Boom Times for the New Dystopians
By ALEXANDRA ALTERMARCH 30, 2017
Omar El Akkad said he drew on what he had seen as a war correspondent to describe the societal collapse he imagines in “American War.” Credit Leah Nash for The New York Times
When Omar El Akkad was writing his debut novel, “American War,” about a futuristic not-so-United States that has been devastated by civil war, drone killings, suicide bombings and the ravages of climate change, he didn’t have to invent much. The ruined landscape and societal collapse he envisioned was based partly on scenes he had witnessed as a war correspondent in Afghanistan.
“I never intended to write a book about the future,” he said, still sounding somewhat perplexed. “I think of it as a recasting of history.”
But a strange thing happened after Mr. El Akkad finished the novel. The calamities he described began to seem more like grim prophecy than science fiction. The widening ideological gulf between red and blue America, which has only deepened after the presidential election, has applied an unintended patina of urgency and timeliness to his story.
“You don’t like to imagine the endpoint of extreme partisanship, but that’s exactly what Omar’s done in this book,” said Emily St. John Mandel, author of the postapocalyptic novel “Station Eleven.”
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“American War” is one of several new dystopian novels that seem to channel the country’s current anxieties, with cataclysmic story lines about global warming, economic inequality, political polarization and the end of democracy. If there’s a thematic thread connecting this crop of doomsday books, it could be crudely summarized as, “Things may seem bad, but they might become much, much worse.”
Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times
In Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel “The Book of Joan,” the planet in 2049 has been destroyed by war and climate change, and the wealthy have retreated skyward to a ramshackle suborbital complex controlled by a celebrity-billionaire-turned-dictator who continues to suck resources from Earth. “I built a world that is only a small distance from our present tense,” Ms. Yuknavitch said in an email. “One in which our current aims have simply played out to their logical conclusions: endless war, environmental degradation, the exploitation of Earth as a resource, the brutal stratification of humanity.”
Similar catastrophic events propel Zachary Mason’s “Void Star,” a mind-bending novel in which rising seas have rendered large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, and impoverished masses huddle in favelas in San Francisco and Los Angeles, while the rich have private armies and armored self-driving cars and undergo life-extending medical treatments. Mr. Mason, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, envisioned a world where the boundaries between machines and people have grown increasingly porous, and a powerful, godlike A.I. hacks into people’s minds.
The future is even bleaker in Michael Tolkin’s “NK3,” which takes place in Los Angeles, after a weaponized microbe developed by North Korean scientists has swept the globe, destroying people’s memories and identities. The writer Chris Kraus called the novel “brilliant and barely speculative” and labeled it “the first book of the Trump era.”
(For readers longing for a sliver of utopia, slightly less alarming visions of the future can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” in which the city is partly submerged by rising oceans but remains vibrant; and Cory Doctorow’s darkly funny “Walkaway,” a forthcoming novel about an idealistic man’s search for purpose in a country that has been leveled by extreme weather, economic disparity and the collapse of civil society.)
Dystopian and postapocalyptic fiction has been a staple on the best-seller lists for years. Young-adult series like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” have sold tens of millions of copies and spawned blockbuster film franchises, and prominent literary writers like Cormac McCarthy and David Mitchell have experimented with end-of-the-world scenarios in their novels. But the current obsession with the collapse of civilization seems less like a diverting cultural trend and more like a collective panic attack.
As pundits and historians fret about the erosion of American democracy and the creep of totalitarianism, readers are flocking to dystopian classics like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.” Not long after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, sales for George Orwell’s “1984” surged, spurred by controversy over Kellyanne Conway’s use of the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts.”
“People are finding comfort in dystopian books, or maybe more accurately, they’re finding answers in them,” said Matt Keliher, the manager of Subtext Books in St. Paul, who said “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are among the store’s top-selling titles.
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Mr. Keliher has become a fervent evangelist for “American War,” which he predicts will be one of the spring’s most widely discussed novels. Critics have heaped praise on Mr. El Akkad’s debut; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called “American War” “a disturbing parable” and compared it to works by Philip Roth and Mr. McCarthy.
“When you’re reading it, it’s pretty difficult not to project yourself 70 years into the future and imagine that this has happened,” Mr. Keliher said.
Mr. El Akkad — who is soft-spoken and self-deprecating, and repeatedly apologized during an interview for talking too much — said he was wary of being lauded as a prophet.
“I would love to say I envisioned what would happen, but I never intended to write a timely book,” he said.
Born in Cairo and raised in Qatar, Mr. El Akkad, 35, moved to Canada as a teenager and studied computer science at Queen’s University. After graduating, he became a reporter for The Globe and Mail, where he covered a foiled terrorist plot in Toronto, the war in Afghanistan and the popular uprisings in Egypt.
When he started writing the novel three years ago, Mr. El Akkad wanted to bring the horrors of sectarian warfare home for American readers, and to show that the desire for revenge is universal. To research “American War,” he traveled to Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, and read about the Civil War. He also drew heavily on his experience as a war correspondent. A passage about a volunteer distributing polio vaccinations in a refugee camp was based on an encounter he witnessed in Afghanistan, while a gruesome torture sequence came from his research on the American military’s treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. “I don’t think there’s much in this book that hasn’t happened; it just happened far away,” he said.
“American War” takes place in the southern United States toward the end of the 21st century, after a civil war has broken out over fossil fuel use. The novel’s protagonist, a girl named Sarat, has fled with her family to a refugee camp near the Tennessee border. There, she is recruited and radicalized by a rebel leader with ties to a Middle Eastern empire that has emerged as a global superpower as the United States collapses into chaos.
Though the premise seemed obviously speculative when Mr. El Akkad first dreamed up the plot — what if a foreign power meddled in American politics, driving a deeper wedge into partisan fissures? — it feels almost too close now.
Mr. El Akkad wonders if readers will be drawn in by the novel’s inadvertent timeliness, or repelled by its unsettling proximity to reality.
“I can totally see fatigue setting in,” Mr. El Akkad said. “This is a disturbing image of a future that might be nearer than we think.”