A terrifyingly realistic dystopian novel
The United States of America is no more. Broken into warring territories, its center has become a wasteland DMZ known as “the Tropic of Kansas.” Though this gaping geographic hole has no clear boundaries, everyone knows it’s out there — that once-bountiful part of the heartland, broken by greed and exploitation, where neglect now breeds unrest. Two travelers appear in this arid American wilderness: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents, and his foster sister Tania, a government investigator whose search for Sig leads her into her own past — and towards an unexpected future.
Sig promised those he loves that he would make it to the revolutionary redoubt of occupied New Orleans. But first he must survive the wild edgelands of a barren mid-America policed by citizen militias and autonomous drones, where one wrong move can mean capture… or death. One step behind, undercover in the underground, is Tania. Her infiltration of clandestine networks made of old technology and new politics soon transforms her into the hunted one, and gives her a shot at being the agent of real change — if she is willing to give up the explosive government secrets she has sworn to protect.
As brother and sister traverse these vast and dangerous badlands, their paths will eventually intersect on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light.
As the news is filled with stories of creeping fascism, an increase in the militarization of police forces, and a “fortress America” mentality settling in for those on the right (although, mostly, it’s anyone who voted for Donald Trump), this novel feels frighteningly realistic. It is also very good.
There have been a few dystopian novels published since the election of Donald Trump that seem prescient — giving us a glimpse of what America could be only a few years in the future. (Another that springs to mind is American War by Omar el Akkad.) Tropic of Kansas presents a worst-case, slippery-slope possible future America: it is one characterized by fear, nationalism, authoritarianism, macho-militarism and internal strife. Given typical publishing lead times, it’s especially scary. (There is the risk, when reviewing a novel like this, to reference Trump quite frequently — there seems to be a Tweet for every eventuality that a pessimist could dream up. I will try my best not to do this.)
The characters are pretty interesting. Sig is a bit of a cypher: a highly competent mixed-race survivalist, he is withdrawn and distrusting of almost everyone around him. He’s also taciturn, which means we don’t really get to know him too well over the course of the novel. Those chapters that were focused on him were interesting, but there was definitely a distance, on occasion. There were also a couple of jumps forward in time, which felt like we missed out on some of his development into the man he becomes. (I’m trying not to spoil anything…)
Tania is a better-rounded character, and we get to know her pretty well. She’s a low-level government official who finds herself set on Sig’s trail. Over the course of the novel, we see her impression of her country change — where before she was content to exist within the fascistic new Washington, D.C., exposure to life outside the bubble is a shock. She’s a great guide to this nightmare America, “her country gone cannibal”. The supporting cast is also interesting and engaging, not to mention wonderfully varied: whether a freedom-fighter, thuggish militiaman, government bureaucrat, or “regular” civilian just trying to get by, they are all well-rounded and realistic.
Peppered throughout with social commentary, allusion to the present, and many of the social and economic issues facing America (and the world) today, Tropic of Kansas is a great novel. Brown’s writing is tightly composed, and flows nicely. There were a couple of lulls in the momentum, but they were fleeting and barely detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel.
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