Books that explore troubling yet possible near futures
Terrorism, hope and ecological destruction explore in Not on Fire, But Burning and Gold Fame Citrus
It is impossible to read Greg Hrbek's brand new speculative fiction at this moment in time without thinking about all the Facebook posts in your feed about Paris, terrorism and Muslims.
Not on Fire, But Burning is simultaneously a dark look at our possible near future and a hopeful one. The book had me in tears by the end.
It starts with an attack that destroys San Francisco on August 11, 2027. No one knows who is to blame, but when the dust settles in the book eight years after what becomes knows as "8/11", most of the Muslims in America have been rounded up and live on reservations.
The book centres on 12-year-old Dorian Wakefield, who believes his older sister was killed in the attack. His parents insist there was never an older sister.
Dorian's neighbor adopts a boy the same age from one of the reservations. Karim Hassad's family was killed in the reservation by an American drone. The government insists there have been no drone attacks on American soil.
Both boys are struggling to make sense of their world. They are teeming with anger, grief and fear. They both make choices, small ones and huge ones, that have massive ripple effects. Dorian vandalizes a mosque with the words "F--k Islam". Karim spends the first week in his adoptive home putting off making the call that would connect him to a terrorist cell.
That plotline alone makes Not on Fire, But Burning a compelling read.
But Hrbek's rapid interchanging of first, second and third-person perspectives adds brilliant and complex layers to an exploration of how our thoughts and actions shape our reality.
There are clues that this is maybe not quite the world we know. Facebook is called Lifebook, the map of America is slightly altered, and in this world there was no 9/11. The attack on San Francisco is the moment that changes everything.
Hrbek plays very openly with the idea of alternate realities. But the concept is also threaded metaphorically through the reaction of both Dorian and Karim as they watch the consequences of their actions unfold.
Another just-published book with a troubling and realistic possible near future also explores the role of hope.
In Claire Vaye Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus, drought has engulfed the American Southwest. California is a wasteland. Sand dunes as large as mountain ranges are moving rapidly across the surrounding states.
Luz Dunn is a 25-year old former model living with Ray, an AWOL soldier in an abandoned starlet's mansion. The two are in love, and form a family when they rescue a neglected toddler from a gang of punks.
Baby Ig gives them reason to seek out a better life in the America on the other side of the sea of dunes. But Californian refugees – disparagingly called Mojavs by the rest of the country - aren't welcome out east:
"California people are quitters. No offense. It's just you got restlessness in your blood…Your people came out here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That's why no one wants them now. Mojavs."
Luz, Ray and Ig embark on a dangerous journey across the sea of sand for a shot at a future.
They come across a community surviving in the dunes, led by a self-proclaimed dowser who says he communes with nature to find water.
Just as in Hrbek's novel, the plot line is straightforward enough, with plenty of conflict, thrills and action.
But also, as Hrbek's novel explores deeper issues than our reaction to terrorism, Gold Fame Citrus is exploring issues much more nuanced than mere ecological destruction.
Watkins examines the consequences of our greed, selfishness and ignorance on both our exterior and interior worlds.