America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2017, 365 p.

 America City cover

Twenty-second Century USA. The sea-level has risen, superstorms regularly batter the eastern seaboard, drought ravages the southwest. Resentment from within northern states towards those fleeing the environmental disasters is building. In the wider world polar bears, giraffes, blue whales, rhinoceroses and dolphins are extinct. Right-wing Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a former haulage contractor who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worries that the country will fall apart under the strain of internal migration. Meanwhile a wall keeps out Mexicans and other possible migrants from the south.

Nevertheless some seem still to be welcome. Holly Peacock is an immigrant from Britain who has left-wing beliefs. She works in affecting public opinion via the whisperstream – a kind of updated internet accessed via devices known as cristals which contain AI personalities called jeenees. Think of her job as nudge politics and fake news taken to altogether different levels. She is attracted by Slaymaker’s desire to accommodate the internal refugees in the north. They meet and Slaymaker convinces her to work with him on his plan to bring about accommodation between the states, some of whom have begun arguing for border controls within the US.

Beckett tells his story mainly via the viewpoints of Holly and her husband Richard but occasionally intersperses their views with those of some of the people displaced by the storms or the drought. The Britain Holly has left seems a particularly dark place but isn’t much fleshed out as Beckett’s focus is on the happenings in the USA. He only alludes to British conditions via references to her family back home.

Air travel in this future is by machines called drigs (I assume a shortening of dirigible) but they seem no slower than jet aircraft. The political parties in the US are supposed to be different from our day – an (unelaborated) event called the Tyranny lies between now and then – but Slaymaker’s Freedom Party might as well be the Republicans and the Unity Party the Democrats. At the start of the novel the incumbent President is a woman from the Unity Party. (Is a woman US President perhaps the most Science-Fictional thing about this?)

Beckett’s scenario speaks to our time as Slaymaker was a climate change denier – he even argued against Williams’s ameliorative efforts to construct machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air as being pointless – and the topic of influencing voters in non-transparent ways acquired even more resonance during the novel’s writing during 2016. However, the time-scale appears a mite elongated. The problems Beckett describes may be upon us in far sooner than one hundred years.

Holly is instrumental in Slaymaker’s successful campaign, it is her idea that swings voters behind him. The unexpected consequences of its ramifications are less to her liking but it still (unlikely in my view) does not prevent her from continuing to work for the new President. Slaymaker is supposed to be charismatic and persuasive but more detachment might have been in order.

I note that Beckett seems to have adopted Connie Willis’s habit of narrative deferment. Here it is not so irritating as with Willis but the gaps before fulfillment of the teases are still too long for my taste. In addition I found most of the characters not to be as rounded as in Beckett’s Eden trilogy. But this is a different sort of book with more of a narrative drive. It might serve as a good introduction to Beckett’s work though and find him new readers.

Pedant’s corner:- the novel is written in USian (but this is a British edition, published in Britain,) “Slaymaker lay down his fork,” (laid, though I suppose most USians use lay for lie,) the president (President,) ditto presidency (Presidency,) “‘every times he gets the chance’” (time,) zeros (zeroes,) “an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it” (a web is,) “a squadron of bombers somewhere were attacking a flooded town” (a squadron was attacking.) “None of these were” (none was,) “a steady stream of these stories were put out” (a steady stream was,) Williams’ (Williams’s,) “feeling that suddenly been blowing toward them” (that’s,) “after been shown” (after being shown,) with men and woman (women,) “a coup[le of time” (times,) Mephistopholis’ (Mephistopholis’s,) “‘I need do stuff’” (to do stuff, ) Holly says ‘different than’ (I know she’s supposed to have been in the States for 20 years but would she really have stopped saying different from? And later, in the text, we have maths, not math,) “with the other forty-eight states in a vast bloc” (land-based states,) care about things about things” (only one “about things” required.)

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