by Omar El Akkad
Published 2017 by Knopf
$26.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451493583
By Noah Sanders
If there was a time to write a novel about a dystopian future, now, if ever, seems the time. The American President is a former reality celebrity; the natural world, poisoned by its invaders, revolts against us; the Middle East has become a dusty hotbed of dictators and religious-zealots-turned-murderers; technology has eliminated privacy while pushing us further apart then ever before. The alternate futures of past science fiction seem always on the verge of becoming reality. A dystopian future no longer seems so far away. Former journalist Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is a book about what comes next, pulled from the hottest topics of our current geopolitical climate. It is a powerful feat of world-building, a beautifully written, if not wholly mind-blowing vision of a near-future that in El Akkad’s skilled hands pulses with unnerving potential.
The year is 2074. The world is succumbing to the effects of climate change; Florida has been flooded out of existence and the grand Mississippi River has become a sea. America is once again in the grips of a brutal Civil War, this time over the usage of fossil fuels. The South has become an impoverished wasteland, dotted with refugee camps, patrolled by revolutionary militiamen and supported by aide-boats from a distant, Middle Eastern empire. The Chestnuts are a poor, if not happy, family of Louisianans, knocked askew by a war that draws closer and closer to their riverside home each day. After the death of their father in a politically-charged bombing, the three Chestnut children and their mother relocate to Patience, Mississippi, a refugee’s tent city the average reader will most likely recognize from a CNN broadcast about Afghanistan. Within the walls of the camp, Sarat Chestnut—the family’s youngest—starts on a path of radicalized revolution that will pull her, and her family, through the fires of war, none reaching the other side unscathed.
El Akkad’s vision of future America is a grim one, because it predicts a shift in power, where the current geopolitical rules have been flipped, and a weakened USA has become fodder for a new reign of colonialism. Mexico has charged across the border, segmenting the country further, while a burgeoning Middle Eastern empire slowly invades through intermediaries and insidious care packages. The author spent years prior to this as a journalist embedded in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, combined with El Akkad’s gift of description, allows for the author to pepper his bleak, and often gruesome view of the future with moments of truly stunning imagery. American War, both because of its incredibly timely subject matter and the deep layering of the world Akkad has conceived, feels possible, as if our missteps in the real world could, potentially inevitably lead to a world very similar to the one described within.
American War casts a wide net in terms of what the author is trying to say, and though el-Akkad has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to take sides, but rather discuss the universal appeal, and fallout, of revenge—at times the book’s inability to stand tall behind a specific idea becomes distracting. As Sarat, under the tutelage of the mysterious Albert Gaines, grows more and more radical, her viewpoints about the use of violence and death grow darker and darker. There’s times when El Akkad strays away from making a specific point, leaving a grey area of thought that, though intentional, seems unfocused. In a book as well-conceived and detailed as American War, even the slightest lack of clarity cracks the illusion El Akkad has so artfully pieced together.
As stark as American War gets, its characters and its storyline tread a well-worn path. Detailed and rife with elegant, at times lyrical imagery, the book still revels in the common tropes of Young Adult dystopian fiction. Though the book is always engaging and at best a thought-provoking road-map to a future America, it provides both in the recognizable and comfortably safe sandbox of genre fiction. There are no weapons-laden cornucopias or garish baddies, but to say that most readers have gotten lost in the story of a young girl who comes to lead, or in this case define a revolution, is an understatement. Likewise, El Akkad’s characters—Sarat’s sister Dana or her childhood friend Marcus—can feel a bit two-dimensional, well-conceived voice boxes for various political philosophies, but mouthpieces nonetheless. Simplified versions of deeper political thoughts, better suited for a younger audience.
Credit El Akkad’s abilities, that for the most part, American War is a gripping, terrifying peek into a future seemingly forecast on the front page of the daily news. It is rich, realistic world El Akkad has created, and though it sometimes slips into well-worn patterns, it is never less than riveting. American War is a book that will inspire thought, that does turn our current geopolitical situation on its head, allowing an opportunity at a viewpoint from the other side Americans are rarely given. More importantly the world El Akkad has created feels not real, but feels scarily possible, the true mark of great dystopian fiction.