A Terrorist Comes of Age in El Akkad’s Poignant–and Chilling–American War

Omar El Akkad

Set 50-plus years in the future, Omar El Akkad‘s debut novel American War (Knopf, 2017) has been widely praised, becoming one of those rare books with science fiction themes to make numerous mainstream publications’ Best Books of the Year lists. It was, for example, among the 100 Most Notable Books in The New York Times, the Best Books of 2017 in GQ, and was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s top pick for Canadian fiction.

I was thrilled that El Akkad accepted my invitation to appear on New Books in Science Fiction. (Listen to the interview). It’s a wonderful book–lyrical, imaginative, and, as a terrorist’s coming-of-age story, acutely relevant to today.

El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, grew up in Qatar, eventually moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. He has worked as a journalist, covering everything from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also spent two years covering the terrorism trials of the Toronto 18, which gave him insight into how young minds are radicalized and provided partial inspiration for his depiction of American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut.

We meet Sarat when she’s an appealing, headstrong six-year-old and follow her, via El Akkad’s nuanced writing, as she grows up in a refugee camp, sees her family destroyed, and is groomed to commit acts of terror. Ultimately, she plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the Second American Civil War, and yet, in a reflection of the true-to-life nature of El Akkad’s storytelling, her motives aren’t the black-and-white of Hollywood, but remain murky.

Despite the book’s title, El Akkad told me that he doesn’t feel he’s writing about America. “To me if was never a book about America but about the universality of revenge… That any of us subjected to the injustice of being on the losing end of war, being on the losing end of violence, break down the same way and become damaged the same way and become wrathful the same way. The book is set in an allegorical America.”

Meg Elison explores power and gender in Book of the Unnamed Midwife

I spoke with this year’s winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Meg Elison, for my 18th podcast on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was easy breezy to talk to, with smart quick answers that, in my humble opinion, made for a great interview. Of course, it helps that her book tackles all kinds of rich subjects: gender inequality (exacerbated by an epidemic that kills far more women than men), reproductive rights, and a need for meaningful emotional and intellectual stimulation in a world sorely lacking both. Below is what I wrote to introduce the podcast.


Despite the odds, Meg Elison did it.

First, she finished the book she wanted to write. Second, she found a publisher–without an agent. Third, she won the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, a stunning achievement for a first-time author with a small, independent press.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is set in the American West after an epidemic has killed all but a fraction of humanity. Among the survivors, men vastly outnumber women, setting in motion a desperate journey of survival for the eponymous midwife. To avoid the serial rape and enslavement that threatens all females in this male-dominated landscape, the midwife sheds her name and even her sexuality, presenting herself as a man and continuously changing her moniker to suit the circumstance.

Communication falls apart too quickly for anyone to even know the name or nature of the illness that’s destroyed civilization and made childbirth a fatal event for female survivors. The midwife’s focus is on giving the few women she meets the hard-won power to prevent pregnancy. “I think the thing I wanted to come across most strongly was to explode notions of gender… And to really think about what your options would be like if you, like your grandmother, had no control over when you had children or how or by whom,” Elison says in her New Books interview.

Elison was raised on stories about the apocalypse–the fire and brimstone kind. “I grew up in some pretty crazy evangelical churches, and they hammered on us about the end of days and the Book of Revelation, and it gave me nightmares, and it made always think about the fact that the end was nigh and that it was going to be bad, and I think that stuck with me my whole life even though I shed the ideological parts of it.”

For the midwife, the apocalypse poses threats both dramatic and mundane. When not searching for food and a safe place to spend the night, she must negotiate the frustrating reality of spending time with people she doesn’t like. “I started thinking about what it would be like if the only people you could find were people you couldn’t stand, if they just irritated in you every way,” Elison says. “There’s nothing wrong with them and they’re not unsafe, you just don’t like being there. So I wanted to make a character who had to make choices between feeling safe in a group of people and feeling pissed off all the time.”

Elison is grateful for the editors at Sybaritic Press, who published her unagented manuscript. “They’re very good editors and publishers,” she says. But inevitably, she’s had to do a lot of marketing herself. “It’s good because I’ve learned a lot about the business doing that and it’s not good because no one listens to a writer on her own.”

Fortunately, the Philip K. Dick Award has made finding readers a whole lot easier. The award “has opened a lot of doors,” she says.

Related links:

  • An article in the Los Angeles Review of Books explores the book’s treatment of “Gender and the Apocalypse.” [Note: the article has spoilers].
  • Meg Elison shares her thoughts on her blog.
  • You can follow New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy on Twitter and Facebook
  • and host Rob Wolf on Twitter

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Podcast No. 11: Alex London Discusses Pen Names, Gay Characters, and the ‘Dystopia’ Label

This week’s podcast was an experiment. Rather than record the conversation with author Alex London over Skype, I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn and meet with him face-to-face in a coffee shop. I found it liberating to be unchained from an Internet connection, which has been known to fail mid-conversation, but the price of having a barista nearby is boisterous background noise.


London’s novels about class conflict, debt, and rebellion are set in a dark future. A significant portion of Proxy takes place in a city where the poorest citizens dwell in a violent shantytown known as the Valve while the wealthy thrive in well-guarded neighborhoods of private speedways, luxury homes, and high-tech toys. The sequel, Guardian, is set in a crumbling Detroit exponentially more decrepit than the Motor City of today.

As London explains, the horrors of the Valve are his “futuristic re-imagining” of slums outside of Nairobi, which he witnessed while researching one of his non-fiction books, One Day the Soldiers Came, about children affected by armed conflict. “For a lot of children all over the world caught up in wars and poverty and natural disaster … dystopia is not some kind of fantasy but the day-to-day reality of how they are living,” he tells me.

Although the books portray a grim future, the publisher avoids the word “dystopia” in its marketing of Proxy and Guardian. “They call it a ‘futuristic thriller,’” London says. The marketing department also shies away from the science fiction tag, fearing it’s too narrow. But London says he embraces the label. “Science fiction for me implies … an awareness of possibility.”

London himself is brimming with possibility. For one thing, he writes under three names. Proxy and Guardian, which are aimed at young adults, bear the name Alex London. But as Charles London, he’s published adult non-fiction about war and the survival of beleaguered Jewish communities around the world. And as C. Alexander London, he continues to write for middle-grade readers about real-life war experiences and fantastical adventures involving squids and dragons.

Like any good science fiction writer, London seeks to push boundaries. Proxy explores what would happen if wealthy transgressors rigged a system of debt and credit to avoid punishment for their crimes and instead made the poor (known as proxies) receive the punishment instead. London also pushes cultural boundaries: Proxy and Guardian’s main character, Syd, is gay, which makes him unusual as the star of a science fiction series geared for young adults. As a result, London has received an outpouring of fan mail from young people seeking advice. “It’s been very touching to see kids who might not otherwise be drawn to explicitly queer books … find their way to Proxy,” he says. Because the books are primarily thrillers, some kids, especially those living in conservative communities, feel safer reading them than gay-themed books that focus on romance or coming out, he explains.

“I’ve been getting letters from a lot of actually straight boys writing about their friends and wondering how they can be better allies. Those are my favorite,” London says.

Related links:

Spoiler alerts:

  • From 18:45 to 22:16 we discuss some aspects of Syd’s love life that those who haven’t read Proxy and Guardian may prefer to skip.
  • From 33:12 to 34:00 we discuss the science behind a key plot point integral to the resolution of Proxy.