“It’s 1996. The Fight to Save America Has Just Begun”. This slogan adorns the top of Tom De Haven’s ‘U.S.S.A.’ debut, “Book One” (also seen online as “Top Secret”). With its Avon release in 1987, this young adult novel paints a disturbing portrait of a future Dystopian America. De Haven borrows a bit from Ray Bradbury’s iconic ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to fuel this nightmarish vision of the United States of Secure America, a military controlled, ultra-right-wing state that has aligned closely with the Soviet Union. While “freedom” is still a viable option, its sacrifices are free speech, independent media and privacy. While the book was written and released in the 80s, a lot of the author’s themes and ideas predict what is happening in our own present day. It’s unsettling, yet a vivid reminder of how liberty is a hard fought and precious commodity.
In the book’s premise, a coup occurs in Washington on January 19th, 1995 that eliminates the government’s infrastructure. Congress is ultimately fired, along with the president. The military, led by a de-facto leader named General Sawchuk, takes control of the US proclaiming it the U.S.S.A. They align with the ultra-right-wing policies of the Soviet Union and, together, begin a worldwide campaign to tackle the Middle East and Mexico. All of this is recounted in the early chapters by the main character, Eddie Ludlow, in first person narrative.
At the beginning of the novel we learn that one year has passed since the coup, and patriotic “renewal” is enforced by aggressive New Cops and the military. Eddie is a high school student living in a small, midwestern town. The novel’s opening pages has Eddie and some friends sneaking off to a secret bazaar that allows students to sell and swap banned music. In a horrifying scene that echoes Bradbury, we see the New Cops arrive, dousing all of the outlawed media with flamethrowers. While that sort of imagery doesn’t envelope the entire novel, it definitely sets the tone that this is a foreign US.
A majority of this series opener is spent on just the day to day activities in and out of high school. It’s catered to the young adult crowd (arguably 12-17) so you won’t find heavy gunfire. There’s some, not a lot. Instead this one really soaks up the atmosphere of a very different “land of the free”. There’s one news channel and it is state controlled. Robotic birds serve as roving “big brother” cameras. The school only uses state propaganda and regularly replaces teachers with new government heads. One of Eddie’s teachers, Mr. Graham, asks, “Is patriotism – the love of one’s country – always the same thing as the love of one’s government?” This is during a discussion of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Later, Eddie learns that Mr. Graham has been fired and seemingly homeless after challenging his students to think outside of the box.
While Eddie’s day to day is outlined, De Haven introduces some lovable characters in Mike, Roger and Eddie’s love interest, B.J. As the kids start to question their existence in the new regime, they team with an underground resistance group headed by “Denim Guy”. He challenges the group to think about the USA and how important it was and still is. They all strive to fight back, but understand “freedom isn’t won in an hour”. There’s a number of smaller plot lines – Eddie’s father is a reporter and is filming various protests across the country. B.J.’s father is employed as a scientist by the military and questions his country’s morals and ethics. The book’s finale is a bullet ridden chase scene that propels the story into later books.
De Haven was born in 1949 and I can see where his life experiences factored into the story. 50s and early 60s rock and roll could have been a bit taboo for him as a young man, perhaps an inspiration for some of the anti-media tactics of the New Cops. The author has written several fantasy novels, a Superman book and comes back to this series for it’s last entry, book four. I think he did a fantastic job placing himself into Eddie’s “young” thought process. The pacing is about right for this introductory tale, but will need to pick up as the series progresses forward. I own book two also but will need to locate and purchase the others. Based on this volume, it should be money well spent.