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If I live to be 100 years old, I could witness the beginnings of the unraveled world that Reed King envisions in FKA USA. The very thought of it makes me cringe. It isn’t a pretty place, nor does this labyrinthine tale take you anywhere near that direction.

Perhaps it also made the so-far unidentifiable Mr. King cringe too --- so much so that one simply gives up sleuthing around online to find out who lurks behind the glib pseudonym.

But the author of what some predict to be another cult classic in the weird world of futuristic fiction needn’t worry about dissolving into anonymity after a risk-all project either blows up in his/her face or deflates into remainder bins.

FKA (short for “Formerly Known As”) USA is nothing short of a big surprise in a genre where so many dystopic novels fail because they simply rearrange the same old post-apocalyptic elements without creating any new meaning from them.

"[B]ehind more than 400 pages of energetic, witty and grotesquely picturesque writing, the scariest thing is that King really 'knows the stuff' in all the areas where a country that once led the free world could come apart at the seams."

Those familiar background paradigms --- economic collapse, environmental devastation, civil anarchy, pandemic disease, government corruption, factional militarism, massive grinding poverty, manufactured ignorance, workplace slavery, human commodification, rampant racism, infrastructure disintegration, to mention just a few --- are there in mind-numbing abundance, practically choking every page. In fact, their effects are as thick as the toxin-permeated air that King predicts most of North America will be breathing by the late 21st century. Yes, our century.

I suppose that’s enough to make anyone think twice about plunging into such an abhorrent stew of near-future “reality.” Trouble is, King makes it strangely compelling by concocting a barely credible mission that can only be accomplished by traveling great distances through unsafe territory. And he assembles such a messed-up crew of characters to do it that you keep on reading just to see how badly they’ll fail. To add more uncertainty to the effort, only two of the four are human.

There’s Truckee Wallace, an adolescent assembly-line drone from a synthetic food factory; Tiny Tim, a hulking former convict, lobotomized and released by authorities because it’s cheaper than prison; Sammy, a feminine budget-priced android who wants to be human; and Barnaby, a goat who can talk and think at Mensa level as a result of a neural implant containing a Russian criminal mastermind’s brain cells (or something like that).

Truckee is mysteriously assigned by the decrepit last president of the former USA (now fragmented into several dozen bickering statelets and consortiums that also include big chunks of Canada) to ensure that Barnaby the goat is delivered to a west-coast lab.

There, “good guy” scientists can supposedly undo the damage caused by nefarious brain-experimenters who want to control the entire population of FKA USA. Did I mention that everyone is cyber-connected? Apparently Wi-Fi everywhere, for everyone, is one piece of tech infrastructure that has not failed, nor is likely to.

The rest of the story is really about the journey and what King’s rather pathetic but occasionally ingenious protagonists do to get where they’re going. And here’s where things get interesting.

As the bumbling quartet muddles from one accident and adventure to the next, King peppers their quest with numerous footnotes filling in the bizarre (but not entirely incredible) future history of the USA --- basically how its chaotic present in 2019 could so easily devolve into a mess that’s barely a generation away. If you were never a footnote-reader before, FKA USA will surely make it a habit!

Without getting into spoiler territory, Truckee, Tim, Sammy and Barnaby do make it (more or less) to the west coast, but their goal becomes more and more elusive as their collective understanding of long-ignored concepts, such as right and wrong, friendship and compassion, wealth and poverty, safety and danger, undergo many thought-provoking revisions.

But behind more than 400 pages of energetic, witty and grotesquely picturesque writing, the scariest thing is that King really “knows the stuff” in all the areas where a country that once led the free world could come apart at the seams. Some folks, from within and without, fear that’s already happening.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on September 6, 2019

by Reed King

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250108918
  • ISBN-13: 9781250108913