For many of us, it's still Independence Day weekend, and we're still grilling hamburgers and celebrating our country's freedoms. To commemorate the occasion, John T. Ottinger looks at a dozen science fiction books and stories that are uniquely American.
Topping the list is, ironically, a book by a Brit. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, celebrates America's love of the sometimes weird and wacky with a multiple award winning novel. Its one of my personal favorites, not least of which is because the final battle between the Gods, the Ragnarok, takes place not 3 miles from where I earned my bachelor's degree, at the iconic Rock City. (Tangentially, another book in this vein, if you are interested, is Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout.)
Justin Allen blends the western and fantasy together in Year of the Horse. You can read a full review of this book, but suffice it to say that Allen eloquently blends two very American traditions, the Western and the tall tale, into a novel that is infused with Americana.
Another Western style tale is Stephen King's seven-part Dark Tower series. King uses all the tropes of the lone ranger, the good guy versus an evil one in a fantasy setting that has the flavor of a Western, but also charts its own distinct territory.
Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series cannot go without comment. The series, set on the American frontier in an alternate nineteenth century, mixes magic and history to great effect. As Wikipedia states it: "In Card's world, many people have a limited supernatural ability, or "knack" to do some task to almost perfection. Alvin Miller, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that his knack far surpasses those of everyone else. In particular, he can change both living and nonliving matter simply by force of will (hence the title "Maker"). This power comes at a cost, however; not only does Alvin feel a great responsibility to use his power for good, but there are forces that actively seek his demise."
Andy Duncan's writing is populated with people and characters of the American South. "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions; or, The Devil's Ninth Question" which appeared in the Wizards anthology edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois is part Poe and part Flannery O'Connor (read my review here). ""A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil's Ninth Question" by Andy Duncan is a story of the Devil, how wizards become such, and a slice of time in a U.S. South recently ravaged by internal war. As a reader and Southerner, I always appreciate a writer writing about the uniqueness that is the South. Duncan knows the South and his story reminds me somewhat of Christopher Priest's The Prestige in its setting. Duncan's protagonist is clever and witty, and outfoxes even the Devil himself."
The classic short story "Eastward Ho!" by William Tenn explores the theme of American expansion and the theme of race relations by presenting an alternated history in which white people are subject to Native Americans. Seeking to get out from under their yoke, the white man sets off for the fabled lands eastward, much as the Native Americans were forced to due in the westward expansion of the United States.
S. M. Stirling's Conquistadoris, as his website states it: "A Parallel Worlds/Alternate History novel, published in 2003 by ROC. The book is set in an alternate world where the Europeans never conquered the Americas, and there is a "gate" between our California and the alternate California."
Pick any number of novels and short stories by Harry Turtledove and you will find American themes, characters, and settings running throughout. This master of alternate history sets many of his tales in America, both to its good and its detriment. The Guns of the South – an alternate U.S. Civil War novel, The Great War series, or Days of Infamy – fictionalizing the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into WWII.
Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is about two 13-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, who have a harrowing experience with a nightmarish traveling carnival that comes to their Midwestern town one October. The carnival's leader is the mysterious "Mr. Dark" who bears a tattoo for each person who, lured by the offer to live out his secret fantasies, has become bound in service to the carnival. Mr. Dark's malevolent presence is countered by that of Will's father, Charles Halloway, who harbors his own secret desire to regain his youth." (Wikipedia) Bradbury's work is the quintessential small-town-meets-the-fantastic style novel that so many talespinners have emulated since.
In the small-town America vein, I do want to mention Pat Frank's Alas Babylon. Set in a small Florida town after an apocalypse, Frank captures the isolation and small town character so very, very well. (Read my review of the novel, one of my very first.)
And if you like books that mix both the paranormal and some period in the history of the United States, you could also check out Charles Coleman Finlay's Traiter to the Crown trilogy. Publishers Weekly summed up the content of the first novel in starred review as "… spellbinding historical fantasy, first of a series, takes Proctor Brown, ready minuteman and reluctant witch, through the opening battles of the American Revolution. Caught between the demands of a loyalist girlfriend and the needs of his aged parents, Proctor is eager to join the American cause and put his hidden abilities to good use. As he learns more about witchcraft, he finds it employed by both rebels and Royal Marines, and he struggles to master his talents without being exposed." The subsequent novels follow the character of Proctor Brown as he works in the U. S and Europe during the American Revolutionary War.
And of course, there are the modern paranormal stories that have an American big city character. Pick from Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, etc. and you will find many of these stories have are set in towns and cities like New York or Portland, or even Atlanta .
Those mentioned here are only the most obvious, but many other SF and fantasy writers, both historical and current, have dealt with themes associated with America or Americana. This list is by no means comprehensive, and I would challenge you to list others in the comments that I might have forgotten, never read, or simply did not know about. In particular, there are many other stories like Tenn's or Duncan's, and many novels like Turtledove's or Stirling's which I have never read or heard of, but I might like to. In particular, there is a dearth of truly science fiction tales (unless you classify the alternate history tales as SF) in this list, a lack I hope you can help me remedy.
What stories and/or novels have a very "American" feel, content, or theme to you?
This post by John T. Ottinger originally appeared at Grasping For The Wind.