Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana takes place in the year 2034, a spy thriller featuring an alternate history America fresh off of years of Evangelical, right-wing rule. The plot, naturally, centers on politics and religion, and an unholy co-mingling of the two. Zealous Christian Tuck Squires and agnostic skeptic Ken Clarion, agents of the “Shadow CIA,” are assigned to save the kidnapped Dr. Diana Scorsi, who has developed an AI program that she believes will simulate the experience of talking to God and render all world religions obsolete. The antagonist? A trillionaire reverend and “master of personal reinvention” and the founder of Tuck Squires’s favorite fast food chain, Righteous Burger. There are other characters, too, but only a handful who are relevant to the plot – in fact, Pax Americana’s first pages contain a dramatis personae which names and explains every member of the main and supporting cast. And out of this small cast grows a complex geo-political drama that bears an eerie resemblance to the current everyday news cycle of 2017.
Pax Americana is chock full of satirical humor, but I found myself wishing that it had further pushed the boundaries of absurdity. It could be that, living in a time where unbelievable, absurd news stories break almost hourly, this flavor of Christian Conservative-focused political satire has simply lost most of its bite. Baumeister shows an ability, at several points, to fully crank up the absurdity of Pax Americana’s world, especially when having the main characters not interact with each other, but the world around them. I found myself enjoying the scenes in which Squires and Clarion were separated from each other, alone, visiting restaurants and spending more time taking in their surroundings or talking to civilians than sniping at one another. These scenes give Pax Americana room to breathe, and to expand on a world that can otherwise become lost in fast-paced scenes heavy with dialogue and brief delves into character motivation. However, I still found myself wanting more. Righteous Burger is built up as a major part of Pax Americana’s world, but the first time the reader spends time inside of one isn’t until nearly two thirds of the way through the novel. I enjoyed the detail put into fleshing out the concept of a Christian fast food establishment, such as having a hologram of the mascot deliver a sermon and read Bible verses to you while you eat, but it all felt as though it was coming a little too late. Holding back on the absurdity of the world he’s created might allow Baumeister to focus more on the characters at the heart of Pax Americana, but it also makes the satire and worldbuilding feel slightly lackluster at times.
As a spy thriller, Pax Americana is fast-paced, sometimes relentlessly so. I found it an effortlessly quick read up until the last several chapters. Once the climax of the novel comes to a close, the pacing slows down – way down. During the climax, in fact, I found myself checking over and over again how many pages were left in the novel, convinced that there couldn’t simply be that many loose ends left to tie up. But there are, and though the pacing somewhat suffers for it, Baumeister puts in every effort to make Pax Americana’s ending feel definitively conclusive. There are very little ambiguities about what happens to each major cast member, which leaves the reader with a certain sense of fulfillment.
Overall, although Pax Americana is 380 pages, I would still consider it light, recreational reading, maybe as a book to take on a plane or train ride. The spy drama at its heart is a compelling mystery with decent pacing, although the socio-political satire can be a bit hit-or-miss, depending on how tired or hungry you are of the absurdity of the everyday in 2017.