In his book The Next Civil War, journalist Stephen Marche warns that the United States is slipping dangerously close to widespread political violence. Marche interviewed dozens of experts for the book, and their predictions read like something out of science fiction.
“I thought of it at the time as ‘dystopian realism,’” Marche says in Episode 512 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “There’s all these dystopian novels out there, and it’s like, ‘Let me just describe the reality of what’s going on. You don’t need to make stuff up. I’ll get the best available models and show you what they look like, and that’s enough to be going on with, in the dystopian realm.’”
The book presents several future scenarios. In one, fighting breaks out between local law enforcement and the US military. In another, refugees flee a devastated New York City in the wake of a massive superstorm. These sections are written like a novel and attempt to harness the power of fiction to create an emotional connection with the characters. “I explicitly based it on The Day After, which was originally a piece of fiction written for Congress about what a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, would look like,” Marche says. “That got turned into a TV movie, which was the most-watched television show in the world at that time and caused Reagan to re-evaluate the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Treaty, and actually had big political impacts.”
Fiction about a coming civil war is already very popular. Most of these are right-wing stories that appeal to survivalists and preppers. “They have very specific visions of what a collapsed America would be,” Marche says. “It’s never nuclear winter that they’re imagining, because of course no one would survive that. They imagine something very similar to the Wild West, where you’re on your own, and you need to garden for yourself, and you need to arm yourself, and you need to run away from groups of bandits, essentially. So the political far right is very much engaged in fantasy.”
Marche says that grim warnings about the future have their place but our culture may have gone overboard when it comes to producing dystopian fiction. For his next book, he’s considering something more upbeat. “I wrote this dystopian book, but the book we probably need is a utopian tech book, where it’s just like, ‘Here are some beautiful things that technology can do,’” he says. “Maybe that’s the next thing I’ll do, a solarpunk novel.”
Listen to the complete interview with Stephen Marche in Episode 512 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Stephen Marche on his novel The Hunger of the Wolf:
I was always obsessed with wolves. The werewolf stuff I had seen a bit in my PhD, which was on Shakespeare, in which I did some work on various magical transformations in that period. So I knew some of the history of werewolves, but for the book I really went into it. And it’s fascinating because it really does go back all the way through time, and it’s in every culture. So there are versions of werewolves in Japan, and there are versions of werewolves in indigenous Canadian culture, and there are versions of werewolves in Africa—they don’t turn into wolves, but they turn into dogs. So it is this general story that’s out there and fits in with something really general to the human condition that I think is pretty powerful.
Stephen Marche on civil war:
The US military command is built very clearly around a chain of command that is totally tied in to the US Constitution, and when [civil order] breaks down, the military will make a choice as a unit, and someone will be in charge of the US military. Generals will leave and generals will go, but they won’t take any forces with them. What you will have is paramilitary units who do not feel like the government is a legitimate government, and [feel] that they are freedom fighters. This is what tends to happen in civil war. It’s not like the military breaks into two sides, like in the first Civil War. You have the military, and then you have a lot of people outside the military who do not regard the military as legitimate and take violence into their own hands.
Stephen Marche on secession:
At the end of the book I look for solutions, and I actually think secession is one of the more reasonable solutions for the United States at this point. When marriages get to the state that America is in, you just sit the kids down and say, “It’s time for a divorce.” That’s the civilized solution. Now, secession in America is very, very difficult—not impossible, but certainly unconstitutional, and also requires a huge amount of international negotiation. But that said, I really do think that we’re now reaching a point, particularly with the incipient abortion decision, where you’re basically going to have pretty much two different countries anyway … I think there might well come a point where California would be better on its own, Texas would be better on its own. They don’t share a lot in any way.