In the year 2034, Dr. Diana Scorsi has developed a powerful AI called Symmetra, which causes all who experience it to believe that it's god. She soon finds herself kidnapped by Ravelton Parley, founder the of the incredibly successful Righteous Burger fast food chain who wants the technology for his own purposes. With Symmetra at the center of a potential international incident with various nations fighting for the technology, government agents Tuck Squires and Ken Clarion set out to rescue Dr. Scorsi before it's too late.
“Whether families or neighbors or armies, the reasons people kept fighting were so often mysterious, so far beyond the realms of ethics or reason, that they might easily seem like the province of otherworldly powers.”
Pax Americana is a satirical sci-fi spy thriller in the vein of Pynchon and Vonnegut. There are numerous absurdities within the world, such as an extended run of Republicans in the White House leading to a ideology known as Christian Consumerism taking hold in America. This results in Christian-theme products and businesses, such as the Righteous Burger, taking over the mainstream. The anti-hero of the book, Tuck Squires, is the opposite of a suave, smooth-talking secret agent. He's a prudish WASP from a rich family who failed upwards into his position. Through most of the book, he's carried by Ken Clarion, a grizzled veteran of the field.
In spite of the many humorous elements, Baumeister plays the spy plot mostly straight. It's full of intrigue, action, backstabbing, and lots of things blowing up. He balances these elements well, creating an entertaining read without losing the satirical looks at religion, American hegemony, and capitalism. This would make for a great film.
The book is incredibly evocative of the Bush administration era. Within the world of Pax Americana, the Iraq invasion was successful and resulted in a series of Republican presidents up until 2034. American hegemony is all but assured (hence the title), but is beginning to unravel due to a failed invasion of Syria. The development of Symmetra is causing even more problems, with every country desperately wanting the technology that would completely upend everyone's understanding of religion.
Religion is often the center of mockery in this novel. Both the anti-hero Tuck Squires and the villain Ravelton Parley are self-righteous Christians who are obsessed with loyalty to American and capitalism, and use both to justify morally questionable things. One scene that stands out in particular is when Parley is pretending to be a Muslim while speaking with an associate from an Islamic theocracy and the result is both a mockery of the Othering of Islam by Americans and of the religion itself. Symmetra itself is essentially a brainwashing program that is able to convince all who interact with it that it's a sort of machine god, which gives the people fighting over it various theological motivations to get a hold of it.
Pax Americana is a funny and entertaining read with a lot to say about the place of religion in society today. It can be enjoyed both for its plot and action as well as it themes. I highly recommend this and I look forward to reading what Baumeister puts out in the future.