Early this May, as fans balked at a storyline in which Captain America pretty much goes full Nazi, Marvel Comics issued one of the year’s stranger press releases. “We politely ask you to allow the story to unfold before coming to any conclusion,” a flack for the publisher wrote. A couple lines later came an admission that shouldn’t be news to seasoned comics readers: “Captain America will always be a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe who will stand up for what is right.” In short, the release assured readers that just because this most patriotic of heroes had gone bad — aligning himself with the fascists of Hydra, then seizing control of the U.S. and approving the nuking of a major city — we shouldn’t expect it to be more permanent in the comics than the time he died, in 2007, or those months in ’71 when Spider-Man had six arms.
Superheroes absorb what’s happening in the society that creates them the way frogs grow freakish in our polluted waters. Of course Cap would heel-turn right when America itself does — and right when our entertainment and political culture have both turned apocalyptic. The end times prevail on cable TV’s The Leftovers and The Walking Dead, and in theaters in the latest apes-are-more-human-than-humanity sequel. War for the Planet of the Apes, the follow-up to a reboot, joins October’s Blade Runner 2049 continuation as evidence that there’s profit in our nostalgia for past visions of our fall; Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale series, like the full-throated doomsaying of the climate change doc Chasing Coral or David Wallace-Wells’s recent New York magazine cover story promising that much of our planet soon will be uninhabitable, persuasively link the unthinkable scenarios of science fiction with our present-day governance.
Marvel’s ongoing Secret Empire series, written by Nick Spencer and drawn by teams of Marvel’s best, is a feat of shock-and-awe storytelling, imagining its dystopian U.S. with rare inventive vigor. The story’s problem is that it’s too potent: Many people don’t want to contemplate, in their escapist lit, their nation’s plunge into fascism or worse, a lesson HBO has learned in the pushback to its recently announced Confederate TV series, set in an alternate-now where slavery survived the Civil War. Hence that this-will-pass press release, which is just the kind of message you might wish that reality itself would ask a flack to type up: America will always eventually stand up for what is right.
Two major new novels take up the increasingly common theme of America Gone Bad, one a pulpy spree and the other a despairing study of a young woman’s radicalization. Despite their genre differences, both books have been crafted so that their visions of a fallen nation are — to use the word key to the marketing department — plausible. (Here’s a pickup line for book conventions: “You must be a paperback thriller because I find you taut and plausible.”) Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, the pulpy entry, offers a dire near future rooted in an alternative recent past: In the early Eighties, the Iranians killed the hostages, Reagan died from his gunshot wound, and Brown’s America came much quicker than our real one did to a mad boil of strongman leaders, homegrown insurgents, and propaganda TV.
It’s not hard to buy. Neither is the conceit of the title: A long DMZ stretches down the middle of the country, the farmed-out, too-hot heartland given over to local militias and the titanic robo-tractors of agribusiness, which shuck corn fit only for livestock. In a natural extension of today’s red-state/blue-state fighting, the government — teamed up with Hollywood — rules from the coasts while the Midwest withers. The president pals around with the movie-star hunk who plays him in violent blockbusters; out in the middle, the resistance communicates through UHF and VHS.
Omar El Akkad’s American War, meanwhile, goes even further in literalizing red vs. blue. Set in 2075, mostly in a refugee camp on the Tennessee border, the novel, a knockout, finds America in a second Civil War, with the Free Southern State (comprising Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) fighting against the “Blue”s of the North. At issue: a federal law prohibiting fossil-fuel engines. El Akkad is after states of mind as much as he is the state of the union, so the headline details of his future (Mexico has seized much of the West; there’s no snow in “New Anchorage”) matter less than they seem to in Tropic of Kansas. At the center of our interest instead is how the heroine, a bright and likable near-teen named Sarah but known as Sarat, comes to understand her world. After her father is killed on the Mississippi by an act of terrorism, young Sarat and her family get moved into Camp Patience, a refugee center for Southerners. She grows up amid tents and donated blankets (mostly from China) and on a dare endures a sort of baptism in a stream of refugee sewage.
Aimless and angry, Sarat proves an easy mark for indoctrination, and soon a charming dandy/mentor named Gaines who detests the North is plying her with caviar and asking questions like “Doesn’t it make you angry to know that the ones who did that to your people got away with it?” He suggests that there are things a person on her own could do about it. In the novel’s second half, she does.
Sarat’s radicalization is slow, horrifying, and eminently understandable — an achievement for any novelist, much less a first-timer like El Akkad. American War offers much more than alt-future adventure or alarmist chills; it emphasizes how violent heroism can be indistinguishable from terrorism, how for the would-be terrorist the commission of violence against strangers can perversely come to seem like an act of hope. The novel suggests that to defeat a scourge like “terror,” we might first consider defeating hopelessness.
El Akkad’s most curious touch is to suggest that Sarat is black but to otherwise leave race out of his story. I’m unconvinced of the sense of this: In his future, the old fault lines persist between North and South and rich and poor. Are we to believe that a half-century from now Mississippi will go colorblind? Remember what it was like just half a century back? Perhaps El Akkad, a journalist by training, intends for readers to fill this void themselves, to challenge us to imagine race in this next New South on our own — the opposite of the approach of Ben H. Winters and Colson Whitehead, the authors of 2016’s alternative-history slavery novels, Winters’s brisk and suspenseful Underground Airlines and Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner The Underground Railroad. Or perhaps he simply blinked rather than face the most intransigent of American horrors, possibly out of a caution that never occurred to HBO’s shaken provocateurs. If audiences resist a Nazi Cap, they’ll of course refuse to empathize with white supremacists in a reinvigorated Confederacy. (Not helping matters at HBO: Confederate is the creation of the showrunners of Game of Thrones, a TV series that at every turn has emphasized the sex and shock of George R.R. Martin’s novels over nuance or interiority. Simply put, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be able to resist portraying the rape of present-day slaves as kinkily erotic, the hand-in-pants power fantasy of Littlefinger’s brothel transposed to the plantation.)
Tropic of Kansas is unambiguous about its heroine’s race: Tania’s an African-American wonk serving in a mostly ignored government office charged with eliminating corruption. But don’t expect to get to know her — the only interior Brown’s book has time for is that abandoned American middle, a sprawling junkscape ruled over by armed bands of militiamen and patrols from secure government compounds. Tania gets sent there to track down Sig, a near-feral young fugitive who is something of a brother to her — her mother fostered him when Tania was growing up, before America soured.
Brown opens with the first of Sig’s many breathless, brutal escapes. As Tania endeavors to find him, discovering ugly truths about the government, she trails Sig from Minnesota to the Gulf. (In El Akkad’s book, that body of water is now the “Mississippi Sea.”) In alternating chapters we get Tania’s pursuit and Sig’s two-fisted derring-do, his scrapes more improbable than the world-building. Brown’s excellent short stories are terse and tight, but here he sometimes has more action in mind than he can get down on the page. Tropic of Kansas offers more onomatopoeic sound effects (BLAMF BLAMF BLAMF KRRRRABOOOMM!) than all of Marvel’s Secret Empire. For all the power of Brown’s inventiveness, and the UHF-punk coolness of the passages about sending signals via salvaged TVs, his story proves dispiritingly rushed, especially in its last third, which reads like a précis of the events it purports to cover. It’s ultimately a hopeful book, but its hope is rooted in the power of violent resistance. Tropic of Kansas is a fantasy not just of this country going bad but of how badass it would be to be the hero who sets out to save that country. It’s a fantasy not unlike Sarat’s — or a real terrorist’s.
By Nick Spencer and multiple artists
Published twice a month by Marvel Comics
Tropic of Kansas
By Christopher Brown
By Omar El Akkad