Human polities cohere into empires (often thanks to conquest) and then break apart (Rome, for example)… then perhaps re-form in some fashion (China, Germany). Such processes can be devastating to those forced to live through them. But they also provide rich plot fodder for authors, SFF authors included. Today I’m going to tackle a small subset of political-breakup SFF novels: those that treat of the decline and fall of the US and the rise of its successor states. Here are five vintage examples.
Patternist by Octavia E. Butler
Doro had a simple hobby that occupied him through the centuries of his immortality: carefully search out humanity’s tiny minority of psionically gifted mutants, encourage them to gather into communities, breed them to produce more mutants, and eat the minds of the tastiest examples. This project, pursued quietly over centuries, provided Doro with many fascinating discoveries, the second-to-last of which was that he had seriously underestimated his food’s potential for self-defense, and the last of which was that he was not at all immortal—merely very long-lived.
Having rid themselves of Doro, the mutants elevate humanity to the heights (starflight) and precipitate it into the depths (a civilization-shattering extra-terrestrial pandemic). Some mutants—the Patternists—find that they can bind the powerless to them with chains of pure mental power. Patternmaster is set in a time after this development, a time when the United States is long forgotten. It has been replaced by a patchwork of brutal feudal holds, surrounded by wilderness populated by packs of bestial Clayarks. All because thousands of years ago, Doro was peckish.
The Pelbar Cycle by Paul O. Williams
(The Breaking of Northwall, 1981; The Ends of the Circle, 1981; The Dome in the Forest, 1981; The Fall of the Shell, 1982; An Ambush of Shadows, 1983; The Song of the Axe, 1984; The Sword of Forbearance, 1985)
A thousand years after a great calamity left humanity on the brink of extinction, the human population has still not recovered. A few new cultures—the Pelbar, the Shumai, the Sentani, and many others—dot what was once the United States, leaving much territory unoccupied. These communities are unfamiliar with and deeply suspicious of each other. Mutual hostility is the rule of the day.
The seeds of change originate in Pelbar, an alliance of city-states. A disastrous military expedition leaves its sole survivor, Jestak, convinced that the disparate peoples of North America must once have been the same people. Perhaps they could be united once again! This is a dream Pelbar’s conservative matriarchs would reject out of hand—and one that will, over the course of the series, have a profound effect on this future North America.
Rosinante Trilogy by Alexis Gilliland
Crisis and political necessity led to the formation of the North American Union, encompassing the United States, Mexico, Canada, and a few other nations. The formative crisis having past, the Union is held together largely thanks to the determination of a cabal of conservatives, the Creationist Coalition. The central figures in the Administration are determined to not let their power and influence slip away. Their resolve proves the North American Union’s undoing.
The Administration is long on steadfast purpose, but short on foresight. Assassinating a Hispanic populist governor alienates Hispanic North Americans. Paranoid attempts to capture a suspected Old Regime sympathizer force the sympathizer to see the Union as his enemy. Each move undertaken to ensure the Union’s stability instead undermines it, with the inevitable result that the North American Union collapses into independent nation states.
Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (1984)
Fearing the United States would become invulnerable to Soviet weapons should America succeed in deploying the Spiderweb defense system, the Soviet Union struck. The attack killed millions of Americans and left US infrastructure in shambles. It was insufficient to prevent the US from retaliating in kind. In less than an hour, both nations were close to ruin.
Five years after the limited nuclear exchange, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka set out to document post-Warday America. They find a nation divided against itself. Those regions lucky enough to be spared the worst effects of Warday could use their resources to rebuild the nation. Instead, the fortunate focus on regional security and prosperity, leaving the worst-off states to fend for themselves. Where exactly two snoopy writers fit into the new world order is unclear; it might very well be as prisoners spending their final days at hard labour.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
Faced with a world-wide economic crisis of seemingly unprecedented extent, the United States government did the only responsible thing it could do. It threw its hands up in baffled despair and graciously absolved itself of any responsibility to govern. There arose a quilt-work of microstates, each governing in accord with its own idiosyncratic ethos. The result no doubt offers less security to its inhabitants than did the old United States, but nobody could deny that it is an entertaining hotchpotch.
When he is not playing in the virtual reality known as the Metaverse, hacker Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for the Mafia (just one of America’s exciting new assortment of governments!). Hiro unwisely takes possession of a data packet called Snow Crash, misapprehending its true nature. The product of rediscovered ancient cognitive-linguistic knowledge, Snow Crash can bluescreen people unfortunate enough to be exposed to it. Saving the world from weaponized language is above Hiro’s paygrade. Nevertheless, he is stuck with the job.
Science fiction authors adore smashing the US into bits: I think they have fun drawing borders on blank maps of North America. Examples abound, but if I were to try to list them all, I would be here until Friday. Also, this is a five-item list, which by its nature is limited to five works. Curse you, grim tyranny of math! Feel free to use the comments below to mention the noteworthy works I’ve neglected.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.