Greg Hrbek’s novel Not on Fire, But Burning captures humanity in its rawest and ugliest form. Set in a futuristic and dystopian America, where World War III has come and gone and Muslims are housed in internment camps, Hrbek’s prose grips its readers and forces them to look the consequences of the fear, hate, and prejudices held in the heart of this country in the eye. Through the eyes of a young Muslim boy rescued from an internment camp and the less-than-tolerant suburban families that surround him, Hrbek takes his readers on a literary journey that allows us to see the catastrophic effect of fear, desperation, and human instinct to look outward instead of inward for the source of one’s sufferings.
Throughout the novel, Hrbek uses cicadas to represent how although the world has changed the way it looks by the year 2039, it is fundamentally still the same as it is today and as it was in decades past. As he says on page 157:
“What Dorian and his friends discovered is that a world can change and awful lot…And yet. It is possible, too, for a world to change very little, to be stuck in one place or caught in a kind of loop, so that even the magicicada, a creature which disappears from the face of the Earth for so long may reappear to find conditions not much different from those left behind.”
With this sentiment, Hrbek reminds us that although our world has changes significantly on a superficial level, or ancestors who endure the Holocaust, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment would recognize the hate and fear of the unknown that underlies today’s Islamophobia. It is this recurring imagery that forces readers to recognize that the serious flaws and depravity present in this futuristic version of America are unfortunately paralleled in present day America.
Ultimately, Not on Fire, But Burning is a beautifully crafted wake up call that couldn’t have climbed the bestsellers list at a better time. Hrbek’s characters demonstrate how easily living in fear can spiral out of control and evolve into the systematic other-ing of a group of people. As we gear up for this year’s election, I hope readers see this captivating story as a cautionary tale against throwing one’s support behind a candidate whose rhetoric incites fear of all Muslims and recognize that the fictional world that the Hrbek creates is not so unrealistic after all.