous awards for her work.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, seventeen-year-old Miles washes out of officer training for the Barrayaran military when he breaks both legs in leaping off a wall in an obstacle course. Freed from the strictures of the military, Miles sets out on a visit to his grandmother on distant Beta Colony. His bodyguard, Sergeant Konstantine Bothari, and the sergeant’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Elena, accompany him on the journey. No sooner do they arrive than Miles manages to embroil himself in rescuing an old starship pilot. Brashly, he buys the pilot’s ship to save it from salvage—with money he doesn’t have. This foolish act triggers a series of misadventures that begin Miles’ long trek to galactic fame.

I’ve reviewed all three of the preceding novels in the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free (An outstanding sci-fi series), Shards of Honor (The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and Barrayar (The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera). I enjoyed them all, and you will, too, so long as you don’t expect to gain any deeper meaning from the experience.

September 19, 2017

A clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

alien invasion - Landscape with Invisible HandLandscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Science fiction is full of clichés about alien invasions of Earth, some evil, some benign. The murderous rampaging monsters that lay waste to the planet. The enigmatic species so different from the human race and so far advanced that communication with them is virtually impossible. The humanoid invaders who blend into contemporary society, either by morphing into human shape or because they themselves resemble human beings since we share common roots. You might think that every possible take on an alien invasion has been done before. Not so. In his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, M. T. Anderson proves the point.

“We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time,” Anderson writes. “They’d been watching us since the 1940s, and we’d seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren’t slender and delicate, and they weren’t humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren’t invading. We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.”

Big surprise! This was not a good idea. The story of the sad (and sometimes hilarious) consequences of this peculiar alien invasion is told through the voice of Adam Costello, a seventeen-year-old art student. Adam lives in a decaying middle-class home with his out-of-work parents and his younger sister. Because the vuvv give nothing away free of charge, and jobs are extremely scarce, everyone on Earth has essentially gone broke, with the exception of a small number of super-wealthy people who live in palatial homes that float above the land. The dollar and every other human currency is virtually worthless in exchange for the vuvv currency, the ch’ch. (“The lowliest vuvv grunt made more in a week than most humans made in two years.”) Adam, his family, and practically everyone he knows are on the verge of starvation. He takes it upon himself to earn money so the family can eat, first with one crazy scheme, then another.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, reflects the same inventiveness and sarcastic humor that so enlivens his popular dystopian young adult novel, Feed. The heading of each short chapter (“A Food Cart in Front of a Strip Mall,” “My Parents’ Bedroom, with the Covers Askew”) represents the title of one of Adam’s paintings. The book is full of surprises.

M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) wrote fourteen previous novels as well as a number of short stories and picture books. He writes primarily for young adults and children. Anderson won the National Book Award for one of his novels, among other awards.

For my review of Anderson’s Feed, go to A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel. For a review of another book that features an off-beat alien invasion (in which the humans are the invaders), see Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel. You might also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

September 13, 2017

A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

future Earth - After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas (Planetfall, A), a police procedural by Emma Newman set on a future Earth

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.

This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.

Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”

Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.

Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.

Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.

I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

 

August 23, 2017

In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

sci-fi technothrillerAbsence of Mind, by H.C.H. Ritz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s the near future. Phoebe Bernhart is a psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital, struggling to keep her job. Plagued by headaches and a quick temper, she is prone to mouthing off to doctors and is one report away from being fired. One evening she meets Mila Bremer when their two cars collide and Mila gives her a ride to the hospital while her car is towed to the shop. Mila is a beautiful young woman who manifests the signs of the Asperger’s spectrum, and Phoebe is alternately intrigued and insulted by her lack of affect.

“Just because she doesn’t have her smartphone implanted in her head,” Phoebe thinks, “doesn’t mean she lives on a different planet.” (What this means will become clear.) Their chance meeting soon proves consequential—to Phoebe and to the world—when she encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Together, Phoebe and Mila have a rare opportunity to investigate the source of the mysterious epidemic.

Phoebe and the younger brother she adores have left behind their parents in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Ohio. Like nearly everyone else in this future society, both of them have had Navis installed in their brains to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with their thoughts. “Normally, conversations are private, because they’re Navi-to-Navi,” but Phoebe is forced to speak out loud to communicate with Mila.

This is the set-up in the outstanding sci-fi technothriller Absence of Mind by H.C.H. (Hilary) Ritz, published in 2015. The Houston-based author has written two other novels, The Lightbringers (2012) and The Robin Hood Thief (2016). Ritz demonstrates great skill and originality in plotting, she builds suspense like the best of them, and her characters are fascinating. It seems likely that she will one day gain wide recognition in the science fiction field.

For other sci-fi novels I’ve loved, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

August 17, 2017

Secrets and lies in a young adult thriller, and it’s not science fiction

young adult thrillerThe Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!

Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.

Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.

Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.

The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.

FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

August 15, 2017

Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel

alien encountersRemnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Stephen Spielberg’s iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, appeared in 1977, starring Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Nearly forty years later, in 2016, Arrival covered similar territory with a cast headed by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both films featured uniquely original ideas about the nature of the first alien encounter between the human race and an intelligent species on another world. In Remnant Population, originally published in 1996, American science fiction author Elizabeth Moon displays an equally imaginative idea about an alien encounter—on the printed page.

Remnant Population centers on the life of Ofelia Falfurrias, a widow who is seventy years old as the story opens. She lives with her unlovable youngest son and his demanding and disdainful wife, so it’s no surprise that Ofelia resolves to stay behind when the whole colony is shut down and the colonists shipped off to another planet. Ofelia revels in her aloneness, tending the vegetable garden, the sheep and cows, the “fabricator,” and the power plant that drives the refrigeration and stove in her home. For the first time in her life, nobody is telling Ofelia what to do. She loves it.

Months go by, then years. All of a sudden, a mission arrives on-planet to establish a new colony at a distant location. As the shuttles land, depositing teams of colonists, their landing site is viciously attacked and all the humans are killed in short order. The shuttles are destroyed by bombs some unknown species has placed there.

Much later, a group of the “monsters” who killed the human party begin showing up in Ofelia’s village. To them, she’s a monster, too. But each soon realizes that the other means them no harm. The locals, who call themselves the People, are endlessly curious. They follow Ofelia everywhere, observing everything she does. As Ofelia learns to distinguish individuals among them and to appreciate their child-like inquisitiveness, they grow to respect one another. It also becomes clear the People are extremely fast learners.

Then a second new human mission arrives to investigate why the colony’s power plant remains open. The corporation that evacuated the planet had insisted they’d turned everything off to prevent any potential intelligent life from gaining access to advanced human technology. The survey team includes exobiologists and exolinguists as well as soldiers because the bombing of the earlier landing site suggests that, against all odds, there may be an intelligent species on the planet. As they arrive in Ofelia’s town, the prospects for a friendly encounter seem dim. Ofelia is determined to keep things peaceful and protect her new friends among the People.

Elizabeth Moon skillfully tells her tale, building suspense all the while she develops characters as complex as humanity itself. The novel starts slowly, dwelling on Ofelia’s thoughts and feelings over the initial months after her family and neighbors had left. But it’s worth the wait. This is a truly delightful tale of an alien encounter unlike any you’ve ever imagined before.

Not long ago I reviewed a very different novel on a similar theme: Saturn Run by the thriller writer John Sanford and Stein. My review is at First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. On a slightly different vein, I recently posted A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

August 9, 2017

A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

John Scalzi seriesThe Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1), by John Scalzi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s not hard to see why John Scalzi has so many fans in the science fiction community. His writing is unusually accessible, frequently profane, and often funny. If anyone is writing expressly for the proverbial 14-year-old sci-fi fan, it’s John Scalzi. And there’s just enough of the 14-year-old still in me to love his work.

If you’re a fan, then you know that Scalzi is extremely prolific and you’re probably familiar with his writing. He’s best known for his six-book Old Man’s War series. Scalzi has been nominated for many awards and has won some, including the Hugo Award for his standalone novel, Redshirts. (I loved the book. My review is here: Diabolically clever, and very, very funny.) He seems to be popular among his peers as well, having served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

The Collapsing Empire, published March 2017, is the first book in a John Scalzi series of at least two novels about a distant future empire called the Interdependency. The central character, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is an illegitimate daughter of the reigning emperox. The emperox is not just the political and ceremonial leader of the thousand-year-old Interdependency but also head of the Church, a member of Parliament, and director of the realm’s predominant trading company (called a “guild”), the House of Wu. As the novel opens, Emperox Attavio VI is on his deathbed. Cardenia is his designated heir—and she’s not especially happy about it. Until recently, her half-brother was slated to succeed as Emperox, but he died in a racing accident. Now she must learn how to command a realm consisting of 47 planetary systems and billions of people.

The 47 planets of the Interdependency are scattered far from each other, often tens of light-years distant. Faster-than-light travel is physically impossible, but more than a millennium ago humans had discovered the Flow, a network of streams or tunnels through space-time resembling what other science fiction authors call wormholes. However, travel through the Flow is not instantaneous. The trip from Hub, the realm’s central planet, to End, the farthest away of the other worlds, takes nine months. Ever since the 26th century, a millennium ago, when the Interdependency was founded, the Flow has been stable. But now the Flow is beginning to collapse—and the Empire will collapse with it. Cardenia is destined to become the last emperox.

The trouble begins shortly after the death of Attavio VI. Midway through the ceremony of her coronation as Grayland II, a powerful bomb explodes at the imperial palace, killing her best friend and adviser and nearly killing Cardenia herself. Meanwhile, on distant End, a rebellion is underway against the reigning Duke. In the midst of the chaos, a Flow physicist is putting the finishing touches on the paper, years in the making, that predicts the collapse of the Flow. Jamies, Count Claremont, then charges his son, Marce, to travel to Hub and inform the emperox, an old friend.

The ensuing action revolves around the lives of Marce and Cardenia. Each faces peril at every turn as they strive to outsmart and evade the machinations of the supremely ambitious House of Nohamapetan.

Don’t think for a minute that everything will turn out all right in the end. The title of this novel is, after all, The Collapsing Empire. Space opera? Of course! But John Scalzi makes it fun from start to finish.

For a list of the sci-fi books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And here’s my review of the first book in another John Scalzi series: A sci-fi novel that harkens back to the bad old days of the pulp magazines. I didn’t like that one so much.

August 2, 2017

The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera

space operaBarrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #3), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Captain Cordelia Naismith is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction: empathetic but tough, brilliant but self-effacing, loving mother and coldblooded soldier. In Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, she is now married to Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. When the two met, they were enemies, both stranded on an alien planet. They came together to defend themselves against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship. Now, months later, living in luxury on his home planet, Barrayar, Cordelia is reasonably content—until the Admiral is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. As she soon discovers, the new position takes Aral away from home most of the time. Cordelia becomes increasingly unhappy. “She hadn’t married the regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier.”

Life in a militaristic patriarchy plagued by factional fighting

Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes. Aral, an aristocrat with the title “Lord” as the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, is a rare example of tolerance and flexibility in a society that is stubbornly resistant to change. Only 80 years earlier had Barrayar emerged from its Time of Isolation and “made contact with the wider galactic civilization again.” Prince Gregor’s grandfather, Emperor Ezar Vorbarra, had been largely responsible for suppressing the factional fighting and reintroducing contemporary technology to the planet. However, by Cordelia’s standards, Barrayar is a primitive place compared with her home world, Beta Colony. The society’s relative backwardness proves problematic when she gives birth to a son months later.

Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent. The struggle that follows tests both Aral and Cordelia to the limit. Though we’re confident they will triumph in the end, the path to victory will be strewn with costly losses.

Much more than a space opera

Superficially, Barrayar is a space opera. But it’s much more and better than that. What sets Bujold’s writing apart from that of most other science fiction authors is the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Cordelia is at once strong enough to best some of her most fearsome enemies, a loving mother, a homesick off-worlder, and a leader who inspires both respect and affection from those she commands. Her internal dialogue is colorful, full of internal inconsistencies, and all too believable. She is truly a unique character. Aral, too, often surprises, as do several of the soldiers who surround them. Barrayar is superior science fiction.

For links to my reviews of other science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

About the author

Lois McMaster Bujold has won multiple awards for both science fiction and fantasy. The only other author who has won four Hugo Awards as she has, is Robert A. Heinlein. The Vorkosigan Saga, one of the three book series she is writing, consists of 30 novels to date, spanning the 30-year period from 1986 to 2016.

July 10, 2017

A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

American Civil WarAmerican War: A Novel, by Omar El Akkad

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation.

In previous decades, rising seas and monster storms have submerged large swaths of the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, driving millions of people far into the nation’s heartland. Boston, New York, Washington—every low-lying city on both coasts—they’re all now under water. Elevated temperatures have eliminated countless animal species and destroyed huge areas of formerly rich farmland. Mexico has seized Texas and most of the Southwest, governing them under a Protectorate. And the United States has long been isolated on the world stage. “[T]he 2030s and 2040s [were] the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.” The “newborn superpowers” are China and the Bouazzizi Empire that spans North Africa and the Middle East.

What’s left of Louisiana is neutral territory, considered Purple, wedged between Texas and the core Southern states that are called the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). There, Sarat, her fraternal twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live in deepening poverty with their parents. In hopes of obtaining a work permit and the means to move his family to safer ground, their father sets out for the North—and there at a federal courthouse he falls victim to another Southern terrorist bomb.

American War spans the years from 2074 to 2123. The story is narrated in old age by Benjamin Chestnut, Sarat’s nephew, whom we meet by name only late in the war. Benjamin regards the tale as tragedy in the classical sense. “Some people are born sentenced to terrible inheritance,” he writes, “diseases that lay dormant in the blood from birth. My sentence was to know, to understand.” Interspersed with Benjamin’s narrative are brief excerpts from speeches, official documents, and interviews with incidental characters that broaden the scope of the tale beyond Sarat and her family. But Sarat is the tightly focused subject of this chilling tale.

At times, the action in American War is almost unbearably raw. A massacre scene that’s central to the story conjures up memories of survivors’ reports from the 1982 invasion of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon, when right-wing Christian militiamen were unleashed by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon. Those reports haunt me to this day.

Sadly, the scenario El Akkad paints in his novel of a Second American Civil War comes across as all too credible in today’s darkening political environment. His portrayal of the toll taken by the rising sea level may be exaggerated, since current scientific projections foresee a much more gradual process. But the fanaticism on both sides of the Second American Civil War—the standoff between Reds and Blues—is little greater than the polarization that has come to dominate the country’s politics in recent years. And the heated dispute over the use of fossil fuels is by no means beyond belief. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. American War is a perfect example.

The author, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad, has reported from around the world for the Toronto Globe and Mail. American War in his first book.

For reviews of other dystopian novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, see A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

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