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An Empire Wilderness : Travels into America's Future Hardcover – August 18, 1998

3.9 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Robert Kaplan has reported from locales as diverse and chaotic as shantytowns in the Ivory Coast, death camps in Cambodia, and the frontlines of the war-ravaged Balkans, but his most challenging assignment may have been covering his own country. In this ambitious and evocative study, Kaplan vividly chronicles his "travels into America's future," a journey that begins in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas--"the starting point for what would one day be called Manifest Destiny"--and continues across the West, where the population is growing faster than anywhere else in the country and multiple American identities reveal a nation in flux. He explores cities such as St. Louis and Omaha, Nebraska, that typify the increased urban fragmentation of the heartland; onward to Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where great wealth and poverty exist cheek by jowl; through the sprawl of multiethnic Southern California, where the landscape is perched somewhere between urban and suburban; and up through the Pacific Northwest into Canada. He also visits towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, dipping as far south as Mexico City, to investigate the conditions driving so many Mexicans north, despite feverish efforts by the U.S. to keep them out, and the new cultural hybrid being formed by this migration.

Kaplan uncovers a nation polarized along ethnic, economic, and political lines, where the uneven distribution of rapid technological advances allows some groups to surge forward, cultivating a radically different world-view than their poorer, less educated neighbors. Much of his report is bleak, but despite his insistence on documenting the worst, plenty of examples of prosperity and hope appear in these pages. What comes across most clearly is that there is still plenty of room for speculation on exactly how and where the new boundaries will be drawn. In this respect, America's future still carries the promise of the Wild West: equal parts opportunity, possibility, and uncertainty. --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

Having spent more than two decades reporting on ethnic strife and political upheaval in far-flung regions of the world, Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts), turns to his own backyard, trekking across the American West, Mexico and western Canada to map out America's shifting socio-political landscape at the turn of the millennium. The nation, he argues, is losing its identity as one union and splintering, like the Balkanized areas of the globe that have long captivated Kaplan, into a mosaic of different regions with sometimes conflicting cultural identities. In crossing the American Plains and Rocky Mountains, Kaplan sees the growth of city-states and the growing income gap as leading to class-stratified, post-urban pods, in which government does little to improve the living conditions of the poor. The rising Hispanic population in the Southwest has fostered "binational" cities, he says, while the shared interests of America's Pacific Northwest and British Columbia is creating Cascadia, a self-contained region predicated on the eventual breakup of Canada. Kaplan's fluid, razor-sharp travelogue is peppered with references?to Gibbon, the Founding Fathers, ancient Greek and Civil War history?and powerful descriptions of the landscape (a Greyhound bus in New Mexico is "a prison van transporting people from one urban poverty zone to another"; the Arizona desert resembles "the glazed surface of a red earthen jar"; the Pacific Northwest "a magical frontier" of "brooding cathedral-dark forests" and place-names suggesting "an icy clean, mathematical perfection"). As dystopian as it is soberly prescient, Kaplan's vision of 21st-century America will command the attention of readers from all corners of our increasingly decentralized continent. Editor, Jason Epstein; agent, Brandt & Brandt.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 393 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (August 18, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679451900
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679451907
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,413,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Robert Kaplan has always excelled in explaining little known parts of the world to Americans. Balkan Ghosts and The Coming Anarchy more than demonstrate his ability to see behind the scenes and point out the deeper threads that television and radio news (and news magazines) overlook. In fact, it might be fair to describe him as an All Things Considered or 60 Minutes for serious grownups. I have never finished one of his books without being a much better informed, and generally just better, reader for my trouble.
In Empire Wilderness, Kaplan does all of this for the United States, although in the quieter portions of the nation from the Mississippi to the Pacific, with emphasis on the deep Great Plains and Arizona. In doing so, as ususal, the author picks up on some social and demographic trends that are significant and profound in how they will change the "white bread" America of the 20th Century into something a good deal different. Kaplan's work seldom cheers the reader up with prospects for the future, although it is always impeccably well written. On the other hand, it absolutely never fails to educate, usually on an underappreciated subject. This time, the subject isn't just close to home, it is home.
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Format: Paperback
HISTORY IS DESTINY. Believe that and there's still no guarantee you'll read An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future without frustration. This is no traditional history book.

Here, geography determines history, so that life on the North American continent--from the dense jungles of Qunitana Roo at Mexico's big-toe to Canada's frozen bellybutton in Hudson Bay, and Kansas cornfields somewhere in between--is the logical result of landscape necessity. Military action is an apparent exception.

The Civil War changed everything. It was the pivot point to our present. And ever since, American military might has made the world safe for democracy, although it all may amount to a brief shining moment before democracy, too, fades in the inexorable sweep of historical tides. This could easily happen since the social contract which held us together as a nation, drawn from our viscerally felt relations to the "vast wilderness," no longer holds as national glue, dried out with the nation's expansion across the continent and the effective shrinking of the planet. But, our military should keep us from falling over the edge into the terrors of the Millennium.

These are just a few of the assumptions you've got to buy not to get angst from reading An Empire Wilderness, author Robert D. Kaplan's latest, wide-ranging, difficult and uneven work. Kaplan's project since the late 1980s is to foresee the world we'll find in the 21st century. To do this, he's chosen to write travelogues, and he has journeyed to the front lines at the most dangerous and wretched places of the earth. Kaplan has more than once risked his life to get the story. In the Balkans with warring Croats and Serbs, with the Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border, in Africa, and the Far East.
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Format: Paperback
While Kaplan keeps to his usual winning combination of travel writing and social science in "Empire Wilderness," he cannot avoid falling prey to the very same flaws that marred his last book, "Ends of the Earth"; namely, a tendency to over-emphasize pervailing social trends until he begins to sound like some kind of prophet of doom, forecasting a world out of control. When writing about the Third World, this is somewhat more forgiveable approach, but when applied to the United States, the reader begins to wonder how Kaplan can, in good conscience, hype and sensationalize some of the trends on which he chooses to focus. In his writings for the "Atlantic Monthly," Kaplan has admitted to a Hobbesian, conservative view of human nature, and this, at times, makes him sound like a rabid elitist frightened by the dark, deprived "mob" seething beneath the shining surface of America. This is a somewhat unfair characterization, however, as most of Kaplan's social observations demonstrate a stunning ability to forecast history and cut to the heart of the most salient political and economic trends facing our nation. The extra hype and generalization are probably just to sell more books, so we can let Kaplan off the hook on this one. Just be prepared to read this book skeptically, and you are in for one hell of a journey.
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Format: Paperback
In Kaplan's book, he sees the changing nature of cities and suburbs, and it's quite fascinating at times. The decay of the inner city is contrasted with the "pods" in the suburbs which stretch on forever (and all look the same). These city-states have become islands which circle the wagons to keep the problems of the city out. It's a natural impulse, to want to better oneself and make a better life, but Kaplan explores the downside to this cookie-cutter suburbanization. The American inner cities are wastelands which once had community and purpose, but now lack hope. Kaplan explores how this all came about, and where it's going.

His chapter on Vancouver is meant to be a contrast, with the cosmopolitan racial mix and a thriving downtown and central city. Still, Vancouver has a growing problem in parts of their cities; their skid row is a nightmare of homeless junkies, so not all is perfect there either. Kaplan correctly points out that in Canada there is no stigma for all income classes to ride the municipal bus, whereas in the U.S. it seems to be a poor people's transportation. The Mexican chapters also are very interesting.

When I say this book is dated, it's because it was published pre 9/11. The talk of a Pacific Northwest nation called "Cascadia", joining up British Columbia, Washington and Oregon isn't about to happen, not in today's current climate when the U.S. has become Fortress America. Secondly, there may have been talk of a seamless Canada/U.S. border at one time, and Kaplan mentions it in the book, but restrictions are becoming tighter, so there's no hope of European-like border crossings anytime soon either.

Overall an interesting book, some excellent observations on the nature of people and place today, although not everything he predicts will necessarily come to pass.
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