"Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.
“The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no-one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by evening, and by Viriconium.”
Those are the opening lines of The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, one of the fixtures of my arguably misspent youth. I pulled it down from my shelf of old paperbacks the other day, for the first time in years, and spent part of an evening rereading it. There were several reasons for that. Partly it was a fit of nostalgia; partly, I’ve finished all but the last minor edits on Star’s Reach, my post-peak oil SF novel, preparatory to placing it with a publisher, and was thinking back on some of the other fictional explorations of the coming deindustrial future I’ve read; partly—well, there’s a practical reason, but we’ll get to that a little later on in this post.
There were any number of books like it back in the day, mass-market SF paperbacks with gaudy covers ringing variations on a handful of familiar themes. You could almost describe The Pastel City as an example of what used to be called the sword and sorcery genre, one of the standard modes of 1970s fantasy, except that there isn’t any sorcery. The weird powers and monstrous enemies against which tegeus-Cromis the swordsman and his motley allies do battle are surviving relics of advanced technology, and the deserts of rust and the windblown ruins through which they pursue their fairly standard heroic quest are the remnants of an industrial society a millennium dead. In a real sense, it belongs to a genre of its own, which I suppose ought to be called postindustrial fantasy.
I first read it in the bleak little apartment where my father lived, in a down-at-the-heels Seattle suburb. Not long before, just as soon as he finished paying her way through college, my mother dumped my father like a sack of old clothes, and followed through on the metaphor by taking him to the cleaners in the divorce settlement. He took what refuge he could find in model airplanes, jigsaw puzzles, and science fiction novels, and I used to catch a bus north from my mother’s house to spend weekends with him. His apartment was a short walk from the library, which was one blessing, and close to a hobby shop where I could fritter away my allowance on spacecraft models, which was another; still, many of the best hours I recall from those days were spent curled up on his secondhand couch, reading the volumes of science fiction he’d bring home from the little bookstore six blocks away.
The Pastel City was one of those. I recall vividly the first time I read it, because it’s the book that first suggested to me that an industrial society could crumble away to ruins without benefit of apocalyptic fireworks and be succeeded by simpler societies. What was more, the last Afternoon Culture was simply backstory, no more immediately relevant to tegeus-Cromis and his friends than the fall of Rome is to you and me, and the wastelands, the marshes gone brackish with metallic salts, the dead and half-drowned city called Thing Fifty, and most of the other relics of that vanished time were just part of the landscape. It was easy for me, as I sat there on the couch, to imagine the wreckage of today’s world forming the background for adventures a thousand years in our own future.
I was curled up on the same couch when I first read Davy by Edgar Pangborn. He’s mostly forgotten these days, but Pangborn’s was a name to conjure with in the more literate end of the science fiction scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and Davy was much of the reason why. It’s a coming-of-age story—shall be literary and call it a Bildungsroman?—that goes on the same Platonic ideal of a bookshelf as Tom Jones and Huckleberry Finn, except that it takes place about five centuries from now in what’s left of northeastern North America.
Pangborn’s future history is as precise as it is uncomfortably plausible. There was a nuclear war, which killed a lot of people, and an epidemic among the survivors, which killed a lot more. Rising sea levels driven by global warming—yes, Pangborn was already onto that in 1964—flooded the lowlands. Stick in time’s oven and bake for centuries, and you’ve got a world of neofeudal statelets with more or less medieval subsistence economies clinging to the threadbare rhetoric of an earlier day. Here’s Davy’s description of his world: “Katskil is a kingdom. Nuin is a commonwealth, with a hereditary presidency of absolute powers. Levannon is a kingdom, but governed by a Board of Trade. Lomeda and the other Low Countries are ecclesiastical states, the boss panjandrum being called a Prince Cardinal. Rhode, Vairmant, and Penn are republics; Conicut’s a kingdom; Bershar is mostly a mess. But they’re all great democracies, and I hope this will grow clearer to you one day when the ocean is less wet.”
Those ecclesiastical states aren’t Christian, by the way, but they might as well be. Pangborn was gay, and thus got an extra helping of the hypocrisy and intolerance that characterize American Christianity in its worst moods; he was accordingly an atheist; and his Holy Murcan Church was partly a parody of the mainstream American churches of his time, partly the standard atheist caricature of the medieval Catholic church, and partly a counterblast against Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its portrayal of Catholicism as a force for good in a future dark age America. Those of my readers who are atheists will enjoy that side of Davy; those who aren’t may find Pangborn’s bouts of religion-bashing annoying, or if they’ve heard the same talking points often enough elsewhere, simply dull. Fortunately there’s plenty more in Davy that makes it worth the read anyway.
Brilliant though it was, Davy still followed the conventions of the then-thriving postapocalyptic genre and didn’t quite manage, as The Pastel City did, to think its way right out from under the myth of progress and stop seeing history as a straight line that always leads back to us. Pangborn thus needed, or thought he needed, the diabolus ex machina of a nuclear war to bring Old Time crashing down. I forgave him that because his nuclear war wasn’t the usual canned Hollywood death-fantasy, just a bunch of cities being blasted to rubble, a lot of corpses, and high rates of sterility and birth defects among the descendants of the survivors, followed by normal decline and recovery.
Pangborn’s own summary is typically succinct: “barbarism, not actually ‘like’ Fifth Century Europe because history can’t repeat itself that way, but just as dark. Here and there enclaves where some of the valuable bits of the old culture survived. In some places, primitive savagery in its varied forms; and monarchies, petty states, baronies, whatever. Then through many centuries, a gradual recovery toward some other peak of some other kind of civilization. Without the resources squandered by the 20th Century.” That’s from Still I Persist In Wondering, an anthology of short stories set in the same future as Davy, as were two other novels of his, The Judgment of Eve and The Company of Glory. Yes, I read all of them, many times; those of my readers who followed Star’s Reach and pick up Pangborn’s tales will doubtless catch the deliberate homages I put in my story, and probably some influences I didn’t intend that sneaked in anyway.
The third book I want to mention here didn’t come to my attention until long after the secondhand couch went out of my life, but it came at another bleak time. That was the autumn of 1982, toward the end of my first unsuccessful pass through college, and right about the time it was becoming painfully clear that the great leap toward a sustainable future through appropriate technology, in which I planned on making my career, wasn’t going to happen after all. Those were the years when the Reagan administration’s gutting of grant money for every kind of green initiative was really starting to hit home, and attempts to mobilize any kind of support for those initiatives were slamming face first into the simple fact that most Americans wanted to cling to their cozy lifestyles even if that meant flushing their grandchildren’s future down the drain.
Somewhere in the middle of that autumn, under a hard gray sky, I went for a long and random walk in the grimy end of downtown Bellingham, Washington, down past old canneries and retail buildings that used to serve the working waterfront when there still was one. Somewhere in there was a shop selling girlie mags—this was before the internet, when those who liked pictures of people with their clothes off had to go buy them from a store—and out in front, for no reason I was ever able to figure out, was a tray of non-erotic used paperbacks for 50 cents each. I had a dollar to spare; I stopped to look through them, and that’s how I found The Masters of Solitude by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin.
If The Pastel City is sword and sorcery without the sorcery, The Masters of Solitude might best be described as a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse. It’s a three-handed poker game of a story set maybe two thousand years from now in the eastern United States. From Karli in the south to Wengen in the north runs Coven country, a tribal realm following a faith and a culture descended from today’s Wicca. Off in what’s now western Pennsylvania are the Kriss, who worship a dead god. To the east, the urban enclave that extends from Boston down to Washington DC is simply the City, its people maintaining high technology with solar power, living for centuries by way of advanced organ-transplant techniques, sealing out the rest with an electronic barrier that shreds minds.
Long ago things were different; everyone in the world of The Masters of Solitude remembers that, however dimly. Then the land was invaded and conquered by another people, the Jings, who left their name and some of their genetics and then faded from history. Out of the ordinary chaos of a fallen civilization, the ordinary process of reorganization and cultural coalescence birthed new societies drawing in various ways on the legacies of the past. It’s history the way it actually happens, the normal rise and fall of nations and cultures, and it’s in the course of their ordinary history, the Covens, the Kriss, and the City stumble toward a confrontation that will shatter them all.
There were other books that could go into a list of postindustrial fantasy classics, of course, and I may talk about some of them another day. Still, the question I suspect a fair number of my readers are wondering is why any of this matters. Modern industrial civilization is beginning to pick up speed along a trajectory of decline and fall that differs from the ones we’ve just discussed in that it’s not safely confined to the realm of imaginative fiction. Is there any point in reading about imaginary societies that fell back from the Universe, dwindled, and died, when ours is doing that right now?
As it happens, I think there is.
Most of what’s kept people in today’s industrial world from coming to grips with the shape and scale of our predicament is precisely the inability to imagine a future that’s actually different from the present. Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the end of history may have been a masterpiece of unintentional comedy—I certainly read it in that light—but it spoke for an attitude that has deep roots all through contemporary culture. Nor is that attitude limited to the cornucopians who can’t imagine any future that isn’t a linear continuation of the present; what is it that gives the contemporary cult of apocalypse fandom its popularity, after all, but a conviction that the only alternative to a future just like the present is quite precisely no future at all?
It would be pleasant if human beings were so constituted that this odd myopia of the imagination could be overcome by the simple expedient of pointing out all the reasons why it makes no sense, or by noting how consistently predictions made on that basis turn out to be abject flops. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to be the case. My regular readers will long since have noticed how easily believers in a business-as-usual future brush aside such issues as though nobody ever mentioned them at all, and keep on insisting that of course we can keep an industrial system running indefinitely because, well, because we can, just you watch! The only thing I can think of that compares with this is the acrobatic ingenuity with which believers in imminent apocalypse keep on coming up with new reasons why this week’s prediction of mass death must be true when all previous examples have turned out dead wrong.
What underlies both of these curious phenomena, and a great many other oddities of contemporary culture, is simply that the basic building blocks of human thinking aren’t facts or logical relationships, but stories. The narratives we know are the patterns by which we make sense of the world; when the facts or the testimony of logic don’t fit one narrative, and we have a selection of other narratives to hand, we can compare one story to another and find the one that’s the best fit to experience. That process of comparison is at the heart of logic and science, and provides a necessary check on the normal tendency of the human mind to get stuck on a single story even when it stops making sense.
As I pointed out here in the earliest days of this blog, though, that check doesn’t work if you only have one story handy—if, for example, the story of onward and upward progress forever is the only story about the future you know. Then it doesn’t matter how badly the story explains the facts on the ground, or how many gross violations of logic are needed to explain away the mismatches: given a choice between a failed narrative and no narrative at all, most people will cling to the one they have no matter how badly it fits. That’s the game in which both the cornucopians and the apocalypse fans are engaged; the only difference between them, really, is that believers in apocalypse have decided that the way to make the story of progress make sense is to insist that we’re about to reach the part of it that says “The End.”
The one way out of that trap is to learn more stories—not simply rehashes of the same plot with different names slapped on the characters, mind you, but completely different narrative structures that, applied to the same facts and logical relationships, yield different predictions. That’s what I got from the three novels I’ve discussed in this post. All three were fictions, to be sure, but all three were about that nebulous place we call the future, and all three gave me narratives I could compare with the narrative of progress to see which made the better fit to the facts. I’ve met enough other people who’ve had similar experiences that I’ve come to think of fiction about the future as a powerful tool for getting outside the trap of knowing just one story, and thus coming to grips with the failure of that story and the need to understand the future ahead of us in very different ways.
All of which brings me to the practical dimension of this week’s post.
A few weeks ago, I fielded an email from the proprietor of the small publishing house that released After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology of stories that came out of the peak oil fiction contest I held here in 2011 and 2012. He was pleased to report that sales have been modest but steady—contributors should expect a statement and royalty check shortly—and asked about whether I was perhaps interested in putting together a second anthology along the same lines. (He also expressed a definite interest in hearing from writers who have novels on peak oil-related themes and are looking for a place to publish them; those of my readers who fall into this category—I know you’re out there—will want to check out the submissions requirements page on the Founders House website.)
I’m certainly game for a second story contest, and for editing a second anthology; given the torrent of creativity that the last contest called forth, I don’t expect to have any trouble fielding an abundance of good stories from this blog’s readers, either, so the contest is on. The requirements are the same as before:
- Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
- They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
- 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 magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story 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 as before,
- They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here.)
That is to say, the stories that will find a place in the second anthology, like those that populated the first, will feature human beings like you and me, coping with the aftermath of the industrial age in a world that could reasonably be our future, and living lives that are challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing in that setting. I’d like to make an additional suggestion this time around: don’t settle for your ordinary, common or garden variety postpetroleum future. Make it plausible, make it logical, but make it different.