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Dystopian Fiction -- American War by Omar El Akkad

The word "dystopia" is derived from the Ancient Greek -- "dis" meaning "bad" and "topia" meaning "place." In dystopian fiction, the author creates an unlikable society, usually including a totalitarian government that takes away civil liberties and creates very unpleasant living conditions, often due to a set of circumstances, such as population overcrowding or a cataclysmic weather event, that ushers in the authoritarian regime.  The novel's main character typically rejects the society in which he or she lives and attempts some sort of escape from it.

In 2017, dystopian fiction is all the rage.  Earlier this year, Wired Magazine reported that "bygone dystopian fiction is back in vogue" and The New York Times wrote that "several classic dystopian novels...seem to be resonating with readers at a moment of heightened anxiety about the state of American democracy." Articles discussing the rise in interest in dystopian novels generally focus on books written decades ago, such as George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (now a television series streaming on Hulu) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here.

And now here comes the 21st Century dystopian novel. American War by Omar El Akkad was published last month. El Akkad was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, and moved to Canada as an adult (he now lives in Oregon).  He worked for many years as a journalist for The Globe and Mail (which reviewed the book in glowing terms), reporting on the war in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring.  El Akkad's professional exposure to the war on terror carries over to his writing of American War, which is set in the last quarter of the 21st Century and the first quarter of the 22nd and describes a second American Civil War and the plague-filled decade which follows the war's end.  The geography of the country has been irreparably altered by climate change (Augusta, Georgia is now a major port, for example, and Columbus, Ohio is America's capital).  The war itself is fought via a series of drone strikes and insurrectionist attacks. Imagine 21st Century warfare informed by 19th Century passions and prejudices, and you'll have a good sense of what this civil war looks like.

Instead of writing about the war in broad, sweeping terms, El Akkad focuses on one Southern family, and particularly on a single member of that family, Sarah T. Chestnut, known as "Sarat."  This is Sarat when we first meet her:

The sun broke through a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea. The coastal waters were brown and still. The sea’s mouth opened wide over ruined marshland, and every year grew wider, the water picking away at the silt and sand and clay, until the old riverside plantations and plastics factories and marine railways became unstable. Before the buildings slid into the water for good, they were stripped of their usable parts by the delta’s last holdout residents. The water swallowed the land. To the southeast, the once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.
A little girl, six years old, sat on the porch of her family’s home under a clapboard awning. She held a plastic container of honey, which was made in the shape of a bear. From the top of its head golden liquid slid out onto the cheap pine floorboard.
The girl poured the honey into the wood’s deep knots and watched the serpentine manner in which the liquid took to the contours of its new surroundings. This is her earliest memory, the moment she begins.
And this is how, in those moments when the bitterness subsides, I choose to remember her. A child.
Over the course of the novel, Sarat evolves from a curious and intelligent young girl into a remorseless killer, fueled by anger and the need for revenge. The novel's power lies in the subtlety of how Sarat changes.  While we cannot forgive or condone Sarat's actions, we are keenly aware of the atrocities she endures.  In an interview with NPR, El Akkad says: "I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it...When you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side, you don't support her, you're not willing to apologize for her — but you understand how she got to the place where she is."

I do not usually read dystopian fiction, but I read American War several days ago and cannot stop thinking about it.  Part of the reason for that is the depth of the story itself, part is the urgency of the writing, and part is that it feels less like a dystopian novel to me and more like something that is not far away at all.  As El Akkad acknowledged in the NPR interview, "There's not much in here that's fully un-anchored from something that happened in the real world."  This is a novel that describes what it could look like if we used our arsenal and warfare tactics on ourselves.  I recognized the political machinations, the motivations, the emotions and the settings.  But even more than that, I recognized the people.  American War is more than a cautionary tale.  It is an extremely well done head's up.


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