Fiction — science fiction in particular — is obsessed with the post-apocalyptic world. From space odysseys to duels with zombies, readers and authors alike have a strange fascination with the world after the end of the world. But, for how different each iteration of these stories may seem, they all tend to follow a clear formula. Reed King’s “FKA USA” is no different.
The key to any good post-apocalyptic story is the apocalypse itself, the more popular ones being environmental destruction, a public health crisis or some version of a space race. Sometimes, a writer merges all three (though, granted, usually a problem in space is closely tied to an environmental disaster). In “FKA USA,” King creates a world wrecked by human-induced environmental disaster and the government’s poor management of the country. And yet, King is still able to draw in readers with the detailed history he builds around an oversaturated theme in science fiction.
Once readers know why the world as they know it is over, stories need to introduce the who. In “The Hunger Games” there’s Katniss, “Ender’s Game” has Ender and “FKA USA” introduces Truckee Wallace to the growing number of teenagers and children contending with a world left in ruins by previous generations. Again, there are specific types of heroes in every post-apocalyptic world. Truckee is the kind of hero who was never meant to be a hero, something King highlights by insisting Truckee has no redeeming qualities, despite successfully surviving the death trap that is the western part of the former United States.
Occasionally, betrayal makes an appearance in these types of stories. And, when the main character is betrayed by their close friends, it can sting. However, Truckee and his friends only share surface-level relationships. King doesn’t establish a strong connection between them, so it wasn’t heart-wrenching when Truckee’s friends sold him out to the government. What could have been an agonizing moment was, instead, simply a surprising revelation.
But what is a science-fiction story, or a story in general, without a love story? At first, it seems like Truckee is going to be just another teenage boy, pining away for one of his friends, but, as the story progresses, the love story isn’t really a love story at all.
Instead, “FKA USA” explores Truckee’s sexuality as he grapples with his attraction to his android friend and loses his virginity to an android prostitute. Each instance of Truckee’s failed intimacy invites further exploration of his downfalls, especially as he gets farther from his hometown and discovers the truths about his country. Truckee’s story is one laden with sex — if he wasn’t a 15-year-old boy trying to understand his relationship with women, I would call it misogynistic. That said, I really hope Reed King has a better relationship with women than his writing would suggest.
Finally, no science-fiction story is complete without social commentary. In addition to criticism of how we treat the environment, King creates a complex world governed by corporations. The role of the president is played by a CEO, the HR department resembles our Congress and even the CIA makes an appearance as the research and development team of the company. It’s not a subtle comparison by any means, and it’s obvious that King dislikes the power corporations and capitalism have in our country. But it’s an effective way of forcing his readers to confront their understanding of our current system, maybe the only compelling aspect of this book.
The redeeming quality of “FKA USA” is how closely King links his story to the present day. Each footnote describes some kind of catastrophe or controversy that already occurred in the story’s timeline, but loom in our own future. This blending of his fictional world and our reality highlights King’s blatant social commentary even further and adds a sense of urgency to his criticism. It’s one of the few unique takes in the book but, however formulaic “FKA USA” may be, King manages to use each trope to his advantage and keep the story just on the edge of boring.