Novel: American War by Omar El Akkad

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 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, it’s 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 suspect, but it makes up for it with great storytelling and empathetic political insight.

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