In Borne, Rachel’s childhood in a world of extreme climate change, war, and deprivation is sketched in, more suggested than depicted at much length. In American War, that’s the whole book. Specifically, a second American civil war in the 2070s-2090s, this time over the South’s insistence on fossil fuels rather than slavery. American War’s Sarat and Borne’s Rachel are both non-white, though the books handle race very differently. Sarat is a dark-skinned black woman with black and brown parents, born near New Orleans. Rachel has brown skin and is from:
[…] an island that fell not to war or disease but to rising seas. […] My mother had been born on the island, too, but her people came from far away, from the mainland, and it was a scandal when the two of them married because it wasn’t ever done. That scandal gave me my name, Rachel, because it came from neither family but from outsiders. A compromise.
Rachel’s outsider name is a mask to us, the readers, concealing any hint of the culture of language of her parents. Sarat’s name is an insider name, self-chosen, a secret origin:
Her name was Sara T. Chestnut but she called herself Sarat. The latter was born of a misunderstanding at the schoolhouse earlier that year. The new kindergarten teacher accidentally read the girl’s middle initial as the last letter of her first name—Sarat. To the little girl’s ears, the new name had a bite to it. Sara ended with an impotent exhale, a fading ahh that disappeared into the air. Sarat snapped shut like a bear trap.
Sarat and her family survive the early years of losing their home and growing up in a camp. Her brother joins a militant faction of the South, is badly hurt but eventually, long years later, recovers. Sarat herself eventually becomes a combatant, a sniper who successfully carries out a high-profile assassination of a Northern general. She even finds a girlfriend. For a while it seems like this is going to be a different sort of book, a more conventional milsf arc of heroism and fighting. But then a drone—the drones have long since gone out of control, and are now autonomous death from above, attacking indiscriminately—kills her sister, and when Sarat comes home to grieve, she is captured and imprisoned by the North. She is tortured for seven years, until she is broken and changed beyond recognition.
Eventually, with the end of the war, she is released. She lives with her brother and his new family, heals a little from her injuries and trauma. Her former fellow militants arrange small measures of revenge for her: they capture the prison guard who tortured her, Bud Baker, along with his family (she kills Baker, but lets his family go); she hunts down the man who betrayed her identity to the North, her recruiter and one-time mentor, and kills him too. But these measures are not enough. She hungers for more, and this is where the book’s heart is, not in the action-film sniper dramatics, but in revenge: in the grief and rage that comes from having lost and lost again.
Sarat laughed. “Revenge,” she echoed. “Revenge, revenge. I hurt one man. Do you think it was just one man who hurt me? […] Why don’t you line them all up for me—can you do that, Joe?—you line up every man who made me what I am: the ones who killed my father, the ones who killed my sister, the ones who killed my mother, the ones who made it so my brother will never be whole again, the ones who drove us from our home, the ones who slaughtered all those people in Patience. You line up the whole lot of them for me, Joe. Then I’ll have my revenge.”
“And supposing I could?” Joe asked.
Joe’s real name is Yousef Bin Rashid. He is an agent of the Bouazizi Empire, a new superpower in the age of America’s decline, “a single entity stretching from the Gibraltar Pass in the state of Morocco all the way to the edges of the Black and Caspian Seas.” Yousef freely admits that his involvement in supporting the South is purely because his government wishes to accelerate that decline. If the South was winning, he says, they would have supported the North.
Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”
“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”
This reversal is a familiar reusable big Kirbytech device in science fiction. I’ve written about its use in Aztec Century and The War of the Worlds. TV Tropes calls it the “persecution flip,” and it’s ubiquitous. To do it well is to show truths that are obscured by ideology, and to make them stark and visible by turning history upside down; to do it badly is to paternalistically justify that history, for example by presenting enormity as benevolent (Childhood’s End) or by presenting the reversal of enormity as even worse (Farnham’s Freehold).
American War—and what a title, in these dregs of a long grim age of American war—walks that line far better than most. The machinations of the Bouazizi Empire, while monstrous, are not more monstrous than those of the long British-American empire. It is a fictional parallel that remonstrates with the real, while also pointing out that all great-power games are like this: there is no salvation in the precession of superpowers. But the thread of Sarat’s gathering revenge is what raises American War above being just a competent execution of an established SF device.
We are told early, in the prologue itself, that the war was followed by a decade-long plague:
... when one of the South’s last remaining rebels managed to sneak into the Union capital and unleash the sickness that cast the country into a decade of death. It is estimated that eleven million people died in the war, and almost ten times that number in the plague that followed.
So when Joe/Yousef offers to help Sarat achieve her revenge, we already understand quite straightforwardly where this is going, long before we see it play out. This is not apocalyptic; this is not a revelation. This is perfectly in continuity with Sarat, and with the history of American war.
American War is the slow burn of how Sarat becomes this person who can commit mass murder on such a tremendous scale: her fury, her exhaustion, her long hard road to the monstrous. If Borne is a weapon who struggles to become a person, Sarat is a person broken down into a weapon—except that, by the end, she is a weapon wielded only by herself. Her youthful ideology and sense of righteousness are long gone. She has long since stopped believing in the cause of the South; she disdains it, and all it stands for. American War warns the reader early what it’s about:
This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.
And that’s why it works: because it’s not about honour or glory or heroism or service, or whatever other contemptible clichés of war; it’s not about history being written as the acts of larger-than-life characters; it’s not even about the games that great powers play. It’s about a particular, ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, who does terrible things and has terrible things done to them. It’s about war as ruin.
(I read Rohini Mohan’s Seasons of Trouble not long after finishing American War. This is a non-fiction book about the war in Sri Lanka, following the lives of a few particular, ordinary people who are facing extraordinary and terrible situations, and in some cases—I’m thinking of Mugil executing prisoners of war and recruiting child soldiers, no matter how willing—doing terrible things. It’s a credit to American War that it felt more like a fictional analogue to something like Seasons of Trouble than it does to anything in military science fiction.)
In a wildly implausible irony, Sarat is aided in her final revenge not only by Yousef and her other allies among the Southern rebels, but also by Martin and Bud Jr. Baker, the sons of her torturer, the man she killed. Now grown and soldiers in the Northern military, they come across her at a checkpoint while she’s on her way to unleash the plague. Martin is the one who lets her through, in the end.
Perhaps to reduce the sting of implausibility, this scene is not directly shown: wonderfully, we only see it being discussed and described in the transcript of a hearing before a Committee for Truth and Reunification several decades later. We don’t hear the exchange between Sarat and the Bakers, and neither does the Committee: the surveillance footage lacks audio, and the Committee’s experts have lip readers trying to reconstruct the encounter, but Sarat’s face isn’t visible on camera. We are left to assume that perhaps Martin remembered that Sarat let them live and escape, or perhaps that the torturer’s son himself might have been unable to face his father’s victim, might have been driven by despair and guilt into letting her pass.
The guilt of a torturer’s son lies at the heart of A Spaceman in Bohemia, too. Where Martin Baker’s father in late 21st-century America drowned his victims—drowning is how he broke Sarat—Jakub Procházka’s father in late 20th-century Czechoslovakia uses the Iron Shoe. He falls from grace after the Velvet Revolution and then dies along with Jakub’s mother in a cable car accident, so Jakub is sent to live with his grandparents. A few years later, when Jakub is thirteen, one of his father’s victims comes to his grandparents’ house.
Grandpa sits with a beer, while the stranger puts his wet backpack on the table and pulls out a rusty metal shoe, so large it could only fit a proper giant.
The stranger—for a long time Jakub thinks of him as Shoe Man—tells the story of how Jakub’s father took him to the secret police headquarters and put him in the iron shoe and electrocuted him through it. Shoe Man become a wealthy man after the revolution, profiting immensely from privatization. He bought the shoe from a friend at the police inventory, he says, identifying it from the serial number burned into his skin.
Shoe Man contrives to evict them from Jakub’s grandparents’ house, using his friends in the new government to have their home given to him in compensation for the torture. He forces them to leave the village and move to Prague, which is already very different from the city that Jakub remembers from when his parents were alive:
We drive past the shopping malls and multiplexes rising from the ruins of old community centers, the places where Prague youths once gathered to watch educational films about doing their part for the Soviets and played football in red T-shirts. I don’t recognize this city—its new, well-dressed explorers, its taxicabs and Tommy Hilfiger billboards. I don’t know this free Prague, but I’d like to. So many luxuries are now within reach, and I cannot afford any of them.
Here, Jakub grows up carrying the guilt of his father’s sins. He goes to university, studies astrophysics. He meets Lenka, the love of his life, and they have a grand romance. They marry. After graduation, as an expert on cosmic dust, Jakub comes to the fore when a vast new cloud of cosmic dust accretes between Earth and Venus. The cloud—codenamed Chopra—changes the night sky to purple, and becomes Earth’s new scientific obsession and the target of a new space race, especially after uncrewed missions fail to capture samples.
This is when Jakub is approached by the powerful and ambitious Senator Tůma, who recruits him to be the astronaut for the Czech mission, which will be the first human crewed mission to Chopra, with this magnificent, nakedly manipulative, openly cynical rant:
“Your father was a collaborator, a criminal, a symbol of what haunts the nation to this day. As his son, you are the movement forward, away from the history of our shame. Jakub Procházka, the son of a loyal communist, the glowing example of a reformed communist (you’re not still a communist, are you? Good, good). A man who grieved through the death of his parents, who grew up in a humble village on the humble retirement pay of his grandparents, and despite all odds unleashed his brilliance upon the world, becoming a heavyweight best in his field. The embodiment of democracy and capitalism, while also a humble servant to the people, a seeker of truths. A man of science. I want to put a Czech in Space, Jakub, and that Czech will be you. Europe will scoff at us, burdened taxpayers will cry out in skepticism. But there is a future here, meaning for the country, and we can sell it as such with you on the packaging. The spaceman of Prague. The transformed nation embodied, carrying our flag into the cosmos. Can you see it?”
Part of the reason the Czech mission can overtake the American, Russian, Chinese, and German missions is because there are concerns about astronauts’ safety in proximity to the cloud. Senator Tůma sells the idea locally as a grand project of nationalism and overrides these concerns. Jakub, signed up to be the first spaceman of Bohemia, instantly becomes a national hero and celebrity, though he resists attempts to rebrand him for better market