Cover Image: Another American Century: The Decline and Fall

Another American Century: The Decline and Fall

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Member Reviews

Sometimes a reviewer comes across a book that sounds interesting and the book just falls flat, this was one of those times for me. I just couldn't finish this book.
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Many thanks to Net Galley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Normally I love a good dystopian novel but this one left me cold.  I’m fairness to the author my view could be put down to a difference in political viewpoints. Whilst I find it difficult to prescribe to Ayn Rand’s view of unfettered free markets as the only true measure of society’s success, the author models his novel on the decline of the view as it contributes to America’s decline over the course over the century. Unfortunately, the protagonists in this book are mere mouthpieces for the author’s views. Due to the lack of development is the book vis-a-vis technological changes for example, this book would have been served a much truncated essay or novella.

Sorry, not my bag.
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Thanks for the ARC NET GALLEY

I didn't think I would try another "political future" scenario after wasting my life on "The Wanders" but this one restored my faith in the genre a bit.  Covering the fifty years from 2021 to 2070, you are treated to a variety of voices that remind you not only of what we see today, but what may happen if we don;t change something soon.
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As the author writes in his introduction, this is a novel, not a prediction. It is an episodic novel composed of discrete vignettes covering the fifty years from 2021 to 2070 during which the United States declines and eventually suffers through near-anarchy, economic collapse, military dictatorship and dissolution.

Judged as a novel, the best episodes concern the struggles of ordinary people with diverse backgrounds and situations, as they deal with the changing conditions. These give some texture and interest to the higher-up political dueling. As the book goes on, these disappear and the author concentrates exclusively on political leadership machinations.

In these latter stages, readers will care little about the characters, who are mostly mouthpieces for the author's dialog on his political theories. They seem almost to be written by a different person, one with so little respect for his readers that he describes an action, has a character explain what should be obvious, then uses the narrator's voice to explain it again. There is no character development, no feeling that events are evolving naturally, only didactic explanations.

The book does not even attempt science fiction. The only technological changes, all of which happen by 2028, are smart watches replace mobile telephones and self-driving cars become more common. The political arguments all reference the 2016 to 2019 era. No significant geopolitical changes occur other than mild extensions of current trends. Society and culture remain frozen.

I suspect most people will read this not for literary merit or serious speculation about future scenarios, but for the political messages today; much the same as they read Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand's books are much more entertaining, with a Hollywood screenwriter's flair for comic-book energy and drama, plus larger-than-life characters, suspense, confrontation and kinky sex. Another American Century lacks all that. It features more realistic and nuanced characters, none of whom are pure heroes or villains, and certainly none are superheroes or supervillains. There's little energy, drama, suspense or confrontation, and no sex, vanilla or kinky. That makes it more sober and realistic, but less fun to read.

I did not find the political argument compelling. Nearly everyone agrees that regulations and spending to attack every social problem and unrestrained military adventurism lead to inflation, unemployment and slow economic growth; which in turn create conditions for crime, terrorism and authoritarian responses. That has been played out many times in many places. But nearly everyone also agrees that some amounts of regulation, social spending and military action are good things. The trick is to find the right amount.

The situation at the beginning of the book is similar to the US in 1976. 16 years of wars without clear goals or exit strategies, pursued for romantic ideals and domestic political advantage rather than hard-headed calculation of costs and consequences, using weapons and tactics designed to further careers of top officers rather than to do the job at hand, had resulted in humiliation, debt and collapse of credibility (not to mention lots of dead, wounded and captive people and ecological destruction). Wars on poverty, drugs, crime and other social programs were similarly undertaken without clear goals or exit strategies, without forethought, with tactics beneficial only to the generals in those wars.

But 1960 - 1976 was not one-party rule, as the author posits in 2020 - 2070; Republicans shared as much responsibility as Democrats. And it was not a time of unrelieved failure. There were great advances in civil rights, a moon landing, thawing of the Cold War, great advances in technology and many other good things.

Most importantly, things changed. The system worked. For the next 24 years, with control shared by both parties, the budget was balanced, massive deregulation occurred, taxes and spending were rationalized, military actions had limited scope and were largely successful--and failure was followed by immediate cutting of losses rather than throwing good lives after lost lives.

And that era was by no means perfect. Lots of bad things were done in those 24 years, lot of mistakes we are still paying for. But it didn't take a military coup or suspension of civil rights to accomplish. Institutions bent but didn't break. Elections brought in new people. Similar paths were followed in most of Western Europe and free Asia, although in those cases the problems had been building for longer and were more entrenched, and the solutions not allowed to proceed as far.

Then things switched again. From 2000 - 2020 spending has become unrestrained, military actions have been ill-considered and overambitious, regulation has expanded beyond justification. But once again, it has been both parties, and the results have not been all bad.

If you extrapolate these trends for another 50 years, then you can certainly imagine things getting very bad. But to do that you have to answer why things were allowed to get that way. Why didn't elections and courts and other institutions halt the decline? There may be some reasons why this time will be different from the past, but if those are absent from the book, it seems more like scare-mongering than valuable political fable. Elizabeth Warren is not Hugo Chavez and, more important, she couldn't be, the system wouldn't let her.

Overall, the book is only fun to read in parts of the first half, and does not present realistic scenarios of the future. It does make a point, that unrestrained government ambition and power leads to disaster for everyone, but that's pretty well accepted. It doesn't give plausible arguments that we are far along the road to serfdom today, nor that the institutions that have protected us in the past will fail to work next time.
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