American War by Omar El Akkad


Speculative fiction is one that treads a fine line. Too far one way and it is dismissed as preachy or too far the other and it falls into the science fiction netherworld.  When realising a world where global warming has changed the map of our world and America has again fractured North and South.  With American War, Omar El Akkad has trod that line deftly with an extraordinary look at the cultivation of hate.

In 60 years time, the oceans have risen, the map of the Continental United States is drastically altered.  The government forced away from the rising waters of the Atlantic, relocates to Columbus, Ohio.  A law is enacted to ban fossil fuels.  The southern states, oil rich and dependant upon that income, band together to fight this affront.  The war that follows is short and deadly, with the country fracturing beyond recognition.  Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia remain united in the south as the Free Southern State, South Carolina is deactivated and quarantined after a chemical attack from the North that renders the populace inert.  On the Mississippi Sea, young Sarat Chestnut lives a simple life with her parents, twin sister and brother.  When her father heads north in search of work and is killed in a southern homicide bombing of the Federal Services Building he was in looking for work and to get his family above the line.  Feeling she has no other choice, beliving the fighting is getting ever closer, Sarat’s mother takes what is left of her family to the refugee camp at Camp Patience.  Stranded there for years, the family make due and build lives for themselves.  It is here that the barely teen Sarat meets Albert Gaines, a man who puts her to work as a courier to the more dangerous parts of the camp and begins to educate Sarat on the true meaning of the Southern Cause.

And this is the fulcrum of the novel.  The tales and angled perspective that Gaines feeds Sarat builds the foundations for her understanding and perspective.  The lack of any other education in the camp for a smart and willing child means that they will lap up whatever attention is given to them.  El Akkar doesn’t pour the detail of this education into the novel, much like the world building itself, into which we are thrown, we get enough to see where we are and see where Sarat is going/being lead.  To accomplish this, the novel is nominally told from the perspective of a historian who is explaining the events leading up to the final act of the civil war, the releasing of the Reunification Plague.  So each chapter is interspersed with a short “document” from the time.  Be it a newspaper report, a government hearing transcript or a verbal account, a la Max Brooks’ World War Z, we get the background that allows Sarat’s world to just exist.  This type of world building, in the Philip K Dick form of just dropping the reader into a place and experiencing it, is one I find the most engaging.  Sarat’s world is so familiar to us, because it lives in our fears.  El Akkad uses this to allow us to be sympathetic to a person we other wise would struggle to be.

By the end of the novel, “peace” is not the dream we all hope for, but the exhaustion of the will to fight.  The negotiating aims of the protagonists at the end of the war, point firmly towards the next generations of Sarat’s and the sacrifice the old men will pay in the young lives of others.  That throughout the novel, El Akkad allows his characters to live and grow in ways that we may not feel wise for them, but we can see exactly why they choose the path they do.  American War reads all the more frightening as we know the process is being enacted time and again throughout the world and not just in camps of displaced people, but in schools and online.  American War is a tale we know, in a world we fear will soon be upon us and is one we need to address.

American War by Omar El Akkad is published by Picador and is released in the UK on September 7th 2017.  It is available now in the US

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