Was a Time When: A Novel That Asks, “What Happens WHEN, Not If, Resource Depletion, Population Pressures, and Climate Change Push The World of Our Grandchildren Into A Great Collapse?”
By Sam Penny
244 pp. Dec. 2011. $14.98.
What will future archaeologists make of us? This is one of those old chestnuts rolled out whenever there’s a debate about the long-term consequences of humankind’s actions, and the answers are as diverse as the askers. It’s been suggested, for example, that soda can tabs might be mistaken for currency, inflatable yard decorations for divine altars and tanning booths for torture devices in which people were cooked alive.
Journalist Lowell Ponte believes that our descendants will be fascinated by TV commercials, “those 30-and 60-second miniature masterpieces of psychology, myth and manipulation.” The late Kurt Vonnegut worried deeply about our ecological legacy and had this message for future generations: “Please accept our apologies.” For her part, the late Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, feared that today's Americans will be remembered for our crass, profiteering burial practices.*
Sam Penny, in his novel Was a Time When, suggests yet another intriguing possibility: a future in which humans have evolved into an entirely new species. Known as the Neu-humans, these far-future descendants of ours are distinguished by their short tails, freckled appearance and super-intelligence—along with a strong tribal sensibility that compels them to tread lightly upon the planet and always make decisions rationally. Yet in spite of these radical advances, Neu-humans are just as preoccupied as we are with discovering their roots. Indeed, the story of Was a Time When involves an archaeological journey to the “Lands of Oregon,” from what is now northern Canada, to discover the missing link between humans and Neu-humans. The year is 3100.
The archaeologists are a group of faculty and students from the University of Hudson Bay, an institution founded more than a millennium ago by dedicated preservationists while the whole of industrial civilization was crumbling around them. The investigators’ goal, in addition to finding their missing evolutionary link, is to discover why Homo sapiens went from being the preeminent species on the planet to nearly going extinct in the late 21st century. Their main source of clues in this regard is a newly discovered audio archive recorded by Sam Hardy, a man who lived from 2015 to the end of the Great Collapse. As the researchers pilgrimage to various sites across Hardy’s Oregon homeland, they listen to the recordings. And in the process, the story becomes a frame tale alternating between Hardy’s drama and that of the Neu-human researchers.
Sam Hardy was the last living member of his “tribe” in central Oregon, and he began recording his memoirs in 2099 at the age of 84. He saved the recordings to CDs, which he then buried for posterity. By the time the discs are unearthed in 3100, technology has regressed to the point that only four machines in the world—referred to as “Magic Puters”—are capable of decoding them. The archaeologists take one of these gadgets along with them on their trip, and they address it the way that a Star Trek character might address the starship Enterprise's computer; “Puter, please say to us the next file,” commands the professor.
Hardy offers us an everyman’s view of survival in a trying age. It’s a period summed up perfectly by the novel’s compendious, if ungainly, subtitle: A Novel That Asks, “What Happens WHEN, Not If, Resource Depletion, Population Pressures, and Climate Change Push The World of Our Grandchildren Into A Great Collapse?” One of Hardy’s first memories is of his father, Tom Hardy, unforgivably telling him that he’s lucky to be alive, for Tom and his mother had questioned whether they really wanted to bring a child into this deeply troubled world. Sam Hardy is a prodigy from infancy, possessed of a photographic memory and a unique way of looking at the world that allows him to forego wishful thinking in favor of seeing things as they really are.
His early years are a pastiche of family financial hardship, disease outbreaks, resource shortages and catastrophic, climate-fueled natural disasters. By the time he’s five, luxuries like mass motoring, flying and air-conditioning are rarities because of the ever-escalating cost of fuel. When Sam enrolls at UC Davis at the age of 14, he chooses to triple major in atmospheric sciences, chemical engineering and economics in order to better understand the forces at work in this increasingly unstable world. After earning his bachelor’s in a brisk two and a half years, he goes on to graduate studies in chemical engineering with a specialty in hydrocarbons, idealistically believing that he can discover the world’s next big energy source.
He’s to be sorely disappointed. In the final year of his doctoral studies, the federal government commissions him to do chemical research in Meeker, Colorado, in an effort to tap that region’s vast oil shales. He soon realizes that the operation is a complete sham propped up by subsidies. Barring some major breakthrough, fuels from shale will never be capable of yielding more energy than goes into their production.
Flashing forward again to 3100, the novel poignantly shows us how baffled the Neu-humans are at early-21st-century humans’ failure to accept the reality of our energy predicament. “Didn't they understand simple mathematics?” asks one apprentice archaeologist. “Some understood the mathematics,” answers the “ProfSir” (whose title is apparently a portmanteau word from "professor" and "sir”), “but too often society’s initial assumptions were wrong. Their biases were too strong. The ways of the world were too set. It is amazing how much they seemed to be determined on finding ways to destroy themselves.” This determination, of course, extended well beyond the unchecked exploitation of resources to include the fundamental altering of the planetary biosphere on which all life depends.
Hardy’s adult life is shaped by more crises. A combination of seismic activity, flooding and drought remakes the North American landscape, turning central California into a vast inland sea and driving migrations toward more temperate regions east of the Mississippi. Similar migrations take place around the world, leaving behind “a trail of starved bodies and wasted lands.” Even Meeker becomes uninhabitable, and production at the oil-shale research lab shuts down due to unreliable supply deliveries. Hardy and his wife take to the road in search of more hospitable lands. Their remaining years are spent struggling to raise a family while constantly roving around the bleak landscape for sustenance. One of their two sons meets with tragedy, while the other goes on to become the sole remaining link between humans and Neu-humans, as the Neu-human archaeologists are to discover centuries later.
This story follows a long and heady line of speculative writings about the future of human evolution. An early entrant in this tradition was H.G. Wells’ classic “The Man of the Year Million” (published in Pall Mall Budget in 1893), in which human beings have turned almost entirely into huge, bulging heads, their other appendages having been rendered as puny and useless as a T. rex’s forelimbs.** It is, admittedly, a rather extreme endpoint of the evolutionary course begun in Was a Time When; more plausible influences on Penny’s novel include J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926), Muriel Jaeger's The Man with Six Senses (1927) and A. E. van Vogt's Slan (1940). Was a Time When is unquestionably a worthy addition to this literary subgenre.
Yet its science fiction content represents a risk for the author, since many readers are liable to be very much concerned about our ecological crisis but not so much into science fiction conventions. Not that this reviewer can in any way be counted among that crowd; for me, a good, original science fiction tale, be it a space opera, a time travel parable or a jaunt into an alternate reality, is a true joy—as is this one. It's just that it would have done no harm to shift the emphasis a little more toward the real-life crises and away from the novelty of Penny’s bizarre future, for the sake of more literal-minded readers who might otherwise miss out on the book’s message.
* Jack Roberts, “JACK ROBERTS” (regular eponymous column), Miami News, Aug. 22, 1966: 77-A; Lee Ostaszewski, “Ostaszewski: Digging the past,” MetroWest Daily News, Oct. 22, 2007, http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/lifestyle/columnists/x168020375 (accessed Jun. 17, 2007); “Because of Tanning Booths...,” Shut-Up-I'm-Talking (page on Facebook.com), http://www.facebook.com/shutupimtalking.net/posts/10150327816242057 (accessed Jun. 19, 2012); Lowell Ponte, “Keeping Big Brother at Bay?,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 2, 1979: D7; Kurt Vonnegut, quoted in “Will The Human Species Grow Up?,” Decline of the Empire, Sept. 28, 2011, http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2011/09/will-the-human-species-grow-up... 57 (accessed Jun. 19, 2012); Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1963).
** Brian Stableford and David Langford, “Evolution,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, beta edition, Apr. 19, 2012, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/evolution (accessed June 18, 2012).
Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here.