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The book’s title (Patriot Future), its cover (digitized image of a rifle superimposed over a rippling American flag), and even the author picture (standing square-jawed in front of the Jefferson Memorial), all smack of Tom Clancy, but Milton Johns’ first novel is blessedly free of the technobabble that bloats—and ultimately sinks—Clancy’s thrillers.

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“I kept that kind of stuff down for two reasons,” asserts Johns, who is a weapons acquisitions consultant here in Washington. “No. 1, because I didn’t want the technology to dwarf the story or the characters. I wanted the plot and the characters and the ideas to really be the centerpiece of the novel, and not so much the showing off what I might or might not know about how things in the future—weapons systems and so forth—will look. And No. 2, because I was writing part-time on my own, I frankly didn’t have the time to do the proper research to satisfy the purists, to describe all the valves, all the whistles and bells.”

After years of short-story writing and more than a dozen false starts on a novel, Johns hit on what he says is a perfect vehicle for his interests and talents. Patriot Future is an action thriller, yes, but one that takes place in the year 2021, freeing Johns to play with the conventions of science fiction. “Of course, one of the advantages of setting Future in the near future is that it’s far enough away that anything in society, in science, could be possible,” he says. “But it’s still close enough that you could ground it in what we have now.”

For Washington, Johns’ version of life 24 years from now looks especially grim. For starters, D.C. has been renamed “The State of New Columbia,” and under the “National Urban Emergency Act of 2007” it’s been lumped together with Maryland and Virginia to form the “Comarva Emergency Zone,” where convicted criminals live in designated ghettos instead of jails, and currents of violence run beneath the streets, bursting through, it seems, at every manhole and sewer grating.

Add to the mix an all-powerful, possibly all-corrupt government, which outlaws—among other things—dresses in the workplace and praying in public, the incredibly addictive street drug “jazz,” which triggers latent telekinetic powers in some of its abusers, and a Val Kilmer-ready hero, Matt Sheridan, and you begin to understand the milkshake Johns has concocted.

Which is not to say that Patriot Future or its author are afraid to wrestle with questions more profound than how many kneecaps Sheridan will break during his latest drug bust. Johns, who is finalizing his next novel, which he calls a more traditional crime thriller, and is just starting to plot out Future’s sequel, claims to be an optimist at heart, but clearly there is a part of him that remains wary of where he sees the United States heading. “What will be the future impact of the choices that we make now or of the paths that we start down today?” he wonders. “You know, what is the endgame? What sort of benign steps are we taking now that could actually lead us down a slippery slope later on?”—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa