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If America becomes a dystopian hellscape, it might look like this

A haunting new novel lays out a nightmarish vision of America’s future.

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It’s 2075 and America is sunk deep in its second civil war.

Everything has gone to hell. Coastal cities have disappeared under a rising sea; a weaponized plague has killed almost a third of the population; fossil fuels (after it’s too late to matter) have been outlawed, leading to the secession of several Southern states; huge chunks of the Southwest have been annexed by Mexico; an American president has been assassinated by a secessionist suicide bomber; US citizens are targeted in drone attacks; and America is no longer a global hegemon, having been supplanted by rising empires in China and the Middle East.

This is the world mapped out in the haunting new novel American War. The author, Omar El Akkad, was raised in Cairo and grew up in Qatar, later relocating to Canada. A journalist for 10 years, Akkad covered the war on terror for the Globe and Mail, where he earned a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot.

Akkad’s reporting background influences the novel in interesting ways. The granular details of torture and detention camps are clearly informed by real-world examples. Scenes of tent cities, terrorist blasts, and rebel militias are also presented with ground-level clarity.

The novel, though, is less about war and more about the people caught up in it. The story orbits around a young girl, Sarat Chestnut, who falls gradually into extremism. Her arc is a familiar one — from curious, naive onlooker to aggrieved revolutionary — but the morality of it all is muddled, and intentionally so.

In this interview, I talk to Akkad about the book and what he hoped to say in it. I ask him about the cyclical nature of violence and revenge, if his book should be read as prophecy, and if he’s optimistic about our political future.


Sean Illing

Let’s talk about the political fault lines in the novel’s imagined future. Race, interestingly, isn’t really a part of this story, but it does feel like a logical extension of the red-blue tribalism we’re seeing now. As someone who thinks a lot about the bondage of ideology, I found this dimension of the book most interesting.

Omar El Akkad

I started drawing the fault lines not so much based on the individual states that make up the Southern state in the book or the sort of plausibility that it would be those states that seceded. I was much more interested in the shackling and radicalizing potential of tradition and culture and the past.

In a sense, this war takes place even though the sort of presumptive cause of the war is becoming less and less of an issue as the world moves on, but there is this element of, “Well this is how we've always done it and so that must be the only and right way to do it.” So that was the thinking behind creating these fault lines.

I certainly never intended to write a book that was an attempt at prophecy or that was an attempt at sketching out what a plausible second civil war would look like. I didn't even really intend to write a book about America.

Sean Illing

If it’s not an attempt at political prophecy, what is it? Dystopian novels like this are almost always a warning of sorts, so what are you warning about here?

Omar El Akkad

I think with most dystopian novels that I've read, and certainly all of them are far better than anything I've ever written, it's an extrapolation. You take present-day folly and you take present-day wrongheadedness, which is so often tied to extremism of one sort or another, and you filter it through a sort of deliberately grotesque lens.

I get asked a lot whether I think anything in the book could actually happen, and my answer is always no. That's not the intention. The intention is to take a sort of darkening middle of the road that we're on and say, “This is what the endpoint of this road could look like.”

Sean Illing

But that is a warning, no? The book is set in the future, but it’s very much an indictment of the present, of the road we’re headed down.

Omar El Akkad

I certainly never intended to write a book about the future. The reason the book is set in the future is simply because I needed time for the fictional world to sort of marinate. I needed time for the sea levels to rise 60 meters or whatever ridiculous amount that I dreamed up to bury the coasts. I needed time for the Bouazizi Empire, which is sort of the rising empire in the book, to take form. That was the only reason to sort of set it in the future, but I certainly never set out to write science fiction or anything like that.

All I really did was take the conflicts that have defined the world in my lifetime and I dressed them up in different clothes. In terms of whether this is an indictment or not, certainly that's up to the reader to decide, but my sense has always been that this is not a book about things that didn't happen.

Everything in this book has happened. It just happened somewhere far away.

Sean Illing

What are the conflicts that have defined the world in your mind?

Omar El Akkad

Everything from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the NATO-led war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq and to the issues that flow from the related military tribunals and the detention camps and the torture sites. I was also thinking of America’s involvement in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s, which forms the basis of how the Bouazizi Empire is acting as a saboteur in the second American civil war. Basically, all the recent conflicts that have sort of marked the world. I've been alive for 35 years, and these are the wars that have shaped the world during my lifetime.

Sean Illing

As far as I can tell, there are no good guys or bad guys in this story. Is that moral ambiguity the point, or am I mistaken in seeing it this way?

Omar El Akkad

I hope you're not wrong, because that was sort of one of the foundational principles I had set for myself when I started writing. I didn't want it to be possible for any reader to pledge allegiance to any one side or any one character in this book without assuming some level of moral debt. My interest was not in creating an easy way out.

By the end of this book, I don't want readers to sympathize with Sarat, the protagonist. I don't want them to apologize for her. I don't even want them to like her. The only thing I'm interested in is that they understand how she became what she becomes. So no, there was never going to be a clear-cut good guy, bad guy situation or even a character who does bad things but has a heart of gold.

I wanted to show the transition from good to evil as clearly as possible.

Sean Illing

You wanted to show how a terrorist becomes a terrorist, in other words?

Omar El Akkad

Absolutely.

Sean Illing

Sarat’s narrative arc is pretty striking. I understand how she came to do what she did, but I didn't feel any sympathy toward her. Maybe more importantly, she appears indifferent to her own fate by the end.

Omar El Akkad

Going into the story, the scene at the beginning of chapter one is the only scene that sort of showed up to me as a starting image. But I knew going in what the end was as well. For a while, I considered the idea of taming down the end a little bit because, again, it's about this idea of passing things through a grotesque lens. The final act of the book in terms of what Sarat Chestnut does is sort of cartoonishly grotesque.

Every now and then, one of my friends will mention a review and say, hey, they spoiled the ending, and I don't care at all. The actual mechanics of the ending were never that important. What was important was that it couldn't be this satisfying conclusion wherein the sun shines at the end. I don't think that was ever really going to happen. It was never going to be American peace.

Author Omar El Akkad.
Michael Lionstar

Sean Illing

Something that resonated with me was this emphasis on the cyclical nature of violence and revenge. You reach a point at which the initial reasons for the dispute are basically forgotten and everyone is just sort of mired in this feedback loop of punishment and retaliation. You’re fighting today because you fought yesterday, and because blood has already been spilled. This is a timeless and universal story, not necessarily a modern or American one.

Omar El Akkad

It’s a great point. It’s impossible to grow up in the Middle East, as I did, and not be struck by that as a sort of defining nature of all conflict. It's the idea of this back and forth of cruelty that runs to some kind of often mythological starting point that becomes so irrelevant over time that all you really get to know is just two groups of people just endlessly involved in this back and forth of violence. It was one of the defining characteristics of growing up in the Middle East, just this idea that we hate them because they hate us because we hate them.

Sean Illing

A book’s meaning is out of an author’s hands once it is released, but how do you hope people will read this story?

Omar El Akkad

I would hope that people read it as an antiwar novel. I would hope people read it as a nuanced picture of the space between “us” and “them,” which has largely been demolished in popular ideology over the last 16 years, and as a defense of the idea that you can understand why somebody does something without necessarily sympathizing with them or taking their side.

Sean Illing

This is not an optimistic book — it’s almost too real for that. But are you optimistic at all about the future?

Omar El Akkad

I think that if you belong to the unprivileged side of any one of a number of dividing lines in this country and this world, race, class, gender, religion, if you belong to the unprivileged side of any one of those lines, optimism is a matter of necessity. It's a matter of survival. Because to abandon optimism is to then concede to the notion that there exists some very, very privileged power structures that would just rather you not be around.

So yes, it's a depressing book. I don't think that people are going to read it and feel better about any aspect of the world that I've discussed in there. I think it's compatible with still being optimistic, though.

One can see the world as it is and still be optimistic about what it could be.

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