Category Archives: science fiction

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

The book by Madeleine L’Engle on which this movie was based was one of my childhood favorites. I looked forward to the film eagerly because I wanted to see a gifted director do justice to the material. I thought that many of the changes were promising updates for modern audiences, able to bring the book’s uplifting message of love to more people.

On an even more personal note, my still-unfinished novel, Hallie’s Cache, was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories, a misfit young teen girl looks for her missing father and grows into herself in the process. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected from 26 publishers before going on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century. There has been a previous attempt at making a movie out of this material in 2003, with mixed success. It has always defied categorization: is it for adults or children? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is it too Christian or not Christian enough?

After watching the current version, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make a good movie out of this book. The director, Ava Duvernay, did everything right: she assembled a great cast and approached the project with care, respect, and a wide open vision. And I enjoyed it on its own terms; I identified with Meg and her teenage problems. I found Storm Reid to be an appealing and relatable actress. I rooted for her and her friends to save her father. I loved the trippy visuals, the costumes, the animations. I even cried for the brokenness in the world, as gently as it was portrayed, and cheered for the family’s reunion. But it wasn’t the story that packed the emotional punch that I remembered and loved all these years. Opening to mixed reviews and eclipsed at the box office, it is likely to remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Duvernay’s career.

As much as I hate to admit this about a childhood favorite book, the problem is likely not with the filmmakers, but with the source material. Written in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is of a particular time and place. The book’s characters are all European-Americans, redheads or mousy-brown-haired with Anglo-sounding names like Charles Wallace and Dennys (who, with his twin brother, is wholly absent from this movie). It famously opens with the Bulwer-Lytton cliche: “It was a dark and stormy night,” as Meg watches a thunderstorm from her lonely, cluttered attic room. For these reasons, and because of the three witches, the gossip about Mr Murry’s disappearance, and the neighbor’s sheets drying on the line, I had always pictured it taking place in an eccentric, secretive New England small town–a small town with a dark side like the ones that L’Engle herself, and her contemporary Shirley Jackson, lived in and raised their families.

Bringing this story out into the bright Southern California sunshine as this movie did took too much of the edge off. Certainly there are edgy areas of Southern California too, but we didn’t see those. The Murrys’ home is gorgeous and spacious. The middle school Meg attends is a well-resourced model of ethnic diversity headed by principal of color who is a three-time science teacher of the year award winner. This muddies the rationale for why Meg is bullied by the other students. In the book, Charles Wallace is an odd prodigy, perhaps a savant on the autism spectrum although that was not understood at the time the book was written, and Meg gets in trouble at school for defending him from bullies. She is thereby always his protector, and her actions at the end of the book, when her fierce love saves Charles Wallace from IT’s clutches, are perfectly in character and make emotional sense.

In the movie on the other hand, Charles Wallace is still a prodigy, but he appears quite well tolerated, happy, and self-contained, and he doesn’t need Meg to protect him. If anything, he is the one protecting Meg. Meg’s outcast status is instead attributed to her father’s disappearance. But in present day California, with so many children being raised by single parents and blended families, her father’s disappearance would not be the scandal it was in 1962. Her loneliness can and does lead her to act out further, but it is a feeble justification for her school situation as depicted here.

Details of what happened on Camazotz are also compressed in the movie. The book’s depiction of Camazotz, the planet that has given in to evil, gives off a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic banality. Complete conformity to a 1950s suburban nuclear family ideal is expected, and outsiders’ food turns to dust in their mouths. “IT,” the master controller, appears in the book as a disembodied brain on a dais. IT appeals to Charles Wallace and seduces him to ITs side because of ITs ability to control and impose order on messy human impulses. IT was a metaphor for the tyranny of a society that values and runs on brains and intellect alone and disregards love. That in the book there are two battles against IT and that Meg must make the decision on her own to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles Wallace compound the sense of foreboding and dread, as well as making Meg’s triumph sweeter and more meaningful when she does ultimately rescue him.

The movie, however, shows little of Camazotz; the scene with the kids bouncing balls in unison seems like a confusing non-sequitur rather than a Potemkin village masking the fear and desperation of the populace. After her father and Calvin are defeated, Meg is forced immediately into lonely battle with IT. This battle scene was disappointing. Some of the creepy tree-like things with branches might have supposed to have been neurons with dendritic trees, but the overall connection of the movie’s IT to an emotionless, loveless, disembodied brain capable of the ultimate in mind control was weak.

The rescue scene itself focused too much on whether Meg herself was lovable in spite of her faults and not enough on the transforming power of Meg’s sacrificial love for Charles Wallace. The book is unapologetically Christian in outlook, reflecting L’Engle’s own Christian faith and naming Jesus as one of the warriors against the darkness that enveloped Camazotz. I believe that L’Engle intended Meg’s love for Charles Wallace here to be selfless and Christlike, yet her Christian imagery and references have been dropped from the movie, to its detriment. Mrs. Who quotes and references many world religions; Christianity could have been included there. And why not acknowledge Jesus’ role, and the role of faith for many Christians, in fighting evil? True to her character, the scientist Meg would likely remain skeptical, and that would be okay too. Warriors can come from all faith traditions, and from no faith tradition.

The other big problem with this story is the science, the so-called “Wrinkle in Time” itself, known in both the movie and the book as a tesseract. Back in 1962 at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when the theory of relativity was new and humans hadn’t yet gone to the moon, the idea that you could bend space-time with your mind by “tuning” it to the right frequency might have been a little more believable than it is now. There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. Murry is shown giving a seminar about how tessering works. Jeers and guffaws of disbelief come from the audience; as well they would in real life. He sounds like a New Age motivational speaker in the tradition of Werner Erhard, or a trickster like Uri Geller.

I still remember when an annoying boy in my physics class explained to me what a tesseract “really” was: a cube within a cube, a projection of 4-dimensional space into 3 dimensions the way the drawing of a cube on paper as a square within a square was a projection of 3-dimensional space onto 2. There was nothing about wormholes or traveling 93 million miles with just your mind. Talk about disappointing! It wouldn’t have taken much to give Dr. Murry in the film a high-tech device that would make tessering possible, or some novel psi powers based on his and his wife’s research. These would have to be hand-wavey and entirely fictional of course, but good shows have been based on less. What doesn’t work is asking us to accept that New Age mumbo-jumbo somehow became true for this family because they “believed in themselves.”

As a smart girl who was interested in science, I believed too long in this book’s oversimplified and inaccurate version of how science works. Meg’s parents worked together in a homemade lab; when her father disappeared, her mother continued her experiments in the kitchen, bunsen burner on one counter, soup on the other. There was no mention of grants, funding, students, safety regulations, collaboration outside the family unit, or even publication. It’s a more romantic and family-friendly vision of doing science than has ever actually existed. Perhaps this vision was inspired by the real-life Curies, French Nobel Laureates Marie and Pierre and their children, who discovered radioactivity; yet their work had a visible dark side. Modern science is safer for its practitioners, and it is more open and collaborative than either what the Curies experienced or L’Engle’s vision. It is also more expensive and more technical, and requires more energy and perseverance than romantic genius for success. A film that wants to inspire young people in science in the 21st century would do well to tell a more accurate story about the scientific process. This film drops that ball completely.

I hope this movie inspires its young audience, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s memorable enough for that.


Thursday Doors: Clarion West

This is not the door to the actual Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle. I attended that workshop in 1987 just after I graduated from college and before I went to graduate school. I put writing away for a long time, studying neuroscience and raising a family. I’m not done with either of those activities, exactly, although I’m now an instructor with Science from Scientists rather than a graduate student, and my kids are teenagers. And I’m not done with writing either. No, I’m just starting back up.

This door belongs to the house of one of my Clarion classmates. Although we kept in sporadic touch after the workshop, attended a convention together, and still sent yearly holiday cards, I hadn’t seen her in person for about 25 years. In between then and now we had both gotten married, had kids, and pursued other interests.

When I moved back to CA I realized that she was not that far away; I could drive to her house in less than 2 hours. But it took more than 2 years for me to get the trip organized. Finally, my husband was on a big power trail geocaching trip, my son didn’t mind getting himself meals and was old enough to be left alone for a day, and so I went.


We had an awesome time. I didn’t know that I would as I knocked at the very normal-looking door in the very normal-looking California suburb, but I suspected. With some friends–writers especially–time doesn’t pass the way you think.

Thursday doors is a weekly feature in which door lovers share their pictures from doors all around the world. Stop by Norm 2.0’s blog to say hello and see some of the others.

Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.

I thought it took the action a little too long to get started and too long to finish, although the scene in which our heroes thwart an assassination attempt on the Federation President was excellent and was an exception. More scenes like that one, please!

More to the point, I didn’t find Tom Mathers all that memorable, especially as a viewpoint character, and the secondary characters were a little hit-or-miss as well. I read the book over a couple of weeks and when I picked it back up again after putting it down, I had forgotten who some of the minor characters were and ended up being surprised when they showed up again. Susie, Caroline, and Fanshawe, who are all over 100 years old and have interesting histories, have more developed character arcs than Tom. And the action that set all the rest of the plot in motion, Tom’s reckless decision, didn’t really make sense. Even as it was happening, I was thinking, WTF dude?! Leave it alone!

The descriptive language relies a bit too heavily on cultural references that the reader may or may not know about. For example, London is a fascinating city, but I had to draw on mental images I have from watching James Bond movies and having been a tourist there; the setting did not come alive for me based on the author’s descriptions. As with the assassination scene, there are flashes of brilliant writing that bring the reader up short and make you want more: the scene where Fanshawe is injured and Tom has to rely on his own wits to save them both had me on the edge of my seat. At least one of Susie’s fashionable outfits, and the reactions to it, are hilarious. And some of the descriptions of dead and dying planets hint at a sense of tragedy and something larger than the usual time-travel frolic. These bright spots are islands in the middle of long stretches of more workman-like, serviceable prose. There is nothing really wrong with the writing here, but knowing what the author is capable of, one wishes he could have kept it up more evenly through the whole book.

I’m guessing there may be a sequel in the works. The gadgets and time travel system are too cool to be used in just one book. It will be interesting to learn more about the characters and to see if Tom will be given more of an arc to grow in the next installment.

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Always Walking Away

RIP Ursula K Le Guin.

I read her story, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” as a teenager, and I never forgot it. The name Omelas comes from her reading of a street sign to Salem, O(regon) backwards. “[… People ask me] ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” The story is about a beautiful, vibrant town, Omelas, whose very existence rests on the hidden suffering of a neglected and abused child. Most residents of Omelas learn to ignore the child’s suffering when they become aware of it. A few do not; they are the ones who walk away.

More recently Le Guin’s social commentary has been on display in the Oregonian, as she protested the coverage of the “Flock of Right-Wing Loonybirds” who had taken over the Malheur wildlife refuge, or gave her opinion of “alternative facts.” To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie. 

I’m grateful I got to meet Le Guin for a week one summer at the Clarion West SF writers’ workshop in Seattle. There she sometimes referred to herself self-deprecatingly and humorously as “the little she-slug.” I wrote a fantasy story that she critiqued, called “Sunrise on West Lake.” Inspired by my time living in West Berlin before the wall fell, it was about a musician who escaped, who walked away from a repressive society. The protagonist was named Ravena after the corner bus stop where I caught the bus to the workshop. That corner was actually at Ravenna and Woodlawn, in the Green Lake neighborhood. But I dropped one of the n’s, just for fun. Ursula’s first comment on the story was, “why do female fantasy protagonists’ names always have to end with -a? Yours doesn’t!”

“Sunrise,” like every short story I’ve ever written, wanted to be a novel. Recently I wrote another short story that wants to be a novel, called “Life and the Maiden.” The title is meant as a play on “Death and the Maiden,” which is the title of a song, poem, movie, and string quartet by Franz Schubert. Music still plays a role in this more recent story, but the protagonist this time, a “maiden” named Viola (after the instrument), rebels against her musician parents and doesn’t play. And she too walks away, literally, from her childhood home. While writing the walking away scene, I pictured Gwyneth Paltrow’s character from Shakespeare in Love, sole survivor of a shipwreck, walking away from shore towards adventures unknown; propelled towards a new life from the ruins of the old.

John Scalzi wrote this wonderful tribute to Le Guin in this morning’s LA Times:

In it, he writes about a different book of Le Guin’s, Always Coming Home, and the effect that it had on him:

“This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer — the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who then walk through it. “Always Coming Home” is not generally considered one of Le Guin’s great books, but for me as a writer and a reader, it was the right book at the right time. The book turned me on to the possibility of science fiction beyond mere adventure stories for boys — that the genre could contain, did contain, so much more. The book opened me to read the sort of science fiction I didn’t try before.”

I hadn’t thought of this interpretation until now. I understand walking away, but I had had trouble getting through Always Coming Home. At the time I considered that a bug, but maybe it was a feature. Maybe Scalzi’s words are a worthy counterpoint to some of the straitjacketed genre plotting advice that is out there.

I’ve been to Salem O, and my daughter goes to school there. The Pacific Northwest, where Le Guin lived, is a beautiful place. One can imagine where she got the inspiration for the joys and delights of the Omelas summer festival. “The Ones who Walk Away” was written in 1973; it was chilling back then. Read through the lens of modern politics and formulaic action-packed dystopian fiction, at first it seems smaller in scope and even a little quaint. But it still hits me, a privileged, white, (no-longer-so) young person, someone who would theoretically love to participate in such a summer festival, right in the gut.

I wonder again, where are the walkers going? Maybe this is a story about a failure of imagination, or a failure of faith. Maybe instead of walking away, they should have stayed and tried to change things. Can you really walk away from Omelas? Are you walking away, like Viola, to a brave new world? Or, in the walking away, are you finally coming home?


“Life and the Maiden” was officially rejected yesterday from the short story contest I sent it to, so I am free to disregard the word limit and turn it into the novel it wants to be. (Yay?!)


Book Review: Rebirth by Aaron Hodges

Rebirth (Praegressus Project #1)Rebirth by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rebirth is an ambitious and exciting beginning to the Praegressus Project series. This series, by New Zealand author Aaron Hodges, is in the same vein as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and other dystopian near-future fiction that puts teams of young adults through a series of brutal tests, the purpose and origins of which only become clearer to the protagonist and the reader as the story unfolds.  Continue reading Book Review: Rebirth by Aaron Hodges


Near-future SF Author Spotlight: Aaron Hodges

Last year I decided I needed to read more indie science fiction and ecofiction. I didn’t want to write in isolation, and in keeping with my desire to focus on the writing journey as much as the finished product, I wanted to be part of a larger conversation. I added Book Reviews to my blog and hoped to publish a review a week. Well, that’s not happening, but I have been able to get out 1-2 per month. And along the way I have met some very interesting authors and read stories that I never would have encountered by sticking only to what gets traditionally published. Indie fiction is not usually as polished, or as formulaic, as what hits the mainstream press. It takes more risks, and fails more often. It is a wild ride that brings you right up against the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths of the writers’ condition. But that rawness–that raw courage–is a big part of why I still read and write books at all in this age of increasingly sophisticated electronic media.

Author Aaron Hodges
Author Aaron Hodges

One of these authors is Aaron Hodges, a kiwi writer of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. He hails from New Zealand, but his Praegressus Project series takes place in the mountains of central California, not too far from where I live now in Silicon Valley. It is set in the year 2052, after the fall of the USA and subsequent rise of the totalitarian Western Allied States.

I have been intrigued by stories of the USA de-uniting for years, with that interest accelerating and getting more personal after our 2016 elections and the social, political, and class divisions they laid bare. The novel American War by Omar El Akkad, about a second American Civil War, was published earlier this year to broad acclaim (read my review here). I talked with Aaron Hodges via email about his world-building, the de-United States, and his vision for the Praegressus Project series.

KLA: You are from New Zealand. What made you interested in setting your book in a future North America with a defunct United States?

AH: This was actually more of a pragmatic choice than anything. The majority of my readers are from the States, so I decided that would be the best place to set the story. Unfortunately, I have only ever visited the west coast, so I decided to base the majority of the story around that region. Which meant the west coast obviously had to end up being the victors in the civil war!

KLA: I have also been working on a novel that is set in the former USA, which has federalized into different regions. I live here, so I have been inspired by things I’ve read around the Presidential elections. Red state/blue state maps are very popular, for example. What made you divide the USA into the regions you chose?

AH: There was definitely a bit of red/blue state stuff going on! It’s never explicitly stated, but something in 2020 led to California ceding from the union – after which Washington, Oregon and a few other states out west promptly followed. However, as that sort of split was more historical than anything by the time the series begins. I wanted to highlight another division that takes place all over the world even today – the divide between rural and urban populations. I wanted to show a world where the population- and wealth- drain from the countryside into cities had reached a breaking point, and explore the sort of characters that come out of that.

KLA: How is climate change working in your future world? As the century progresses I would have expected Sacramento to get warmer and drier, not colder as depicted in your first chapters. What weather patterns could account for this?

AH: It’s actually a common misconception that climate change means warming all year round. While internationally temperatures may be increasing, on a local scale the effects are far less predictable. Climate patterns such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) have a much greater impact on local climate than climate change, and exactly how climate change affects these patterns is very much a black box (i.e. we have no idea how it will end up impacting them!)

Sorry that got a little technical😆! Climate was a big part of my science degree back in the day. Basically, the effects of climate change depend on location, and can have seemingly opposite results. For instance, California is likely to see an increase in droughts AND heavy rainfall events such as tropical cyclones over the next century. Likewise, summers may get hotter, but inversely winters may also get colder. Then you throw in something like a La Niña year, which means less rain and colder temperatures and…things get complicated😆!

KLA: I have degrees in biological science, and often I think the biology in science fiction is pretty unbelievable. But I thought your explanations of how the Chead are formed were quite good and plausible. Even though they are speculative, they make sense and didn’t throw me out of the story. Did your background in biology inspire this part of the plot? How does it inform your writing generally?

AH: Haha–well it’s good to hear my memory from genetics hasn’t completely failed me yet! I actually first started thinking about this project during my Genetics 202 class, when we were discussing homeotic genes and how a virus could be used for genetic modification. I found it all fascinating, and thought it would be interesting to write a scifi novel with genetically modified humans that were still grounded in some science.

For the rest of my work, such as my fantasy series, my studies in geography and environmental science were more important for the world building. Having a bit of knowledge about how mountains/forests/oceans affect local climate was very useful in developing a new world that might almost work in reality!

The final book in the Praegressus Project series, Retribution, is scheduled to be published next week, and this post is part of a blog tour in celebration of the series’ completion. During the blog tour, the first three novels in the series – RebirthRenegades, and Retaliation -are free. There will also be a Goodreads giveaway for three paperback copies of Rebirth, ending December 25th. Look for my blog review of Rebirth in the coming days!–KLA


Book Review: Beef by Mat Blackwell

BeefBeef by Mat Blackwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Woah!” Continue reading Book Review: Beef by Mat Blackwell


Review: Xenotech First Contact Day by Dave Schroeder

Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association (Xenotech Support, #0)Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association by Dave Schroeder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this short introduction to the Xenotech series. It was quick and fun and it made me laugh. These books would make a good read-aloud book for families because the humor works on both kid and kid-at-heart levels. I am curious how and whether the author will be able to sustain this pace and tone through an entire book series, but he seems to have enough depth of life experience to draw on to make it work. I’d also like to see him take a few more risks and let a darker, more serious side show in his work too (a la Douglas Adams). That would be hard to do in this short intro but would give more depth to longer works. A promising beginning to what looks like a fun series!

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The Literature of our Time?

American WarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Personal Review of American War by Omar El Akkad

I conceived of the original idea for my WIP in 2012. It is a science fiction novel with a young adult protagonist set in the year 2074, and I wrote an early draft during the 2012 NaNoWriMo. At the time of that election, maps of blue and red states divided into different “countries” with humorous labels were being widely distributed on social media.


I used to read these and laugh. I lived then, as now and for most of my life, comfortably in a big, wealthy, blue US state. And I didn’t take the whole idea of my country splitting up very seriously. The Federalized USA aspect of my novel was a thought experiment. In real life I believed that the Civil War, and the slave trade that spawned it, was ancient history, a tragedy and a disaster on a scale too horrific to contemplate ever happening again.

Now here I am in 2017, reading and reviewing a book about a second American Civil War. Others have reviewed it more generally and skillfully; this review will be simply a personal opinion, based on my own experiences and ideas.

My first reaction, upon finding out that this book existed was, “oh rats, I didn’t write fast enough.” Not only does it take place in the same time frame as mine, and depict the USA splitting apart, but some of the action takes place in Louisiana (as does mine), and it follows the fortunes of a teenage girl of mixed ethnicity whose father disappears and who is the main viewpoint character (as my novel does). North America is irrevocably changed due to the effects of fossil fuel overuse, climate change, the flooding of the coastal cities and creation of internal refugees (ideas that also play out in my novel). I picked up American War more out of a sense of duty—because if I’m going to write eco-science-fiction, I should know what’s out there and what’s been written on the topic—than out of real excitement. In the back of my mind, I thought, I should finish and publish my own book before it’s too late and *every* book is about this.

As of this writing, American War has gotten a lot of praise, much of it well-deserved. The world building and construction of future history is excellent. The author’s journalistic touch is evident in the immediacy of the storytelling. Like other groundbreaking works of art, this novel does not hew to a standard creative writing format of protagonist/antagonist/try-fail cycles. Its style will probably have wider appeal than most post-apocalyptic science fiction does; it will likely be read in blue-state book groups. The futuristic technology is not particularly interesting, well thought out, or essential to the narrative: the novel is not really science fiction; it’s not a hero’s journey; and it’s not even a tragedy in the literary sense.

My inability to classify it may be at the root of why I found it unsatisfying. Or there may be other reasons: unsympathetic characters, confusing plot points, a limited view of what human beings are capable of, a failure of vision. Or all of the above.

I didn’t like the character of Sarat Chestnut. A mere lack of likability wouldn’t be a problem in a novel, especially for an anti-hero. But for someone so important to this fictional world and the events described therein, Sarat was practically a cipher with no inner life to speak of. She was ostensibly a tween girl, then a teenager, and then a youngish woman made old before her time, but she read more like a man, and not only because she was 6’5”, bald, good at fist fights, and sexually attracted to girls.

I wanted to know what Sarat thought, and felt, about her parents before they were killed. Her relationships with Marcus and with Albert Gaines were more fully realized than any of her family relationships. Today’s burning issues of racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, and religion itself, appear to play little to no role in Sarat’s ideology or motivation. I wanted to know what it was like to be genderqueer then, in the rotting remains of a society that had once recognized same-sex marriage and held celebratory pride parades. I wanted to know why she insisted that they schlep that statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe northward to the refugee camp. Did Sarat ever think about God, or an afterlife, or any big metaphysical questions, even if only to reject the easy answers?

Instead, all I got from Sarat, after she had everything brutally taken from her (but survived herself virtually unscathed), was her inexplicably destroying a bunch of her mentor’s books in his office. Even in the depths of the worst torture the Blues could throw at her, she was never really vulnerable. Where did that strength (or that sheer cussedness) come from? Nothing forged it, nothing fed it, nothing broke it; she simply seemed to have been born with it, and it carried her to her grave. The otherwise superfluous Yuffsy fight scene also seemed to be there to underscore this particular theme by showing Taylor, an old, broken fighter, simply continuing to fight his superior opponent, stubbornly and ineffectually, unto death.

There were other aspects of the book that I thought were just silly: the out-of-control drones, for example. In a real war there would have been much more redundancy built into the system; taking out one server farm wouldn’t have been enough to render the “birds” permanently deaf. More interesting was the implication of psychological warfare—hinted at but not stated outright—that the drones weren’t really deaf or out of the Blues’ control; they were just believed to be. And I could have done without the portentous omniscient 3rd-person narrator butting in at random times to tell me that the Chestnuts never really had to move North in the first place, or that Sarat would never see her brother again.

This is not to say that I thought all the characters were cardboard or the relationships unrealistic. I enjoyed the section told from Benjamin’s point of view the most of the entire book. His relationship with Sarat was genuine and touchingly portrayed, and it provided a bit of relief from the unrelenting darkness of the rest of the narrative. But the conceit that it was told from a 6-year-old’s point of view frayed quickly because he didn’t usually sound like a 6-year-old, and events and conversations were described at which 6-year-old Benjamin would not have been present.

The sentence that “you win the peace with stories,” was underlined in my Kindle version, suggesting that it resonated with a lot of readers. Its implication in context was that the Blues might have won the war by superior military firepower, but they were not winning the peace because they didn’t understand that truism about stories. I waited for that quote to be skillfully dramatized in the novel, and am still waiting. It’s not a spoiler to say that nobody won the peace in this book.

Like The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (which I reviewed here earlier this year), American War serves as a well-done cautionary tale of what could happen to the world if humanity does not change course. Such books may be proliferating in these times, and they reflect our deepest anxieties. But it is my opinion that stories like these can only go so far in helping us win the peace. We also need the optimism of Star Trek, the literature of empathy, characters with rich inner lives, and the faith to imagine something different.

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