Just for a moment, picture the future. Not your future – not this year’s harvest or your daughter’s graduation — but The Future. You remember The Future; you’ve been seeing it all your life. If you were a teenager in the 1990s you remember the flying cars and giant holograms of Back to the Future II, set in the impossibly distant 2015. If you were a kid in the 1960s you probably remember the talking robots and interstellar travel of Lost in Space, set in the faraway 1990s. Similar-looking sci-fi fantasies date back to the 1800s, always looking about the same, and always just a few decades away from whenever Now was.
These examples are fiction, of course, but they reflected what serious pundits predicted in publications like Life or Popular Mechanics – one day, they promised, we would all live in domed cities, swallow pills for food and take moon vacations. For generations of boys it gave science fiction an almost religious gravity; we weren’t likely to grow up to be actual cowboys or pirates, but for a time it seemed like we would all be astronauts. Real technology got fancier, of course, so now we download music files instead of spinning records, and drive cars that … um … have more cup-holders than cars used to. The really important changes never happened, though; no androids, no jetpacks, nothing. We never got to Mars, or even went back to the moon; there’s just not much there to see. For generations that future was always right around the corner, and we’re beginning to realise that it always will be. As more people grew disillusioned with hi-tech utopias – either because they didn’t think we were going to achieve it, or because they didn’t want it – science fiction offered the other extreme of total apocalypse. It’s also a fantasy, in its own way: a war, disease or some other catastrophe wipes out everyone but you and your friends, you get everyone’s stuff, and everyone wishes they had listened to you. Also, just like utopia, doomsday was going to happen any minute now, and never quite got here.
What we haven’t seen enough are stories that show a realistic future between these extremes. The coming decades will see many problems, of course – from global resources running thin to stranger weather – but they are likely to unfold over generations, and from day to day, life will go on. How and where it goes on is the really interesting question, one that popular culture has rarely considered. Now some authors are starting to explore the storytelling potential of such a future, most recently John Michael Greer in his new novel Star’s Reach. His blog The Archdruid Report and his several non-fiction books have carved out an unusual but much-needed niche, discussing the ways that fossil fuel decline would affect our economy, politics, transportation, food supply and even religious attitudes. His novel Star’s Reach, however, uses his theories to paint a vivid picture of a much-changed future America. It is not, however, a world recovering from a sudden apocalypse, or one without any technological knowledge; rather, it’s a world without our vast reservoirs of cheap energy.
Most science fiction assumes that the world runs on technology, which – barring some apocalypse – will grow more advanced over time. Greer recognises that our technology runs on fossil fuels, which gave us the surplus wealth to fund research and the resources to mass-produce and power them. Since our society first hit the energy jackpot and then invented the technology to use it, it’s difficult to imagine the technology without the energy. In Greer’s future, however, characters know and occasionally use radio, electric lights and even computers, but without cheap, widespread energy such things are reserved for emergencies or elite centres of power, not everyday use. Without a mountain of coal to run a steam-powered magnet to generate a constant current, an iGadget becomes a paperweight, and without oil to run ships and trucks, it never leaves the Chinese factory. As a result, the America he portrays has returned to its agrarian roots, with most people growing their own food or raising animals for market. It’s an America that Huckleberry Finn or Pa Ingalls might have recognised, one where travel is slow and the world is vast and dangerous. The country has an apparently hereditary and ceremonial “presden” (president), and feudal “jennels” (generals), but they rarely intervene in local affairs. Justice is swift and harsh by our standards, but rarely needs to be used; most people in this America tend to their own affairs, are physically fit, have practical skills, live in close communities and abide by codes of honour. After a brief window of modernity, in other words, the world has gone back to normal.
Centuries of climate change have shrunk the habitable range of the USA, so everything west of Kansas City resembles the Sahara and most of the present-day Atlantic coast is underwater. The country stretches from the Appalachians to what is now Missouri, and the characters journey past orange groves in Ohio and wait for the monsoon rains at the seaport of Memphis. New England apparently became its own country long ago, and beyond the desert or the sea other lands are known to the protagonists only as rumours; a Mexico that has expanded to reclaim the Southwest, an apparently Asian Pacific coast and a Muslim Europe.
Star’s Reach follows the adventures of a “ruin-man” – someone who specialises in disassembling our abandoned infrastructure, salvaging whatever technology still works and selling the metal and plastic for recycling. With so much crumbling plastic and rebar left over the ruin-men are kept in steady work, and like many trades through history have their own apprenticeships and lodges, their own arbitration and secret codes. As the novel opens the protagonist – a young apprentice about to earn his full title – discovers a secret in an abandoned building, one that could lead to a legendary government base from our age that holds our civilisation’s greatest discovery. His search for the legend – the “Star’s Reach” of the title — takes him from one urban ruin to another like a future Indiana Jones, only the ancient ruins are our cities.
One of the pleasures of Star’s Reach, as with any futuristic book that looks back, is in glimpsing the familiar in a strange world. The centuries have flattened the names of various cities, for example, so just as Roman Eboracum was slurred over centuries into York, so the characters wander through Sanloo (St. Louis), Cago (Chicago) and Troy (Detroit). Hollywood culture has vanished with the mass media but bits of pop-culture flotsam remain; for a while the protagonist travels with an “Elwus,” a kind of traveling mummer apparently descended from Elvis impersonators. The novel unfolds in jigsaw pieces of memory that jump back and forth in time, Catch-22 style, allowing Greer to introduce the mystery of Star’s Reach, the characters and the geography without tipping his hand too soon. For some time in the book the mystery functions as an excuse to send the protagonist on a journey and pick up companions from various walks of life, allowing Greer to give us a guided tour of this world. The story takes an unexpected turn, however, when the characters make it to Star’s Reach itself and must decide what to do with the secret they uncover.
Star’s Reach has a didactic purpose, of course, and the plot and characters exist to make Greer’s points; as such, the novel ends up with a few more characters than necessary, and a few too many twists than plausible. It remains an entertaining read, though, and a thoughtful speculation of what our descendants might see.
John Michael Greer’swebsite.