Modern America is a dystopian society

American dystopia

In “American War” the Canadian journalist Omar El Akkad succeeds in creating a fascinating parable about the contemporary United States of America

From Sascha Seiler

Discussed books / references

The genre of dystopia has been booming in recent years. This can primarily be explained by an increasing fear of the future in view of the dwindling political stability in the world in the eyes of many people. Apocalyptic scenarios are no longer just at home in blockbuster films, but have found their way into literature. Eva Horn's successful study Future as a disaster examines these dystopian visions, but above all the justification for pessimistic visions of the future that is always located in the present.

The inspiration for America at the end of the 21st century, which Omar El Akkad in his debut novel American War describes is obvious and could lead potential readers on the wrong track. Are we dealing here with an apocalyptic thriller, the focus of which is suspense-laden entertainment and which at the same time conveys a subtle, socially critical message? El Akkad tells of a future America in which a second civil war is raging. The parties - the blue from the north and the red from the south - are easy to recognize as the two political parties of the present, among which no common denominator can be found even today, especially after the election of Donald Trump. The Reds, that is, the former Republicans, were already on the loser's road before the war; they have to be withdrawn, basically already ghettoized, in a manageable area, while all important political decisions are made in the north. This leads to an uprising and ultimately to civil war, the emergence of fragmented rebel groups, none of which knows what the other is fighting for, to a gigantic wave of refugees, reception camps in the neutral zone and foreign interest groups - especially the rich and thoroughly democratized Arabs Countries - who want to exploit the impoverished, torn country for their own ends.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it's no wonder, of course. The war correspondent El Akkad simply transfers his observations, including in Syria, which we have all known from news for years, and transfers them 1: 1 to the USA. At first glance, this is a very striking and easy-to-understand procedure; it is supposed to shake up the reader and show him with the help of a dystopian fiction: 'Look, that can happen to you in this country as well!' American War two narratives lying in the present together; a simple but highly efficient idea: on the one hand, there is the situation in the Syrian civil war, which is projected onto a future America. On the other hand, we see the current situation in the USA, the ever-advancing division of the country into a liberal, enlightened urban society and a conservative, xenophobic rural society. El Akkad shows how politicians from both camps have helped to turn the USA into a shattered, autocratic civil war country, whose survival can only be traced back to the goodwill of the rich, democratically governed states of the Middle East. Of course, and this is one of the surprising twists and turns in the novel, which we will not go into here, that 'good will' is also based on geopolitical power considerations and the decline of the USA was not entirely accidental.

What makes the novel very interesting from a compositional point of view is that already on the first pages, narrated from a present within Diegesis, the political events of the years 2075 to 2123 are summarized; only then does the novel begin, in the year 2075, and with it the story of the little girl Sarat Chesnut, whom we will accompany through her life from now on. It is a life as a refugee, driven from her idyllic home on the Mississippi, raised in a refugee camp, exploited by competing powers and made a terrorist. Without her own knowledge, Sarat becomes the plaything of the various civil war parties and yet always tries to preserve her dignity and to do the right thing (which, according to the dramatic course of history, should always turn out to be exactly the wrong thing). Sometimes the novel has gotten a bit too sentimental as a result, and enough good people keep appearing not to leave the reader in too much despair despite the desolate future that is described here. American War is, despite the devastating plot, not a hard, uncompromising novel; he is aiming too much at a large readership for that. On the other hand, it is more of an epic than a thriller - as such it is advertised here and there - and El Akkad actually manages to master the difficult balancing act between claim and entertainment without revealing one or the other.

If it didn't sound so clichéd, one would really have to say: A novel about our time.

A contribution from the comparative literature department of the University of Mainz