Novel: American War by Omar El Akkad

December 3, 2020

Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017) lurked on my to-read shelf for years, but with the political climate roiling so punishingly since its release, I couldn’t work up the nerve to approach it. I finally have, though, and I quite enjoyed it, if more for its storytelling and skillfully rendered theme than its science fictional rigor.

American War takes place in the late twenty-first century during a Second Civil War that takes place between between the U.S. and the “Free Southern State,” a territory of secessionist states spanning from eastern Texas to South Carolina. Sarat Chestnut lives an austere life with her family — mother Martina, father Benjamin, sister Dana, and brother Simon — in a shipping-canister home on the Florida Sea. Sarat is a tomboy and a bit peculiar, but she’s happy as a child — until the ravages of war take her father’s life and force the family to flee. They wind up in a bleak resettlement camp, where the privations and dangers of their war-torn reality take a damaging physical and emotional toll, ultimately leading Sarat into direct, explosive participation in the conflict that has long defined her existence.

El Akkad is a journalist, and he chronicles Sarat’s harrowing journey with clear, well clocked prose that is interspersed with epistolary sections situating her story in its (future) historical context. Overall, it’s a bracing and powerful read. As a work of science fiction, though, I found American War a little uneven in its world-building; its depiction of devastating climate change is far more convincing, for example, than the broader logistics of its future war. Indeed, the backdrop is disappointingly retro-futuristic; technologically, there is very little to differentiate its 2075 from our 2020. That said, the narrative crackles along briskly, in well rendered scenes that serve as an illuminating chronicle of an innocent person’s radicalization by trauma. El Akkad’s messaging strategy is clever and effective; he’s repurposing a realistic terrorist origin story by inverting the global order to put its harsh truths a new light. It skiffy street cred may be a little suspect, but it makes up for it with great storytelling and empathetic political insight.