By Risa Stephanie Bear
589 pp. Stony Run Press – 2011. $18.99.
What geographical area offers the best chance of survival during the coming oil shortage? This is a hotly debated question, but one answer that almost always comes out near the top is the American Pacific Northwest. The region has vast farmland, water resources and suitable sites for renewable power development. Granted, it’s also vulnerable to attack from marauders fleeing desperate conditions in California and the Far East, as peak oil author James Howard Kunstler has observed. But on the whole, it shows great promise as a haven from the impending mass mayhem.
The Northwest certainly tends to fare well in fictional portrayals of post-oil America, such as the one found in Risa Stephanie Bear’s Starvation Ridge novels. Set in mid-21st-century rural Oregon, these novels tell the story of a post-peak oil world in which competing groups of survivalists fight over the scraps of modernity. Some communities strive valiantly to pick up the broken pieces while others resort to pillage and plunder. All, however, have had to embrace a whole new ethic of simplicity and austerity in order to survive. Nothing goes to waste, not even the bodies of the dead. This may seem a dark and despairing picture, but it’s far less bleak than conditions in other, less fortunate parts of the country as depicted in Bear’s vision.
The three novels in this series, recently released in an omnibus edition titled Starvation Ridge, follow the life of an orphaned adolescent named Karen Rutledge. The sole survivor of a raid on her father's farmhouse, she sets out into the wild, comes upon the fabled Ridge, finds belonging among the community living there and proves herself as a warrior and a leader. Though the story isn’t told entirely from her point of view (it shifts deftly among multiple viewpoints), she is at its center.
Indeed, hers are the eyes through which we first discover the Ridge and the community that it overlooks, known as Starvation Creek or simply “the Creek.” A rich oasis of woodlands and pastures tucked amid rugged mountains, Starvation Creek seems like the last bastion of culture and civility. It has managed to become a thriving farming center at a time when most people are reduced to foraging. Its nearly 200 inhabitants run dairies, fruit tree orchards and a lush harvest of grains and vegetables. Schooling is entirely practical and is focused on agriculture, trades and combat (given what a prize the Creek is, fighting is a fact of life). Karen’s arrival finds the community in a state of flux and instability. Community leaders are feeling angst over whether to remain isolated or welcome contact with others, who could bring disease and conflict along with whatever virtues they had to offer.
From her first day there, Karen makes a lasting impression on the locals with her toughness and pluck. After hiking across the Cascades on little more than canned fruit and squirrel meat, she comes to the top of the Ridge and holds out there for three whole days, against driving rain and a guard of armed scouts. An expert archer, she manages to keep the scouts at bay for some time with her bow and arrow before finally drifting into hypothermia. The scouts move her into an infirmary, where she’s looked after by a man who serves as the local doctor, counselor, dentist and veterinarian (everyone here is a generalist).
While she’s in quarantine, a council meets to determine whether she should be allowed to stay—and the consensus is that she should be. On waking, Karen graciously accepts the offer and gets to work doing farm labor to repay the townspeople for their hospitality. But it soon becomes clear that she has much more to offer than labor. Her father, a genius autodidact, gave her college-level homeschooling in addition to her archery and self-defense training. In an era when people once again perceive the world to be flat, she understands advanced Earth science concepts like magnetic fields and axial tilt, and isn’t the least bit conceited about it. In time, she finds herself becoming something of a public intellectual as well as the resident armament and weapons specialist.
And when the skirmishes with bandits escalate into all-out war, she proves herself as a war hero as well (if Starvation Ridge is ever made into a movie, she could be played by a fierce Kristen Stewart). In a particularly telling scene, she insists on setting out alone to face the savages who have them surrounded. “They wouldn’t expect just one,” she tells her superior matter-of-factly. She takes out plenty of bad guys in this extraordinary act of bravery for the greater good, even if it leaves her maimed and bereaved.
Though Karen is by far the most involving and vividly drawn character in the story, she’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Each supporting character plays an important part in illustrating the roles available to people in this starkly changed world. We meet slaves, “hunters of people,” vicious defenders of the fort, people slowly dying of once-treatable ailments and those with nothing left to live for but the assurance of a proper burial. On a more positive note, we also meet an autistic man who, freed of today’s prejudices, has found acceptance and meaningful work in the community.
The story’s villains are an anarchic mix of tribal symbolism, white-supremacist subculture, 20th-century communications technology and machine-gun-slinging, testosterone-fueled bravado. The men sport close-cropped hair, crude tattoos and war paint, and they scar their skin with hive-like welts to honor their leader’s status as a smallpox survivor. They fight with an eclectic arsenal that includes rifles, knives, swords, AKs, Glocks and Uzis. In an early scene, we find them using a cleverly cobbled-together radio system to communicate back and forth as they case out the area. Their technology is all the more impressive in that every piece of it was salvaged from the ruins of the world before. Since the machinery to manufacture things no longer exists, every bullet or radio component must be scrounged from somewhere.
Each of the Starvation Ridge novels has its own character and thematic thrust, and I have no favorite among the trio. The first one capitalizes quite successfully on the thrill and the weaponry of the battles with marauders, while the other two focus more on ideas. Book two involves a brilliant effort to harness the capabilities of a long-forgotten satellite still trustily orbiting above the planet. The final book deals with the lingering health effects of exposure to radioactive plumes leaching from sites like Hanford, a concern that hits close to home when a nearby nuclear plant is breached during the fighting. The community must make the fateful decision of whether to abandon Starvation Creek forever or take their chances in a land that will be radioactive effectively until the end of time.
Bear’s descriptions of the post-oil landscape, beginning with an ominous stretch of what was once Interstate 5, are compelling and unflinching. “First, there had been a traffic jam,” recounts the narrator. “And it had stayed jammed. Then the cars were abandoned and everyone had to go on, on foot and badly equipped." Along this corridor, as along so many others, lie the remains of automobiles, jewelry and desecrated human bones. There are also high heels and fragments of other apparel that proved too cumbersome for the long, ill-fated hike ahead.
There’s actually a place in Oregon named Starvation Ridge, and by a remarkable coincidence, it's not far from the setting of Bear’s novel. (Bear named the book’s setting after a different Starvation Ridge in her hometown in Idaho, where she spent much time as a child planting trees and fighting fires.*) This real-life Starvation Ridge is located along the western slopes of the North Cascades, in the area of Cascade Locks. Just as its name implies, it’s a precipitous and forbidding landscape that is considered an ultimate challenge for hikers and is also, sadly, a magnet for off-road vehicle riders. One can easily see its jagged cliffs becoming the infernal battlegrounds of Bear’s dystopian vision of a post-oil future.
* Risa Stephanie Bear, personal communication with the author, Sept. 30, 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.