The Wall Street Journal
Indie Next Pick for July
Best of June: io9, AV Club, Amazing Stories, The Verge
Reed King’s amazingly audacious novel is something of a cross between L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
In Reed King’s wildly imaginative and possibly prescient debut, the United States has dissolved in the wake of environmental disasters and the catastrophic policies of its final president.
It is 2085, and Truckee Wallace, a factory worker in Crunchtown 407 (formerly Little Rock, Arkansas, before the secessions), has no grand ambitions besides maybe, possibly, losing his virginity someday.
But when Truckee is thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight he is tapped by the President for a sensitive political mission: to deliver a talking goat across the continent. The fate of the world depends upon it.
The problem isTruckee’s not sure it’s worth it.
Joined on the road by an android who wants to be human and a former convict lobotomized in Texas, Truckee will navigate an environmentally depleted and lawless continent with devastatingand hilariousparallels to our own, dodging body pickers and Elvis-worshippers and logo girls, body subbers, and VR addicts.
Elvis-willing, he may even lose his virginity.
FKA USA is the epic novel we’ve all been waiting for about the American end of times, with its unavoidable sense of being on the wrong end of the roller coaster ride. 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.
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)|
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Knock, knock. Who's there? No one, dick. It's the end of the world.
— from The Grifter's Guide to the Territories FKA USA
"There." Jared Lee, the first of my two and a half friends, pointed past the stubby line of waste-treatment plants. "Right there. See? Refugees."
I raised a hand to shield my eyes from the sun. All I could make out were colored blobs. Across the river, Burns Park glowed in the morning light, its two-headed plants and stunted chemical trees all lit a violent shade of purple.
I shook my head. "Nada."
"Try your visor again," Jared said, and sneezed half a dozen times. Even his allergies were nervy.
"I told you, the color's crapped," I said. But I notched my visor down over my eyes anyway, and the world molted a mucus color where it touched my feed. Everything was shades of green and yellow — had been since last night, when in the middle of a rub-and-tug my VR porn star had suddenly blanked off into dots and zeroes. A virus from the illegal download, probably. And I couldn't exactly go to HR.
"I put my resolution up to twenty," Annalee Kimball, the second of my two and a half friends, said helpfully.
I did some fussing around with my scope app, which came free with the Crunch company software. When we were twelve, Jared and I discovered this function and spent a solid week staring at girls' boobs at resolution ten and then cracking up afterward. You can make technology as smart as you want, but you can bet bank humans will be stupid about it.
At resolution fifteen, patterns of algae made hieroglyphs on the Arkansas River. President and CEO Mark J. Burnham had pledged to clean the river by 2090 and there was even chatter of trying to breed fish, but we all knew it for empty talk.
Finally, after another tweak or two, the whole of the Crunch 407 complex came into focus: the gridlock slum of Low Hill, the shipping plants and incinerators, the admin complex and chemical-waste drums, the water cisterns and sewage plants, the solar panels glimmering greenly, and the wind-powered tram that spanned the river and took the fat cats back to Uphill at the end of their workday. The Human Resources complex, dark and evil as a mold. Miles and miles of smokestacks, solar panels, water-treatment facilities, pipes — and beyond those, the splintered pinwheel of highways that went nowhere, at least nowhere you'd want to go.
I could just pick out a person working his or her way through the maze of ancient-model rigs on the highway just east of Ext 42A.
"A refugee," Jared said again.
"Or just backlander," Annalee said, tugging a crinkle of bangs out of her visor.
Jared shook his head. He wouldn't let it drop. "What backlander you know would make a run on Crunchtown in broad daylight?"
"A backlander with the runs," I said, and Annalee rolled her eyes. Butalmost every week HR stunned a backwoods camper sneaking in to poop in our toilets or steal toilet paper from supply. I once cranked open the shower to find a woman, butt-naked, sloughing about four years of grit down the drain. The only woman I've ever seen naked in real life, and she was a sixty-five-year-old hillbilly with dirt in her crack.
"Nah. Refugee." Jared sneezed again. The same month Jared was born, Crunch Snacks and Pharmaceuticals had its worst enviro disaster in history, flooding the river with two hundred tons of toxic chemicals. You could always tell Riverside babies from the sound they made when they breathed, as if they were sucking air through a wet sock. "What do you want to bet we get a run of foreigners from the Federation? The Commonwealth's been rolling blackouts from Chicago to Winnipeg because of the new Security Resolution."
"The Commonwealth's always threatening blackouts," Annalee pointed out.
"This time, it isn't just a threat," Jared insisted. "Half the Federation is dark right now. The servers are going haywire."
"Spam," I said. "You can't trust everything you read on the news. Didn't anyone tell you that?"
Jared shrugged, like Just wait and see.
"Besides, HR would of pulled the alarm," I said, but mostly to convince myself. I wasn't worried about raiders — no one, no matter how strung out on shiver, would dream of attacking Crunchtown, not with its security force and the watchtowers and the HR goons strutting the streets showing off their ammunition (but remembering to smile!).
The problem with foreigners was simple: they carried disease. When I was a kid, a few hundred desperate backlanders, fleeing violence at the border of Sinopec-TeMaRex Affiliated, made it to Crunch 407. The board of directors stuck them down in Low Hill, and a week later half of us were laid flat by the C-1 virus, one of the worst superflus that ever hit. Two thousand crumbs died in less than a week. Now foreigners had to go through quarantine, even if they were just passing through.
"There are two of them," Annalee said suddenly. "A tall one, and a short one."
I notched my zoom a little further. She was right: as I watched, the shadow fissured in two and then globbed together again.
"Maybe a dwarf," Jared said.
"Or a hobbit," I put in. A few years ago, Billy Lou Ropes had somehow rounded up a few old books — real ones, made of paper — and one of them was called The Hobbit. I'd never gotten used to reading — the text didn't move or scroll or link to videos; it couldn't read itself out loud, even — but I liked the picture on the cover, and the smell of the pages, which reminded me of my mom's old maps.
"Or a child," Annalee said.
The idea hovered uneasily between us: a little kid, maybe sick with something, maybe starving or thirsty for water or slashed up by the roadslicks who made their living taking tolls from travelers.
Then our SmartBands pulsed a light warning through our wrists. Fifteen minutes to daily login.
"I guess that's our cue," Annalee said.
"Hustle and shake," Jared said, and sighed. "Another day in paradise."CHAPTER 2
I became a grifter for a real simple reason: I wasn't good at much of anything else.
— from The Grifter's Guide to the Territories FKA USA
Most scientists gave the human race another hundred and fifty to two hundred years, tops. Almost everyone agreed the best of human history was behind us. We were, as the human spermicide Dan Ridges once said, on the wrong side of the blow job. It was hard to imagine a time when humans were just getting themselves worked up, when climax was a vision of the not-too-distant future. When there even was a future.
Now, we were in the sticky, smelly, post-climax part of human history.
But sometimes, in the morning, I could almost forget.
We joined the crowds flowing together toward the Crunch 407 Production complex — thousands of us, a single force churning through the narrow Low Hill streets. Buzz saws made a regular electric music: after all the problems with gut wedge, HR was on order to increase the regulation door size. Old holograms shed pixels on every corner, bleating about two-for-one painkillers at the Company Store. Deliverables robots whizzed sample envelopes and small packages through the narrow streets, and from every corner smiling holos reminded us of the importance of the three P's: Punctuality, Positivity, and Productivity. The sky was the white iron-hot that meant we'd break a hundred before noon, and the wind smelled like a dust storm, shimmering with a blood-red haze: my favorite kind of weather.
Outside of R-Block, we ran into Saanvi Ferrier and Woojin. Woojin was sweating through his usual costume.
"You hear what we did to those HR fuckers at the Rose Bowl last night?" Saanvi asked as she cut her chair left and right to avoid a clutterfuck of trash. Saanvi was captain of a fantasy football team and competed against other company divisions for Crunchbucks and more HealthPass&0153; days.
"Tell me you nailed them," I said. There was nothing we hated more than Human Resources. The department fed directly to the Crunch, United, board and worked in deadly secrecy. Its agents were everywhere and nowhere, like a poisonous fart.
"More than nailed," Saanvi said. She had a dazzling smile, so wide it dimpled all her chins together, and it pained me to think that someday she might look like her mom, completely dayglo, with orange staining even her teeth and the whites of her eyes. "Creamed. It was infinite."
"Meow," Woojin said. Ever since the announcement he was transspeciating, it was all he ever said. Woojin didn't wash his fur nearly enough, and we were careful to walk a few feet in front of him.
"You're a legend, San," I said. "Permission to fist-bump?"
"Granted," she said. Physical contact without verbal consent was illegal in the colony — which wasn't a bad thing, exactly, but made it pretty awkward for a sixteen-year-old kid hoping and praying he wouldn't always be a virgin.
Jared was scrolling through his visor feed. "Hey, did you guys See Michael and Addie this morning?" Michael and Addie was the most popular feed in the country.
"Meow," Woojin said.
"That whole show is staged." When Annalee shook her head, her black braids caught invisible waves of chemical static, and briefly crackled off some colors. That was Annalee for you: electric. She and I were once neighbors, back when we lived in 12-B. It was lucky I got my hooks in her when we were little. She was way out of my league now, with skin the rich brown color of trees you never saw anymore and the kind of curves you wanted to bed on. Of course, I'd been in love with her forever but in a way that didn't hurt, like a scar I couldn't remember getting.
"You really think they could of staged that spew?"
"Why not? It's called special effects."
"Uh-uh. No way." Jared started sneezing so bad even his eyes looked like they were snotting.
"So where'd they find a real egg? Tell me that. And don't give me some shit about the Denver Airport and some secret underground civilization."
"It isn't shit, and isn't even secret. The Russian Federation and the cartel have been building cities under the surface for years. ..."
"Sure, just like the Mars colonists are alive and just choosing not to communicate. ..."
There were lots of things I hated about Crunch 407. But there were things I liked about it, too, and one of them was this: walking with Annalee and Jared and even Woojin in the sun, while Saanvi whizzed along beside us in her chair, while from their blocks thousands of crumbs poured into the streets and shouted news at one another or stopped to slug a coffee at one of the unofficial canteens hacked out of a tiny square of lobby or a defunct elevator shaft.
Already, I'd completely forgotten the backlanders, or refugees, or whatever they were, making their way to us along a highway of littered wreckage.
"Is a road still a road if it doesn't go anywhere?" Annalee asked me once after a party in the old parking garage on the south side of Low Hill, where the serious dimeheads went to get high. She dropped her head on my shoulder — she didn't even ask first. "Does time exist if nothing ever changes?"
Which is one of those questions that makes you think you should never have smoked embalming fluid in the first place.
* * *
We said goodbye to Saanvi and Woojin just inside the main gates. Five minutes later, Jared and Annalee peeled off toward the trolley that would take them to Uphill. Jared did New Business for Public Liaisons, and he was good. No surprise: He was the only guy I knew who could legitimately get excited about the release of Bolognese-Flavored CrunchItalian&0153; Bread Things or the fact that the company was running a holiday raffle through its advertising department, the prize equal to a week away at the Crunch Wellness Retreat in Ouachita National Forest, or what was left of it. Annalee worked in Remediation through the DoJ, which meant that she spent her days fielding angry livestreams from people demanding refunds when their CrunchChipz&0153; turned out to be composed mostly of glue, or their OrangeJuz&0153;, over time, actually turned them orange.
"I hope you crunch it today," Jared said with a grin and a sneeze.
I looked around to make sure no HR monkeys were lurking around, then gave him the finger.
"See you in the Commons?" Annalee called back — like she needed to ask. Every night we hung out in the Commons, a cozy little den of shaggy couches and old carpet, at least until the nighttime blackout took down the server and our VR. It was too risky to try to hang out in person once the dimeheads were out.
An HR goon stationed at the corner spitting venom through his teeth gave me the old once-over.
"Better hurry up," he said. "Or you'll be late." Like I didn't have my SmartBand to tell me.
I practically skidded into the vestibule of Production-22. The security guard was crooked over an enormous book, a real book, made of dead trees and everything. At the sound of my footsteps, she dropped it, letting out a long string of code.
"Heya, Sammy," I said. "How's cramming?"
Sammy, the half of my two and a half friends, doubled over to retrieve her book, then glared at me with enormous fiber-optic eyes.
"You scared me," she said.
"That's good," I said. "That means you're improving."
This earned me another glare. "The HSSE doesn't test for fear," she said. Before I could skid past her, she shoved the book into my hands.
"Sorry, Sammy. I'm pretty short on time," I said. It was Sammy's dream to move to Silicon Valley, and for months I'd been quizzing her every morning — even though so far every single one of her requests to emigrate had been denied.
Her eyelids shuttered and then opened again. I swear to God, I will never know how a heap of metal and plastic parts manufactured circa 2035 in Malaysia could look so damn pitiful.
"Fine," I said. Flipping forward a few pages, I picked a question at random, waiting for the data-scan on my visor to process the words and whisper them to me. I had no time to remember how to read.
"Let's say you run into a fellow Engineered Person on the street," I said, once my audio cued me. "Name three appropriate greetings."
Sammy rattled off the answers quickly. "Smile and say hello. Smile and offer your hand or equivalent mechanical part for a 'shake.' Hug."
Sammy repeated the text word for word. I couldn't imagine why she was studying so hard, given her memory drive let her stash the whole book the first time she'd scanned it.
"Correct. Question 537. Let's say you are seated with Accidental Persons —" I broke off as my audio software seemed to snicker. "'Accidental Persons'? That's a little harsh."
"We were crafted." Sammy tilted her head. She was neither a male nor a female, as far as I could tell, but her voice was a high, fluttery kind of electronic. So, either a female, or a male who'd never gone through puberty. "You're just here because of a random collision of subatomic particles and the influence of chance acting on an infinite space-time map."
"The New Kingdom of Utah would disagree," I said. I closed the book, Being and Becoming: A Guide to Sentience and Selfhood, by the Independent Nation of Engineered People-Things, and handed it back to her. The cover showed a group of SAAMs, many of them wearing human clothing, standing on a lawn next to a ModelPet&0153;, smiling broadly at the camera.
"One more question," she said. "A hard one."
No way was I going to make it to my station in time. But I'd never been able to say no to Sammy. So I pulled a really angry face, baring my teeth, scrunching up my eyebrows, glaring.
"Hmmm." Because of her age, when Sammy processed you could hear a very faint whining. "Not happy ... no, definitely not happy. The eyebrows go the other way. Sad, maybe? The eyebrows are contracted. But no, the mouth is all wrong." She was quiet for a few more seconds. "You're confused. That's it, right? You're confused."
"Close enough," I said. My SmartBand was so tight by now, it was painful. "Sorry, Sammy. I really gotta scram."
I took the stairs two at a time. One floor, two floors, three floors. I slammed through a door marked CAUTION — EMPLOYEES ONLY, holding my SmartBand to the lock to disable it. The door released with a whoosh, and suddenly a giant fist of sound reached up to punch me in the face. Gears grinding, liquids sizzling and hissing, crates rattling, and giant conveyor belts chug-chug-chugging along, as big as the highways that had once carried cars across the continent. Security techs with bubbly gas masks appeared and ghosted in the steam. Armored bots scuttled like nuclear spiders between the equipment, readers flashing in the murk.
I grabbed a mouth attachment from the wall where they were pegged, hooked it to my visor, and sucked down a breath of clean air. Then I clapped my hands over my ears and sprinted down one of the catwalks jointed high in the air above all the machinery below, finally throwing open the door to the work deck. I slid into my chair just as my SmartBand gave a final, violent squeeze, and the clock rolled over to 7:30. A giant whistle sounded through the whole of Crunchtown, loud enough I could feel it in the back of my teeth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "FKA USA"
Copyright © 2019 Reed King.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I. Crunchtown 407, Crunch, United, Colonies,
Interlude: Dymophosphylase; or, Billy Lou's Lament,
Part II. Crunchtown 407 [right arrow] BCE Tech,
Interlude: The Goat Speaks,
Interlude: The Legend of Tiny Tim,
Interlude: The Grifter's Guide to the Territories FKA USA,
Part III. The Sovereign Nation of Texas [right arrow] The Dust Bowl,
Interlude: A Short Eulogy,
Part IV. Walden [right arrow] Las Vegas, Libertine,
Interlude: Marjorie's Story; or, the Whore's Lament,
Part V. Libertine [right arrow] I.N.E.P.T.,
Part VI. San Francisco, or: The Emerald City,
Appendix A: What Is a Human?,
Appendix B: Defining Dissolution,
Appendix C: Annie Waller V. Kitty Von Dutch, Katty Von Dench, and Katie Von Dulch,
Appendix D: Politics and Natural Disaster: The Unexamined Link,
Appendix E: The Android Freedom Fighters, 2050s–2070s,
Appendix F: The Rumpelstiltskin Roaches, and Other Lies from the Golden Age of Genetic Engineering,
About the Author,