Chris Beckett's latest novel, America City, is set in a twenty-second-century North America badly affected by climate change, ravaged by storms, floods, and droughts. US citizens from the southern dust bowl states and the western flooded ones—dust country and storm coasts—are becoming migrants, fleeing north and west, with logistical and political consequences. Some create new homes, only to be forced to move again. Many of them live in camps, and their numbers threaten to become overwhelming as more weather crises hit. Residents of the states they are travelling through or settling in resent their presence, calling them “barreduras” (dirt), and there is a real danger that some states will close their borders to the migrants, resulting in fragmentation of the nation. As one character notes early on in the book, “The issue is whether America hangs together or falls apart” (p. 43).
Into this situation comes Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a right-wing politician who responds to the migrations by advocating government funding to build homes for the migrants in the northwest states, especially Alaska, despite his earlier avowed commitment to non-interference by federal government. The central character in the drama that ensues is Holly, a young Englishwoman who works in PR, describing herself as “a professional story-teller” (p. 77), who “crafted narratives that made self-interest feel like virtue” (p. 78). She is drawn into Slaymaker's team, crafting publicity and policy as he works to put his ideas into practice. How that all develops—and the impact on Holly, her relationships, and ordinary Americans—is the focus of the novel. In the process other themes emerge: the stories people tell—to themselves, in their communities real or virtual, or for the purpose of manipulating politics; the stories of the migrants themselves; friendships and relationships under tension; and the possible consequences of climate change. All are skillfully woven in to be an integral part of the plot.
Holly, who has fled her do-gooding parents in Fortress Britain (“a nasty, desperate place” (p. 7)), is a believable and complex character. She is a workaholic, declaring: “I need projects, I need to be busy” (p. 271). Having covered for her boss in a meeting and some initial work with Slaymaker, she is then persuaded to become a full-time part of his team, not only selling his policy to his suspicious supporters and political opponents but helping to develop it. Her task is to help expand and then present his ideas in a way that appeals to both his core, right-wing supporters and those from other backgrounds who are suspicious of his policies, but eager to help the migrants. This job causes tensions for her, both with her husband Richard, an academic and author who produces books on the Anglo-Saxons, and with their immediate circle of friends, “delicados” (liberals) who regard Slaymaker much as contemporary liberals regard Trump, and are critical of her involvement.
“Delicado” is a good example of Beckett's clever use of words. It means delicate, fragile, polite, sensitive, and in the world of the novel has taken over from “liberal” as a description of a certain type of person. Holly's immediate group of delicado friends are varied, clearly drawn characters, and their interactions with Holly provide useful discussions and tension throughout the book. Artist Ruby, who befriended Holly when the latter first arrived in America, and her new partner, the “bottled-up” dancer Ossia (p 39), are, along with other close friends Mariana and Sergio, and Holly and Richard themselves, “an island of privilege” (p. 43): artists, writers, dancers, who are concerned about the needs of the world beyond the US, as well as the migrants within it, yet in practice will do nothing that would disturb their own comfortable life.
This is all very carefully and subtly done, through discussions with her friends and Richard, and through incidents such as a dinner party early in the novel, at which Ossia challenges Holly about Slaymaker's attitude to the rest of the world, noting that he “has never shown the same concern about truly desperate people from outside of America as he suddenly seems to feel about the storm people” (p. 38). Holly's response is to note that most Americans feel the same way: “I've been doing large-scale nationwide cloud polls, along with focus groups and interviews” (p. 39), and pointing out that Ossia, with Ruby, is about to move into a large, lovely house in Canada, thus highlighting that “in practice, we all do look after ourselves first” (p. 40). Similarly, when Holly and Mariana are Christmas shopping, they avoid “eye contact, without even thinking about it, with the dozens of barreduras who were begging insistently on the busy streets. You screened them out just as you screened out your own painful memories” (p. 125). Holly has her own doubts about working for Slaymaker, but won't own up to them when she is with her friends. There are moments where she feels herself “at the intersection of two contradictory forces” (p. 314). The affection Holly has for her friends, and the tension her new role creates, is thoughtfully developed during the book. These relationships are used to explore issues which are relevant in the context of the story, but also thought-provoking for the reader.
Meanwhile, the other members of Slaymaker's team are suspicious of Holly, because of her delicado background. Thus, conflicts are set up between the various characters as the political campaign gathers force. Holly, despite feeling like a fish out of water in Slaymaker's team, stays involved because she believes the Senator is the only one doing something practical to help the thousands of migrants (whilst her friends, for all their fine words, are unwilling to take action), but also because of the adrenalin rush she gets from handling the complex situations. Her job becomes, as another character, Ruby, notes: “playing chess with real people” (p. 263). As she comes up with interesting ideas, their campaign develops in an unexpected way.
Holly's relationship with Richard also becomes increasingly difficult as the novel progresses, as they spend more time apart and she is increasingly a vital part of Slaymaker's team. From the beginning, Richard is uncomfortable about her working for “that ferocious American nationalist” (p. 15). This potential conflict is introduced in the second chapter, when their relaxed evening together, and anticipation of sex later, is hijacked by Holly having to research and prepare for her unexpected meeting with Slaymaker the following day (p. 12). Whilst Richard is perhaps the least successful character, a little weak and insubstantial, he is used to make some interesting points: he is a historian who writes about change, “He loved the drama and the sweep of it, the huge unstoppable forces, as elemental as glaciers or tides.” Yet he resists change himself: “He wanted the world around him to remain exactly as it was” (p. 221). Here and in one or two places elsewhere, one wonders if Beckett is poking a little bit of fun at himself and his own occupation!
Beckett uses Holly, and the circumstances she finds herself in, to explore the power of story. When she first meets Slaymaker, she assumes that he is talking about creating a narrative that would gain support, whereas he insists, “Never mind the story, Holly. That's how I really see it” (p. 25). For her, however, the issue is how best to represent ideas so that they appeal to a wide range of people (p 26). Stories are important to her: in one significant comment, responding to her friend Mariana suggesting that people should have given up on Christmas nativity scenes by now, she retorts: “No chance. Stories are what we live by” (p. 125). This is seen again when her artist friend Ruby, who with her partner, the annoying dancer Ossia, is showing her around their new house and studio in Canada, says that she is now “exactly where I belong.” Holly reflects to herself that Ruby, in her new situation, is not even noticing the luxury she lives in. For Ruby, “Art had redeemed luxury, like Christ washing away the sins of the world … The story worked for her, and that was that, just as Slaymaker's story worked for him, the one about hard work and self-reliance and standing up for America” (p. 138). Holly becomes involved in crafting stories for Senator Slaymaker—stories that will further the aim they both share of helping the migrants find new homes, but at the same time stories that are not always exactly honest. These stories drive the plot, create the tension between characters, and ultimately change the world’s political situation.
Holly is also aware that she is crafting her own story (“I'm constructing a story to make me feel okay about turning my back on my own people” (p. 78)), and this is not the first time that the power of story has sat so squarely at the heart of Beckett’s work. In his masterful and imaginative Dark Eden trilogy (Dark Eden (2012); Mother of Eden (2015); Daughter of Eden (2016)), in which he envisaged cultures emerging on another world amongst people descended from some stranded astronauts, various groups developed their origin story in different ways, splintering the developing society and creating a variety of communities. In Eden, none of the stories these groups told matched the original facts, and they all mutated over time. In America City, the creation of stories is similarly central, but more overtly so. However, this doesn't seem artificial: on the contrary, the whole situation feels real, as if it could be really happening tomorrow. Beckett's focus on the ordinary, on individuals' everyday lives, their tragedies, hopes, relationships, and conversations, creates this sense of reality.
Indeed, Beckett is very good at getting inside people's heads and understanding the different perspectives that authenticate this. He uses this skill to good effect with a handful of varied first-person stories from the migrants themselves, which are threaded through the book. These characters, from different parts of the affected states, become drawn into the migration. They too are affected not only by climate change but also by the decisions that Holly instigates. Their lives are followed through, parallel to the main action, and give Beckett an opportunity to introduce people from varied backgrounds, such as Rosine Dubois and her family, who become migrants after a storm, and for whom Senator Slaymaker was the only one who seemed to make them welcome as they travelled (p. 36). Or there’s Johnson Fleet, an exemplar of Slaymaker's previous political base, who need convincing of his new ideas, and who with his family moved west and made a home in Idaho. He had previously liked Senator Slaymaker, but resented his suggestions that the government should help the new migrants: “I couldn't think what or who had gotten into him” (p. 47), at least until his own circumstances change again. In another such strand, we hear from Margot Jefferies, who made and sold pottery in her craft shop in Arizona close to the Mexican border—and was forced by drought along with all the local inhabitants to abandon her village home (p. 65). She moved to a Resettlement Camp in Illinois, where she reflected on her time at the Mexican border, and how she had signed a petition and taken part in a demonstration on behalf of Mexicans attempting to get through the Wall … yet her livelihood in the “pretty little town in the desert, where the tourists came to buy my pottery” depended on that same wall—which, like a dam, held back “all that desperation and need” (p. 69). These extra strands reveal the wider situation in the US and amplify the issues that Holly, with Slaymaker, is trying to address.
They also illustrate that, whilst America City could be called a climate-change novel, it is much more than that. The droughts, storms, and floods provide the context in which questions about identity, crafting story, creating and manipulating political events and policy, and exploring tensions in friendships and relationships, occur. It is an intelligent and compelling novel which through well-plotted story—and complex, believable, and interesting characters—explores one possible scenario, and in the process introduces its various and rather more universal themes. Yet climate change is a significant element: in a discussion between Richard and his academic colleagues over drinks, they discuss a diary which one woman, Alice, possesses and in which her great-grandmother, in the twenty-first century, seemed barely to mention climate change, or take action over it—and how that made Alice feel that her ancestor “didn't give a shit” about her descendants. Beckett cleverly inserts this as part of a conversation, and in the context of a developing attraction between Richard and Alice, so there is no sense of the reader being preached at; but it demonstrates his awareness of the issues, and links his general themes with the specificity of his setting.
America City bears comparison with another, recent, brilliant novel focused on climate change in twenty-second-century America: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, also published in 2017. Focused only on Manhattan and its immediate surroundings, the floods are here almost a character—and the story is about individuals and communities carrying on everyday life and coping with the calamity of flooded New York. The weather events are not themselves center stage in Beckett in the way they are in Robinson—perhaps because, as Beckett acknowledges, he had to learn about climate change in order to write this novel, whereas Robinson has been integrating it into his novels from his earliest writings. But both are expertly written in their different approaches.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and found the imaginative reality it created convincing. Along the way I was made to think again about how story can be used for political ends, for self-deception, for good and for evil. I recognized something of myself in the “delicados” who wanted a cultured life, the poor to be helped, but at little real personal cost. Holly, the solution she proposed to the migrant crisis, and Slaymaker, as well as some of the issues raised, were interesting. It is skillful, well-written, convincing. However, in my mind it does not compare with the Dark Eden series and its masterful world-building, cultures, personalities, and conflicts, which touched my imagination deeply and lingered in the mind months after reading. Like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series has been for him, the high point of those books is hard for Beckett to follow. But I still highly recommend America City.
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