Corvus | 2017 (2 November) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book
One hundred years or so from now, the world is suffering the effects of climate change and insular politics. After years of observing crises in other countries, to whom their borders are closed, it’s now the turn of America to suffer. The East coast is bombarded by devastating superstorms while the South and Southwest have been reduced to dustbowls. A mass migration north by so-called dusties and barreduras is underway and the north is hardly opening its arms in welcome. There is no bigger subject for debate in American politics and one man is grabbing the headlines – Senator Steve Slaymaker. The other parties scramble but Slaymaker’s grandiose schemes for resettlement provide the perfect ammunition for his campaign for the White House. And by his side is PR supremo Holly, a woman with principles. How far is she prepared to go to compromise them?
America City presents a realistic and really rather horrifying portrait of the near future – one that can be envisioned very easily from the state of things we face today. We’re told that America has endured several wars over the decades since the Tyranny. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that was all about. But, although the focus is on America, we’re given glimpses of elsewhere and they’re just as terrifying. The coast of Britain we learn is guarded by cannon. America is relatively prosperous and isolationist. Its neighbours tremble.
This is science fiction, despite its message, and it is full of very enjoyable futuristic technology – for instance, cars that drive themselves, dirigibles (drigs), and an elaborate ‘internet’ that is transmitted through one’s crystal (perfect for political pollsters). But there have also been big social changes. America has a new class system and its ruling classes are the elite delicados and nobody embodies this more than Holly and her writer-husband, Rick. Delicados are privileged. They don’t have to make the sacrifices that they preach and they can afford to be tolerant and generous. The poor and the homeless can’t. Senator Slaymaker has the valuable ability to straddle these classes. But how much of it is manufactured by Holly?
America City is a beautifully-written novel, as you’d expect from Chris Beckett, the author of that most eloquent and gorgeous novel Dark Eden. Its language is creative, visual and still light. As demonstrated so cleverly in Dark Eden and its successors, Beckett is a master of language and this is put to good use again here. Language and what people say, as opposed to what they mean, is a strong theme in America City. It’s almost a game. But not for the homeless and the landless.
The novel squeezes its focus for much of the time to a small group of people, representing each of the classes that Slaymaker and Holly must aim to persuade. We move between them. But the heart of the novel lies with Holly and Richard and their small group of friends. It’s as if Holly’s internal debate has been externalised. The extraordinary and charismatic figure of Slaymaker shadows over them all.
America City presents such an engrossing portrait of America’s potential future environmental challenges and political debate. There is an element of preaching going on here and, as one of the converted, there was a risk of it going on too much but this is largely prevented by the novel’s clever mix of quiet personal drama and national catastrophe. It’s all so real and so possible. I did find it a little depressing. I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t. But I also found it extremely difficult to put it down and I was hooked by the quality of its language. Above all else, this is a terrifying depiction of a future that may be inevitable if we carry on as we are. It’s not overly dramatic and that’s what makes it all the more frightening – it happens piece by piece until the disasters become another part of life while many of the world’s animal and plant species disappear one by one.
America City certainly made me think – and worry – but it also reminded me what a superb writer Chris Beckett is and how imaginative is his use of language, how vivid his vision.