One of the great things about fiction is that an author can explore how our future might turn out in a meaningful way. Putting well-realized characters into a possible future is will have more impact than speculative nonfiction. Readers can’t help but identify with the characters on the page (unless the character in question is Holden Caulfield). I know that I can’t help but wonder what I would do if I were in the same situation.
James Howard Kunstler, previous author of nonfiction about a post-scarcity world, tries his hand at fiction with World Made by Hand. We meet our protagonist, a former software company marketing executive turned carpenter, several years after the collapse of the world economy. Unlike other novels about post-scarcity I’ve read, Kunstler lets a good amount of time elapse between a shortage of oil and a full scale collapse. There’s an old saying the civilization is just a couple of good meals away from anarchy. I’ve always wondered how true that is. I supposed I have more faith in Americans than most readers are. In spite of everything, Americans can band together in large emergencies. We’ve done it before. Of course, my level of faith in Americans is inversely proportional to amount of reality television and pop culture I’ve been exposed to.
At any rate, Kunstler’s reimagined and fragmented America would take time to achieve. The economy collapsed without oil, and then the government (except for a rumored president in Minnesota) followed after major acts of terrorism. America reverts to small farming communities and banditry. It’s always interesting to me that in these situations, people seem to revert to the Middle Ages. Some lucky communities have steam power, but that’s about it. In World Made by Hand, one farming community goes so far as to reinstitute feudalism. This regression fascinates me, because it illustrates how far we’ve come with technology and how much we have to relearn in order to survive without it. As I read books like this, I start to think about what I might do, how I might grow my own food, how I might defend myself without society’s protection, how I might cope with the loss of the technology that props up how I live.
World Made by Hand meanders through several months in Robert’s life. He, and a few dozen other survivors, have set up shop in rural New York, well away from the turmoil of the cities. After a strongly religious group arrives and starts to settles, Robert finds that what he thought was the status quo was really just stagnation. A murder by a bunch of local rowdies ultimately leads to Robert taking over as mayor and forcing the rest of Union Grove to do more than just subsistence farming. They do so well that I worried for their safety, considering how violent their neighbors can be. I found it strange that Robert and his people seem to take no steps to create a militia, or any other steps to defend themselves. It was a curious gap in the logic of the book. If things are as bad as Kunstler would have us believe, Union Grove should have been terrified of the outside world.
In one of the more interesting episodes, Robert leads (accompanies might be more accurate) a group of the religious types to Albany on a rescue mission. We rapidly learn that few people have been as fortunate as the Union Grove community. Most of the people they encounter are starving, or close to it. And when they get to Albany, they find a nearly lawless town reminiscent of the Wild West. Extorting food and money from travelers keeps them afloat. Again, this made me curious about how Union Grove has managed to maintain a Mayberry-level of safety all these years.
World Made by Hand is an idea book. Its purpose is to make its readers think about what might happen when the oil runs out. But I appreciated its attempts at subtlety. Kunstler doesn’t hit his audience over the head with morals and warnings. He lets the story unfold without scolding about consumerism and anti-environmentalism. There are a few characters who are obviously meant to serve as lessons rather than just be characters, but even these are believable. As I read, I enjoyed the book more and more. Now that I’m done, I want to get my hands on the sequel.