It’s a long time since I’ve written a blog on this site, let alone a book review, but I thought this book was worth reviewing.
Chris Beckett rose to prominence with his excellent fiction debut Dark Eden, which eventually became a trilogy. (I have reviewed it here). The beauty of his writing is not only in the imagination of the world, and the clarity of his writing, but the depth of thought. He engages with what really makes worlds tick. An emphasis of his in on the power of stories to share events and identity. Since then he has had a few other books: Holy Machine about a sentient robot, and recently Beneath the World, A Sea, a surreal imagined sub-world of this earth in which human subconscious and internal fears are bought to the fore through contact with strange living beings called Duendes who seem to exacerbate and feed off these inner thoughts.
All of his work so far has presented something that required an imaginative leap, be they a distant planet, sentient robots, or his surreal sub-world. What is most apparent, and most chilling, about America City is that the world described is entirely plausible. Set a couple of hundred years in the future, Beckett imagines an America which is struggling due to severe climate change. His main character is a British analyst, Holly Peacock who can manipulate the whisperstream, the futuristic and all encompassing version of social media. When she teams up with a charismatic leader, Senator Slaymaker as he runs for president, they set off political consequences across the continent which appear to be unstoppable.
He demonstrates once again the power of stories. Once they find purchase in a groups imagination, it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. History started to be read through the lens of these stories. Competing (more moderate, nuanced), narratives cannot cope. What we see is the manipulation of reality and emotions for political and nationalistic gain, the spreading of lies and fake news.
It is chilling, because all the elements are there in our society for this reality to come about. We are already seeing fake news – narratives that do not stand up to the scrutiny of facts but which are spread and embraced because they appeal to popular fears. Fragmentation of news sources and social media circles mean that we do not necessarily hear opinions and viewpoints that challenge our own preconceptions. Climate change warnings are all around us and we are hearing stark predictions about its future effects. So far, as activists claim, we are doing too little too slowly. Beckett’s world of America City doesn’t seem so far away. This is why it is so chilling, and disturbing. I do not want to live in the world like that.
This is thoroughly engaging and I highly recommend it.