“Science fiction is a metaphor, but it is not for predicting the future.” These are the words of science fiction visionary James Cameron, the filmmaker behind such classics as Terminator, Titanic and Avatar.* When Cameron made this statement, he was trying to combat one of the most widely held misconceptions about science fiction, which is that it seeks to foretell the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is wrongheaded to fault science fiction storytellers for wrong predictions or credit them for right ones, when most see themselves not as envisioning the future at all, but rather as weaving imaginative tales set in possible futures.
Certainly the authors featured in the short story collection After Oil: SF Visions Of A Post-Petroleum World would resist being pegged as future-seers. Their sole ambition is to spin entertaining yarns set in plausible versions of the near future. These futures aren’t consistent with one another, as they would be in a shared-world anthology, whose authors deliberately set their stories in a common setting. Instead, they comprise a series of unrelated, self-contained “what-ifs.” Their authors all responded to a call for short story submissions on the blog site of scholar and futurist John Michael Greer in the fall of 2011. Greer had resolved to secure a publishing contract for the first-ever anthology of post-oil-age fiction. In the weeks that followed, Greer received many excellent stories, landed a publishing contract and then faced the tough task of narrowing the submissions down to just a dozen that would appear in the book.
The end result is an accomplished selection of speculative tales exploring the human condition in coming decades. Science fiction is known for being more about ideas than characters or drama; and in keeping with this reputation, After Oil’s stories focus mostly on describing new worlds and technologies. That is not to say, however, that the stories are without humor, pathos or dramatic tension. Quite the contrary: they have plenty of laughs, moving characters and haunting glimpses at today’s industrial landscapes gone to ruin. The most poignant character in the book is Jeff in Catherine McGuire’s “The Going.” Jeff is a middle-aged father who has diabetes at a time when treating diabetes is prohibitively expensive. He doesn’t want to die, but neither does he want to sacrifice his children’s economic futures in exchange for insulin. A fine storyteller, McGuire presents the conflict in telling detail, but leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the outcome.
All of the pieces in After Oil deal in some way with disillusionment, loss and mortality. In “The Great Clean-Up” by Avery Morrow, we learn how humans squandered the world to the point where the only untapped resource was the trash in our landfills. Now it is incumbent upon us not only to reuse our trash, but to revere it and make it beautiful. Indeed, millions have begun worshiping a new deity named Her Holiness, who resides in “[a] cathedral built of garbage, standing on a dump—sublime, sublime!” Another story that aches with loss is Randall S. Ellis’ “Autumn Night.” Set in a future in which books have been destroyed wholesale to stoke the fireplaces of the rich, it centers on a group of nostalgic book connoisseurs. They meet regularly to discuss “books and the past,” and to savor “that mellow odor of old books mingled with that of brewing coffee: a heady combination for any book lover.”
These stories believe in the power of human ingenuity, even if they don’t see it rescuing the human race from the consequences of its bad decisions. Where they see ingenuity coming into play is in developing creative strategies for managing scarcity and contraction. For example, the future society imagined in E.A. Freeman’s “The Lore Keepers” makes innovative use of super-efficient rocket stoves to stretch wood supplies as far as possible. One variety is even cobbled together out of discarded metal cans, meaning its production doubles as a recycling operation.
Examples of this sort epitomize what the late British economist E.F. Schumacher referred to as “intermediate technology.” This is technology that is attentive to the scale and resources of the community that it serves, and that emulates living systems in preserving the natural balance. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of the kind of technology that prevails today, which is geared toward using up and tossing out the planet as quickly as possible. This conception of technology is not new to science fiction—it had its debut during the 1970s, perhaps most notably in Ernest Callenbach’sEcotopia. Yet it feels new to most people today because we’ve forgotten the lessons of that tumultuous decade of shortages and faltering economic progress, and are only just now starting to remember them. After Oil does the world a great service by offering an overdue refresher course.
This leads me to an important thematic element of the book that is bound to be widely misunderstood. Deeply interwoven with the ideals of intermediate technology is a model of Earth stewardship called Green Wizardry, an invention of Greer’s that he’s actively been championing. Accordingly, there are a couple of stories in After Oil that mention wizards, witches and other magical beings in this same context. These references are not to be taken as the popular fantasy tropes that come to most people’s minds when they hear about wizards and witches. Rather, they refer to occult traditions of magic that are unfortunately little known by the general public today, in which magic is used to alter consciousness. For those who would like a primer on this kind of magic, Greer has written many fine books on it, beginning with his Paths of Wisdom: Principles and Practice of the Magical Cabala in the Western Tradition.
A key theme of nonfiction writings on our species’ predicament is the need to preserve our cultural heritage for posterity. As Greer points out, modern-day books are printed on high-acid paper that will degrade in a matter of decades, while digital media promise to vanish even sooner. One story that deals particularly pointedly with this theme is the one by Freeman discussed above. Its plot follows two siblings’ attempts to access files on an ancient laptop owned by their Alzheimer’s-addled mother. What I like most about this story are the pointed contrasts between the mother’s memory of the world from before her Alzheimer’s, and how the world actually is now. Informed by her son that there’s nothing useful on the Internet anymore, and that it’s too expensive for ordinary people to use anyway, she asks what in the world he’s talking about. “I use it every day,” she insists. “There’s all the knowledge you could ever want out there.”
For good measure, After Oil even includes a detective mystery, David Trammel’s “Small Town Justice.” It depicts the arraignment and trial of two small-town gamblers for a violent scuffle of theirs that one of them says was an attempted murder. Our leading man, Alex Patterson, is the judge deciding the case. In the changed justice system of this deindustrial future, Patterson is expected to act as investigator, judge and jury. Asked by one character why no lawyers are present, Patterson replies, “I can say from my own experience, lawyers don’t bring justice, they bring confusion. We did away with them years ago out here.” Another thing gone by the wayside is today’s sophisticated crime-fighting technology. When prompted to check the crime scene for fingerprints, he responds that there isn’t “the budget for that kind of thing.”
In this book’s introduction, Greer writes that its stories manage to find wonder and hope in otherwise troubled futures, unlikely as this may seem to those in thrall of technological progress. Greer is right about the stories inspiring wonder and hope; however, I don’t find the presence of these qualities improbable. Science fiction has long been about opening readers’ minds to wondrous possibilities even in its bleakest visions. Remember how fascinated the tragic scientist in The Fly was with the changes occurring to his body and perspective, even as they propelled him toward a grisly end as an insect?
The writers in this collection aren’t alone in their dark imaginings about the future. They’re joined by a large cohort of young science fiction authors like Paolo Bacigalupi (of Windup Girl fame), who are making names for themselves writing cautionary “eco-sci.” It’s a genre that should be raptly followed by anyone who enjoys good fiction and cares deeply about our species’ fate. And the budding authors featured in After Oil should be names to closely watch within it.
* James Cameron, quoted in “What does this quote mean?,” Yahoo! Answers, Apr. 17, 2010, http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100417135444AArORmw (accessed Jan. 5, 2013).