Since I’m working on a novel and/or screenplay called The Only Life We Know, set in 2200, long after industrial civilization’s collapse, I’m busy researching other utopian/dystopian novels about the future. James Kunstler’s book World Made By Hand was an obvious choice, since Kunstler is an experienced novelist and one of the most informed and articulate speakers on civilization’s impending collapse.
I’m going to damn the book with faint praise. I think Kunstler has the facts right about how the availability of resources will disappear, and hence the things we will have to relearn and do without. He also joyfully describes how we will rediscover our ability to connect in community (because we will have no other choice), and how to entertain ourselves. It’s important that we come to grips with this terrible reality, and, as a companion to Kunstler’s masterful analysis The Long Emergency, his novel helps us imagine this, and is therefore well worth reading.
What concerns me about the book is that it envisions a future for the American West that is far, far too similar to the American West of the early days of the European invasion. As such it reads a bit like a quirky American Western. From my reading of history and culture, I think it more likely that the future will be astonishingly unlike the past millennium, and will represent a cultural discontinuity consistent with the economic and social discontinuity that the Long Emergency is going to usher in. In his novel A Scientific Romance, set in 2500, Ronald Wright (another writer of both fiction and non-fiction who is pessimistic about the future, as he explained in his masterful analysis A Short History of Progress) reached back to medieval British times, and envisioned a world of guilds and small, highly diverse and scattered, disconnected community-societies.
Having spent some time studying scenario planning, I would guess that our post-civilization future will be wildly different than either the American Wild West or Medieval Britain. That’s what I hope to convey in my book and/or movie. As the protagonist of A Scientific Romance explains in thinking about what has happened to the world he knew, “no culture is normal or inevitable”. What emerged after the collapse of dinosaurs in the last great extinction were birds — reptiles taken to the air. We have no reason to believe life in the world after the next great extinction will be any less astonishing. Just imagine.