by Omar El Akkad
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian
Length: 384 Pages
Release date: April 4, 2017
An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.”
“This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them.”
I had really mixed feelings towards this book, and I feel like it’s one of those stories I like more in concept than in execution. American War is a science fiction novel set in a future where America has been ravaged by climate change, disease, and violence. While the author has done a good job of choosing timely issues to explore, particularly in regards to climate change and clinging to outdated ideals in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, something about the world building felt rather hollow to me.
While excessive info-dumping can surely kill a novel, this one seemed to suffer from a lack of substance in its back story. The American history of Sarat’s world is in a lot of ways a big, gaping blank. There are tidbits thrown into the narrative throughout the book, often in the form of quasi-historical documents, interviews with soldiers, etc., but they focus mainly on the war itself and not how the country got to that point.
Sarat makes for a bit of a thorny protagonist, although necessarily so. This story is in large part about radicalization and how circumstances can poke and prod an ordinary person into becoming a terrorist. “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple. The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled,” El Akkad writes.
The Sarat of the latter half of the book is violent and unforgiving, driven by vengeance. She has been through unimaginable things to make her this way, but still, it makes it difficult to connect with her while reading. Nevertheless, she makes for a very interesting character study and exploration of how victimization and isolation can lead to radicalization under the right circumstances. It’s very easy for the reader to see why Sarat was targeted as a recruit, but less so for her in her young and vulnerable state. Seeds are planted in Sarat’s youth which don’t fully come to fruition until the end of the novel.
American War sometimes felt tonally awkward for me as a reader, with excessively stereotypical depictions of southerners. With the number of years between present day and Sarat’s story (the war begins in 2074, for reference) surely attitudes, slang, etc. would have shifted more in the amount of time? Inventing slang for a futuristic society can be dicey and easily end up sounding cheesy, but with more than half a century between our time and Sarat’s, the fact that their speech patterns so closely mirror the modern stereotypical southern feels like a wasted opportunity to bring some flavor to the world building.
My final issue with this book was that a major spark of the conflict (fossil fuels) didn’t feel entirely believable. Yes, this is a point of contention in the real world, but it is taken to such a ridiculous extreme in this novel that I found it difficult to buy into it. Late in the novel, Sarat has solar cells which are used part time at her home, but she continues to unnecessarily use outlawed fuel… on principal, I guess? A strange hill to die on, but okay.
Given what has preceded this point, Sarat’s continued animosity makes sense. However, it seems like it would be based more on the deaths of friends and family members, to the point where emotional ties to fossil fuels no longer make sense as a factor, particularly given the advances in technology in our modern times, which will make clean energy more and more accessible as time goes on. This is not a woman using outlawed fuel because she needs it or because it’s more efficient than the alternative. This is a woman using outlawed fuel because “eff the north,” full stop.
Overall, this book was just a very mixed bag. Sarat’s slow progression as she became sucked into extremist ways of thinking was well done in a lot of ways, but the overall story suffered from a rather thin backstory and clunky world building. A somewhat enjoyable read, but for all the literary awards and hype, I was expecting more.
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