Cover of book: American War

Omar El Akkad
American War

Omar El Akkad is an Oregon-based award-winning journalist who has covered the war in Afghanistan and the military trials at Guantanamo Bay. His debut novel, American War, is science fiction, but its plot is ably informed by El Akkad’s understanding of how conflicts really happen. The narrative begins with a prologue – an overused device in contemporary novels – providing the first glimpse of the futuristic setting. The first-person narrator, displaced like so many because of the ravages of climate change, is an American living in the now temperate “New Anchorage”. He is also a scholar of a Second American Civil War, dramatically ended by a “Reunification Plague”. He collects old postcards, which he stores in an oil drum, as a “visual reminder of America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious”. 

The reference to the oil drum is significant, as the civil war is triggered by a national ban on fossil fuels and the subsequent secession of the southern states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas (“prior to the Mexican annexation”) – whose economies were dependent on oil. The reassertion of the divisions of the actual American Civil War – a “Blue” North of ruling elites and a “Red” South of libertarians/liberals – is interesting, exploring the continuing existence of the kinds of national fault lines witnessed in Trump’s election. 

After beginning in first person, the narrative switches to third person and tracks the story of a young Louisiana woman named Sarat Chestnut, who lives in poverty in a shipping container in a swamp and whose family are killed or maimed by the northern military, their drones and rogue southern militia (supported by China and the Middle East). Sarat is relocated to a refugee camp and radicalised. The author’s insights into such camps, where journalists, aid organisations, international agents and radicalists all pursue their own agendas, are fascinating.

The story shows ambition, interspersing extracts from various invented archives with the story of Sarat’s radicalisation. Less impressive, however, is Sarat’s characterisation. A shorn-headed giantess, she ultimately comes across as a Hollywood Rambo-esque invention  in her extraordinary heroics.

Nevertheless, El Akkad offers another demonstration of how, confronted with urgent questions about our future, science fiction is increasingly the genre to watch.  KN

Picador, 333pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Omar El Akkad, American War".

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Reviewer: KN

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