Story boils us down to our bones like nobody’s business. It’s the last connective tissue to disappear, and the first to re-appear. In Omar El Akkad’s American War, story is just about all the Chestnut family has left. After the war, quick and hot, came the insurgency, long and slow. It was no civil war, but nonetheless, the South lost again, and again the price was crippling. Sarat and her family just want to get North, where the work is. But Sarat is raw material, waiting for her, unaware she is already immersed.
Akkad’s novel is interspersed with excerpts from historical documents and reportage, giving it a rough frame that starts the day after tomorrow and stretches to the end of the century. Sarat and her family are American refugees from the ravages of a civil war fueled by oil and climate change. El Akkad keeps his world extremely gritty. You’ll find no miracle cures for climate change. What Akkad’s future has to offer is less for more, especially here in the US, and even more so in what remains of the American south.
For all it’s grit and vigor, American War manages to portray a dark future without drowning the reader in drear. Sarat and her family and those who take her under their wing are a fascinating bunch, enough so that El Akkad can boldly explore what we are doing to ourselves at this moment, in the context of this future where America is the foreign country. The in-your-face factor of what El Akkad brings off is really quite stunning. It is one think to think the unthinkable. El Akkad wants you to empathize. When you do, you’ll scare yourself.
El Akkad’s world building is careful and low-key. He uses the tropes of SF well enough, but never gets flashy about it. This goes to making the book feel intensely realistic. Any innovations are things we could do right now if we were so inclined. And here is where American War will have you levered, trapped, read through, satisfied and staring around you. Why have we not done this yet? Why are we so lucky?
My luck in this regard begins and ends with being able to talk to Omar El Akkad about his book and the reportage behind it. American War is not the first SF novel to be informed by a writer’s experience as a reporter, but it was a privilege and fascinating insight to hear just how El Akkad’s non-fiction work shows up in the funhouse mirror of his novel. Here’s a link to our lightning round conversation, or you can just listen below.
And here’s our complete conversation. Don’t worry, there is a future, at least so long as you have not followed the link to download the file or listened below. After that, anything and everything goes!