Kurt Baumeister’s new novel Pax Americana is a tale of espionage, politics, and technology that could alter human society forever. It’s set in the near future–but this is also the near future of an alternate timeline, where an end to term limits caused the office of the President in the 21st century to be utterly dominated by Republicans. The end result is a story that plays out like a funhouse mirror for contemporary politics and debates over foreign policy and religion, with Baumeister’s plot shifting from the comic to the nerve-wracking at the drop of a hat. I talked with him about the making of the book, the creation of this fictional timeline, and much more.
Pax Americana isn’t just set in the near future–it’s set in the near future of an alternate timeline. What led you to go with that approach, rather than a more standard-issue authoritarian future?
I try not to do anything “standard-issue.” Sometimes that’s a vice, sometimes a virtue, but I never want to make anything too easy on myself. There were things I wanted to say about our world, the real world, that were best done via an alternate history, one that nonetheless maps back easily to where we are. I see Pax Americana as a warning of sorts. While it focuses on the Bush 43 administration and setting up an alternate timeline based on that, the message is that evil intent leads to an evil outcome regardless of how well you manage, or transact, your evil; that as much as we’d like to change history, to imagine it might have been different, we never can. But not necessarily because fate, destiny, or anything so omnipotent and gooey as God is calling the shots, rather that we carry our demise in our original intent. We impose our fate on ourselves. I think this makes Pax Americana timely in the Trump era. Somehow, someway, despite all the havoc Dubya wrought, we wound up, less than a decade later, electing a president who’s similar to him in a lot of ways, and certainly seems poised to enact a similar set of policies. So, clearly, we didn’t learn our lesson as a nation. Maybe, in a way, Trump is a product of America’s bad national karma with respect to the Iraq War, our full due for electing Dubya in the first place.
How much work did you need to do as far as figuring out how the sociopolitical timeline of your novel came to be?
A lot. An embarrassing amount. Lots of needling things, mulling them over, changing back and forth. And the fact that I worked on this for so long means the timelines had to change many times, to evolve. When I started this project, I was looking at something around 2020 as ground zero for the present tense action. But the longer it took, the less that interested me. The future was always shrinking, encroaching, becoming the present. So, I had to keep pushing out, expanding the timeline. Linking back to your question above, I’m sure I could have set the technological premise anywhere from another twenty-five years to several more centuries in the future; but there were things I wanted to say about our current time and, beyond that, our fundamental relationship with the metaphysical that were best said using a canvas that was easily recognizable.
Given that Pax Americana has entered the world in the first year of the Trump administration, has that timing changed how you view anything in the novel?
That’s a good question. I guess the biggest change has been to make the book’s premise of a hyper-conservative America seem more dangerous, more immediate than it would have under Clinton. To me, Trump seems very much like an echo of Dubya, but worse. There’s the same sort of dim-witted, know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing cockiness but it’s not even tempered with Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism,” Dubya’s seemingly-genuine belief in Christianity.
Tuck Squires, the secret agent at the center of the book, comes off as a fairly odious character for a number of reasons. What led you to place him as the central character, as opposed to someone more sympathetic?
Yeah, I guess Tuck’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he certainly has some problems, but I don’t know I’d go so far as to describe him as odious or patently unsympathetic. Some readers really like Tuck and I think that when I write these other two books in the trilogy, there’ll be a lot of change for Tuck, a lot of growth. Which you need in a main character to carry a trilogy, especially a trilogy like this, one that I hope will have some scale, not just dramatically but thematically. The other point I’d make is that I think Tuck is funny and not always from the standpoint of someone you’re laughing with. There are a lot of times he’s someone you’re laughing at. At least I hope people are. And I don’t have any problem with that. I welcome that. I’m doing it myself. Perhaps there’ll even come a day when Tuck, looking back on his life, looking back on some of the traits you see as odious, will laugh at himself.
Your novel juxtaposes artificial intelligence, questions of religion, and conflicting political ideologies. Did working on the book change how you perceived any of these things over the course of time?
I think this final version of the book made me seek a little more intellectual balance within the text. I’ve tried to look at the possibility of anti-religious extremism as a real danger and, in some ways, that seems like the boldest, scariest part of the book. As much as religion can be a danger to us, perhaps going too far in one’s dismissal of it can be a danger, too. In fact, I’m sure it can. I hope people will see that in the book, not become too convinced it’s just a critique of religion. Even to the extent it’s a critique of religion, it’s not that per se, but rather a critique of humanity’s attempts to understand the metaphysical world.
Late in the book, there’s a reference to the 1960’s film adaptation of Casino Royale, which satirized the genre and took a very different tone from other cinematic takes on James Bond. Was that an influence on Pax Americana at all?
Absolutely. I think I talked about that a bit in my Largehearted Boy playlist. I love the 007 movies, even the parody you mentioned, Casino Royale. Much of Pax Americana is a send-up of the spy genre, Bond specifically. I see Tuck as a sort of 21st century American James Bond (which, I think, is how Tuck sees himself, or at least wishes he could), though any assessment of Bond, especially the cinematic version we’re most steeped in, must take into account how ludicrous his world is. Anyone who tries to read Pax Americana as a straight spy novel—that is, stripped of notions of satire and the absurd—would be making a big mistake and probably come away hugely disappointed.