The Perfect Near-Future Novel To Get You Through The Recession

Illustration for article titled The Perfect Near-Future Novel To Get You Through The Recession

Need a book to get you through another year of unemployment, glacier melts or maybe even another oil crisis? World Made By Hand could do the trick.

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The soft-apocalypse novel, by the sometimes kooky upstate New York social critic James Howard Kunstler, was well received when it came out in March 2008 — it drew blurbs from environment guru Bill McKibben, and author Alan Weisman (The World Without Us), who called it "as provocatively convincing novel set in a future possibly as near as tomorrow."

But even before the paperback was out, this novel about a world that's wound down and devolved after a few bombs, a tanked economy and a major resource shortage, had taken on a new level of poignance and prophetic power. It describes that world close-up, as it affects an honest man living a kind of post-Fall village life, without the portentuousness of McCarthy's The Road or the mystical mumbo jumbo of other apocalypse novels. Instead, it's bluegrass and homemade beer.

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Life becomes very seasonal, and globalism is over: All the food and drink is local now, though it's not exactly a Michael Pollan-Chez Panisse paradise. Tribalism, ignorance and religious zealotry make a comeback, as well as community, loyalty and some of the nobler aspects of the human story.

The speed by which science-fiction can turn into daily life — and vice versa — has been accelerating of late. Kunstler's understated novel shows how fast it can happen and how complex it all becomes.

The World Made By Hand [official site]

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DISCUSSION

lightninglouie
lightninglouie

I dunno. It's impossible to read Kunstler's apocalyptic fiction outside of the context of his apocalyptic (and apoplexic) cultural criticism. Basically, Kunstler hates just about every aspect of modern American life, from the unsustainable suburbs down to the snotty, baseball cap wearing punks with iPod buds jammed in their ears who inhabit them, and as such he welcomes any sort of doomsday scenario with relish. (For example, he spent a good chunk of 1999 warning readers about the post-collapse society that would immediately follow Y2K.) He probably hates science fiction writers and fans, too, for enabling unrealistic visions of technological utopia.

With that in mind, World Made By Hand fails as SF because Kunstler just flat out assumes that nothing would replace petroleum in our society, and that people in general would just be satisfied to live without any sort of modern technological benefits, allowing the existing infrastructure to disintegrate. (As Bruce Sterling pointed out in a response to Long Emergency, Sears-Roebuck was able to maintain a coast-to-coast retail empire through steam. In The Road the Earth itself is doomed because of a global nuclear winter situation (I always figured it for an asteroid strike instead of WWIII), but in Kunstler's, there's just no oil and plagues have decimated the populace (which, actually, would probably reduce the overall energy demand). No nuclear, wind, or solar solution exists because it would disrupt his romantic, back to nature Real Man vision of a post-technological future.

Not that I'm saying that Kunstler is totally full of crap; Home From Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere are worthy critiques of strip mall desolation and their effects on the American mindscape, and parts of Emergency are genuinely sobering (except when he goes on a bizarre tangent, like pirates attacking the Pacific Northwest— where are the pirates coming from, Jim? —and what kind of fuel are they using? —and wouldn't the Navy still have nuclear-powered subs?). But his pastoral fantasy of a world where people revert happily to 18th Century standards of life —including retrograde gender relations— just feels like another conservative fantasia of the good life, uncorrupted by the evils of popular culture or the temptations of the Internet.