Novels that deal with the collapse of our oil-based civilization undoubtedly belong under the heading of speculative fiction—and some even qualify as outright science fiction.1 But even so, there’s an inescapable irony to their being categorized as such. This is because, by and large, speculative fiction is an optimistic genre. It celebrates technological progress and often tacitly assumes a near-endless supply of both energy and human ingenuity. Peak oil, in contrast, casts a ruthlessly critical eye on technological progress, human ingenuity, and alternative energy sources. Indeed, it considers the entire technological age to be nothing more than a charade, enabled by the reckless over-consumption of nonrenewable energy resources.
Given how alien the assumptions of peak oil are to some of the most cherished ideals of speculative fiction, it is perhaps unsurprising that only four novels published thus far (at least, by major mass market publishers) have endeavored to tackle the subject head on. Similarly unsurprising is the fact that, out of this small handful of books, only one was written by an author previously known for writing speculative fiction—the German writer Andreas Eschbach, whose post-oil thriller Ausgebrannt (2007) wound up hitting the German bestseller list.
The other three books—the late John Seymour’s Retrieved from the Future (1996), Alex Scarrow’s Last Light (2007), and James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008)—are all the work of first-time speculative fiction writers inadvertently turning the genre on its head.
This essay examines these four extraordinary books and how they came to be. It also gives a brief nod to Caryl Johnston’s self-published After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era (2005), even though Johnston’s book isn’t strictly a novel (it combines fictional narrative with facts and endnotes). This essay does not, however, examine Steve Alten’s The Shell Game (2008), a daring political thriller that links 9/11 and peak oil, and dramatizes a future U.S. plot to invade Iran over oil. While Alten’s book certainly does justice to the basic concerns of the peak oil movement, it never addresses what a post-oil world might look like. Thus, it is probably better understood as a 9/11 Truth novel than as a post-oil novel.
Above all, this essay seeks to provide a detailed history of the post-oil novel, and to raise questions such as what a post-oil novel is and what it isn’t, what the future of post-oil fiction looks like, and how peak oilers can help ensure that their vision is realized faithfully.
SPECULATIVE FICTION ACKNOWLEDGES LIMITS TO GROWTH
Speculative fiction has long been all too happy to wipe the human race clean off the face of the planet. However, the agents behind humankind’s downfall have typically been forces such as natural disasters (e.g., meteor strikes); rays from outer space (as in John Taine’s 1930 novel The Iron Star); and the subjugation, or extermination, of humans by a race of sentient machines or extraterrestrials. These last two threats have been ubiquitous. Who can forget Orson Welles’s famous The War of the Worlds broadcast (1938); the Terminator and Matrix franchises; or Douglas Adams’s mordant The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), in which Earth is razed to make room for an interstellar bypass? Another common menace, especially in post-WWII fiction, has been nuclear warfare. Somewhat less common have been stories in which the human race engineers its own decline in order to return to a simpler way of life, as seen sometimes in the cyberpunk subgenre.2
The least likely thing to bring down our civilization has been its collision with the intractable limits of our finite planet. Speculative fiction authors have seldom recognized any limits to industrial growth. In fact, they initially ignored or attacked the warnings about overpopulation issued by Thomas R. Malthus, a thinker who is revered by present-day peak oil activists.3
Instead, the unspoken assumption was that technology would continue moving onward and upward unless it was prematurely arrested by a calamity such as the ones outlined above. The few speculative fiction tales that did acknowledge some limits to growth usually proposed the colonization of other worlds as the inevitable solution. In these sorts of stories, Earth is often portrayed as a has-been planet left for greener pastures afar.
One brave author, however, was willing to introduce the possibility that technological progress itself might one day slow or even fizzle out completely—and that humans’ powerlessness to stop it from doing so might lead to their downfall. And he suggested this possibility almost half a century before the peak oil theory existed, and nearly a full century before peak oil became the stuff of the nightly news. This author, E.M. Forster, wrote his landmark short story “The Machine Stops” in 1909. It was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in November of that year.4
In “The Machine Stops,” humankind has become utterly dependent on a single, central Machine for all of its basic, everyday needs. Everyone lives in a vast underground honeycomb of hexagonal rooms, in which they use banks of glowing buttons to summon food, drink, and entertainment. They can even summon the virtual company of friends and close family members, and communicate with them via futuristic video monitors. (Keep in mind that the real-life inventions of television and teleconferencing were still decades off!) They worship the Machine that delivers these miracles as their deity, and pray to it often. So great has the surrender of human endeavor become that people are now even discouraged from having original thoughts. We learn of one celebrated thinker, for example, who is known for his dismissal of direct observation and praise for second-hand ideas.
But by the end of the story, the Machine has broken down. Incapable of surviving without it, the humans perish.
RETRIEVED FROM THE FUTURE
It would take the better part of a century for another author to seize upon Forster’s voice of dissent. And the man who eventually did so could hardly have been a less likely candidate. Indeed, while there were clearly many things on the mind of John Seymour when he finished his novel Retrieved from the Future (published by New European Publications in November of 19965), speculative fiction was almost certainly not among them.
Seymour had devoted his life to recording the lives and cultures of ordinary people across the globe, from African Bushmen to Indian fishermen. Before he began writing, he did a series of radio programs for the BBC, which paid for some of his travels. In his prolific output of nonfiction writings, including The Fat of the Land (1961) and The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (1976), he sought to preserve traditional ways of farming that were fast disappearing at the hands of mechanized agriculture and agribusiness. He was never an academic or an outstanding student—and thus his writing was entirely experiential, drawing from his time spent living off the land as a smallholder in Suffolk, England, and hunting and gathering alongside the Bushmen, among other extraordinary experiences. He had an uncommon way with wild animals and a true rapport with the common people whom he documented. Those who had met him described him as a raging extrovert who told a good story and made friends easily. His idea of a good time was to dance along to some traditional folk song at an Irish neighborhood pub. And, with the exception of Retrieved from the Future and one book of collected poems, he was strictly a non-fiction writer.6
One can see, then, why Seymour likely would have been unmoved by a fictional genre that features galactic empires, time slips, and extraterrestrial cephalopods in some of its more fanciful manifestations. But speculative fiction can also find interest in the mundane and down-to-earth (so to speak), as those who truly know the genre are well-aware. It can just as easily be about subsistence farming in present-day South America—or in the South America of an alternate past—as it can be about the weird farms of human beings harvested by machines in The Matrix (1999). And it was this more commonplace brand of speculative fiction upon which Seymour would make an indelible mark.
The inspiration for Seymour’s foray into speculative realms was his conviction that our modern “Age of Plunder,” as he called it, was inevitably coming to an end. Seymour saw the Age of Plunder as a natural result of the Age of Reason, “the Age in which humankind decided that it knew better than God.” In a getting-and-spending spree of unprecedented greed and ruthlessness, humans had exhausted the forests, seas, soil, air, and (of course) the cheap, easy oil. This epoch of plunder was doomed because the world system had grown too large and unwieldy to manage, and because there was little left to plunder. It would be followed by either an Age of Chaos or an Age of Healing. We ordinary citizens could help effect an Age of Healing through our everyday choices, from refusing to work for the plunderers or shop in their supermarkets, to working for a decentralist economy, to participating in local politics and buying or growing our food locally.7
In Retrieved from the Future, one rural community in eastern England creates its own miniature Age of Healing in the wake of oil. It does so even as much of the rest of the nation descends into chaos and savagery around it. The novel takes place in East Anglia’s Gretford District sometime during the early decades of the twenty-first century. Its prologue is told by a fictitious publisher who informs us that this is the first book to be printed in East Anglia since the great CRASH. A collection of writings by farmers, tradesmen, soldiers, and other everyday people, the book represents an attempt to explain to future generations what happened in this rural part of England during and following the CRASH.
The first two chapters efficiently outline the novel’s premise. One particularly harsh winter, the flow of oil to Western nations suddenly stops. These oil supplies have already long been threatened by soaring demand from China—but what finally sounds their death knell is a jihad of the Sunni Muslims that leaves the oil wells of the Arabian Peninsula in ruins.
People in the bigger cities of the United Kingdom are totally without food, light, or heat. The supermarket shelves are bare. Banks, schools, stores, and newspapers have all shut their doors pending some return to normalcy. In England, there is enough fuel only for the military and essential services. Everyone else is to stay in their homes, tucked into their beds as refuge against the cold, and wait for the military to bring food and fuel to them. The prime minister has declared martial law, and anyone who disobeys a soldier or police officer will be shot immediately. She informs the English people of this new directive during a fateful television address, after which no one in Gretford is ever to hear her voice again.
But valorous Gretford District, a bastion of Seymour’s self-sufficiency legacy, is not about to lie in bed waiting for the English government to rescue it. During a spirited town meeting held shortly after the address, the people of Gretford ridicule their silly prime minister and come up with a plan for handling wages, the distribution of milk, and other vital matters until after harvest, or around April. It’s agreed that if things still haven’t returned to normal by then, they’ll re-evaluate and possibly elect a new council.
The novel’s story centers mostly on the Hurlocks, a local farming family that owns the totally organic, self-sufficient Cragpit Farm. Their farm is one of the most productive around, as well as one of the few that has not sold out to the huge city-based corporation London Farming. Bob and Jessie Hurlock, along with their four children, are well-prepared for the oil crisis when it finally hits. Having anticipated it for years, they have long been powering their farm entirely through wind and solar energy, as well as with methane from cattle and wood thinned from the countryside. During the initial weeks of the oil shortage, Cragpit Farm continues to thrive while London Farming struggles to keep its livestock alive and produce wheat and barley on its vast acres of oil-dependent, chemical-laden, monoculture cropland.
A great deal of controversy arises over whether the people of Gretford District should allow refugees into their borders. The commander of the local Territorial Army reserves insists that they should guard the bridges and rivers leading into the District like a hawk, and let no one in. There are 20 million desperate people in London and Birmingham waiting to raid Gretford like locusts. But other people demand to know what right they have to keep the people of England from moving around in their own country. In the end, it is Bob Hurlock’s middle-ground stance that prevails. He counsels the need for sacrifice on the part of local people here in the District, so that as much food as possible can be sent to the rest of England, and prevails upon the others to let a certain, specified number of people into their borders.
As the weeks wear on, people slowly begin to adjust their expectations to a new standard of normal. Some things are easier to adjust to than others. For example, no one much enjoys the constant headaches that arise from the absence of coffee or other caffeinated beverages. Overall, however, a sense of progress fills the air as people busily set about establishing a new set of local institutions and political parties more relevant to their changed circumstances. Bob Hurlock is asked to serve as president of the Land Reform Party, which proposes a drastic downscaling of agriculture so that there is one man per every five, ten, or twenty acres of farmland. The only way people are going to survive, reason the Land Reformers, is by everyone reverting to a peasant or feudal society capable of adapting to “a world of hand, horse and ox labour.”
This newfound sense of progress is dashed when London Farming, with the backing of the British army, begins snatching up people’s farmland wholesale. Its own wheat and barley yields have failed miserably due to the loss of chemical inputs that once underpinned industrial agriculture. So the company decides to requisition the crops of all the smaller farms in Gretford District, distribute them as needed, and then give each farmer back his or her share under a ration-card system. When Bob Hurlock refuses to cooperate, he is taken prisoner and his family is sent off to a refugee camp in Sibford Maltings. Deprived of the farms that once constituted their livelihoods, the people of Gretford District now find themselves waiting in line for dole cards every Friday. As if that weren’t enough, they have to put up with the misbehavior of the British soldiers posted everywhere to keep them in line. Throughout the District, soldiers routinely go on drunken sprees of rape and pillage.
The remainder of the book’s plot follows the adventures of Bob Hurlock as he breaks out of prison and amasses a guerilla army to go into battle against the British army. Hurlock and his guerillas set about the tasks of rescuing their families and gradually returning the land to the peasantry. Hiding amongst the woods with guns and a bazooka, they stage a campaign of surprise attacks on the army’s headquarters, fuel-oil tanks, and other critical sites. The guerillas are such worthy adversaries that the army believes them to number at least 100, when in fact there are initially only about a dozen of them. These truly exhilarating action scenes brim with the same sense of comradeship that Seymour is said to have felt toward his own men as an infantry officer during the Second World War.8
But this latter part of the book contains just as many ideas as it does action scenes. We’re given the chance to see the story from several fresh perspectives that broaden our understanding of how the world has changed. By far the most sweeping of these views is the one provided by Lieutenant-Colonel John Nightingale, who, because of his high position in the military, is more in the know than any other character. From him, we learn of the millions of dead bodies that piled up in cities throughout England, and how impossible it was to dispose of them all. We also see how this same scenario was unfolding across the West at large. Only small countries like Denmark and Ireland remained civilized. The lieutenant-colonel also discusses, at some length, why the United States was the first of the advanced nations to fall. But he emphasizes that the world’s oil addiction was causing problems long before the cataclysmic CRASH shut the spigot off completely. Throughout the 1990s, energy prices soared, college graduates found it harder and harder to get jobs, and people stubbornly kept driving their precious automobiles in spite of the added cost, to their own detriment.
The novel ends with a charming set of epilogues in which two of the main characters explain why people are better off today than they were before the CRASH. Although people have to work a lot harder and do without modern-day dietary staples like bananas and oranges, they’re at least doing varied, meaningful work that’s helping put food on the table. They’re not slaving away at the same boring job all day in some office. And there is more than enough to eat, since everybody keeps and harvests fruit trees, pigs, and sheep. People also have plenty of free time, and they don’t worry nearly so much about money anymore. But, perhaps most importantly, the peasantry has returned to the countryside, bringing with it the common culture that was systematically destroyed by the plastic, consumerist age of canned mass entertainment. In keeping with Seymour’s fondness for common, ordinary folk, the highest position to which one can aspire in this new egalitarian society is that of the peasant-craftsman.
By the end of Retrieved from the Future, we’ve been entertained by a thoroughly compelling yarn and a fascinating series of character sketches. But more than that, we’ve been presented with a grand, overarching vision that anticipated so much of what would later come to be called the peak oil movement.
PEAK OIL LOST “IN THE SEA OF TIME”
For years, Retrieved from the Future would be the proverbial lone cry in the wilderness on peak oil. The book is an absolute marvel for present-day peak oilers; but it was ahead of its time. Nonfiction authors would not begin in earnest to popularize the concept of peak oil for another five years—and fiction authors would not jump back into the fray until there was a critical mass of nonfiction books.
Island in the Sea of Time
That said, there were, nevertheless, quite a few authors who were flirting with elements of peak oil, even if they weren’t addressing it head-on. One of these authors, S.M. Stirling, finished writing his gripping adventure novel Island in the Sea of Time in 1998. The characters in Stirling’s novel rather suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves facing the imminent depletion of their fuel reserves, food stores, and other resources. They have to frantically come up with a plan for surviving completely without modern technology. The event responsible for this startling state of affairs is a fearsome electrical storm that appears to have somehow shifted the entire island of Nantucket back in time some 3,000 years. Thus, there are no gas stations or stores at which to replenish their resources once they run out.
These castaways in time set about reinventing an almost dizzying array of wheels. To name just a few, they begin harvesting whale oil, preserving meat with salt, rediscovering slash-and-burn farming, and rounding out their diet with healthy amounts of potatoes (Hey, it’ll work for the Irish, they reason). Island in the Sea of Time has since gone on to strike a chord with many peak oil thinkers, who mention it often in blog discussions about post-oil fiction. But while this marvelously entertaining book contains much that is of interest to the peak oil community, it can’t properly be understood as a post-oil novel. This is because time travel rather than resource depletion is the cause of the technological backslide that it depicts.
Alas, just as they had done with overpopulation, it appears that speculative fiction authors were inclined to ignore peak oil until after it had begun to show signs of entering the public consciousness at large.
After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era
The sole exception to this rule was Caryl Johnston, an erudite blogger living in Philadelphia. In late 2004, Johnston began writing her After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era. She published it through the print-on-demand publisher Lulu a year later, and announced its publication with a piece for Energy Bulletin titled “First Peak-Oil Novel Published in U.S.!” As the title implies, After the Crash is part novel, part essay. It paints a satiric, allegorical portrait of a new type of human adapted to a world without fossil fuels, focusing on such matters as “post-hydrocarbon literary life, mating habits, food, transportation, legal and philosophical issues, and many aspects of daily life.” Each chapter is a sort of mini-essay focused on one of these subjects. Johnston backs up her predictions with hard facts from real-life peak oil pundits like Matt Simmons, Colin J. Campbell, Richard Heinberg, and Julian Darley, whom she cites often in endnotes. After the Crash reads much like a typical Kurt Vonnegut novel, right down to the deadpan wit and episodic narrative quality.9
Following are only some of the outrageous, yet believable, scenarios that it describes. Human-generated power has replaced money as the medium of exchange. People pay for goods and services by pedaling on stationary bikes or walking on treadmills in order to help businesses keep their lights on. Skyscrapers are not only useless relics now; they’re also breeding grounds for pestilence. New epidemics are known by the names of the buildings from which they sprang (particularly bothersome are the Time-Warner, Consolidated Retail, and Prudential diseases). And, last but not least, bird droppings serve as the new low-tech substitute for correction fluid.10
After the Crash is a truly unique fictional take on peak oil. But unfortunately, being a self-published book, it went unnoticed. Even amid the vast reaches of the World Wide Web—that great democratizer of literacy—it barely registered as a blip on the radar. That’s a pity. For Johnston’s essay-novel (which is still available from Lulu.com as of this writing) is an incredibly fun read for general readers and peak oil aficionados alike.
UK writer Alex Scarrow likely found out about peak oil a good couple of years before the dawning of public awareness had begun. In 2003, Scarrow happened upon the term while reading an online discussion board. Curious, he did a quick Google search to learn more. “[A] journey of discovery followed,” recalls Scarrow. “Out there in internet-land are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of websites devoted to Peak Oil.” Scarrow became consumed by the subject, which gave rise to an idea for a future book that would be part thriller, part cautionary tale.11
Back then, Scarrow was not a professional novelist yet. He had been a graphic artist and designer in the computer games business for a number of years, working on such titles as Waterworld, The Thing, and Gates of Troy. His first novel, a historical thriller titled A Thousand Suns, would not appear until 2006. And it would not be until 2007 that his peak oil opus, Last Light, would come to fruition. It was published in July of that year by Orion, an imprint of Orion Publishing Group Ltd.12
Last Light—what a chillingly evocative title. It is the title of a book that means us no kindness. Scarrow, unlike Seymour, does not paint some portrait of a simpler, pastoral way of life in the wake of oil. Instead, he lays out some 400 pages of raw, blood-soaked action and suspense unfolding over one week, during which petroleum supplies to the West have halted after attacks on the world oil infrastructure.
We’re told that the story takes place in “The Present” (though it contains enough contemporary references to become a rather quaint “present” in another decade or so). Scarrow briskly introduces the main characters but wisely gives only brief snippets about their predicament, the better to build suspense. We hear brief murmurings about bombings in the Middle East prompting full-scale civil war across the Muslim world. This regional unrest imperils the supply of oil to the West.
Many a peak oil enthusiast may let out a knowing chuckle on being introduced to Andy Sutherland, an estranged husband and father whose doom-and-gloom obsession with peak oil has driven his family away. Andy, who works as an engineer for a UK risk assessment consultancy, is on assignment in Iraq when we first meet him. On one level, Andy’s character is clearly a mouthpiece for a host of beliefs shared by the peak oil community at large. For example, like most peak oilers, he sees the occupation of Iraq not as part of a fight against terrorism, but as an attempt to establish a U.S. military presence right in the middle of the world’s oil patch.
His wife Jenny, back in London, is sullenly going through the motions of dividing up their things and getting ready to take a job in Manchester. There, she plans to start a new life for herself and their young son Jacob. Their daughter Leona is 18, attending university at Norwich, and lately enraptured by a puppy dog of a young man named Danny. For his part, Danny is about to become an unlikely hero, fighting to the finish for his new love interest.
The book does contain a bit of irritating, token political correctness, as well as a clear anti-American bias on the part of some characters. To take one example of the former, we witness repeated debates between two of Andy’s colleagues in Iraq—an engineer from the United States and an Iraqi translator—regarding the morality of the war in Iraq. The Iraqi character makes some obligatory remarks about the infidel West and how it has no business in his country, while the American character is portrayed as a prattling Texan who is surprisingly unsophisticated for an engineer. Sadly, these two characters come across as little more than puppets meant to convey the book’s themes.
We’re also introduced to a group of antagonists known as The Twelve, who are behind the whole scheme to shut off the West’s oil supply. But these villains are so faintly delineated that they come across more as a single malevolent force than as a cast of specific characters. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about them is their deranged belief that they have done the world a great kindness by cutting off its lifeblood. They believe that by bringing on a premature collapse of industrial civilization, they have spared the world an even harder landing further down the road; and they’re confident that future generations will understand this.
Another plot strand shows England’s prime minister in talks with his executive council. Their discussion centers on the stark reality that the nation’s strategic reserves of petroleum will be bone-dry in two weeks unless a rationing system is put in place. The outlook for power generation is equally grim: if supplies of natural gas and coal get a bit “twitchy,” the nation will have only eight percent of its normal power-generation capacity. The beleaguered prime minister agrees to immediately set up fuel and food rationing—and, at the dogged assistance of one of his advisors, martial law and a curfew enforced by armed officers. Their cover story to the public is that these measures are to protect England against the heightened terror threat. But the prime minister and his Cabinet know that this cover will last only briefly.
Indeed, events quickly spiral out of control. The press doesn’t buy the terrorism pretext. Angry mobs force their way onto barricaded freeways, pushing right past armed police officers. Desperate people ravage supermarkets in search of anything to eat. Burglars, arsonists, rapists, and murderers all indulge their fantasies without fear of consequences. Scarrow draws the obvious parallels with the rioting, lawlessness, and mischief that prevailed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Amid this chaos, Andy struggles to get out of Iraq and back to his family; Jenny holes up in a service station in Beauford; Leona, Jake, and Danny go to a friend of the family’s in Shepherd’s Bush; and all the while, an assassin pursues them because of what one of them might know about the identities of The Twelve.
Right from the beginning of the book’s epilogue, it’s clear that Scarrow has opted for a sudden, Hollywood-style collapse of modern society—of the kind seen in laughable entertainments like The Day After Tomorrow (2004)—as opposed to the sort of gradual, uneven collapse that has marked the declines of real empires throughout history. Life never regains so much as a shred of its old normalcy. Our heroes find themselves joining a quirky rural community composed of former historical re-enactors. Their days are spent tending crops and livestock, and trusting the future.
Last Light didn’t cause nearly the excitement that Scarrow had hoped it would. Part of the reason for this was tragic timing: the book’s release coincided with that of J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final Harry Potter book, which of course went on to monopolize bookstore display shelves. The book’s critical reception was mixed—the Daily Telegraph (London) called it “chillingly plausible,” while the Guardian (Manchester) found it unconvincing and uninvolving. Many peak oil bloggers were satisfied with the book, though some wished that Scarrow had stuck with the natural process of depletion, rather than the deliberate work of a group of villains, as the reason for the halt in oil supplies. And a few people commented that the book was a bit challenging to obtain, with readers in the States having no choice but to order it online from Britain. Arguments aside, the book has a second chance to cause a sensation, with the release now of its paperback edition. And, as Scarrow wryly predicted, this paperback release will not be eclipsed by that of the Potter book. Time will tell whether it catches on with the public this time.13
The year 2007 also saw the publication of a more commercially successful novel about peak oil. The German thriller Ausgebrannt (or “Burned Out” in English) ranked number seven on the Spiegel bestseller list when it came out that February, and it was still among the top ten one month later. It was published by the Gustav Lübbe Verlag, part of the Lübbe publishing group. Its author, the German speculative fiction writer Andreas Eschbach, had written more than a dozen previous novels, several of which also had been bestsellers. His books have also been translated into several languages. However, only one of his books has been translated into English—and, unfortunately for peak oil enthusiasts, that book isn’t Ausgebrannt. Further, as Energy Bulletin noted shortly after Ausgebrannt’s release, scarcely anything has even been written about the book in English.14
But that should hardly stop a truly enterprising researcher. One can still find plenty of English commentary about Ausgebrannt online by making use of Google’s “Translate this page” feature. (It’s hard not to marvel at today’s technological miracles sometimes, short-lived though they may be!) From these translations, one can steadily begin to piece together both the story and its origins.
Eschbach, who is a trained aerospace engineer, has written a novel that explores not only the hard science behind petroleum geology, but also some of the more sociological, soft-science aspects of the peak oil predicament. At its most fundamental level, Ausgebrannt examines the admittedly shopworn theme of America’s pathological addiction to oil. It sees ordinary, everyday citizens of the developed world in general and the United States in particular—not the avarice of Arab chiefs somewhere in the Middle East—as being responsible for their own undoing. But Ausgebrannt also sheds light on some less-explored themes, including the increasing level of poverty in petrostates like Saudi Arabia, in spite of the massive quantities of black gold gurgling beneath their sands.
Like the best of Michael Crichton’s novels, Ausgebrannt has a terrific sense of verisimilitude born of tireless, meticulous research. And, out of all of the novels examined here, it is the one that is most undisputably a work of science fiction—not merely one of speculative fiction. Written by a trained engineer and deeply probing the scientific workings of the predicament that it describes, the book is nothing if not a tribute to the greats of classic hard science fiction like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. These were writers who struck a genuine sense of awe and wonder in the hearts of their readers through ideative rhapsodies that constantly asked, What if…? And Eschbach has ably taken up their baton.15
The main character in Ausgebrannt is a young German-American named Mark Westermann, who is just one step away from realizing his dream of making it in the States. He has only to be promoted to a corporate position with the computer company for which he’s been patiently toiling. But at the novel’s outset, we find Westermann in a state of dissillusionment, the promotion having fallen through.16
Westermann soon makes the acquaintance of Karl Walter Block, a petroleum engineer from Austria. Block is looking for a business partner to help him undertake the next great wave of oil exploration. He maintains that, buried beneath as-yet-unexplored depths of the earth, there lies enough oil to power modern civilization for the next thousand years. He also insists that only he knows where to find this oil. Westermann has known little about petroleum geology, and certainly nothing of the peak oil crisis, prior to his first meeting with Block. But he is eager for another chance to make a name for himself in America, and so he signs on to the project.17
Westermann and Block create quite a stir with some early successes, and they soon find themselves being thrust into the global spotlight. These initial discoveries, they confidently boast, are but the leading edge of what will prove to be a “Renaissance of the Oil Age.” In a time of increasing anxiety about future energy supplies, the world is only too eager to take their promises at face value.18
But in tandem with Westermann and Block’s suave assurances, the implacable storm of peak oil is gathering force and looming above, not so much a wolf at the door as a titanic jellyfish about to blanket the world and sting it into a state of anaphylaxis. Oil production from Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil field has begun to crash, and the Saudis are desperate to hide this fact. Humankind is suddenly faced with its greatest challenge. The industrial world is coming to an end. Only Westermann refuses to despair, firm in the belief that he can solve the crisis.19
Ausgebrannt superbly encapsulates many of the ideas discussed by those within the peak oil community. Chief among these is the notion that it isn’t running completely out of oil that should worry us—it’s reaching the point at which oil production hits a break-even EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). The book also conveys the points that no one really has a plan for how to deal with the decline of oil (no matter the farrago of proposed “alternatives”) and that the world economy is exceedingly sensitive to even mild disruptions in its oil supply.
Let’s just hope that the novel generates enough interest outside of its home country to merit an English translation.
WORLD MADE BY HAND
James Howard Kunstler, author of the final book to be discussed here, is among the most celebrated figures within the peak oil community. Anyone who has followed peak oil for any length of time will be familiar with his landmark indictment of the suburban living arrangement, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1993). But perhaps equally well-known is his bestseller The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005), in which he warned of the imminent peril posed by peak oil. Many people also know Kunstler for his acerbic, thoroughly entertaining blog writings about the sorry state of America’s “happy motoring utopia.” What is less commonly known about Kunstler, however, is that he writes fiction as well. In addition to his blog writings and four books of social criticism, he also has an oeuvre of novels to his credit that displays a truly impressive range.
And it was fiction toward which Kunstler found himself being pulled after the success of The Long Emergency. He decided that his next book should give a human face and a compelling story to the ideas contained in that earlier effort. Another nonfiction book filled with mere abstractions wouldn’t be enough to change people’s attitudes. They needed to be moved emotionally, as well as through their senses.20
Neither Kunstler’s literary agent nor his publisher, Grove/Atlantic, was keen on the idea, and both tried to discourage him from pursuing it. What they were expecting from Kunstler was a Long Emergency Part 2. The whole idea of a fictional dramatization came way out of left field. Kunstler recalls, “My literary agent didn’t want me to write fiction, because he thought ‘you’re better known as a non-fiction writer.’” But Kunstler went on to write World Made by Hand anyway. When he finally got it in to his agent and publisher, they were captivated, their earlier doubts utterly stilled.21 The book, which marks Kunstler’s tenth novel to date, first appeared in bookstores this March.
Kunstler decided to set World Made by Hand in rural Washington County of upstate New York. He chose this spot because he knows it so intimately, having lived near there for the past thirty years.22 He has also passed many an afternoon outdoors with paintbrush and easel, committing the lovely countryside to canvas. As a result of this familiarity, the descriptions of idyllic natural settings to be found in World Made by Hand have a genuine ring of authenticity to them that draws readers right into the story and the lives of the characters. They form the backdrop against which Kunstler tells a fable-like tale about one town that has learned to live without oil.
The book’s viewpoint character is a corporate executive-turned-carpenter named Robert Earle, who tells the entire story in the first person. In his former life, Robert was a marketing director for a software company and lived the stereotypical suburban dream in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children. He and his wife were well-off enough to afford German cars, a fine home, and private schools for the kids. We learn all of these details through flashbacks in which Robert reflects on how vastly his life has changed. Their inclusion makes Robert seem all the more real and relatable. The same goes for the book’s other characters—though they don’t have any flashbacks, since Robert tells the entire story.
Robert and his wife had the good sense to leave Brookline as quickly as possible once world events began to spin out of control. They knew that cities were the last place that a person would want to be in times of such crisis. Amid a tanking U.S. economy, worsening gasoline shortages, and the fallout from terrorist attacks that had destroyed two major cities, they retreated to the small town of Union Grove, in Washington County. At the time, Robert was thirty-six years old. We are led to believe that he is well into his middle-age years now. However, as in Retrieved from the Future, we’re never told the exact year in which the story unfolds, nor are we given many clues as to when past events depicted in flashbacks took place.
Robert has likely fared a bit worse than most during the intervening years, having lost his entire family. His wife died of encephalitis, his daughter of the Mexican flu outbreak that decimated the town’s younger generation. His son left home with another young man to see the world, never to be seen or heard from again. Yet in spite of his losses, Robert has an endearing sheen of wisdom and optimism. In one telling scene, another character remarks that the world has become “such a wicked place,” and Robert counters that there is still much goodness in the world. It is to be found in all of the “abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.” Far from wallowing in grief, he is always helping others, taking an active role in his community, and livening up levees and balls with his accomplished fiddle-playing. In so many ways, Robert is the thread that holds the story together.
Surrounding Robert is a colorful cast of supporting characters. Robert’s best friend is a minister and fellow public figure named Loren Holder. Stephen Bullock is the town’s magistrate, as well as its wealthiest landowner. Bullock has roughly fifty people working for him in what many liken to a serf-like existence. Another prominent figure in Union Grove is Wayne Karp, a former trucker with a shady past, who now runs the town’s general supply. Wayne’s cronies are continually stocking the shelves of the general supply with nails, screws, hinges, and other practical wares unearthed from the town’s long-defunct landfill, and stripped from abandoned houses and buildings. Rounding out the cast is newcomer Brother Jobe, who is the head of a cult-like religious group called the New Faith Brotherhood Church of Jesus. Brother Jobe and his followers originally hail from the South, and they have come to Union Grove to seek refuge from the racial strife that has overrun their latest home of Pennsylvania. A bit pompous and pushy at first, Brother Jobe has wasted no time in buying up the town’s decrepit former high school, which he plans to convert into a church.
Part of Kunstler’s genius lies in extrapolating how simple, everyday tasks done today with the push of a button might be carried out in a low-tech future. In the Union Grove of tomorrow, people cook with wood-burning stoves, refrigerate using a natural spring, and down painkillers refined from opium poppies and cannabis. They use every available space for growing food, their front yards now being far too valuable to be wasted on lawns. People have learned to live without black pepper, cinnamon, any spice from the Far East, and coffee or other caffeinated beverages. Everybody gets around on foot, on horse, or in horse-drawn carriage.
In spite of these changes, there remain many poignant reminders of the old industrial culture that once prevailed. The ruins of motor vehicles litter the landscape like skeletons. The remnants of strip malls, vast parking lots, and freeway interchanges are all still there as well. But they are now overgrown with shrubs, severely potholed, or stripped of their valuable materials. There is also the occasional flicker of electricity, illuminating households for brief moments and in sporadic, unpredictable intervals. The old televisions, radios, and other appliances all come back to life at these times. No channels come through on the televisions, however, and all that anyone hears on the radio are evangelists ranting from the Book of Revelation. Where the electricity or the evangelists’ rants come from is anybody’s guess.
Set against these relics of industrialism are serene stretches of beautiful countryside. Indeed, part of the book’s charm is its notion that as the age of machines dwindles behind us, so nature will have a chance to recover some of its former majesty. Kunstler’s loving descriptions of wildflowers, breathtaking pink sunsets, and cream-colored swarms of mayflies and fireflies fluttering above a meandering creek after a hard day’s fishing could win over even the most ardent city-dweller. However, these idyllic swathes of green exist amid a climate that has been turned weirdly prehistoric by global warming.
One of the book’s most important themes is the need to re-establish local institutions and governance. People can no longer count on huge corporations to meet their daily needs, since these corporations have all gone extinct. The federal government has likewise become completely impotent. Following the terrorist bombings, the new national capital became Chicago, then Minneapolis. Congress hasn’t met in many years, however. And the people of Union Grove would be damned if they knew how the current president, Harvey Albright, ever got elected, for there was no news of the election over their way.
At the book’s outset, the people of Union Grove have already come up with a new set of economic relations to suit the changed circumstances. It is one largely dependent on barter and trade, as in the frontier days. In tandem with this reversion to barter and trade, they have also returned en masse to religion and to traditional gender roles that would be thought chauvinist today, but which go unquestioned in these more difficult times. Their task now is to establish a new sense of law and order that is in step with the new times.
Several scenes pointedly illustrate this need to reassert some semblance of law and order. In one almost comical scene, we watch Robert (who has just been voted mayor) and another character scramble to find a crude set of padlocks with which to secure two prisoners in the city jail, a facility that hasn’t been used in years. And there’s another scene that plays like something straight out of a Western movie. Robert and several of Brother Jobe’s men have traveled to Albany in order to investigate the disappearance of one of Bullock’s trade ships. When they confront the band of hoods responsible for detaining the ship and holding its crew prisoner, a rather exciting scene of swashbuckling and gun-slinging ensues. Robert and the others emerge victorious. But for some time afterward, Robert can’t shake the fear that “the law” might be about to come after him for gunning down another man. Yet he also has occasion to reflect that perhaps the law doesn’t exist anymore, except as something that one makes up as one goes along.
The story crosscuts these scenes of Western-style action with a tinge of the crypto-supernatural. As it turns out, Brother Jobe and his flock are more than just an eccentric, self-important, proselytizing band of evangelical Christians. They also appear to have a host of paranormal powers, including precognition and psychokinesis. These other-worldly elements do not appear until late in the plot; but once there, they inspire a genuine sense of wonder—and one that is quite at odds with the sense of wonder supplied by tales of traditional hard science fiction. Indeed, Brother Jobe dismisses the validity of scientific inquiry altogether. Attempting to calm a dumbfounded Robert, he at one point quips, “What’d I tell you the other day about this being a world of strangeness? Science don’t rule the roost no more.”
There is so much more to World Made by Hand than can possibly be covered in an essay of such limited scope as this one. The book is the product of someone who has thought long and hard about the likely consequences of peak oil and filled an entire previous book, The Long Emergency, with the results of these ruminations. Amazingly, he has managed to create a work of fiction that encapsulates all of the major points of his philosophy without feeling the least bit bogged down for it.
And the critics have responded. Reihan Salam of the New York Sun, for example, called the novel “an extraordinary, suspenseful, deeply affecting yarn that very successfully weaves together elements of science fiction, the Western, and even magical realism.”23
Peak oil enthusiasts have also generally been pleased with Kunstler’s book. Even so, many will admit that they weren’t exactly looking forward to reading it in the months leading up to its release. Their unease was rooted largely in Kunstler’s reputation as one of the more doom-and-gloom prophets of peak oil. Being aware of a future calamity was one thing, but having to viscerally experience it through a work of fiction by the likes of Kunstler was quite another—a truly fearful prospect for many.
The last thing to be said about World Made by Hand is that it’s the first post-oil novel that can’t quite be considered science fiction (hence this essay’s sweeping use of the broader term speculative fiction). It is certainly informed by the hard physical sciences (in particular, by petroleum geology), and it presents a truly original vision of a future world vastly different from our own. But mixed in with these science fictional elements are touches of the magical and the paranormal. And magic is the province of fantasy, not science fiction, since the latter strives to imagine worlds that could, conceivably, come to pass given our current scientific knowledge. Incidentally, Kunstler has also gone on record as saying that he reads “next to zero science fiction” and does not write it.24 Very well. But he has, nonetheless, written an indubitable work of speculative fiction, and a first-rate one at that. It is perhaps the most finely written and lyrical out of all of the post-oil novels.
FOSTERING A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN SPECULATIVE FICTION AND PEAK OIL
Speculative fiction was slow to accept peak oil, just as it has been always been slow to embrace any theory that implies a sputtering out of technological growth or progress. (Recall its initial animus toward Thomas R. Malthus’s ideas about overpopulation.) This might seem a bit strange at first, given how ahead of its time speculative fiction has always been in so many other ways, having foreseen television and other innovations long before they came into existence. Yet it is a completely understandable blind side for a genre that takes such joy in dreaming up these future technologies.
There is no doubt, however, that speculative fiction has come to accept peak oil as a subject worthy of being pursued. The five books examined here (counting Johnston’s) are not mere oddities written mostly by authors from outside the genre. They are most certainly the vanguard of an entire subgenre of such books, an increasing number of which will be written by veteran speculative fiction authors (assuming, of course, that we have enough energy to keep the presses running). This is not mere speculation; other authors are now waiting to deliver their own unique takes on peak oil. Speculative fiction-short-story-writer Paolo Bacigalupi, for one, clearly seemed quite engaged on the subject during an interview with Locus magazine this past year.25
While the post-oil novel is still quite young, one can already begin to see a number of trends emerging within it. First, it appears to be a predominantly European tradition thus far. This is utterly in keeping with the conventional wisdom that Europe’s public debate about energy is much more intelligent and meaningful than the one taking place in America. Second, post-oil novels seem to fall into two different types of tales. One type takes place in the present day and shows us the very first stirrings of a crisis. The other type picks up long after the crisis has played itself out, and takes more interest in showing us what a post-oil world might look like. (Wouldn’t it be something if, one day, there emerged a third type: one that spans the gap between the present and the future by telling a story that unfolds over many years? It could follow a group of recent college graduates from their twenties to their middle-age years—just as the six Star Wars films show the emergence of a new galactic order while simultaneously carrying Anakin Skywalker from child prodigy to diabolical villain!) Third, the authors behind post-oil novels represent an eclectic range of backgrounds. Social critics, self-sufficiency gurus, and video game graphic artists alike appear capable of providing perspectives every bit as valid as those supplied by the more traditional, hardboiled authors of speculative fiction. Fourth, in spite of their diversity of backgrounds, most post-oil novelists so far have been men—as have been most of the authors and pundits involved in the peak oil debate in general. (This is a curious phenomenon often remarked on by those who follow peak oil.) Lastly, not all post-oil novels qualify as science fiction in the traditional sense, but all of them count as speculative fiction.
Now that speculative fiction has invited peak oil into its purview, we peak oil enthusiasts have our own job to do. We must raptly watch as the new fictional form matures. This should be done partly out of a desire to accept speculative fiction as an ally, and not as the antagonist that it has historically been, but also as a way of ensuring quality control. When we read peak oil entertainments set in the present day, such as Last Light and Ausgebrannt, we should be ruthlessly checking to see whether they truly do justice to the peak oil message—or whether they capitalize on sensation and spectacle at the expense of meaning, or cram the crisis into a matter of days in order to better suit the plot. (Last Light, it must be said, is guilty on all of these counts.) Likewise, we should also take a critical look at novels that fill the other side of the bill, taking place years after the crisis and focusing mostly on the aftermath, such as Retrieved from the Future and World Made by Hand. Do these books give enough historical perspective to explain how the de-industrial future came to be, or do they risk being incomprehensible to those new to peak oil, and cheating seasoned peak oilers out of details that they might have liked to see, by leaving out too much back-story? (At least one blogger leveled this latter charge against World Made by Hand.) Lastly, if you’re not satisfied with any post-oil tale you’ve read to date, don’t be afraid to follow Caryl Johnston’s example by creating one of your own!
Peak oil enthusiasts have indeed begun doing all of these things, as evidenced by the online discussion boards, book reviews, and post-oil short story contests. It will be interesting to see how their debate evolves, as well as how the post-oil novel, and the unlikely partnership between speculative fiction and peak oil, build over time.
© Frank Kaminski 2008
1 This essay does not use the term “speculative fiction” simply as a more palatable or respectable synonym for “science fiction.” (That increasingly common practice can grate on science fiction fans every bit as much as the mention of science fiction can annoy many mainstream writers.) Instead, the phrase is used for purely pragmatic reasons. For example, one of the books discussed here features magical realism—and because magic cannot exist within the worlds of science fiction, a broader term encompassing both science fiction and fantasy was needed. But more fundamentally, this essay espouses the notion of speculative fiction (expressed in Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction) as going “beyond sci-fi [to] deal with ‘ethical and moral demands’ made in new worlds to come.”
2 Peter Nicholls, “Devolution,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), 325-6; Nicholls, “Holocaust and After,” in Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 581.
3 Brian Stableford, “Overpopulation,” in Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 901-2.
4 E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” Oxford and Cambridge Review, Nov. 1909: 83-122.
5 “Retrieved from the Future,” Amazon, www.amazon.co.uk/Retrieved-Future-John-Seymour/dp/1872410057 (accessed Apr. 27, 2008).
6 Paul Peacock, A Good Life: John Seymour and His Self-Sufficiency Legacy (Preston, Lancashire, UK: Farming Books and Videos Ltd., 2005).
7 John Seymour, “The Age of Healing.” Resurgence 173 (1995):10-11, www.resurgence.org/resurgence/articles/
healing.htm (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
8 Peacock, A Good Life, 60-1.
9 Caryl Johnston, After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Age (Morrisville, NC: Lulu, 2005); Johnston, “First Peak-Oil Novel Published in U.S.!,” Energy Bulletin, Aug. 15, 2005, www.energy
bulletin.net/7921.html (accessed Apr. 28, 2008).
11 Alex Scarrow, Last Light (London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2007).
12 Scarrow, “Alex’s Biography,” The Scarrow Brothers, scarrow.co.uk/page9.htm (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
13 Jake Kerridge, “GENRE Thrillers Reviews,” review of Last Light, by Alex Scarrow, Daily Telegraph, Aug. 4, 2007: 32; Matthew Lewin, “Review: Thrillers: Matthew Lewin rounds up recent releases,” review of Last Light, by Alex Scarrow, Guardian, Jul. 28, 2007: 14; Scarrow.co.uk.
14 “Andreas Eschbach,” Wikipedia, Mar. 25, 2008, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andreas
_Eschbach (accessed Apr. 19, 2008); Energy Bulletin Staff, “Peak oil thriller hits German best-seller list,” Energy Bulletin, Mar. 25, 2007, www.energybulletin.net/27769.
html (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
15 “Peak oil thriller hits German best-seller list,” Energy Bulletin; “Andreas Eschbach – Ausgebrannt,” DasErste, www.daserste.de/
druckfrisch/thema_dyn~id,184~cm.asp (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
16 Michael Krause, “Ausgebrannt,” review of Ausgebrannt by Andreas Eschbach, Buchtips, May 15, 2007, www.buchtips.net/
rez2627-ausgebrannt.htm (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
17 “Ausgebrannt,” Amazon, www.amazon.de/
Ausgebrannt-Andreas-Eschbach/dp/3785722745 (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
18 “Peak oil thriller hits German best-seller list,” Energy Bulletin.
19 Ibid; Krause, “Ausgebrannt,” Buchtips.
20 Alan David Doane, “Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler,” ADDwriteblog, Aug. 6, 2007, http://addwrite
blog.blogspot.com (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
23 Salam, Reihan, “Heralding The End Times: Review of: World Made by Hand,” New York Sun, arts and letters sec., Mar. 5, 2008: 15.
24 Amanda Griscom Little, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night: An interview with doomsday author James Howard Kunstler,” Grist, May 25, 2005, www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/05/25/
little-kunstler (accessed Apr. 13, 2008).
25 “Paolo Bacigalupi: Facing the Tiger,” Locus, issue 558, vol. 59, no. 1 (July 2007): 76-8.
“Andreas Eschbach.” Wikipedia. Mar. 25, 2008. .
“Andreas Eschbach – Ausgebrannt.”DasErste
“Paolo Bacigalupi: Facing the Tiger.” Locus, issue 558, vol. 59, no. 1 (July 2007): 76-8.
Forster, E.M. “The Machine Stops.” Oxford and Cambridge Review. Nov. 1909: 83-122.
Johnston, Caryl. (2005). After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Age. Morrisville, NC: Lulu.
Krause, Michael. “Ausgebrannt.” Buchtips. May 15, 2007. www.buchtips.net/rez2627-ausgebrannt.htm.
Kunstler, James Howard. (2008). World Made by Hand: A Novel. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Nicholls, Peter. (1995). “Devolution.” In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter, eds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin: 325-6.
———. (1995). “Holocaust and After.” In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter, eds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin: 581.
Peacock, Paul. (2005). A Good Life: John Seymour and His Self-Sufficiency Legacy. Preston, Lancashire, UK: Farming Books and Videos Ltd.
Prucher, Jeff, ed. (2007). Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scarrow, Alex. (2007). Last Light. London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd.
———. (1996). Retrieved from the Future. London: New European Publications Limited.
Stableford, Brian. (1995). “Overpopulation.” In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter, eds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin: 901-902.
Stirling, S.M. (1998) Island in the Sea of Time. New York: Roc.