2017 seems to be the year of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is on our screens and 1984 has rocketed back to the top of the bestseller list. But there are still plenty of authors looking for new ways to look at the present by considering a possible darker, grimmer future. Omar El Akkad’s American War follows the main events of the second American Civil War which takes place between 2075 and 2095 and is then followed by something much worse.
American War opens in 2075. America has been ravaged by climate change and extreme laws relating to the use of fossil fuels have prompted four southern states – Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to secede from the union. South Carolina is devastated by a biological plague and walled off leaving the other three states (the MAG) to fight. Sara T Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat, and her twin sister are six when the war starts. They live outside of the MAG but when their father dies in a terrorist attack, the family ends up in a refugee camp in the MAG. The story follows the progress of the war and in particular Sarat’s radicalisation.
The key to the success of American War is El Akkad’s tight focus. While Sarat is a driver of some events she is also a small cog in a much larger machine. El Akkad manages to give the feel for that larger world without losing his focus on Sarat and her family. He does this in a number of ways, one is by putting Sarat in the middle of key events. The other is through the historical documents excerpted between chapters.
American War is ostensibly set sixty years in the future but there is little science fiction element. Technology hardly seems to have advanced and in some cases, seems to have gone backwards. El Akkad is more interested in the parallels with current conflicts and exploring how America might turn out given similar pressures and circumstances. To that end, American War is replete with current issue: drones, refugee camps, torture centres, radicalisation of disaffected youth, even the interference of a distant Empire (in this case the North African Bouazini Empire) playing both sides in a way that ensures that the conflict continues to weaken the former United States.
For this reason, American War works much better as a metaphor than taken as a face value narrative. It uses familiar locations and personalities to develop a deep and critical view of any country riven by internal dissent to the point of civil war. That said, merely by setting the action in a divided America, El Akkad provides an opportunity to think about and reconsider current global conflicts. And for that reason alone it is worth reading.