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Book Review: "Boiling Point" by Tom Merritt
From Rick Hoar
September 15, 2010

I honestly wasn't expecting much from a political science fiction novel, especially considering it was written by a webcasting tech journalist. Now, however, I'm thinking mild-mannered Tom Merritt has more going on under the hood than anyone might anticipate.

In his novel, Boiling Point, Merritt describes American life during the balkanization of a bankrupted United States. The scenario is utterly chilling. Maybe because the overarching dissolution is only described as the characters come to understand its impact. Maybe because the politics of the day make this nightmare totally feasible IRL. Maybe because it was written more than a decade ago.

As the scene is portrayed through the words and observations of Boiling Point's cast, we learn that partisan politics have continuously prevented a federal budget resolution in Congress. As a deadline passes, the government officially runs out of money. No details are ever given as to who declares the U.S. bankrupt, but economists in the real world now routinely warn of the potential for national debt to outpace the Gross Domestic Product.

Whether or not the U.S. itself is too big to fail, the all-too-realistic consequences of a fiscally irresponsible 'nanny state' are a lot of local governments suddenly having to fend for themselves to keep the lights on. Those inconvenient autonomies, combined with a national ethnic revolt and the threat of martial law, quickly inspire certain legislatures to enact "protective measures."

Texas continually assures the world that the unilateral decision to bring its National Guard assets under state control is not a pre-secession move. Then they secede. Oklahoma joins them, and much of Louisiana is annexed by the Republic' before California's socialist political party utilizes its National-Guard-turned-State-Militia to invade Arizona (I mean, California sends "cultural advisors" to Arizona to assist the socialists there in transitioning to power and defending against Texas' westward expansion.)

This domino effect basically continues until the country is a collection of rag-tag nations, each rallied around cultural centers, more so than the former state borders. Merritt envisions a lot of interesting diplomatic and militaristic evolutions, but I thought it was most fascinating to be forced to think of national identity as being more closely tied to culture and locality than a continental banner, especially in this age of trending globalism.

It's also amazing how the author manages to paint such a disarmingly authentic picture of the world gone mad. At one point, the scene even changes to a portion of New Orleans described as still bearing the scars of a large fire in '05. Remember, this was published in 1997, and that fire might as well have been a 2005 hurricane named Katrina!

One criticism about Boiling Point I do have, though, is the way Merritt portrays Texans as a bunch of marauding expansionists. I thought it unfairly demonized the Texan tradition of self-reliance, and I think a Texas free of federal burdens would tend to be more contained and sustainable (think Jericho).

All in all though, this book would be an excellent Intro to European Politics assignment for college students. It personalized the fall of the Soviet Union in a way I never fully embraced, and it's a great thought experiment for busting preconceptions about unity. This social contract isn't mandatory, and if we don't appreciate it for the miracle it is, we just may lose it.

Boiling Point is available as a digital download from Amazon.com. You can read a big chunk of it for FREE on books.google.com, and the complete version is only five bucks. Merritt's back-story and associated links are also posted on his blog, so check it out today -- before it's too late!