America City by Chris Beckett
We seem to be awash in politics these days. The hangover from 2016 seems never ending. And yet, the way the technology we have considered to “enhance” our lives, connect us, be a benign tool, we now see is anything but. These tools are used to tell us the world isn’t warming, that eating [insert food group here] will kill us/the planet/our friends etc. It is all a tad much really. So picking up Chris Beckett’s latest novel and reading the blurb, about a publicist joining the team of a determined US Senator to reconfigure America in response to massive migration caused by climate change, could lead you to not turning to page 1. But this is a Chris Beckett novel and this is his first post-Eden book. There is far more to it all than that.
America City is set in a very relatable future. Post massive political upheavals, the technology we live with every day has literally become a part of us. With AI’s feeding us the content we want and our crystals and jeenees at our beck and call. But all's not well. The climate has been damaged to the point that the American south is desertifying at an accelerated rate, the east coast is battered by super storms and the west without water. In the northern states, things are much as they were, but the mass migration north, from behind their own southern border fortifications is fracturing the country. Holly Peacock is an English ex-pat living in Seattle with her husband Richard when her boss at the PR company where she works call. Holly is asked to work with Senator Slaymaker on his ambitious plan to rehouse millions of displaced Americans in Northern states. Slaymaker is a divisive politician. A self made man who built up his own haulage company and campaigned hard against automation and environmental taxes. Yet looking at his America, he now sees it on the brink and is determined to save it. With Holly on board his team, they set about using all the tools at her disposal to build support for the resettlement plan. AI’s creating chatter, real and fake news spun and the continuous manipulation of the conversation to achieve their goal. When things take an unexpected turn, they look north, to Canada and the Senator looks east, to The White House.
One of the most remarkable things Beckett does with his tales is build a world so convincing, and with so little exposition, that you accept it almost from the off. In his Eden Trilogy, his world without a sun and a devolved language leapt off the page with an ease managed by so very few. With America City, the crisis at hand is developed by switching from the players of the game to the pieces. Beckett gives you numerous first hand accounts of the problems facing Americans, and the events that force them to leave their homes. The way we see how their prejudices are turned upon themselves is insightful and sensitively done. Their fear of the other, the foreigner trying to get into their America to take what is their’s, goes full circle and they are now the ones in need and their fellow Americans turn on them. How this fear is then picked up by Holly and the rest of Slaymaker’s team, and used to their advantage, is elegantly crafted and executed by Beckett.
This novel could have easily been a retread of the events of the last year. But the events faced by the characters are given an impressive layer of nuance. The political situation abroad and its history are referenced; wars fought, some won, some lost, over resources such as copper. The same arguments are still fought over. What Beckett does so well in his novels is the way he looks at the cause and effects of the decisions we make. In America City, the rabbit hole-like path that Holly takes has wide reaching effects, and not just to her neo-liberal friends and husband. Once these pebbles are cast into the AI water, Beckett returns to his characters on the ground to see how the ripples affect them.
We think we know who we would side with should we find ourselves in that world. While we would believe/hope we were a “delicado” with a comforting life view (and safe living in the north), more relatable is our identify with the displaced. As a Canadian, the novel made for difficult reading, as the steps Slaymaker takes are only too real and people too willing to listen to any relative hope given.
As wonderful as the Eden Trilogy is, America City is a much more ambitious book. To look at such a relevant subject (the manipulation of the electorate for the gain of the few) and cast it in our very real, possible future is very bold. Then to have the confidence to change perspective numerous times to see how the bombarding of targeted information can change perception, is impressive. His cast are not the easiest to get close too, but we know them from our world, from our news, our Twitter feed. America City is wonderful speculative fiction. To steal from a far, far, far better writer than I, Neil Gaiman said in his introduction to the 60th Anniversary Edition of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, “What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present.”
With America City, Chris Beckett is reminding us to act now before we lose our way. Point of order, our way out is not Canada.
America City by Chris Beckett is out now and published by Corvus. This review copy was kindly provided by the publisher.