Fiction Reviews

America City

(2017) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £8.99, pbk, 357pp, ISBN 978-1-786-49154-1


Timely and relevant, America City is set a hundred years in the future when the climate change debate has moved on and the consequences of our (in)actions are becoming increasingly apparent. America is suffering as the Deep South turns into a dust bowl and the East Coast is battered by a series of increasingly ferocious hurricanes that devastate coastal cities. Mass migrations from south to north are putting heavy pressure on the northern states and straining the patience of politicians and populations.

The key characters are Holly Peacock, a British left-leaning publicist who is persuaded to work for right-wing Presidential hopeful Senator Slaymaker. It is an odd fit that puts a strain on Holly’s marriage and friendships as she embraces what is, to them, the unthinkable. But Slaymaker is a bold politician with a vision to which she can align.

America City’s politics have not really moved on from today’s, which is both depressing and credible.  In this book, the consequences of climate change are plain to see but the causes are still being debated and the victims are blamed for their own misfortune. In the eyes of Northerners, the southern refugees are treated as though they were Mexicans (dying behind an impenetrable wall), as ‘not really Americans’. They are portrayed as whining ingrates whose lack of foresightedness is hitting the pockets – and the patience – of hard-working true Americans.  ‘Montana is full – YOUR lack of planning is not my problem,’ reads a sign confronting hurricane refugees as they try to reach safer ground, before being turned back by armed militia.  Whatever aid is available is grudging and inadequate, with people corralled in vast under-resourced trailer parks and left, effectively, to rot.

Slaymaker turns this narrative round by suggesting the refugees are embraced by the North in new cities.  It’s an idea which fails to get much traction until Holly betrays her friends and her principles by advocating the Canada solution, and in the politics of blame, the crafty Canucks, with their sparsely populated paradise, become the new enemy. Go north, is the election-winning logic.  Far north.

The protagonists are well aware of the hypocrisy of this: Mexicans are unwelcome beggars but Canadians are selfish and arrogant.  History is rewritten in the public eye until the US takes what its people perceive as rightfully theirs.  Holly and Slaymaker both know that it won’t end there though.  What happens when global warming creeps even further north and they run out of land to annex?

This is an interesting consideration of what might happen when America has to start to take global warming seriously.  There’s some talk about building ‘Christmas trees’ to suck CO² out of the atmosphere, but there’s no serious consideration of measures to reverse climate damage – the debate is about dealing with the consequences.  Instead, American turns on itself and then its friends and leave the unthinkable for future generations to contemplate.

By pitting (loosely) democrat Holly and (loosely) republican Slaymaker together, the book enables a debate about the best course of action when faced with climate issues.  It is clever setting the novel a century in the future – not only can we see what might happen given current policies but we can stretch our thinking to the next stages of climate change.  Three degrees by the end of this century by some predictions – how many more next century, and with what consequences?

Beckett’s characters are engaging, despite their roles as playmakers for the debate, and although this is an issues-book, the plot drives it forward well. Chris Beckett won the Arthur C Clarke award for previous novel Dark Eden, and America City is every bit as compelling. It doesn’t preach, but it certainly makes you think.

Mark Bilsborough

See Ian's take on America City.

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