Invasion of the Space Bats

Science fiction, that oddest offspring of industrial civilization’s religion of progress, has not done a great deal so far to explore the end of the age of cheap energy that gave that religion its moment in history’s spotlight. Still, the trajectory traced out in last week’s post helped midwife some useful habits of thought concerning the future, and one of these is a sense of the believable a good deal more stringent than the one that’s been cultivated so far in the peak oil blogosphere.

That last statement might raise some eyebrows, I know. Whatever its pretensions in recent decades, science fiction spent most of its formative years, and produced a good many of its major classics, at a time when it was basically a collection of wish-fulfillment fantasies for teenage boys. (And that, Mr. de Camp, is what the woman in the brass brassiere is doing on the cover of your book.) Still, even the most lurid of fantasies depend for effect on what has been called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” and if the absurdities pile up too deeply, as J.R.R. Tolkien commented in a characteristically acerbic passage, disbelief has not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Thus there was always pressure on SF authors to check their facts and make the details consistent. As SF fandom became a significant force on the evolution of the genre, the sort of geeky obsessiveness you find in teenage fans of just about anything became a badge of honor, and pushed the same process further. Before long, it was no longer enough to tell a rousing tale about square-jawed space heroes and nubile females on some distant planet; no matter how hackneyed the plot and two-dimensional the characters might be, the planet had to make some kind of sense in terms of the scientific knowledge of the time, and so did the fanged and tentacled horrors that threatened the heroine, the hero’s laser pistol, and the rest of it. Even when authors made things up out of whole cloth, as of course they did constantly, they had to figure out some way to graft the invention onto existing knowledge so that the seam didn’t show too clearly.

Even before science fiction hit the big time in the wake of Sputnik I, the demand for believability had become one of the essential elements of the genre. The dismissal of legendary science fiction editor Ray Palmer from the senior position at Amazing Stories in 1948 was arguably the turning point in the process. Palmer had made the Ziff-Davis pulp magazine chain a remarkable amount of money by filling the magazine with a free mix of trashy science fiction, popular occultism, and dubious alternative science, and he also played a central role in inventing the UFO phenomenon, but the higher-ups at Ziff-Davis sensed the way the market was moving. Palmer ended up launching a new magazine, Fate, that for all practical purposes created the modern New Age movement, while SF took a different path.

Unexpectedly, science fiction’s unscientific twin, fantasy fiction—which had a similar prehistory in the pulp magazines and broke through into respectability roughly a decade after SF did—followed a similar trajectory. To some extent this was driven by the overlapping readership of the two genres, but of course there was another factor as well, the force of nature already mentioned that went by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. There had been plenty of fantasy fiction before The Lord of the Rings, but none that succeeded so stunningly in evoking the presence of another world with its own history, languages, cultures and conflicts, because nobody before Tolkien had tackled the job with the obsessive consistency and eye for detail that he put into his creation of Middle-earth. In his wake, fantasy authors who hoped to get away with the casual disregard for plausibility that ran riot through Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, among many others, started getting rejection slips in place of contracts. Expectations had changed, and the genre changed with it.

By and large—with important exceptions, to be sure—those expectations have remained glued in place in both genres, and when a book fails to live up to them, you can pretty much count on hearing a raucous response from the fans. Sometimes this sort of response has been taken to remarkable lengths. For decades, for example, Analog Science Fiction—under its original title, Astounding, the great rival of Palmer’s Amazing—had a substantial crowd of retired engineers, especially but not only in the aerospace field, among its loyal readership. Get a story published in Analog, and you could reliably expect to have hundreds if not thousands of pairs of beady and remarkably well-informed eyes scanning every scientific detail. If you got some bit of hard science wrong, in turn, you could expect to hear about it at length, in fine technical detail, complete with calculations hot off the slide rule, in the letters to the editor column two issues down the road.

It’s occurred to me more than once that the peak oil field badly needs certain things science fiction has stashed in its imaginary warehouses, and one of them is a shipping container or two full of those eagle-eyed retired engineers who used to read Analog. Now of course we have some—to quote only one example, regular readers of The Oil Drum are familar with the very capable technical analysis that routinely appears there—but there aren’t enough to deal with the need for what might be called technical criticism: the careful, impartial, and exacting analysis of claims about not-yet-invented technologies and not-yet-created social movements that played so large a role in making science fiction the intellectually and even philosophically challenging genre that for a while, at least, it became.

And this, dear reader, is where we start talking about alien space bats.

No, those aren’t the symptoms of an unusually florid psychosis, nor do they feature in any significant number of science fiction stories—well, not since Ray Palmer’s time, at least. The term comes from the field of alternative history, the fascinating study of what could have happened if some small detail of history had gone the other way. Back in the early days of the internet, according to the account I’ve seen, one participant in a lively discussion on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to alternative history insisted that Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain could only have succeeded if the Wehrmacht had been helped out by alien space bats. Whether he was right or not—a question I don’t propose to discuss here—the term caught on as a convenient label for the kind of arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks that too often get used to prop up dubious alternative history scenarios.

It’s a useful term, and one that could helpfully be brought into the peak oil scene, because arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks play an embarrassingly large role in discussions of how our industrial civilization is going to deal with the twilight of the age of fossil fuels. The "drill, baby, drill" mantra beloved of so many American pseudoconservatives these days is based, for example, on the wholly arbitrary assumption that the United States, which has been more thoroughly explored for petroleum deposits than any other piece of real estate on Earth, and has seen trillions of dollars of government largesse poured into encouraging domestic oil production in recent decades, still has vast amounts of crude oil tucked away somewhere that would flood the market with cheap petroleum if only those awful environmentalists weren’t getting in the way. That’s nonsense—politically useful nonsense, to be sure, but nonsense that ranks up there with the best alien space bats of alternative history.

Mind you, the fluttering of alien space bat wings can be heard just as clearly from other points around the peak oil compass. A forthcoming paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy by a team headed by Carlos de Castro usefully points out, for example, that a great many recent claims about how much electricity can be produced by wind power fail to deal with that old nemesis of cornucopian schemes, the laws of thermodynamics. Since energy taken from moving air in one place can’t be taken out of it again in another, the paper attempted to come up with an approximate figure for the total energy that human beings can extract from the atmosphere. Their estimate relies on a certain number of ballpark guesses, and begs for more research; still, it will come as no surprise to those of my readers who have been paying attention that the figure they came up with is a small fraction of the total amount of energy currently used by industrial civilization, and only around one per cent of the high-end estimates circulated by the wind industry and its proponents.

There are plenty of other examples. I discussed some of them a while ago in a post here about the blind faith in vaporware that pervades large sectors of the peak oil blogosphere, and some of the others in another post about the lullabies disguised as solutions that fill an embarrassingly large fraction of peak oil literature these days. The same illogic, in turn, drives the self-defeating insistence, chronicled in a a newly published book of mine, that history as we know it is about to end for their convenience. Whether it’s the Rapture, the Singularity, the flurry of freshly invented prophecies about 2012, or what have you, it’s all the same thing, the great-grandmother of all alien space bats: the claim that something or other will bring history to a screeching halt in time to spare us the necessity of facing the consequences of our own actions.

There are a great many forces driving these unproductive ways of thinking, but I’ve come to think that one of the more important is a factor other people in the peak oil blogosphere have discussed already. This is a curious atrophy that afflicts the modern imagination, making it remarkably difficult for most people nowadays to imagine any future that isn’t simply a continuation of the present. Science fiction authors are not exempt from that; it’s impossible to read such classics of the genre as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, for example, without noticing on nearly every page that the galactic empire that provides the series with its setting has the social customs of the 1950s, when the stories were written. For that matter, the much more recent SF bestseller Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which is not only set on another world but takes place at a point in its history more than 3400 years past the equivalent of our own time, characters wear T-shirts, eat energy bars, and use cell phones (they call them jeejahs, but they’re cell phones) to call each other or access the equivalent of the internet.

Still, one of the virtues of science fiction is that it doesn’t always fall into such ruts, and more often than other branches of literature, recognizes that the social and technological habits of any given era are not the permanent fixtures they sometimes seem, but points along a historical trajectory shaped, among other things, by ultural fashions and sheer dumb luck. Even if we get through the crises of our age the way the people of Stephenson’s world got through the period they call the Terrible Events, and create a technological society on the other side of it, our descendants won’t be wearing T-shirts or calling people on cell phones in the year 5400 AD, any more than we now wear togas or take notes on wax tablets the way the ancient Romans did; they’ll wear other clothing and communicate with other tools—and with any luck they’ll snack on something less repellent than energy bars. Fairly often, science fiction catches wind of such shifts; sometimes it succeeds in guessing them in advance; tolerably often, for that matter, what starts out as imagery from science fiction becomes the inspiration for design in the real world—I trust nobody thinks, for example, that it’s accidental that most early cell phones looked remarkably like the communicators from the original version of Star Trek.

That awareness is something the peak oil scene desperately needs just now. Leave out the alien space bats and the fetishistic obsession with mass death, and there have been few attempts so far to make sense of the world our descendants will inhabit in the wake of peak oil. Fiction, one of the principal tools our culture uses for such projects, has been particularly neglected here. James Kunstler is the major exception here, of course, with two very readable novels set in a post-peak future; there’s also Caryl Johnston’s intriguing "essay-novel" After The Crash; there are a few others, including my ongoing blog/novel Star’s Reach. Still, the arrival of the limits to growth bids fair to have at least as massive an impact on the future of the decades ahead of us as space travel and its associated technological advances had on the decades that followed science fiction’s golden age, and it seems to me that it’s past time to get thinking and writing about the dangers and adventures, the hopes and fears, the dreams, problems and possibilities of a world on the far side of peak oil.

Longtime readers of this blog will have noticed that one of its central themes is the need to stop waiting for somebody else to do what needs to be done, and get working on it ourselves. With that in mind, I’d like to propose a contest—or a challenge—to this blog’s readers.

I propose that as many of you as are willing write a short story set in the future in the wake of peak oil, and put it on the internet. (If you don’t have a site, Blogspot and Wordpress both offer free blogging space that you can use for the purpose.) When it’s up, post a link to it on the comments page of this post. Meanwhile, I’m going to sound out some publishers, and see if I can find one willing to bring out the world’s first anthology of peak oil-related short stories; if that happens, I’ll pick the best dozen or so stories, add an introduction, and get the collection into print. If any money comes out of it—there probably won’t be much—it will be split between the contributors or, if they agree, donated to a peak oil nonprofit.

Here are the submission requirements for the contest:

Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not fantasy—that is, the setting should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should deal directly with the impact of peak oil, and the limits to growth in general, on the future; and...
There must be a complete and utter shortage of alien space bats.

What I mean by this latter specifically is that stories should show humanity dealing with peak oil and the limits to growth—dealing with them, not evading them. If your story insists that petroleum and other fossil fuels can be replaced by some other equally cheap and abundant energy resource, or that we can still have an industrial system churning out lots of consumer products in the absence of cheap abundant energy, it’s not going to be posted here or considered for the anthology. If your future leeps some elements of modern technology going, fair enough, but your story should provide enough detail that the reader can figure out where the resources and energy to keep the technology going come from, and how a society far more impoverished than ours can afford to divert enough of its limited wealth for the task.

For that matter, if your story has friendly aliens land in flying saucers to solve all humanity’s problems, it’s going to go into the recycle bin, and the same goes for transformations of consciousness, divine interventions, divine interventions in cybernetic drag such as the Singularity, or the like. To be considered for the contest, your story needs to start from the assumption that human beings like you and me are going to be living with much less energy, and far fewer of the products of energy, than you and I have available to us today; they’re going to have to cope with the legacies of the industrial age, and with the social, political, and ecological consequences thereof; and they’re going to live challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing lives in that context.

This last, to my mind, is perhaps the most crucial point. There’s nothing easier, in fiction or out of it, than wallowing in the pornography of despair—insisting that life isn’t worth living in the absence of cheap energy and its comforts and conveniences, or in the presence of widespread poverty, illness and warfare. The fact remains that the vast majority of humanity’s existence on this planet has been spent in conditions that can be described in exactly these terms, and somehow our ancestors found life worth living in spite of it all. There’s nothing to be gained by sugarcoating the deindustrial future, to be sure; we’ve got a few very harsh centuries ahead of us; but it’s worth remembering that most of the great epics our species has written so far came out of exactly such periods, and neither they nor the historical events that inspired them were chronicles of unrelieved wretchedness.

Now of course it’s a bit early yet to begin writing the Mahabharatas, Nibelungenlieds and Heike Chronicles of the deindustrial dark ages; our Arjunas, Siegfrieds, and Yoshitsunes haven’t gotten around to being born yet, nor will for quite some time if the usual pace of events holds true. Still, plenty of people wrote about the first human footprints on the Moon long before those prints actually got there, and it’s not too soon to start talking about the first human footprints on the post-peak oil Earth in the same terms. Your stories may be set a year from now, or a thousand years from now; they may be tales of everyday life or stories of high adventure, or anything in between; but there’s a very real chance they can help kickstart the process of coming to terms with the future that’s ahead of us as the industrial age totters to its end.