What about the current social climate in America, with all our institutionalized racism and police brutality, suggests that we re moving toward a post racial, colorblind society How can El Akkad draw so heavily on the first American Civil War for his narrative and completely ignore the question of slavery and racism How can the South continue to use fossil fuels when the rest of the country no longer does How did the Mexican annexation of a large region of the U.
S come about How on earth did every country in the Middle East come together in the span of about fifty years to form a republic These are just a few of the questions American War left me with Maybe they re not the point But I can t help but to feel like a novel which goes to such great lengths to set the stage for this future alternate history needs to be able to provide the reader with satisfactory answers.
My second issue with this book is that it s dull, tedious, and downright boring If I hadn t been reading this for a book club, I would have strongly considered DNFing, which as you guys know, I never do I just couldn t bring myself to care about Sarat, who felt like a caricature than a well developed character in her own right, or about the background characters who littered the narrative without much depth or individual personalities.
I was really disappointed by this book I thought that a novel about a second American Civil War would be difficult to read because of what a realistic possibility it is, but American War was never able to convince me that it was anything other than highly imaginative fiction Maybe I could have forgiven that if the plot or characters held my attention, but they didn t It was such a relief to finish this.
5ish stars This is not your typical dystopia I feel like that word, dystopia, has developed something of a negative connotation in literature recently because of the inundation of books, especially YA ones, that fit into the sub genre American War is science fiction in the same way that The Road or The Handmaid s Tale are science fiction, which is to say, speculative than science And while this book may not be on the same level as those two, it s really not that far from it.
The author presents a fairly well realized future in which the US is entrenched in a second civil war While the catalyst for entering war, the banning of fossil fuels this time instead of slavery, isn t necessarily convincing for me, the actual events of the war seem plausible EDIT 9 1 Upon rumination, I feel there s a lot missing from the explanation and the events of the war, and with the future society in general It seems that the only real issue is the fossil fuels, which doesn t seem like enough of a catalyst to cause and continue a war for so long END EDIT.
It s not perfect The writing is very good but not great There seem to be a lot of things unaddressed, perhaps intentionally, but they re things I think would be relevant and important to at least make mention of Regardless, the focus of the story is on an individual and how she s changed and morphed by the war from the time she s six, living happily at home with her parents and siblings, to twenty years later after having lived through unspeakable tragedy and abuse The book queries How much can a person s experiences justify her actions It touches as well although maybe not as much as one might expect from the title on American issues, history and culture but I could argue that it doesn t matter so much where the story takes place and maybe, as some have pointed out, its American setting is to reach a wider audience than anything else It s depressing and bleak, but still not quite emotionally stirring enough for me to really connect with the main character Overall a very respectable debut with some impressive, timely speculation.
Posted in Mr Philip s Library An Audacious And Powerful Debut Novel A Second American Civil War, A Devastating Plague, And One Family Caught Deep In The Middle A Story That Asks What Might Happen If America Were To Turn Its Most Devastating Policies And Deadly Weapons Upon ItselfSarat Chestnut, Born In Louisiana, Is Only Six When The Second American Civil War Breaks Out In But Even She Knows That Oil Is Outlawed, That Louisiana Is Half Underwater, And That Unmanned Drones Fill The Sky When Her Father Is Killed And Her Family Is Forced Into Camp Patience For Displaced Persons, She Begins To Grow Up Shaped By Her Particular Time And Place But Not Everyone At Camp Patience Is Who They Claim To Be Eventually Sarat Is Befriended By A Mysterious Functionary, Under Whose Influence She Is Turned Into A Deadly Instrument Of War The Decisions That She Makes Will Have Tremendous Consequences Not Just For Sarat But For Her Family And Her Country, Rippling Through Generations Of Strangers And Kin Alike I didn t understand the point of this Something huge is missing in this novel There is a hole in the center Omar El Akkad tells a story of a new American Civil War taking place around the year 2075 To paint this setting he borrows heavily from the American Civil War of 1862 1865 and he replicates and augments the Old South s long abiding sense of injustice the Lost Cause and lost way of life, loyalty to family and one s people before all else, real Southern values, etc But we know what that is all a code for SLAVERY rich southern whites fight to keep the institution of slavery This novel redraws every tired clich of the Old South, but omits the institution of slavery, and leaves this story of war without a believable reason for the war It s hollow, it s a shallow reflection, a pastiche Now, one could say that the cause doesn t matter because El Akkad really wanted to explore the effects of civil war or why people continue to fight when the cause is lost But that doesn t satisfy me, because the underlying reasons matter For what it s worth, the barely mentioned and unexplained cause of the animosities is the use of fossil fuels the South wants to keep using them the rest of the country world want to move on But how does one region continue the fuel guzzling way of life in the global economy Oh, yes, there is a parallel to slavery, one thinks But it still didn t make sense to me, because there is no demagogue to exploit the South s violence, no religious motivation to undergird it, and since this is apparently a color blind society in which race is not noticed, no class and race divisions within the South to be protected They just hate the North So the actual justification for this civil war isn t devotion to gasoline fueled vehicles, it s vengeance That s what he really writes about.
The main character is an African American Latina tomboy girl who grows up to be a shattered, hate filled, violent 6 foot, 5 inch lesbian who usually displays prejudice, ignorance, and provincial close mindedness What is the explanation for her gigantism or her sexuality I have cynical suspicions Sarat s speech veers from the demotic and colloquial I ain t done nothin to the grammatically correct and near eloquent eloquent hate and venom, that is A few examples of the rhetoric You must understand that in this part of the world, right and wrong ain t about who wins, or who kills who In this part of the world, right and wrong ain t even about right and wrong It s about what you do for your own Tribal mentality for Sarat the calculus was simple the enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy There could be no other way, she knew it Gaines the recruiter who exploits Sarat and makes her a terrorist explaining his philosophy of vengeance against the North and loyalty to the South I sided with the Red because when a Southern tells you what they re fighting for be it tradition, pride, or just mule headed stubbornness you can agree or disagree, but you can t call it a lie When a Northern tells you what they re fighting for, they ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather I d had enough of all that You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind And If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against our people No Gaines smiled Good girl, he said.
I just never saw this novel let go of this rhetoric or go beyond this level of reasoning There was no redemption, no learning, no big shifts And I don t think that a couple things Sarat did near the end were actually compassionate She view spoiler didn t spare her victims She just delayed their miserable deaths a month or two until she could infect everyone North and South with the plague hide spoiler Everyone fights an American War 306 Do you know the experience of diving into a book expecting one certain thing, only to realize part way through that the thing is actually about another subject You assume X, but get Y That s how I read Omar El Akkad s recent novel American War Everything I read described a near future novel about a second Civil War, with the north and south tearing at each other once again And the book does fulfill that promise We follow a Louisiana family as members experience the horrors of civil war as children and adults, civilians and active participants.
Yet around two thirds of the way through I was losing patience While the characters were convincing, the world building kept failing to make sense At first I ascribed this to the author s inexperience it s a first novel or unfamiliarity with science fiction Then it hit me American War is actually about the American War on terror It s a metaphor, whereby the experience suffered by other nations, notably Iraq, transposes itself onto American soil.
I m not sure that worked out well.
A little background American War takes place in the 21st century s final quarter, after climate change has trashed North American coastal cities and devoured nearly all of Florida Mexico has somehow claimed back parts of the southwest this is never explained , the federal capitol is safely removed to Ohio, and the South secedes rather than give up carbon based fuels A quick conventional battle gives way to attenuated guerrilla warfare, including an occupation and biological warfare In a nod to late 20th early 21st century political shorthand, the north the feds are the Blues, while the south are Reds.
The Chestnut family comes from what is now coastal Louisiana Of mixed race Latino and black they scrabble for existence, then relocate as a new bout of fighting draws near Daughter Sarat is our main character and protagonist yet not heroine , a strong and brutalized young woman who develops radically The whole narrative is dotted with excerpts from historical documents, and framed by a future historian s reflections.
The writing can be lovely The first chapter s second sentence The sun broke through a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea Lovely, and a neat bit of science fiction s transformed language There s a fine and dark rebel s catechism, with an eye on Nechaeyev What is the first anesthetic Wealth.
And if I take your wealth Necessities.
And if I demolish your home, burn your fields Acknowledgement.
And if I make it taboo to sympathize with your plight Family.
And if I kill your family God.
And GodHasn t said a word in two thousand years 136 The novel can also draw a bead on official language s own voice, as when a suicide bomber becomes an insurrectionist who detonated a homicide bomb 30.
El Akkad is also good with references I m pretty sure the two characters named Weiland are references to Charles Brockden Brown s Wieland or, The Transformation 1798 , a horrific tale about manipulation and family horror A training scene on 191 is clearly a nod to the exercises in Kipling s Kim 1901.
Above all, this is a fiercely emotional novel Our point of view characters suffer terribly, and El Akkad brings their pain to us quite well They also love and connect with people, a sweetness we can appreciate Indeed, one penultimate scene involves an unlikely reunion of the sort Victor Hugo loved, and combines implausibility with tear jerking pathos 322 6.
So how does this become an Iraq war novel The world s technology averages to a historical level of around 2005 We do get hints of some kind of electric car and boat, but are otherwise working with gear from generations prior to what we should expect from 2080 drones Birds , 41 , gas powered trucks, tablet computers, and televisions, when the southern communities haven t fallen further back to pole barges, AC less houses, and old school moonshine The south is filled with semi organized insurgent bands, rather than a unified army, and their weapons include roadside bombs, suicide bombing, and sniping I must finish the answer in spoilers, alas view spoiler Sarat is taken to a remote Caribbean location and tortured in secrecy, along with a few dozen people similarly caught up She s strong, but finally caves under waterboarding, although the text doesn t use that word The Blues complete the conquest of the South with a surge 260 In the final framing chapters the historian heads west to a desert country 321 Get it hide spoiler 4 stars I can t quite gush effusively for Omar El Akkad s American War, but not sinceThe Handmaid s Tale has a dystopian novel spoken to me so loud and clear The thinly veiled Fuck you, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions message was probably integral to my enjoyment Pretty simple concept imagining the United States, circa the late 21st century in the midst of a second Civil War, thanks in no small part to global warming Florida is gone gone gone and the polemical divide between Blues and Reds To El Akkad s and the book s credit, the focus is not quite on the war itself which is a good thing I m not sure, with the books I ve read lately, how much warfare I could stomach Rather, much of the attention is centered on the Chestnut family and specifically, fraternal twin sisters Sara T or Sarat and Dana and their woes contending with life pre to post war in the purple lands of Louisiana at the periphery of the seceded Free Southern State Even though the war is off camera conveyed via interspersed archival papers and news reports, reminiscent of Max Brooks World War Z, sans zombies the Chestnut family s travails are unflinchingly harsh and brutal, particularly as they are uprooted from Louisiana to Camp Patience , a refugee tent favela in Iuka, Mississippi Sarat, in contending with the strife of dodging snipers, Birds drone bombers and the South Carolina centered plague , emerges as an enigmatic badass heroine, a 6 5 seething anger vessel hell bent on retribution for the Blues ripping apart her family.
There s probably going to be a contingent of readers who hate this novel for El Akkad s pretty obvious to me anti right stance, and others might pooh pooh the melodrama, but the What If scenario he s dreamed up, for its plausibility alone, makes this a frighteningly fascinating wake up call Expect the Netflix adaptation forthwith.
When you wade into the ever agitated waters of social media, you realize just how quickly the currents of infectious bile are flowing Follow the tributaries of today s political combat a few decades into the future and you might arrive at something as terrifying as Omar El Akkad s debut novel, American War Across these scarred pages rages the clash that many of us are anxiously speculating about in the Trump era a nation riven by irreconcilable ideologies, alienated by entrenched suspicions But in El Akkad s dystopian vision, those differences have led, once again, to secession and internecine warfare.
The mainspring of this imagined future clash is not race and slavery, but science and the environment We learn that as climate change ravaged the Earth, intelligent societies abandoned fossil fuels, but the South clung to its peculiar institution and kept pumping, excavating and burning As El Akkad tells it, that act of rebellion called down the North s To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post https www.
This is a novel that hearkens back to the great days of serious and very dark future history, the kind that used be common in SF before it got taken over with fluffy if dark YA that is usually a lot simple and caricature than serious.
So now we re back to the good and serious SF, no light tones here, and we fast forward to a history of America where its dominance in the world has sunk with a lot of its land, where ecological changes have turned the deserts into blasted lands, where politics has been turned upside everywhere else thanks to the tail end of the oil energy crisis, and where plagues and war has ravaged America s soil A lot can happen in 70 years This is what world building is all about Extrapolation, exploration, and detail, detail, detail Akkad s writing is full of wonderful detail Enough upheavals have altered the landscape of the world China is dominant, as is a Northern African alliance, but these details are just dressing to the real tale.
America is split between the blues and the reds, but the meaning of these are just as changed in another 70 years as they were 70 years ago from today That s only realistic What we have in this novel is a very Southern tale It s not just mannerisms, but the kinds of things they find pride in, whether truth or lies They re just standing up for what they believe in In this case, oil They re holding on to tradition and they ve made this about identity, but what makes this a real cause isn t quite this narrative Indeed, it s all about being abused and economics and especially poverty Add plagues that have overextended an already hurting American Government and the result is massive areas of quarantines, angry and scared people Add drones in the sky and angry bombers and refugee camps and it s no wonder that the war not only worsens but intensifies Now there s than real grudges at stake.
And our main character grows up in the lush world building of the South during the early years as a kid and we see her grow from a courageous woman into one who s been broken by the system and then we see her get her final revenge This is the main story The world building is absolutely fantastic, but the pain and the strength and the way she s broken and how she copes with it is the real treat.
I m not saying it s easy or pleasant to put yourself in her shoes It isn t But it feels genuine Seven years in a concentration camp in Georgia without due process and subject to torture nearly the entire time isn t exactly pleasing.
But it feels genuine The whole novel feels genuine Even the writing of the history of the civil war by this main character s nephew as a Future History is a wonderful detail, and he s one hell of an interesting guy, too.
A lot of these kinds of serious dystopias can feel like a dark warning, a cautionary tale, and those have a very fine tradition This one avoids most of that In fact, the tale is everything Any kind of moral or ethical judgment we deem to take about the character s actions are entirely personal and not just a place for the author to soapbox There s very little soapboxing here Even the reasons for joining the Reds, the south, are purely personal They stand up for what they think is right, even if they re wrong At least they don t sugar coat and lie It s a very southern attitude That, and Don t Tread On Me In the end, I think this novel could be an anthem to that very idea even as it shows just how dark a path it can take What a delightful novel Truly Dark and very disturbing, too, but delightful nonetheless.
My reasons for disliking this book are complicated My main feelings about it is that it s a hacky piece of work that is trying very hard to be politically profound, but failing in execution.
First, let s talk about why it fails in my eyes as a dystopian novel And, no, I don t mean its lack of a teenager falling in love with a rebel boy or the fact that they don t seem to all be dressed as emo soldiers although there are plenty of soldiers.
See This is how it s done.
There are two ways to go about building a good dystopia 1 Make it so far fetched that it is fantasy and therefore the reader is not comparing it to reality.
or2 Make it close to reality with an event that changes it enough to be dystopia, regardless of whether the event itself is realistic.
Another essential element.
This book is trying to be modeled by the second option, but falls short in enough ways to suspend believability and make the reader question the timeline and events in the context of what we know to be true.
Aww, now this is like it Totally believable.
The event that is supposed to be the break from our timeline is a second Civil War in America The problem was that the book pretty much just recycled the real Civil War and changed a few things, like fossil fuel for slavery If this war was meant to be in any way believable, we would have to agree that our country learned nothing the first time and were willing to do the exact same thing a couple hundred years later We would also have to believe that the South is the same idiotic South of the 1800 s full of bluster, willing to die for an antiquated idea, etc As a person who lives in the South, I find it almost insulting that the people are portrayed as so ignorant that they we would not welcome cleaner energy, which is what the war is all about Yes, my state does have a strong oil based economy, but I also believe that we would have the intelligence to embrace new methods of energy when half of our country is underwater because of the polar ice caps melting another premise in the book So, not only is the whole war thing a rip off of history, but it is unbelievable and frankly insulting to Southerners The timeline is also way off, but I m talking about why in the next part of my angry rant I mean review.
We are a friendly people, dammit Now, I have a finger to show you, book Bless your heart.
Next, let s talk about why it fails as a political commentary.
In this reality, the Arab nations and Africa all unite to become a super country that is the bestest most prosperous and stablest place on Earth Now, I m not going to say anything crazy like this could never happen , but let s face it, this book isn t set far enough in the future to resolve every problem in the Middle East and Africa which are very different problems by the way.
Don t forget Africa while you are at it, Bob Thanks Not only this, but in so many other ways, the book was eye rolling in its desire to pander to an audience who would be super excited about the idea that America will suffer and fall And, not just us, folks You over there in the European area your people are desperately trying to cross the borders into the safe sweet arms of the Middle East as well We all want a piece of that pie.
Maybe we can make a tradeThere is such thinly veiled hate for America in this book that it s hidden about as well as an Easter Egg at the blind kid school.
Sometimes things are obvious.
During this second Civil War, we are living off the generosity of China s aid in the form of food and blankets, we are displaced from our homes and put into refugee camps, we are being turned into suicide bombers with the financial aid of Egypt, and we even have our own little Guantanamo where our Southern Belles are being tortured yes, waterboarding happens.
We have incredibly strong necks down here.
Is someone pissed at us Has someone been having little Death to America dreams that they needed to get down on paper Feeling butt hurt Get in line.
And, fuck you.
A very scary scenario, the North without mercy, the South breaking off into splinter groups, all willing to die for the glory of the South A father is killed and a mother in desperation takes her small family, son and two twin daughters, Dana and Sarat and is allowed to move to a relocation camp Here a devastating act of revenge will be unleashed changing this family without measure.
This is an intense look at war and the damage it causes in individual lives Sarat is our unlikely protagonist, and whether you like her character, approve of what she does or does not do, the author does a fantastic job enlightening the reader in just how she was formed, how she felt and why she acted as she did It highlights the way the manipulators seek their victims and use them for their own motives Using this one family and those who come into contact with them, following some in their long journey from beginning to end, I found incredibly impactful The writing is excellent and the characters are impressive This book was so vividly portrayed that it engaged all my emotions, how absolutely horrific were the situations in which they found themselves The last lines of this book so incredibly poignant.
Could this happen here again Well they say never say never I like to think not but it is being experienced daily in many countries Syria for instance, with new staggering death tolls due to a chemical attack So at the very least this book can serve as a warning and in some instances absolute reality.
ARC from Knopf publishing.