This has been a novel that I’m finding tough to anchor. On the one hand, the setting, time, place, and general speculative worldview has been spilled out with meticulous clarity and carved into the spaces between chapters as primary document artifacts. On the other hand, it is a story told from the perspective of a pre-teen girl fighting against a geopolitical riptide that she sees through a lens of situational frustration and civil war partisanship.
Brad’s Book Club 2018 (Book: 2 / 20)
American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad
I’m still reading American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad, and I’ve just passed the half way point. In my effort to not just regurgitate the plot of these books into blog posts, all I can (or should) really write is that a piece of critical action occurred in the last pages I read, and that right now it seems like the first half of the book has become a world-building, character-molding exercise for whatever dark future the author is painting.
The bleakness of this world, or the bleakness of any world writ in the pages of near future speculative dystopian fiction, is something that we readers are supposed to draw narrative lines towards starting from our starting point of now. We are intended to gaze out towards an unwritten future and see a believable route, a realistic path that society could follow step by step, to reach the imagined reality upon the pages. An author’s success, then, is often defined firmly in any given reader’s ability to squint into the future between reading chapter and mull the possibility that such pages will become speculative drivel or prognosticating gold.
The starkness of this came to my attention recently as I listen through a collection of old science fiction radio dramas. I downloaded a set of old X Minus One broadcasts, “stories of the future; adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds” recorded and originally broadcast in the 1950s.
Listening to such stories itself paints a harsh reality upon how much human understanding has advanced in those sixty or seventy years. Among this collection are stories about the first ship to travel to Mars (crewed by a group of ‘just normal guys’ who land, crack open some beers, and promptly start shooting up the locals and each other on a Mars) that more resembles an fallen ancient Greece than more contemporary views of this barren red rock. Or a story about a race of miniature alien men who live on a “planetoid just beyond the moon” and who’ve come to Earth “intending to colonize.” One can imagine that any of these stories would have shaken the hearts of listeners in the pre-space-age era but have become little more than camp entertainment with the passage of time.
American War: A Novel draws a narrative line towards a dark future painted from a starting point in the present where partisan politics seem to shape every human interaction and drive a wedge of blind, tribal hate among countrymen. From where I stand, I’ll admit, this seems like a yet unwritten future, but a possible one. But I read on thinking that perhaps someone will be reading this story in sixty or seventy years chuckling at the naivety of a story that failed to understand something as simple as …. well, something we don’t yet see.
Here’s to hoping, because the story is certainly dark.