Yesterday I finished FKA USA (2019), by “Reed King” — a pseudonym of a “New York Times bestselling author and TV writer.” It was a new book at my library, and the blurb about it concluded, “FKA USA is the epic novel we’ve all be waiting for about the American end of times, […] It is a masterwork of ambition, humor, and satire with the power to make us cry, despair, and laugh out loud all at once. It is a tour de force unlike anything else you will read this year.”
Sounded good. It had a long wait list, so I put it on hold back in mid-October. It became available in mid-December. It weighs in at over 1000 e-pages, so it’s taken me a few days to finish. The length is one reason though. I didn’t find the book to be much of a page-turner, and I’m afraid I skimmed bits of the last chapters.
Victoria wasn’t amused; I wasn’t engaged. Or amused.
I generally don’t find straight literary fiction very interesting. It’s necessarily about the same humans who’ve been running around for 10,000 years, and there just isn’t that much new to be said about them. Unlike songs or poems, a novel has to string lots and lots of words and ideas together in complex ways, and there are only so many ways to build a complex sensible story about human doings.
Famously, there are only seven basic plots:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- The Voyage and Return
- Rebirth and Discovery
When your cast is “regular humans,” and your stories are all set in either Earth’s past or present, after thousands of years of stories it’s pretty hard to find one that’s truly fresh (let alone truly original, which may be almost impossible).
This is why I love science fiction. It opens the doors to new kinds of stories. It is possible to be fresh in science fiction. In some cases, authors even manage to be a bit original. Which seems to have ruined me for straight fiction.
I posted recently that I didn’t get much from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (in fact, I couldn’t even finish the second book). I’m two-for-two now. I didn’t get much from FKA USA, either (I did like it a little better, though).
FKA, by the way, stands for Formerly Known As.
One issue is trying to be two kinds of book. On the one hand, a wacky almost slapstick satire about where modern culture is headed. But also a sci-fi thriller with big stakes. It ranges between slapstick goofy (with a talking goat) to serious narrative about a corporate plot.
Based on the descriptions (and this NPR review), I was expecting something between Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson (flavored with some William Gibson or Neal Stephenson). I may have smiled a few times, but I can’t say it tickled my funny bone. It mostly comes off as Idiocracy meets a road movie (which is to say I’ve seen it done so much better).
In part, it’s almost too clever and proud of itself. The writing tends to call attention to how clever it’s being. The talking goat (Barnaby) lived in an abandoned library where he lived off books. Which he read before eating, so he’s a very educated goat. Barnaby comments that Borges never sat right and Melville gave him gas. [eye-roll]
Barnaby is intelligent (and utterly miserable) because his father had human brain tissue instilled into his brain. That made his father insane enough to kill himself, but Barnaby inherited the brains.
He describes a cousin who had 15% homo sapiens brain matter as having a baffling fascination with the mechanics of shoelaces, that the letter C disturbed her, and she failed to learn her numbers past seven. Which is all very cute and clever, but too random and unreal for me. The author is a bit over-fond of the comic trope using the rule of three and throwing in a ringer for #3: “Care to send her balloons, a parade float, or a cache of weaponry?” The writing was just too over-cute for me. I found it exasperating.
Each chapter starts with a quote from The Grifter’s Guide to the Territories FKA USA. Truckee owns a copy of this rare book (he struggles with static text that doesn’t swipe or talk). Naturally there’s something of a Chekhov’s Gun there.
The author uses a lot of footnotes. The NPR review wrote, “I love the abuse of footnotes,” and I quite agree. They’re part of what makes Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman fun (especially Pratchett who uses them a lot to great effect). I even went through a stage of using them in blog posts. The problem is that they just don’t work well in electronic media. The e-book I read made accessing them a pain. Fortunately, you can skip them, they add almost nothing. I lost track at one point and was reading the footnotes from the wrong chapter and didn’t really notice much extra disconnect. You might want to read them, along with the five appendices, after.
Speaking of which, I looked briefly at two of those appendices and decided they didn’t add anything I cared about. It’s a bit like The Silmarillion. You’d have to be way into the world-building to bother, and, frankly, the world-building is too divided between slapstick and prescience to be interesting.
I’ll mention also that “Reed King” is either woefully ignorant of basic science and technology or is willfully ignoring it. The science (and technology) in this science fiction isn’t very good. It’s not a believable future. More of an exaggerated cartoon.
The story, which takes place in 2085, follows Truckee Wallace, a teenaged “ant” (worker) at Crunchtown 407, a corporate factory town that used to be Little Rock, Arkansas. At this point, the USA has divided into corporate or ideological countries, most of them at major odds with the others. Truckee belongs to the nation of Crunch, United, and lives under a fairly severe set of rules (all enforced, with deadly force, if necessary, by HR). Such rules include always smiling and other important traits for employees.
After an explosive incident involving the goat and an old friend of Truckee’s, the president of Crunch, United, tasks Truckee with taking the goat to San Francisco (which is in the nation of RealFriends© of the North). If he doesn’t, a villain may take over the world through an illegal drug that, along with a righteous high, installs something like Wi-Fi in the brain that allows control from outside.
Truckee and the goat, along with Truckee’s friend Sammy (a SAAM-1564A robot) set off on a road trip. Sammy hopes to reach the Independent Nation of Engineered People-Things and live free (note the acronym; such is the humor level). It’s just south of San Francisco.
But (or course) things aren’t what they seem.
Some of this book seemed to need better editing. During the factory incident, Truckee is described as looking out through the plate glass into the factory floor where Billy Lou Ropes and the goat suddenly appeared (not magically, they just walked in unobserved; the narrative doesn’t bother with how).
Then there’s a digression chapter about Billy Lou Ropes, and when the narrative resumes, and after a brief scuffle with security, “…Billy Lou put down the goat. When he straightened up again, he was holding a gun.” And then, “The first gunshot cracked the plastic. But the second and third brought it down in big sheets. I threw my hands up as a chunk of two-inch-thick industrial-grade polymer toppled over the console…”
(Bolding mine.) That happened early in the book, and it sensitized me to noticing other bits where, at least if I were the editor, I’d ask “Reed King” if that’s what he (or she) really meant, and maybe it could be re-written to be a bit clearer? Some of the other action sequences don’t feel real to me, either. I’d have to give the book low production values (I couldn’t enlarge the maps, for instance, and they were too small to be legible).
Another bit in that same section, when Truckee first notices Billy Lou, “For a half second, I thought it was a joke — good old Billy Lou, slinked out of town before the DoJ could get him and wouldn’t go down without a fight — and almost laughed.”
I can’t parse the logic. If Billy Lou slinked out of town, how is it he wouldn’t go down without a fight, and why is he in town? The line makes no sense to me, and it’s not the only one that didn’t.
There is also that, although told from Truckee’s point of view, the descriptions are often far more omniscient and erudite then they should be given Truckee’s background and (lack of) education. To be blunt, I just don’t think the writing (or editing) was very good.
One bit I did find cute. Truckee and friends come upon a place (formerly Flagstaff, I believe) named Walden. It’s occupied by a group of what are essentially hippies growing their own food and living a quiet natural life. They introduce Truckee to his first taste of real food.
Which he finds bland and boring. He can’t wait to leave. That was slightly subverting. The expected trope is that experiencing the natural world would be a wonderful life-changing event. Truckee reacts a lot like some of my friends’ kids on their first camping trips. Can’t wait for it to be over!
Bottom line, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. I give it an Eh! rating. (In my heart it gets a Meh! rating, but I’m willing to think at least some of that is taste and being spoiled by 50+ years of much better science fiction.)
It didn’t live up to its billing. That NPR review said, “It rarely works, (and it doesn’t always work here), but when it does, FKA USA becomes like Rudy Rucker writing The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was the idea of Rudy Rucker writing The Handmaid’s Tale that really caught my interest (Rucker’s SF writing is a hoot). I laughed longer and louder reading that line in the review than I did reading the book.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Rucker (or Adams, or Thompson, or Gibson, or Stephenson). Fortunately, it wasn’t Atwood, either.
Stay trucking, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.