Book reviews / Science Fiction / Top picks

Book review: American War

American War is Omar El Akkad’s first (first!) novel and about 50% through reading it, I wasn’t sure if my heart would be able to take anymore. But the characters and the story were just too compelling that I got pulled back every time I tried to put it down. I finally blitzed the last 40% or so this evening, despite knowing how horrible the ending had to be.

So American War you say, what’s it about? In the future, there’s been a second American Civil War – however this one lasts a lot longer from 2074 to 2095. Though there are some preceding events, part of the reason the war starts is Southern resistance to the Sustainable Future Act – which banned fossil fuels.

american war

Though the narrative includes historical extracts and reports, the main narrative follows the story of one family – the Chestnuts. One family member in particular, Sarat, who so named herself by adopting the conflation of her name Sara and her middle initial T. They came from a ‘purple’ state – basically in between the Blue and Red warring states (North and South, just like the first civil war) but war comes for them anyway.

But this is a very different world, climate change has changed the landscape and there are larger international forces at play, such as a large empire in the former Persian states and beyond.  But we follow Sarat and essentially her radicalisation into being a cunning and fearsome rebel fighter in the South.

After you’ve picked up your fractured heart off the floor and smooshed it back together, you realise just how brilliant this novel is. It’s simple enough to say its a commentary on America’s attitudes and actions towards…well…many things…but certainly war and climate change. Certainly American exceptionalism and their entire history and hundreds of years of rhetoric and mythmaking. But taking Southern pride as the way to thread the narrative together makes it entirely recognisable – and thus far more terrifying and heartbreaking. I think the horror I started to feel was because there was enough in the novel to make it feel close enough to a future reality, rather than a far distant science fiction future.

The complete inversion of the current world order, where the US now has ‘homicide bombers’ and depends on foreign aid (or at least the South does) is all too real given the political climate of the last two decades. Even the use of Red Crescent instead of Red Cross is such a subtle but appropriate piece of world building. There’s so much more I could mention but it would ruin the sense of unease you get reading the novel – which I think is an important element of how all the events unfold.

But it works, the reason is because of the characters are engaging and realistic – Sarat especially. But her sister Dana, their parents, their brother. The other Southerners that appear throughout, different characters being pulled back into the current from earlier chapters to tie a thread through the whole history. They all feel real. Their motivations are recognisable even though I can’t personally understand them – just like I can’t understand  the motivations of half of the voting population of the US last year. The story isn’t completely smooth, as there are some jumps forward in time but they don’t feel out of place, and it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative.

The other reason I love it is because of all the great women in the book. The three main women especially – Sarat, her sister Dana, and her mother Martina. There are other important men in the book, like the other Chestnut sibling Simon, and the recruiter Albert Gaines. But women are really front and centre in this book which I adore (and so it completely passes my sci-fi feminism test with flying colours).

But man, is it ever just a slow knife to the heart. You love Sarat, but you also want to stop her and you can’t. You can see the forces shaping her story and you hate it but it happens anyway. You can’t hate her, just like the narrator says at the beginning. She’s a wonderful, broken, human being and you wish that things had been different for her. But then that wouldn’t be this book.

I’m sure there will be many reviews that say how staggeringly brilliant this book is. They are all true. It’s such a punch to the gut. It’s unsettling in the way science fiction should be. It’s not even a cracked or distorted mirror of what the future could be. It’s a possible future. Or, like good science fiction, at least it feels like a possible future. I for one hope it’s one we don’t see.

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