America City

Issue section: 

America City, set in the early 22nd century, is an example of the growing genre of climate fiction or cli-fi. It opens with a description of a devastating superstorm that hits Delaware, crushing even steel-reinforced homes. As climate change bites, Americans are fleeing the stormy east coast and going west. Others are escaping the parched south of the country, leaving their homes to the dust as it becomes too expensive to irrigate the farmland.

Conservative politicians compete to look the toughest on the migrants, who are denigrated as “storm trash” and “dusties” and attacked by groups of vigilantes. Trump’s wall has also become a reality, the Global South having fared even worse from the wild weather.

The novel refers a lot to new technology. Cars are driverless and electric. Robots have taken a lot of people’s jobs apart from those of politicians and of the privileged “delicado” class, who work in education, the arts and designing the machines themselves.

The Whisperstream, a form of social media accessed via a portable device, plays a dominant role in people’s lives but is full of fake news. Some of its key influencers turn out to be artificially intelligent bots.

As well as providing snippets of the lives of ordinary people, the story centres on Senator Slaymaker, an otherwise conservative politician running for president on the basis of helping people relocate to the north. His young publicist, Holly, helps him sell his project while dealing with the disapproval of her liberal delicado friends and the apparent trauma of having had socialists as parents.

Much of what Beckett describes is already happening. The author lacks the imagination of futurists such as Philip K Dick or Ursula Le Guin. Instead his conjectures on the role of technology in 100 years are rather predictable extrapolations of processes already taking place (social media) or being widely discussed (driverless cars).

Even the climate change scenario in America City feels like reporting rather than science fiction. Last year hurricane Irma left the Caribbean island of Barbuda almost uninhabitable. Residents of Cape Town are already panic buying bottled water as the city authorities discuss whether they can keep the taps running. But this is happening now, not 100 years in the future.

Beckett also has a bleak view of human nature. When the storm hits, people panic, causing a traffic jam on the motorway, rather than staying at home where they would be safer. The characters mostly act in predictable ways and there is little thought given to how human behaviour and relationships might have changed in the future.

For example, gay marriage is perhaps slightly more common than it is now but the heterosexual nuclear family is still the norm. He also draws on some racial stereotypes: Mexico is taken over by criminal gangs and southern Africa tormented by “hordes” of men wearing gold rings and mirror shades who kidnap children and engage in cannibalism.

If it provokes a discussion of the interactions between climate change, migration and right wing politics this is surely a good thing. However, as a novel it is too formulaic to work.