American 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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