THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

The key to this future is survival

James Howard Kunstler James Howard Kunstler
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Prager
June 28, 2008

World Made by Hand By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly, 317 pp., $24

Cory Doctorow, the uber-blogger and award-winning science-fiction writer, says that all science fiction is about the present. That truism shows itself repeatedly in "World Made by Hand," a novel by James Howard Kunstler set in a post-oil, post-climate-change, post-pandemic, and post-holy-war future that's not too far off.

Kunstler is also the author of 2005's "The Long Emergency," which, although nonfiction, could be described as this book's prequel. "World Made by Hand" draws out the consequences of Kunstler's vision that the end of oil will result in huge upheavals in practically every aspect of life.

The setting for this aftermath is Union Grove, N.Y., less than an hour's drive north of Albany in today's terms but several days' travel in the novel's new world. Events have so shrunk townspeople's outlook that no one knows if there's still a president, and evil outsiders come not from overseas but the lawless trailer-park compound outside town.

Robert Earle is the central character, a former Brookline marketing executive employed by a Route 128 software firm. He and his family headed west after jihadis followed up a nuclear attack on Washington with one on Los Angeles. They settled in Union Grove to live with his wife's father, but before long, not only is Earle's father-in-law dead, but his wife and one of his children have fallen victim to a killer flu.

Despite people's narrowed focus, there is still plenty of us vs. them in Union Grove. In addition to long-timers like Earle and Wayne Karp's unruly army of scavengers out by the dump, there is Stephen Bullock's fruitful plantation, which seems a harbinger of future serfdom, and the New Faith community, a quirky band of Christian soldiers whose decision to move into the decrepit high school sets the novel in motion.

One pitfall in painting a convincing picture of the future is forgetting all the small ways in which life would differ if big changes swept in. Kunstler avoids it, and his catalog of such finer points is a subtle, continuing pleasure. There are few spices, for example, because even pepper is imported. There's not much paper, because it comes from factories, but vellum is making a comeback. So are fish, which benefit from the lack of factory-made tackle and outboard motors, not to mention all the anglers lost to the epidemic.

Another entertaining line to follow is Kunstler's clear disdain for his contemporaries, such as when he says that the LA bomb "finally" forced inspections of every shipping container entering the country, and that society's aspirations ended in the achievement of nothing more than leisure and comfort. And again he mocks us when he tosses in a couple of conspiracy theorists who don't believe the oil is really gone - it's being withheld by Arabs and Asians who "hate us for our freedom."

Such themes constitute the book's strength, which wanes when Kunstler goes ethereal. The industrious, resourceful New Faithers, for example, turn out to genuflect to a visionary queen bee fueled by confectionary sugar, and their leader exacts his dearest revenge via inexplicable means that restore the biblical "eye for an eye" to its most literal meaning.

Though Kunstler weaves in enough references to suggest that his Bible learning comes from more than scholarly research, religionists reap at best mixed reviews. Though the New Faithers are a source of stability that helps propel Union Grove, their embrace of violence is only slightly more tactical than the fundamentalists' N-bombs that help Kunstler end life as we knew it.

Michael Prager of Arlington writes about sustainability and energy efficiency. His blog is at michaelprager.com/blog.

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