About the Book
Twenty-year-old Skyler saw the incident out her window: Some sort of metalic object hovering over the Golden Gate Bridge just before it collapsed and a mushroom cloud lifted above the city. Like everyone, she ran, but she couldn’t outrun the radiation, with her last thoughts being of her beloved baby brother, Dorian, safe in her distant family home.
Flash forward to a post-incident America, where the country has been broken up into territories and Muslims have been herded onto the old Indian reservations in the west, even though no one has determined who set off the explosion that destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year old Dorian dreams about killing Muslims and about his sister—even though Dorian’s parents insist Skyler never existed. Are they still shell-shocked, trying to put the past behind them . . . or is something more sinister going on?
Meanwhile, across the street, Dorian’s neighbor adopts a Muslim orphan from the territories. It will set off a series of increasingly terrifying incidents that will lead to either tragedy or redemption for Dorian, as he struggles to prove that his sister existed—and was killed by a terrorist attack.
Not on Fire, but Burning is unlike anything you’re read before—not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of an America that seems ripped from the headlines. But just as powerfully, it presents a captivating hero: A young boy driven by love to seek the truth, even if it means his deepest beliefs are wrong.
This is a very difficult book to review without saying too much.
As you can tell from the above description, this is a book about a lot of different things. This isn’t just a slam-pow-boom action book. There are explosions, sure. Violence, drug use. But this book deals deeply with racism, fear, othering. We have some mysteries, such as whether or not Skyler existed: did Dorian’s parents cover-up her existence (no photos or clothing or online news clippings or…) from Dorian to shield him from the painful truth, or did Dorian imagine her existence? We, the readers, see her in the book’s opening. We follow her around the destroyed city in a daze, trying to save the child she’s babysitting and find medical attention for herself. Are we crazy, too? How about the destruction of the city: terrorists, aliens, a meteor? What hit the bridge so fast and killed so many?
The rounding up of innocent Muslim’s into concentration camps, er, onto reservations, is chilling, yet historically supported by similar actions the US took against innocent Japanese-American citizens during WWII. The story sold here is that the destruction of San Francisco was a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists. We don’t see any evidence of that in the book’s early chapters, and I’m not about to go into the later ones in depth. We are left wondering: is this what happened? Even if it was a terrorist attack by a radical group of Muslims, is it an appropriate action to take? Rounding up Muslims and leaving them in reservations for decades?
We follow Dorian’s neighbor as he adopts a boy from one of these camps–a boy who already has a drug addiction and some anti-American sentiments building up from his time kept in a barely-figurative cage his entire life. We follow Dorian as he seeks information: did he have a sister? And was her disappearance and supposed death caused by Muslim terrorists?
This book requires a lot of thought. You have to pay attention. There are several POVs, and because this takes place a dozen or so years into a speculative future, we’re required to learn new terminology and slightly shift our view of reality. Because this one isn’t quite ours.
This is the sort of science fiction I love; posit a “what-if?” and spin it forward. Where does it take us? And who will we be when we get there? Hrbek adopts a perfect tone as he addresses these questions and more.
Not on Fire, but Burning was published by Melville House on September 22nd, 2015.
It can be purchased at Amazon or at your favorite book retailer.
About the Author
Greg Hrbek won the James Jones First Novel award for his book The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine and numerous literary journals, and in The Best American Short Stories anthology. He is writer in residence at Skidmore College.