If I’d read American War two years ago, I probably would have thought, “well, that was a terrifying but, thankfully, fantastical and needlessly pessimistic vision of the future.” Then I would have thought about rainbows and cupcakes and those other kinds of things we could afford to occupy ourselves with in 2015.
Reading American War in the current political climate (as well as the more literal one) is, however, a completely different experience. In 2017, as hurricanes ravage the USA, the Arctic melts and global society seems to be becoming ever more divided, Omar El Akkad’s vision of the future actually begins to look horrifyingly likely.
In 2074, civil war rages in the USA, with Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia having seceded from the rest of the nation over a government order to end the use of fossil fuels. South Carolina is a walled-off, almost-zombie-like state. Florida is underwater. Mexico has annexed much of the western half of the USA. Sarat is only 6 when war breaks out, but soon finds herself at the centre of the action, when her father is killed and the remaining members of the family are forced into a refugee camp, where their fate is sealed as Sarat is radicalised in the fight against the north.
I sometimes wonder what it says about me that so many of my favourite books (The Handmaid’s Tale, Borne and Station Eleven, to name three) tell of destroyed nations and apocalyptic futures. At times when I immerse myself too deeply in real-life events, particularly in recent weeks when North Korea has been dominating the news cycles, I become really quite anxious, keeping myself awake worrying about what the future holds. Previously, I perhaps would have been able to dismiss American War as unrealistic, but it seems frankly ridiculous to do so now. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, with an astonishing level of detail in its depiction of how the world came to this imagined point, but it’s a truly terrifying vision if you allow yourself to believe in its plausibility.
Sometimes in books that cover imagined political events, I find that the background isn’t explained in enough detail, with writers perhaps fearing boring the reader with too much dry detail. In American War, Omar El Akkad offers a masterclass in how to do this in a comprehensive but completely compelling way. The details offered a believable, with everything backed up and linked so coherently it’s actually frightening. Characters aren’t lost or neglected in all this political depth and action, however, with Sarat and her family forming a compelling centre to the plot.
I can’t recommend American War enough; it’s a thrilling and audacious read, entirely compelling and never dry or hard work despite its serious and often horrendous subject matter. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and will stay with me for a long time.