Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sam Penny's Was a Time When

Grandpa Hardy persisted in telling me how back at the beginning of the twenty-first century some people like him tried to warn the world of the coming bad times with resource depletion and climate change and a corrupt financial system, but no one would listen. “They called us Doomers,” he said. “Some scientists talked about peak oil, where the demand for liquid energy would outstrip the supply and the price of fuel would skyrocket, but big corporations and the government said such an idea was hogwash—it was all a big scare. Then we began to see fuel prices rise, and people finally realized there could be a problem, but a problem most thought they could overcome. They figured King Technology would save their collective asses.” I remember Dad’s face turned red when Grandpa made that statement. Dad still believed technology would find a way.

Grandpa continued, “They forgot three things. The first was that our financial system had been created as a house of cards built on debt, and it would not stand. Second, inventions couldn't be turned into products as fast as society needed them. And last was that with the rising price of energy, the U.S. kept turning its currency into worthless pieces of paper. Those countries with anything valuable tried to live high on the hog just like us guys in the industrial world. They increased their consumption and ate up most of the added production they said they could squeeze out of their oil and gas fields.

Today's post, a review of Sam Penny's fiction novel, Was a Time When, is a little bit different than my ongoing series on energy production, food production, and their confluence.  Sometimes it is good to step into the fictional realm to get a broader view of the predicament that humans are facing, and, what the world might look like on the other side of the bottleneck.  It is always interesting to compare and contrast scenario builders.   

I found Was a Time When (WATW) to be a fascinating read that held my interest right up to the end.  

WATW is set a millennium into the future, and centers around a troop neo-archeologists who are on an expedition to the uncivilized regions of the West Coast of North American (i.e., Oregon and California), looking for artifacts of a time when humankind was much more technologically advanced than the time setting of the story. 

That much more technologically advanced period is us in the near future. 

In the story, the world suffers a series of cascading calamities through the 21st Century, which eventually causes civilization to disintegrate, although not completely. 

A member of the troop happens upon a great find: a record of what happened during 21st Century, as narrated by someone who actually lived and survived through it: Sam, the great-grandson of "Grandpa Hardy," (who I suspect might bear some similarities to the author). 

While reading WATW, I couldn't help but make a number of comparisons and contrasts to another recent post-collapse fiction account that I read, James Howard Kunstler's, World Made by Hand (WMBH).    If you liked WMBH, you will probably also like WATW. 

Although WATW and WMBH have similar settings, they also some major style differences. 

In Kunstler's scenario, nobody has much of an idea of what is going on outside of a 100 mile radius around Union Grove, the story's setting, because all electrical power and telecommunications infrastructure have stopped.   Only oral renditions of the news from the rare visitor are what is left.

In Penny's scenario, global information and communication, in the form of satellite internet, still exists for a surprising length of time into the collapse.  The internet was invented to provide a robust "web" of communication that would be hard to put down during wartime, so perhaps this is not too far-fetched. Without the internet in Penny's world, it seems doubtful that Sam or any of his compatriots would have survived very long. 

Another difference is that Kunstler's WMBH was (intentionally) vague about what caused societal collapse, although it appears to involve nuclear explosions, presumably a terrorist attack, in two major cities in the USA and a major plague, presumably aggravated by global warming.  These two events quickly destroy the economy and decimate the USA's population, except in some of the more remote regions. 

Penny, in contrast, goes into quite a bit of detail about the climatic events, pandemics, other natural disasters and resource depletion, that cause collapse, not just in North America, but around the world, and over a much more extended time period than discussed in WMBH.

WMBH covers only one season in a year in the life of the inhabitants of Union Grove and spends a good amount of time discribing their personal interactions and backgrounds, while WATW covers Sam’s entire life-time.   Consequently, WATW spends more time presenting the problematic scenarios facing Sam and his tribe, and their responses, than developing individual characters in depth.

However, despite these differences, I think that both Kunstler and Penny would agree on one thing: without a continuing supply of energy in the form of fossil fuels, civilization will not able to recover from such disasters.  In the absence of enough energy to continuously put back together the infrastructure, the natural or manmade disasters constantly battering society win out, and civilization necessarily becomes less complex.  It's basic thermodynamics.

It's hard to argue against thermodynamics, that is, unless you don't understand thermodynamics, which unfortunately, seems to correspond to the vast majority of the people in denial and dying off in Penny's story. 

So, what kind of people would be fit to survive the kind of scenario outlined in WATW?  Penny suggests that the survivors would have some interesting mental capabilities, which allow them to rationally assess impending problems and take action before it's too late, regardless of what the "herd" is doing or what the-powers-that-be are saying. Oh, and the survivors also have some interesting co-dominant physical traits, which I will leave to the interested reader to discover on their own. 

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