Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Return of the Space Bats

"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.

The mechanics are also the same as before. Write your story and post it to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Post a link to it in the comments section of this blog. Yes, you can write more than one story, and yes, that will increase your chances of making the cut. The contest ends at the beginning of May, so get typing; for reasons I’ll discuss in next week’s post, we may just be entering into a window of opportunity in which new visions of the future could have a significant impact, and it might as well be your vision, dear reader, that helps make that happen.


Thijs Goverde said...
Fun! Hope I'll find the time for it though...
I'm really looking forward to that statement form Founders House. Nt because of the money, but I'm just very, very curious about the size of the audience it has reached.

And of course, I'm very much looking forward to next week's post, as well!

1/22/14, 9:39 PM

Justin Wade said...
That's not the only way out of the trap.

One can also let go of the busted narrative framework they are clinging to without a replacement and live without a scripted narrative.

1/22/14, 9:40 PM

DeAnander said...
It is slightly eerie, and somewhat marvelous, to find a distant and un-personally-known Archdruid reminiscing about three of my own favourite books from bygone decades! The Pastel City was a mainstay of my late-childhood; I read it repeatedly, and its phrases are etched into my brain like chunks of Tolkien, Auden, Conan Doyle, Eliot... Nothing else that MJH ever wrote had for me the same resonance. "Tegeus-Cromis, who fancied himself a better poet than a swordsman..." ah yes. Maybe time to re-read!

Davy was on my early reading list too; and Masters of Solitude blew me away on first reading. It's a pleasure to be reminded of these good books (2 out of 3 still on my shelves, ragged with age and use).

In the genre I'd also recommend Strange Cargo and other novels by J Barlough -- they chronicle the doings of a reduced, but thriving civilisation isolated in the Pacific Northwest during a new (but not excessively severe) Ice Age. What happened to the rest of North America is somewhat obscure, but the locals are getting on with their lives using sail, steam, and woolly mammoths for transport. Charming hommage-a-Dickens stuff.

Another view of a grimy and slowly shrinking future is found in Lee Killough's underrated future police-procedurals -- Doppelganger Gambit, Spider Play, and I think Dragon's Teeth. They showed us a future with some high-tech gizmos to wow us... but most people ride bikes, hardly anyone can afford a hovercar, grass grows in the under-maintained streets, and people are lining up to escape the malfunctioning and impoverished societies of Earth by taking a one-way trip on a colony ship. The colony ships, of course, are pure fantasy; but the bicycles, the roommate hassles (housing is expensive and hard to come by), the conflicts between an intensely intrusive government with surveillance technology to spare and rebel citizens who resist assimilation... it's all pretty real.

Honourable mention also to Bruce Sterling for his Decline Fiction works such as Heavy Weather and Distraction (the latter is an absolute hoot!). I think Margaret Atwood deserves a nod for The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, though these are more about the end of homo sapiens and our replacement with something less destructive... OK enough for one night, I'll have to scan my shelves and see what more we can find in the Decline&FallSoWhat section.

1/22/14, 9:53 PM

Tom Bannister said...
Interesting I was just thinking quite recently about how I needed more narratives of gradual decline rather than 'straight up into the air' or straight into the ground'. and now this post tells me exactly what I wanted to know. Thanks!

Just out of interest, are we particularly concerned here about what part of the world the story takes place in? If I were to make a contribution it would be based on my own country (New Zealand) as of course this is the country I know most about. anyway cheers

1/22/14, 10:01 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
"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."

Oh, that's an interesting name for a genre that didn't have one before. I like it, enough so to add three other works to your list.

First, "Star Man's Son" by Andre Norton. It was a standard post-apocalyptic adventure, set 300 years after a nuclear war, but it really read more like a fantasy adventure. That was a common trait of Norton's. She really had a great talent for weird settings with fantasy elements, but she placed a lot of her fiction out in space, so it was classified as science fiction.

Second, "Hiero's Journey" by Sterling Lanier, set millennia after another nuclear war. It has all the elements of a fantasy heroic quest, but each of the fantastic features are all explained scientifically. Also, it was published after The Club of Rome, and the author took the conclusions of that study to heart, setting the nuclear war as a one over resources once they peaked and began to run out. He also incorporated global warming, as the story takes place around what is now the great lakes, but has become a tropical forest around an inland sea.

Finally, I have some foreign media, the Japanese cartoon (anime) "Scrapped Princess." It starts off like a high fantasy, but the truth behind the facade peeks out early with the spell circles looking like semiconductor circuit diagrams. It turns out that the magic comes from nanotechnology and AIs. Oh, and the space bats appear, but they set people back to medieval technology instead of allowing humanity to continue advancing technologically. They decided that humans were too much of a threat.

As for the science fiction contest, I'm interested.

1/22/14, 10:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thijs, my guess is that it's a fairly small audience so far. One of the reasons I've added sales links to my blog is to get the small presses that carry my odder peak oil books a little more exposure!

Justin, my experience is that that's much easier said than done. Most often, if you think you're not following a narrative, it's because you're not aware of the narrative you're following -- and in that case it's usually some wretched bit of pop culture that's slipped in without your noticing it. In my experience it works much better to have a wealth of stories, and learn how to play with them freely in full awareness of what you're doing.

DeAnander, delighted to hear it! I haven't read either Barlough or Killough -- I dropped current SF pretty much completely when cuberpunk came in; I was living in Seattle in those days, and had to deal with far too much hacker-and-slacker culture to want to get it warmed over in my SF, thanks. But I should probably revisit that.

Tom, I'd be delighted to see something set in New Zealand. Or anywhere else on the planet, for that matter.

Pinku-Sensei, I've read the first two -- anime zipped right on by me, for a variety of reasons. I wasn't that impressed by Hiero's Journey -- "interesting but hamfisted" was pretty much my reaction -- but Andre Norton was a major fave of mine back in the day. Did you ever read her Breed to Come? A very strange posthuman postapocalypse story...

1/22/14, 10:30 PM

Pinku-Sensei said...
"I wasn't that impressed by Hiero's Journey -- "interesting but hamfisted" was pretty much my reaction"

In retrospect, you're probably right. I have the feeling that it hasn't aged well.

"Did you ever read her Breed to Come? A very strange posthuman postapocalypse story..."

The one with the intelligent cats? Yes, I did. In fact, it was one of my favorites of hers and one in which she handled the implications of the science well instead of just hand-waving them. It was definitely not fantasy.

On another point, your comment about Americans deciding in 1980 that they'd rather have their comfortable lifestyles than a sustainable future for their grandchildren rings so true. That election was a major turning point, and decades of reflection upon it has made me despair that it could have turned out any differently, not like the 2000 election. Even the election of Al Gore then would not have made a difference, not without a Congress that would have gone along with him, which he wouldn't have had. Sigh.

1/22/14, 10:45 PM

KL Cooke said...
Consider the gauntlet picked up, sir.

1/22/14, 10:48 PM

deedl said...
Surely stories shape the way we interprete the reality and plenty of philosophers did spend plenty of time to discuss this in every detail.

But stories - and this has the same importance - also shape our behaviour. The future is not a given thing, it is something that can be influenced by us. So stories are not only about what may happen in the future, it is also about what we will make happen in the future.

Take the doomsday preppers and their story of civilizational failure: They expect a future of civilization decaying and losing the ability to provide for the people in shared specialized and interdependend work. So they withdraw to their homes and learn to provide for themselves. With this behaviour they make their story happen since they withdraw from the shared specialized and interdependen work system. They don't prepare for a given future, they make their very future and since they only know one story, this is the story they make happen.

I think all of your readers got your point that there will be no star trek future and there will be no apocalytic end to our civilzation that is worth a hollyood movie. As you said in you older post, knowing many stories is wisdom, and the long decline you are proposing is - as i think - just one possible future.

Shouldn't we stop talking about what is not going to happen and start acting to make things happen? Shouldn't we find as many possible stories to our future that are doable within our physical realms? And then choose the one that has the most appeal and make it happen?

The interesting story in the world of tomorrow is not the US, and it is also not Europe, the interesting story is about India and China. Not as political entities, but as civilizational entities. For many millennia those were in terms of technology, population and production the civilizational centers of the world. Read Jared Diamonds "Germs, Guns and Steel" to understand why. Their current growth is no surprise, since they just catch up towards their natural position among the planets civilizations.

The last decades they tried to copy the american story of progress. But now they reach a point where they realize that this story does not fit for them. Physical and ecologic boundaries together with the setting american sun make this story less appealing. But while the americans only have the story of progress in an infinite world, since this is their national experience, the old civilizations of asia have many other stories to tell. And unlike the american politicians, who just care about keeping what they have within the current system, there are leaders who are willing to shape and design a future.

Civilization is something that is hard to undo. Switching from an urban specialized lifestyle to the one of subsistent farming is as long a way as the other direction. So once you have a specialized workforce, you are locked and forced to stick to that, so civilization has a lot of momentum. The same is true for technology. Once you forgot the old traditional means to solve a certain problem and adopted the new technology for it, you have to stick to that, this can be bad, because this technology may have drawbacks, but it adds a lot to civilizational momentum. Additonally you also have cultural momentum. A civilization that is divided in castes is inherently specialized and interdependend. It is wired into the cultural software. The same is true for a civilization, whose major philosophy is about harmonie and putting oneself behind the others.

In our western centric worldview we always talk about mycenae and rome. Rising and falling civilizations are the story we know. Long declines or apocalyptic endings are just subsets of the story of rise and fall. The cultures along the great asian rivers tell a story of civilzation just muddling along history, having highs and lows. This may not appeal hollywood, but maybe ot appeals to the normal people living their normal lifes.

1/22/14, 11:49 PM

Grebulocities said...
A new compilation of stories is an excellent idea - I bought After Oil about a year ago, and several of those stories stuck in my mind in ways that were more compelling than logical explanations of what the future may be like.

I missed the last challenge - I could give some outside excuses (the biggest being that my mom developed terminal cancer and I moved back home). But on a more fundamental level, I couldn't come up with a good idea of what novel types of scientific "progress" would survive into a world without fossil fuels. I love hearing from minds more creative than mine though, so I wonder: did that book ever get published, or did you not get enough good submissions?

As for the stories in this book, what kind of timeline do you want? Would you rather get submissions from hypothetical worlds 20-50 years in the future as the bill for our present consumption comes due, or would you prefer stories from far enough in the future that fossil fuels are rare curiosities?

1/23/14, 12:10 AM

Abelardsnazz said...
I've read and enjoyed several of the books that you've mentioned in your blog (Guide for the Perplexed, Glass Bead Game and of course Blood of the Earth) - so now I think I'll have to track down a copy of The Pastel City. I always picture you living in a peaceful house full of interesting books.

I vaguely remember reading a book called Engine Summer in my late teens that was set in a distant future long after our own civilisation had faded out. I think I'll have to track that one down as well.

1/23/14, 12:31 AM

hadashi said...
JMG - Your story of coming across a cheap SF novel reminds me of Billy Pilgrim discovering Kilgore Trout's book in a similar shop. I mention this because just this past week I happened to reread Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five'. That also set off all sorts of chronological reverberations for me. Oldies but goodies.

1/23/14, 2:47 AM

Freebooter said...
‘The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow’

Think of the apocalypse as the contents cast out of the kingdom of progress, left to fester on the other side of a great wall, a wall built strongly and high and at first so far away that it is almost lost to memory, so ideas of permanence and originality become the truth.

The wall is at first high and of heavy stone, the unwanted press outside but have little chance of breaking it down, then the wall becomes higher and of space age alloys, no wall was ever higher or stronger to keep out the chill wind.

Now the people look and for some the wall is higher still, bright and shinning like the sun, no wall such as this could ever be broken, could ever be penetrated by the unwanted and pressing darkness.

But for more and more people the wall is closer now and looks like a shoddy rough board, with stays that bend and rot, rents show the unwanted and darkness piled up behind, greater and ever more pressing on the rotting boards and they know that when the wall gives they will be utterly overcome….

But in the stories they read, the wall is still higher, a new wall will be built, a space wall, an arctic wall, the wall will shine for ever and the unwanted will never overcome the wall….

1/23/14, 3:03 AM

Richard Larson said...
Was sitting drinking coffee at a resturant with a state senator's brother and aquaintance yesterday for lunch, and I was asked about my role in having Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett come to town to talk about energy. He did a three hour talk, similar to this 10 minute clip:

Among the story I told, which is interesting in itself, I highlighted the chart which the then Congressman felt was the most important chart of his presentation, to these fellows, in how the oil production trend line lagged but followed the oil discovery trendline upwards. Found here:

I traced an imaginary chart on the table, their eyes widened as they followed my slow movements, with the thought of the implcations of oil production following discoveries downward. I cut them off from the end of the world idea right there by telling them such.

They understood less oil supply meeting a growing demand means higher prices. But they couldn't quite understand that a barrel of oil is worth 23,000 hours of human labor.

Then I said, $20 a gallon for gas is still a cheap price. And people are still going to buy it. Afterall, would you (meaning these fellows) walk all the way here to Manitowoc, or would you rather have bought $40 worth of gas and drive the 25 miles to get here and go back? Would you load up a donkey cart with stuff, or would gas buy gas and drive it here?

I had them all the way, nodding their heads and such, until we finished up with nothing left to do but pay the bill. Then the Senator's brother said, "they will think of something"!

Funny in contrast, our Wisconsin Governor was in high progressive form last night, giving a most positive speech. My bet is the people who listened were flying higher than a kite. There can only be one true story! The future is certianly assured here in Wisconsin!

1/23/14, 4:15 AM

Yupped said...
It is so interesting how we live our lives in stories, and as you responded to Justin we can do that unconsciously and consciously. If we do it unconsciously the transitions can be painful, because we try to hold on to the story as the facts change or as we realize that the story was always wrong, which most stories are to some degree or other.

I'm only in my early 50s, but I've lived through lots of interesting narratives already, within the overarching narrative of the peaking of industrial civilization: the social changes of the 1960s (which in the UK included the fading of the British Empire and the breakdown of class deference), the stagnation of the 70s, the "recovery" of the 80s, the supposed triumph of globalism and the American model at the close of the century, the beginnings of decline, the crisis of the last few years, etc. And those are just the big themes that reflected my sources and the way I saw the world. Lots of shorter stories within that, relationships and jobs and prosperity all coming and going. All swirling around.

I suppose the key is to enjoy the ride and not take it too seriously. But it does help to know that you are on a ride in the first place. Reading fiction can really help in that regard. Growing up in the Europe probably helped too - hard not to notice all those ruins lying around. It also helped that my father as a boy was living in Shanghai in 1937 and saw how quickly the lights could go out on certain social arrangements. He never quite got over that.

1/23/14, 4:22 AM

ando said...
Thanks, JMG, the auto-biographical touches were interesting.

I ran into my first real "they'll think of something" conversation at work, the other day. Our corporation is starting to experience the descent, cutting back and down-sizing. As we discussed this, this particular engineer talked about his "story" of the future. I told him there would not be the energy to support our society as it currently exists. He said they will think of something. I said there is nothing that packs the punch of petroleum. He said they have not come up with it yet, but they will.

So it goes....


1/23/14, 4:44 AM

olduvaiblog said...
Sounds like a wonderful opportunity I'd like to take advantage of. A question. Can it be a 'chapter' from a book and not a 'complete' story? I ask this as I have self-published a novel in this very style (see this: and would like to offer a chapter from it or from the sequel I'm currently working on.

1/23/14, 5:22 AM

Renaissance Man said...
Thanks for the walk down memory lane.
I seem to recall an album cover from the late 70s or early 80s that had a painting of a group of plains Indians, sitting around a campfire in the middle of the crumbling ruins of a superhighway cloverleaf with shopping mall ruins in the background. The only thing was they were wearing clear glass fishbowl breathing helmets, of the sort popular amongst SF artists in the 30s.
I also recall reading quite a few novels & short stories -- no idea by whom or the titles -- that fell into the fantasy genre in some future dark ages, some in this world, some in fantasy worlds. Some had some apocalyptic nuclear war or disaster bring down the world, some simply degenerated into some form of dictatorships, some wasted themselves in civil war, but the message was always clear: no civilization can last indefinitely, nor are people predisposed to survive in grinding poverty indefinitely.
Coincidentally, in the past couple of years, particularly since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, historians have revisited the whole idea that a savage, primitive tribe called the Anglo-Saxons "conquered" England, because there is no real archaeological evidence for this. What the evidence (both on the ground and in the DNA) says is that an influx of immigrants and mercenaries arrived after the legions left, the centralized Roman government weakened and international trade broke down. This gave rise to mostly self-sufficient (and violently competitive) local tribes who created a new culture with astounding art and metalwork, but, sadly, no contemporary written records.
Similar reinterpretations across Europe produce a different view of the "dark ages" as being a time of beautiful architecture, exquisite arts, and not quite the scrabbling-in-the-dirt-constantly-surrounded-by-violent-bands-of-barbarians story that has been received history.
While many back-to-the-land groups failed when the romanticized rural life turned out to be very exhausting, hard work, a newer generation, with more realistic expectations, has been taking to rural life, taking full advantage of all agricultural knowledge gained in the past 200 years.
Put together, I think that the deindustrial future, while "hard" compared to our current luxurious lifestyle, might not be quite so harsh, bleak, and apocalyptic.

1/23/14, 5:39 AM

Brian Rich said...
I second that opinion regarding Sterling's Distraction. The characters and situations are hilarious.

1/23/14, 6:02 AM

Keith said...

Since we are indulging in nostalgia for the SF of youth, I'd put in a mention of John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. Not really post-apocalypse, but more a projection of the then-present (late 1960s, early 1970s) to the near future (2010 or so).

Quite chilling in that it described the steady worsening of life in urban North America due to pollution, population pressure, and so on. Sound familar?

Great post this week. All the best.

1/23/14, 6:27 AM

Jasmine said...
Dear Mr Greer

Great blog. I think that your idea of needing more than one story is so true. At present our media, and our academic and government establishments are completely dominated by neoliberal ideas of free market capitalism. It is difficult for concerns about peak oil and resource constraints to get any kind of hearing in this kind of environment because it just does not fit in with this world view. I think that one of the reasons that concerns about resource constraints were able to get a hearing in the 1970’s, is due to the fact that marxism/socialism still had a strong voice and provided an alternative way of thinking to free market capitalism. Now I am not a fan of many aspects of marxism/socialism and am fully aware that they are ideologies of progress, and took little or no account of resource constraints or the environment. However I think that the fact that there was an alternative way of thinking in the 1970’s, helped to create a space where concerns about resource constraints could be heard. I think that this helps to demonstrate the point that you are making.

1/23/14, 6:49 AM

Twilight said...
Many of Andre Norton's stories were set amongst the ruins of previous civilizations, but what made them different was that these were past technological civilizations, or at least possessed of powers that could have been poorly remembered technologies. And of course technology was not supposed to fail us. I recently bought another copy of Breed to Come, as it was one of my favorites.

I am glad to see this project, as I have come to understand the power of a good story. As you stated:

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.

I do not see any other means by which large parts of the population can begin to visualize possible futures except by a good story that contains the core structure of the limits we know we will face. The details within that could be anything, just as we cannot know the details of how things will play out.

I think that compiling a book of short stories is an excellent first step, as one never knows what talent may be hiding out there. Still, I think a greater project is needed. If we only knew someone with a good grasp of the issues and strong skills as a writer and storyteller.......

1/23/14, 7:05 AM

flyingcardealer said...
another space bats anthology. nice. i'll have to get cracking. i've had a few ideas bouncing around since the last contest and this is the kick in the pants i need to start them. (hard for me to do anything without deadlines. sad, i know.)

also, if you haven't read it yet, please get yourself a copy of robert charles wilson's "julian comstock: a story of 22nd century america". it's far and away the best post-peak novel i've read so far and, as someone with an interest in military history, i think you'll definitely enjoy it.

glad to hear the first anthology was a success. congratulations to yourself and all the contributors.

here's hoping the second round is even better.

take care.

1/23/14, 7:14 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Pinku-Sensei, I think 1980 could have turned out differently, though it's a stretch. Still, all that's gone whistling down the wind of might-have-beens...

KL, delighted to hear it.

Deedl, er, I'd encourage you to pursue a closer study of Asian history, which has seen plenty of collapses and dark ages -- my theory of catabolic collapse, in fact, was largely shaped by extensive reading about the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties and how that mapped onto cycles of collapse and renewal. (I read Diamond's book years ago, by the way.) I certainly grant that right now, the rising Asian powers have a much longer historical perspective than what we have in place of leadership in the US; it remains to be seen how much help that'll give them in navigating the challenges of the near future.

Grebulocities, there weren't a lot of submissions for the Krampus challenge, I'm sorry to say -- which probably means nothing more than that my readership includes more talented writers than it does engineers and technologists. (No surprises there.) As far as timelines are concerned, that's wide open: near future, far future, so far in the future that our entire civilization is a matter of faintly remembered legends, take your pick.

Abelardsnazz, Engine Summer by John Crowley would definitely have gone on the list if I'd read it early enough, and so would two of his other novels, Beasts and Little, Big -- a brilliant writer, and his futures ring true to me.

Hadashi, I hadn't even thought of that! Thanks for the blast from the past.

Freebooter, a nicely developed metaphor. I trust you'll be applying that same skill with prose to a story for the contest!

Richard, ah, yes, the holy mantra of the One True Faith: "They'll think of something." Can I encourage all my readers to poke fun at that idiotic utterance in as many forums as possible?

Yupped, exactly.

Ando, my guess is we'll be hearing that mantra a great deal, in increasing tones of panic, in the months and years to come. "They'll think of something" is this culture's one and only story, after all.

Olduvai, no, it needs to be a self-contained short story. By all means set it in the same future and story line as your novels, though; there must be some bit of backstory or series of events off to one side of the main plot that can be told in short story form.

1/23/14, 7:37 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Renaissance, I'll look forward to a story from you making exactly that last point about the deindustrial future! ;-)

Brian, duly noted. Sterling's not usually my cup of tea but I'm willing to be surprised.

Keith, don't forget The Shockwave Rider, which got the internet down cold decades in advance. Brunner was very good.

Jasmine, true enough -- and the Marxism of the 1970s was itself the last gasp of the much richer and more varied world of alternative theories of political economy that thrived before 1945, when the Cold War squeezed the options down to two. I'll be talking about this at length in an upcoming post.

Twilight, funny. As mentioned in the post, my post-peak oil SF novel Star's Reach will be heading to a publisher shortly; it's 158,000 words of life, love, and interstellar communication in dark age Meriga circa 2480 AD; once it's in print, I'll be splashing the news around here and elsewhere, so if that's what you had in mind, it's covered. Meanwhile, the short story anthology is as much meant to tempt other writers to go on at novel length as anything else...

Dealer, I'll look forward to your submission to the contest, and will put Julian Comstock on the get-to-this list.

1/23/14, 7:47 AM

Twilight said...
I really enjoyed reading Star's Reach and will certainly be getting the book once it comes out. It is important to illustrate what a later period of partial recovery might look like and I think Star's Reach does that well.

However, I think a story of a nearer time when things are falling apart would also be very useful. It would certainly be a difficult thing to write, to avoid getting billed as apocalyptic fiction and finding some appealing narrative in such a time would be challenging to say the least. How to portray a life of meaning in so difficult and bleak a setting?

I recall your earlier short story (forgot the name) of the boy from Oregon who meets up with the Chinese refugee girl and eventually settles in with a walled village. I found that one very compelling.

Essentially, can you capitalize on the present mania for apocalyptic fiction to sneak in something that isn't really apocalyptic, but tells a more realistic tale? And along the way gets people used to certain features of the world barreling down upon us that are not permitted to be discussed in polite company at present?

1/23/14, 8:15 AM

Zarvoc said...
Hello JMG!

I was inspired by your "ten million years in the future" post a couple months back, and I wanted to tell a story that is set in the far future, perhaps 100,000 years (or more!), when humankind lives on a de-iced Antarctica, and relies heavily on mutualism with slightly-evolved ravens that are starting to become more intelligent because of that mutualism. (E.g., the birds have tatters of what might be considered a sort of proto-culture.) Basically, I was intrigued by the idea of a second sentient species evolving, but I want to tell a story about the interaction between birds and men within a post-petroleum human settlement on a significantly warmer Earth.

Would this type of story work for you?

1/23/14, 9:02 AM

Jeff Snyder said...
You are really hitting them out of the park these days, thank you!

Re: the importance of fiction, the novelist Jerzy Kosinski gave a talk at my university (back in the late 70s) that your post recalls to mind. He began by talking about PIs or government officials tracking down business executives who, to avoid prosecution or for other reasons, decided to chuck it all, disappear and "start a new life." JK had training as a social scientist and somewhere he obtained facts and figures on this kind of thing. The statistics aparently showed overwhelmingly that it was actually pretty easy to track these people down (remember, this is before the internet, NSA, etc.), because they were incapable of actually changing their habits and way of life, and this always gave them away. JK proceeded to discuss the importance of literature, as a means of having alternate stories for one's life and to foster the imagination necessary to actually - in this case - escape one's past and to truly embark upon "a new life."

Those who have read JK's novels will readily appreciate how and why he had this "take" on literature, and on the subject matter he presented. Given JK's personal history, he was in deadly earnest about this - at one level, it was truly life or death.

Off topic, but a response you made to a reader of the last post about climate change mentioned that your own environs were a good place to "ride out the storm," so to speak. I am fairly new to the blog so pardon me asking, but have you ever discussed the process or grounds for the decision you made to locate where you live?

1/23/14, 9:35 AM

Ray Wharton said...
The last contest very much changed my life. I was at the time busy with wwoofing through California, and my attempt at fiction only made it to a first draft before life forced my interest else where.

That draft was important though I never shared it with another soul. In it my own fantasies about tiny utopias in a collapsing world showed themselves in a form just distant enough from my own life plans that I could see them for what they were. Tolkien made some comment once about the suspension of disbelief being insufficient it must be "drawn and quartered" I believe he said. Seeing my own fantasies projected forward 90 some years I went back to read that draft a few months after I wrote it, and suddenly realized my own vision for responding to collapse didn't pass the test of suspending, let alone drawing and quartering, disbelief. Maybe as a more skillful writer I could have made it work, but the fact was that many things about my own hubris looked back from those pages.

Recently my way of earning money has left me with the occasional morning hour of freedom and I started a novel. Looking at the FHP site I will have to increase productivity by a couple pages a week to have time enough to edit the work into something I would feel comfortable submitting. But regardless, future fiction has helped me think and helped me as a communicator. So thank you.

I am going to try writing a short story in the world I have build around the novel. First thing though I need to reread some prose older than I to get in frame of mind. Thank you again for these prompts to cultivate the creative side of the mind. I will later post a comment on some of the fiction that has most influenced me, but first I want to draft some story ideas.

1/23/14, 9:46 AM

Marc L Bernstein said...
One of the features of recent (science fiction or horror) movie and television entertainment is the lack of genuine imagination in the basic outlines of the story or the setting.

It seems that all too often I read a synopsis of such scripts or stories and they involve vampires, werewolves, zombies or cybernetic hybrids of man and machine.

If I see that vampires or zombies are part of the plot for either a movie or a tv show I'm done. I'm so sick of it that I simply cannot bear to watch any part of such unimaginative idiocy.

This pertains to your idea that many persons today are stuck with a rudimentary, typically archaic, narrative of the world and their place within it. Perhaps it is indicative of the decay of societies when fresh and uplifting narratives are hard to come by.

1/23/14, 9:48 AM

SLClaire said...
I used to read fiction when I was quite young, but for many years I have read almost no fiction. So little of the fiction that I read as an adult was at all satisfactory that I got frustrated with fiction as a class and pretty much gave up on it. Still, there have been a very few notable books over the years, though not in the category of this post so I won't mention them by title.

With so little in the way of (conscious) stories in mind, I think I need to start by reading After Oil, so I just ordered it. And with so little background in fiction as a reader and as a writer, I feel very under-equipped to enter this contest. So I am not promising anything except that I will seriously consider your point that we think in stories and consider what stories may be lurking underneath my conscious awareness.

1/23/14, 10:10 AM

Ray Wharton said...
@ Zarvok

Interesting that you are thinking about the futures of coexisting intelligent species. My own musings feature an earlier point where a shifted conception of what intelligence is has caused humans to change how we incorporate various species into our social orders, and involves some moments of those other species managing to game their new and strangely decorated ecosystems. JMG must have sowed some seeds with that story, because the first thing I wrote this morning featured a raven of some cunning.

1/23/14, 10:37 AM

olduvaiblog said...
I've got to throw some Canadian content into the discussion. I vividly remember reading Richard Rohmer's ( Ultimatum ( in grade 9 (1975-6). The story is one of building tension between the US and Canada based upon natural gas resources in the Canadian Arctic. The US has suffered through a harsh winter and require access to the gas. Canada is trying to determine its requirements before agreeing to export any while the new Prime Minister is bedeviled by an unknown group that has begun bombing a newly-constructed pipeline. The President provides an 'ultimatum' to the PM that unfettered access be granted to the States within 48 hours or economic sanctions will be placed upon the country. The Canadian government rejects the ultimatum and the book ends with the States about to embark upon a military take-over of Canada. It became one of my favourites and I even used it as a 'read-aloud' to several grade eight classes I taught in the early '90s.
Rohmer went on to write a sequel, Exxonertion. My first exposure to the energy dilemma.

1/23/14, 10:40 AM

Moshe Braner said...
"new visions of the future could have a significant impact, and it might as well be your vision, dear reader, that helps make that happen."

- aha! That's JGM's response to the ongoing flurry-in-the-blogroll about "crash on demand" and "agency"?

1/23/14, 10:54 AM

k-dog said...
I'm stoked and am going to start my story project today. Your article this week is a call to action that just might free many of us from the sucking mire of apathy and despair which the dominant memes of our oppressive culture have foisted upon us. Congratulations on a great idea. I feel as if we have taken the first step on a noble journey. The beginning of May you say. I'll be there!

1/23/14, 11:38 AM

Robert Magill said...
Looking forward to the new contest!

1/23/14, 12:04 PM

Phil Harris said...
Although I started with British SF, most SF I encountered in my peak reading period in the 1960s was American.

My most avid SF reading was also in a period of emotional distress but in my case in my early 20s. This period might be connected with my having had permanent difficulty in reading any fiction since my 30s - previously I was a persistent explorer across the range, including the avant garde. The few exceptions perhaps have been some classical Russian literature and selections from 19thC writers in English and a few British novels for children. I am left mercifully however with a lot of poetry.

The USA seems to have a particular interest in ‘new futures’, perhaps in the same way there have been so many attempts to found ‘new religions’?

To me the future seems an even stranger country than the past, especially if viewed as a work of fiction. Personally I tend to identify with Dr Frankenstein’s creation heading north with my dogs. There are one or two stories and magic I would take with me.
I was interested that SL Claire has commented that as an adult she also left fiction behind.

Phil H

1/23/14, 12:33 PM

Henry Vistbacka said...
Hey JMG. Thank you for your many inspiring writings.

On a point not especially related to this week's post: Imagining the future of a collapsing, overpopulated industrial civilization, it's hard to avoid envisioning bands of hungry, poverty-stricken people doing whatever they can to stay alive, definitely including attacking anyone with established food production facilities or other things of value. Also hard to avoid envisioning other kinds of general unrest among desperate people.

What's your take on this, and the real-life effects it would have on people, with plans for small-scale sustainable living or otherwise? Perhaps you've already dealed with this theme at some point in your blog's past?

What kinds of self-defence or precaution do you see yourself considering in such situations?

Also: Have you written about how the effects of climate change could affect your visions of the future?

1/23/14, 12:39 PM

Anna said...
JMG, thank you for the nod to the importance of speculative fiction as something that is not a luxury, but rather a profoundly important forum for thought experiments that help us to imagine a world we cannot seem to imagine. I'm reminded of Inigo Montoya in _The Princess Bride_: "[Inconceivable . . .]You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!" As an English Prof who is just about to embark (next academic year) on a second-year course in "Post-Carbon Fiction," I'm not only excited about this contest--and of course the one that preceded it and its "published proceedings," I'm also excited about the possibility of _Star's Reach_ being made available in hard copy. Plus, I'm grateful for the "historical" titles mentioned both by the Archdruid and by commenters!

1/23/14, 12:47 PM

Anna said...
Just as a quick follow-up, I'd like to recommend Joseph Gold's book _The Story Species_. He's really shaky when he starts talking about biology, but his arguments about the importance of stories to human cognition are really interesting.

1/23/14, 12:49 PM

Albatross said...
Been a regular reader for two years now. The coherence I find here is exquisite. Thanks.

I saw Engine Summer by John Crowley mentioned. That one bowled me over totally since I first got hold of it in 1980. John Crowley is truly one of the Great Writers of our times. If anyone hasn't read his epic series (four volumes starting with Ægypt (The Solitudes), 1987, and ending with Endless Things, 2007 ... Yeah. Read it. 20 years in the writing. ... just had to add my feedback. :) (Um, not post-industrial but oh so deep.)

As for post-industrial work I'm a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, which I managed to collect all 27 issues of published from 1988 to 1996 by Viz Select Comics. Highly recommended. See:ä_of_the_Valley_of_the_Wind_(manga)

All the best to you Mr. Greer.

1/23/14, 1:04 PM

Marcello said...
"And unlike the american politicians, who just care about keeping what they have within the current system, there are leaders who are willing to shape and design a future."

I can't say to be an expert about China but the impression I get is that while they may be planning a bit further ahead than their western counterparts they are not really thinking outside the conventional box.
In addition, having exhausted all others alternatives, they seem to have stacked their legitimacy on delivering high growth rates with nationalism as the only other fallback option. This could get out of hand fast in a crisis...

"Similar reinterpretations across Europe produce a different view of the "dark ages" as being a time of beautiful architecture, exquisite arts, and not quite the scrabbling-in-the-dirt-constantly-surrounded-by-violent-bands-of-barbarians story that has been received history."

It seems a like a festival of the opposing straw men. No of course people did not spend 476-1492 "scrabbling-in-the-dirt". On the other hand being on the receiving end of,say, the lombard invasion in the 6th century was no picnic. To say nothing of the Black Death. And as in most every pre-industrial civilization the vast majority of the people had little or no access to "exquisite arts".

1/23/14, 1:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Twilight, I'll consider it, but it's not as though I don't have a lot of other projects on my plate!

Zarvoc, by all means. When I said "make it different," yes, that's the sort of thing I had in mind. I'm considering a story that will have exactly nothing to do with my Star's Reach future history, for that matter!

Jeff, thank you. The blog post of mine about our reasons for moving here is this one.

Ray, that's one of the huge advantages of fiction -- if you can't tell a believable story about it, it's not going to work in any other sense, either! I'll look forward to your submission to the contest.

Marc, no argument there. I find dead things (vampires, zombies, etc.) dreary in the extreme, and the contemporary death-fetish literature that clusters around them even more so.

SLClaire, please do give it a try. I know a surprisingly large number of people who "gave up on fiction" who, on reflection, realized that fiction gave up on them -- that the cultural changes reflected in their favorite form of fiction left them cold, and that a different way of telling stories still has something to offer.

Olduvai, by all means -- and of course you're far from the only Canadian who reads this blog, so it's on topic. ;-)

Moshe, no, that's next week. "Agency" -- as though we needed any more reminders that most of the people in these discussions are way too wrapped up in abstract conceptual schemes...

K-dog, excellent. I'll look forward to your contribution.

Robert, trust me, so am I!

Phil, have you considered the possibility that it wasn't you that changed, but science fiction? That latter was certainly my experience.

Henry, that is to say, you've got the standard set of Hollywood fast-collapse cliches stapled behind your eyeballs. Most people do, and until they realize that that's what's shaping their thoughts, they keep on dragging out those imaginary hordes of starving zombies, and never notice that I'm talking about the kind of decline and fall that happens in the real world -- that is, a slow, grinding, slogging decline, where people are too busy struggling to get by to turn out for roving-mob duty. As for climate change, I get asked that about once every two weeks, despite the fact that I've been talking about climate change since this blog first got under way. Go have a look at the archives if you want to see what I have to say.

Anna, I'm delighted to hear it. Would it be possible to post your reading list somewhere and link to it here?

Albatross, glad to hear it. I don't follow manga, but I've heard a lot of praise for the Nausicaa series.

1/23/14, 1:47 PM

Henry Vistbacka said...
JMG, at this point I actually do find myself somewhat convinced that a collapse would happen more slowly than abruptly (of course including the occasional harsher steps down that you've also written about). Your writings have had a definite impact on my point of view.

Yet I still find myself wondering about the impacts of sudden shortages and such over the course of a collapse, and the responses that people would have towards them (especially in large cities with millions of potentially hungry people).

Is your view that the threat of "roving-mobs" is just not particularly relevant because even if some do materialize, they will be rare and random?

How do you view the impact of increasing poverty on the interactions of regular people in a modern city environment?

On climate change - I've read a major part of your blog posts from the past year, some older ones, and have also started to read from the beginning of your post archive. I know that you've written about it, but the posts I've read have mainly addressed the topic from viewpoints other than the actual consequences of climate change. I'm going to do a search on your blog with the keywords, but if you want, you can also point me to particular posts that I could check that would cover your vision?

1/23/14, 2:31 PM

MawKernewek said...
I have enjoyed the works of Kim Stanley Robinson inculding Red/Green/Blue Mars and 2312.

I've started reading his climate change trilogy starting with "40 Signs of Rain". It is striking that there seems to be an expectation that the USA should be taking global leadership over the issue which seems a bit far-fetched now.

It shows that over the past ten years, the idea of the USA as the 'hyperpower' is fading.

1/23/14, 2:32 PM

DeAnander said...
Definitely Julian Comstock, a fun read.

Also the low-budget indie film "ever since the world ended" (title is from a lovely Mose Allison tune of the same name), which shows isolated survivors of a Great Plague just keepin' on -- tinkerers trying to keep some lights on in a depopulated San Francisco, people growing food in their gardens, kids growing up salvaging valuable goods and resources from empty buildings, a lone cyclist trying to keep news and connection between communities along the coast. A frightening film in some ways, comforting in others. The most interesting part is the divide between the older and younger survivors; the youngsters are adapting, re-wilding, no longer bound by the imaginations of their elders... anyway, it belongs in the canon.

I'd even say the animated features WALL-E belongs there too -- after all, it shows a horde of lazy, over-technologised, ignorant people being led back to a subsistence existence (by a helpful high-tech robot, but hey, if you can't stomach a little cognitive dissonance you'd better not be watching mainstream media at all!)...

(captcha: adloce calling... gee, thought it was London...)

1/23/14, 2:42 PM

Derv said...
Hey JMG,

This is awesome! I've actually been working on a short story for a while now that is a good fit for this contest called "A God Like George." In fact, I believe I started it after the first contest was announced and didn't get it to where I wanted until recently. It uses some cliches (after the decline, Russian and Chinese forces invade the US, which isn't exactly a rare idea) but the main thrust is about how far we might go to hold on to the "dream of America."

Anyways, here it is, and I invite all others to read it and let me know what you think:

I also intend to write at least one more story, set in a different and further future that is perhaps more engaging and contemplative. I read this post last night and dwelt on it for a few hours as I tried to sleep. That one will take a little longer though.

All feedback appreciated, positive and (constructively) negative, thanks!

1/23/14, 2:44 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Marcello, I like the idea of a festival of straw men. Perhaps a ballet, in which opposing straw men dance with one another. ;-)

Henry, I'd suggest starting with this overview, then read this post, this one and this one. That should give you a good summary. I'll be discussing the whole issue in more detail in the upcoming series on the next five hundred years of North American history.

MawKernewk, I hope so. The US has been harmed, perhaps irreparably, by its delusions of grandeur.

DeAnander, well, I'll leave visual media to those who enjoy them.

Derv, this is very well written but not really about the impacts of peak oil and the limits to growth -- I note that you reference them, but almost entirely as backstory. I didn't get much sense of how factors other than being an occupied country were affecting the lives of your characters and the people around them -- and I'd like to see more of that, either in this story or another.

1/23/14, 3:09 PM

Bill said...
Bellingham represent!

1/23/14, 3:19 PM

Glenn said...
DeAnander said...

Also the low-budget indie film "ever since the world ended"

I grew up in the Bay Area (Berkeley) and found the film profoundly depressing. Fortunately I left long enough ago (over 30 years) that I have no temptation to return. The movie was a good vehicle to explore some of the ramifications of a minimal human population. Though I think Stewart said it better in Earth Abides.

in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

1/23/14, 5:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, er, I'm trying to parse that.

1/23/14, 7:26 PM

team10tim said...
Hey hey JMG,

I didn't find your blog until 2008 or so and after I had been reading it for a few years I went back to look at the posts that I had missed:

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

I got it at the time, sort of, but I understand it much more thoroughly now. It is a very curious thing that our society puts so much emphasis on rationality while simultaneously being totally incapable of seeing obvious contradictions in the one story we keep telling ourselves. Deviations from the narrative are literally unthinkable.


1/23/14, 9:01 PM

btidwell said...
I'm totally psyched about the new short story search. I missed out on the last one. The timing is amazing since I started writing something (in my head, so far) day before yesterday. It just suddenly unfolded in my mind, as my inspiration usually does and I thought "Heck!I wish I had thought of this back when Mr. Greer was having his writing contest." I've been wondering whether I should bother to put in on paper and now I have an answer. So far, though, I fear it falls too much into the "tour" category and needs more plot, although it takes place in a single day which I like. I suppose there will have to be some sort of a flashback which would fit in easily.

It is set quite a few hundred years into the future (5 or 6?). Most people in this region live in small subsistence communities called Cyrcles that are a mix of NeoPagan commune, late Medieval village, and Native tribal culture. The 6 or 8 almost totally low tech Cyrcles in the area live in a philosophically conflicted relationship with the Village which is a small mercantile community with some small scale industry powered by water wheels. The villagers also send boats up and down the river to trade with other mercantile settlements on the river. One of the challenges to give it more of a plot is that it takes place in a simple bucolic world where time, as much as they still pay attention to it, moves very slowly and drama and adventure are very rare occurrences.

1/23/14, 9:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Tim, it's one of the bleaker ironies of our time that "reason" and "rationality" these days so often refer to the mindless repetition of a set of memorized talking points, all of which feed back into the same single story that's dragging us down.

Btidwell, fair enough. In that case you're obviously not going to be writing an adventure story, but that's not required; if you read the first anthology, you'll have noticed that the themes of stories included such things as an old man coming to terms with death, a young woman learning to garden, and a slide rule being passed down through three generations -- not exactly adventure-story fodder! You've got a setting that's a good source of emotional and psychological conflict; all you need now is a character or two who are caught in the middle of the pressures dividing Cyrcles from Village -- if at all possible in a way that doesn't admit simplistic right/wrong value judgments or easy answers -- and show how they either resolve the conflict or are defeated in their efforts to do so. (The first is drama, the second is tragedy.) Let the working out of the conflict become the lens through which the reader sees the Cyrcles, the Village, and the strengths and flaws and local color of each side, and you've got a solid story.

1/23/14, 9:38 PM

Joel said...
That's like resolving to make do without bones, and move like a cephalopod. The "narrative" here is a cognitive structure that I'm convince is structurally necessary for anything like normal human thought in most domains (returning to the mechanical metaphor, humans do have tongues, but not large enough ones to locomote with).

1/23/14, 11:04 PM

DeAnander said...
Another post-Crash bit of short fiction is George RR Martin's "For a Single Yesterday", about the survivors of an unspecified civ crash carrying on; the conflict iirc is between a poet/singer who clings to the songs of the old culture, and a pragmatic leader figure who wants new songs for a new time. In the mix is a drug which allows people to relive their memories with extreme accuracy and hallucinatory power. It's been many years since I read it, but it made enough of an impression that it popped back up (with a lingering flavour of melancholy) as I was thinking about Descent Lit.

for some reason the captcha has suddenly -- like, since this afternoon -- become insanely difficult...

1/23/14, 11:29 PM

Derv said...

Fair enough. I think that it could potentially have a place among such stories, if only to present the notion of "America forever" as potentially mad. But you're the boss! Revision would be difficult, I think, given the overall tone and intention of the story.

My other idea, I think, has a great deal more potential. I wasn't going to elaborate on it, but seeing as others have on theirs, I'd be interested on your feedback.

The general thrust of the story is about a semi-feudal town built around a post-crash religious order, whose code is more centered on preserving a sustainable lifestyle than anything else. There's more to it than that - for instance, they closely guard and control a small coal source - but I won't run off on it here. A young friar very close to swearing his oaths is caught with an old economics textbook in his possession, which is an offense potentially worthy of expulsion. I considered making the author Krugman, but have decided that there's no real need to ruffle feathers. Anyway, he and the abbot have a discussion about it, about the history of the order, and much else besides.

I'm considering making it a two part story, with the second section being about these same people dealing with the discovery of their coal by outsiders. It would allow for more conflict and tension and provide some opportunity for colorful characters, but would be somewhat less contemplative than the first section. Anyway, I'm curious if you have any advice. Thanks.

1/23/14, 11:43 PM

Unknown said...
Somewhere, I read a marketer's 'secret' of selling...when you change the 'picture' that people 'see', then you change the situation (i.e., the 'mushroom cloud' pre-Iraq war sales pitch, etc., etc., etc., etc ?). And so I've long thought that what is crucially important in our perilous times is a 'picture' of feasible and appealing alternative ways of living...that, hopefully, resonate with our deepest, truest yearnings (which scientific research tells us are peace, cooperation, sharing, laughter, presence, etc). Not to mention, that Buckminster Fuller said that attacking the current situation is futile; change requires creating a new model (picture ?) which makes the old one obsolete (as the old one may well be making itself obsolete at this point in time)l

Although the notion of powers-that-be may be persona non grata here, IF such there be, they surely promote a divide-and-conquer dog-eat-dog vision over a 'let's get together and strategize possibilities' mentality. But if we have already imagined possibilities, i.e., the pictures created by stories, telling songs, visuals, etc., perhaps we'll be more ready as the four horsemen approach.

And so, thank you, as the bigger 'pictures' may begin appearing at the critical juncture ;) Actually they already are here, under the radar, in countless small places and busy minds ... maybe the proverbial thousand points of light? Or I'm just a Pollyanna, per my NTE friends.

1/24/14, 12:52 AM

Kevin said...
Since I'm an image-maker rather than a story-teller I'm not planning to send in a submission on this one. But supposing it may be useful to some storytellers, if it is permitted I'll mention a couple of possible middle-to-far future technologies that might appeal to the more fancifully inclined (like myself), that could conceivably feature in tales of the future, and which have not to my knowledge been otherwise explored on this blog.

Not so many posts back JMG mentioned the possibility of aerostat cities potentially figuring at some remote point in future history. The possibility is, I think, real - but perhaps not by the means that the novels of Jules Verne and other souces of steampunk imagination might condition us to think of. No expensive difficult-to-obtain helium or massive furnaces producing hot air are necessary. Bucky Fuller worked out decades ago that if you build a light-weight transparently skinned sphere half a mile in diameter or larger, and the sun's heat raises its interior temperature by as little as one degree Fahrenheit above the temperature of the air outside (which will certainly happen with a transparent structure), the sphere will lift off the ground and float in the sky. A few thousand people and their goods inside would not suffice to hold it down. What happens when the sun goes down I don't know. Whether to keep a floating cloud city tethered or let it drift freely through the world's airspace might have political as well as practical implications.

The technology implied would probably include advanced alloys with an excellent strength-to-weight ratio (for a framework) and transparent plant-based plastics possessing high tensile strength. Or so I imagine. Others may come up with other approaches.

The other possibility is already a reality. I'm speaking of the future of high-speed sailing. There are sailboats that go fifty miles an hour, wind permitting, or even faster. These boats go faster than the wind that drives them. In a future without engines where the quickest way to travel overland is on a galloping horse, it seems to me quite likely that military powers, for example, are going to be very interested in vessels that go five or seven times faster than the rest. The technology may be difficult to obtain or produce in a deindustrial future - again, high strength alloys and other light weight high-performance materials are involved - but significant military advantages tend to get high priority. High-ranking passengers - heads of state, wealthy individuals, etc. - might prefer this mode of transport too. Anyone interested in learning more can try as search terms "foil sailing," "l'hydroptere" or "vestas sail rocket," for starters.

What the quality of life will be like in a deindustrial future - the sort of thing writers have to consider - is surely much deeper than the appeal of any techno-toys. To speak truth, thinking about it depresses me. For I know that I will not live to see any brighter future, whatever high civilizations may eventually come to be.

To follow up on a topic mentioned in last week's post, my most likely math-related project is an astrolabe. The sextant may be beyond my technical skills, but the plate of an astrolabe with its stereographic projection of the stars is, I think, manageable, and a good starting point. My preferred book arts printing technology is silkscreen, which may even suffice for the production of such a plate. The equipment is light weight and the materials relatively inexpensive. I also like lithography, but that requires a heavy expensive press.

For thermal solar tech, it's parabolic dishes, and secondarily Fresnel mirrors. Not the most practical perhaps, but have an art-related obsession with them.

1/24/14, 12:55 AM

Phitio said...
Considering your definition, the Hunger Games trilogy really suits in your collection of "post-industrial collapse scenario" narrative.

Maybe others have already stressed this, I suppose


1/24/14, 3:09 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Henry Vistbacka--Internal unrest and division is often more dangerous to societies and communities than external pressure.

One cause for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was repeated civil wars over the imperial succession. The wars destroyed much of the wealth of the empire, and the rival factions recruited barbarian armies and war bands who had to be paid off with domestic money, loot or land.

The working out of internal alliances and conflicts in a group allows for lots of plot lines.

1/24/14, 6:57 AM

pintada said...
This is a test.

We (my wife and i) have not been thrilled about google + or having a blog, but this contest is pushing us that direction.

Bought the book to see what was acceptable last time and we both have outlined a "reasonable" story (at least in our minds).

So, can we get through your draconian moderation?

1/24/14, 8:26 AM

pintada said...
Alrighty then, either posts disappear until approved, or i messed up. It is a gauntlet.

1/24/14, 8:29 AM

Mark Rice said...
I went through a phase where I stopped reading fiction. I wondered why I should waste my time reading someone's made up story with made up people who often do not even behave the way real people behave. Plus works of fiction are limited by the limitations of the authors. Reality is far more complex and nuanced.

So I read "non-fiction" to try to learn about reality.

But then I started to see through to the craft of writing "non-fiction". I started to see how the sausage was made when I read Boomerang by Michael Lewis. I started to see how the author imposed a simple but appealing narratives on a complex situations. Then he would impose a secondary narratives for entertainment value. One example was how men in Iceland tend to bash into each other. I do not think this author was writing things that were untrue. But he provided a very edited and simplified version of reality. I think his efforts to impose a simple narrative on these event were a deliberate part of his craft though. In the end I found his writing to be as formulaic as a James Bond movie.

I do not think all authors of non-fiction are as conscious of imposing a narrative on top of the facts. But these authors are human so it is bound to happen. Non-fiction is also limited by the capabilities of the author.

I now read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I now read a fair amount of stuff written before I was born. At least the narratives that are imposed on the writing are a bit different.

1/24/14, 8:43 AM

Robert Beckett said...
I'm somewhat disappointed to hear there was a low response to Krampus' wish list. As one of the few responders,I had forwarded a link to articles of mine related to a fairly low-end solar thermal technology which I had researched for some time. See
I was expecting a good number of responses to your Krampus challenge - which was after all a call for concepts, ideas and suggestions which might further challenge the technical boffins. What with arctic vortices commanding attention one would think heating the house economically might be worth considering...Sigh.
As for walking the walk, my passive solar house project, which was to incorporate said technology at 44 North latitude, is in a state of semi-completion and suspension - and I have accepted that I will very likely not have the opportunity to complete it.
Marriage train-wreck! Ah well, every cloud, etc.
However, the project was the background inspiration for a story submission to the first Space Bat challenge (available at same blogspot)so to aspiring contestants this time around, start writing!
As ever, thanks for the stellar work, week after week,
Robert Beckett aka Source Dweller

1/24/14, 8:55 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
Yeah!! I've been building up a post-decline novel since I entered the last contest (not near finished, but this spurs me some), and now I will take time to see if I can find a short piece from that or some other inspiration, to submit. I realize, having gotten into the last version, my chances might be less (just due to wanting a broad group of writers), but I'll work on making the story irresistible. ;-)

And more comments on the post, soon.

1/24/14, 9:00 AM

Moshe Braner said...
I havn't read a lot of SF books, especially in recent years. But the one that left the deepest impression on me (decades ago) was "The Dispossessed" by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The title is a nice pun, since the society described is both bereft of the mateiral possessions it once had, and also liberated from the tyrany of the mindset of endlessly pursuing possessions.

Although set in a fictional other world, the story is clearly a commentary on the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War here on Planet Earth.

From wikipedia's page on this book: "set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (the Hainish Cycle). The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1974,[1] won both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1975,[2] and received a nomination for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1975.[2] It achieved a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction works due to its exploration of many ideas and themes, including anarchism and revolutionary societies, capitalism, individualism and collectivism, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis [that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world]."

1/24/14, 10:01 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Joel, what's the "that" that you're talking about? If you mean that the myth of progress is somehow hardwired into human brains, er, you might want to consider the fact that the modern myth of progress was invented out of whole cloth about three hundred years ago, and before then most people in the western world believed that the world naturally declined and got worse over time.

DeAnander, interesting. I missed that one.

Derv, now that sounds like a story that could fit very well in a post-peak oil anthology! In your place, I'd weave the two parts together -- have the discovery of the coal by outsiders happening as this little internal problem (a novice caught with a Bad Book) also has to be dealt with by the harried abbot.

Unknown, it's not the notion of powers-that-be -- if you've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know that the existence of power centers and elite groups is part of my analysis; it's the insistence that whatever's wrong with the world is being deliberately caused by evil elites that I find risible.

Kevin, you might want to find a copy of James Evans' excellent book The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, which has detailed directions for making and using an astrolabe, among many other good things.

Phitio, no, nobody's mentioned it yet. Thanks for the suggestion!

Pintada, there's nothing draconian about the moderation here; you have to prove that you're not a spambot, and then your comment gets put in my queue and is put through as soon as I can read it and make sure that it's not obscene, libelous, or trying to pitch some product to my readers. Your post doesn't go up until I've read it, precisely to keep the spammers and trolls at bay -- yes, that means that there's sometimes a delay.

Mark, excellent! Yes, every nonfiction book also has a plot and tells a story; it was when I figured that out that I finally started producing nonfiction that publishers would snap up. For that matter, any use of language -- any use of language -- either presents or presupposes a narrative. We think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths or walk with feet...

Robert, sorry to hear about the train wreck; that's got to suck. I hope you'll consider a submission to the new Space Bats contest!

Cathy, no, I'm not going to concern myself at all with who got published in the previous anthology; I'm going to take the stories submitted to the contest, sort out which dozen or so will make the best anthology, do the necessary editing and call it good. Thus I'd encourage you to get writing!

Moshe, partly Cold War, partly the world of alternative systems of political economy that the Cold War obliterated -- Le Guin's world of Anarres is governed by what was standard early 20th century anarchosyndicalism, and it's one of the best things about her story that she shows the flaws and repressive dimensions in that system, while contrasting it to the much worse systems on Urras. It's a fine novel, well worth multiple readings.

1/24/14, 1:12 PM

Myriad said...
Hi JMG. My first comment in a while, but I've been reading along with appreciation.

Last time, my Space Bats entry foundered upon the fourth bullet point. Count me in for another try.

Speaking of narratives, there was a GE television commercial that ran during (American) football games this past season, that might as well have been made to illustrate your points about the prevalence and increasing volume of (as you put it in the Forward to Green Wizardry) "soothing narratives of the future" and progress-myth imagery. The starship Enterprise overcomes oil depletion, with help from GE. Really! It can be viewed here:

For those who can't or don't want to watch a video, the ad depicts the Enterprise (the ship model and bridge set from the recent reboot movies, and a crew of supporting characters because Kirk and Spock would have been too expensive). The ship is caught in the gravitational pull of some unnamed space anomaly. The usual crisis scene is going on on the bridge, with flashing lights and alarms and dire warnings on the view screen. "I can't get her to warp... Losing thrusters... I need more power," the helmsman says. "Gimme more power!" A computer voice at the science officer's station intones, "Located: GE Deep-Sea Fuel Technology" that works "to help discover and maximize resources in extreme conditions." A floating computer graphic shows what seems to be the actual GE product being advertised, an incomprehensible metal block of pressure-sealed industrial machinery. The science officer merges the floating image of the machine with a floating image of the Enterprise. The result: the Enterprise is powered up to "Warp speed!" The helmsman says "Let's get out of here" and shoves a Big Silver Lever forward on his control panel, and the ship zooms away from the hazard.

Never mind the silliness of powering a spaceship in space with deep-sea oil well equipment (or rather, pictures of that equipment -- talk about ephemeralization!). What should be the overt message -- that GE's technology is so "intelligent" that it can even teach the Enterprise a thing or two -- is so obscure that it's become mere subtext. What might have been the subtext, if it weren't so blatant that we have to call it the overt message, is that GE's latest 25-ton barrel-bottom-scraper is going to rescue the economy/future (the Enterprise) from stagnation (being trapped in the gravity field), or perhaps apocalypse (being pulled into the space anomaly), and restore progress (warp speed).

Someone at GE now thinks that it's necessary, or beneficial, to tell people this, in this way. What used to be "We bring good things to light" has become "We'll pull you out of that black hole."

To top it off, I can't help thinking that the ad probably isn't actually very soothing for anyone. In order to make its point, the ad has to start out depicting a deadly emergency and link it narratively to energy exploration. I wonder if that's the part that will stick with people, which would be quite the spell-backfire (unless that was the intent all along)...

Anyhow, such is the state of the culture into which you're encouraging us to cast our stories. I look forward to next week's discussion of how the window of opportunity you speak of emerges.

For myself, a few weeks ago I took my wife's bafflement over the ad -- since its existence makes no sense without comprehension of the matters discussed here -- as an opportunity to tell her what this blog I've been reading for two years now is really about. That's another story for another comment.

1/24/14, 2:43 PM

Glenn said...
Kevin said...

"...the future of high-speed sailing. There are sailboats that go fifty miles an hour, wind permitting, or even faster. These boats go faster than the wind that drives them. In a future without engines where the quickest way to travel overland is on a galloping horse, it seems to me quite likely that military powers, for example, are going to be very interested in vessels that go five or seven times faster than the rest. The technology may be difficult to obtain or produce in a deindustrial future - again, high strength alloys and other light weight high-performance materials are involved..."

I'd go for the Pacific Proa. Still twice as fast as any mono--hull and faster than most other multi-hulls. Importantly, they can be built with stone age technology. 400 years ago they were sailing circles around the Spanish galleons and caravels in the Marianas and Marshall Islands. Suitable for moving people, but very little cargo. Most usefull in an area of strong, steady winds. Auxilliary power by paddle or oar is somewhat limited. Most people don't realize that most of the so called advances in sailboat rig design has been a result of improved materials technology and the availability of auxilliary motors and cheap fossil fuel. Our ancestors were at least as ingenuous as us. An electric motor powered by Edison nickel batteries and recharged by wind turbine and/or dragging a charging prop in strong fair winds could provide propulsion at moderate speed in a calm.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

1/24/14, 4:54 PM

escapefromwisconsin said...
Late to the party, but regarding science fiction and narrative, an interesting article I read recently made the case that the best political novelist working today is the noted science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson:

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

I hear they're also making a remake of Day of the Triffids, which at least wins points for best title:

1/24/14, 5:51 PM

Paul Mineiro said...

I believe you will find these tragicomical repeatedly inaccurate projections of growth in vehicle miles traveled by the USDOT apropos.

1/24/14, 7:39 PM

Calm Center of Tranquility said...
Hello JMG. It wasn't until I read some of the comments that I realized how long it's been since I've read science fiction. I still love it, but won't routinely pick it up anymore... I think it must have been buying too many poor quality books that led me to this point.

In the fantasy genre, I'd like to put in a plug for the Sword of Shannara. I read that one while still a teenager and loved it. It's a typical hero's journey that only hints it's set in a distant future of our own, but I particularly liked the discovery, at the end, of what the "magic" actually was in the sword that was carried. I suspect that the magic revealed might appeal to you, as well. (I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might not have read it.)

@Phitio... I quite enjoyed the first Hunger Games novel. When I read fiction, I tend to fully buy in to the bargain and, for the time I'm reading, the characters and their world are real to me. So I love any book that breaks into a series format, so I can go back and revisit my "friends." Nonetheless, I really think that story would have been much more powerful had it ended with the first book. Think about it... Horrible world, plucky protagonist manages to beat the odds through wit and intelligence, only to find out that, guess what?... you've just placed yourself into even hotter water. :0)

Finally, John Michael... you get MY gold star for best sentence of the week, and that's quite an honor as you beat Hesiod out for the honor. "We think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths or walk with feet..." Beautiful.

1/24/14, 10:23 PM

Marcello said...
"Not so many posts back JMG mentioned the possibility of aerostat cities potentially figuring at some remote point in future history."

Areostat are at the mercy of the weather, which puts severe constraints on practical uses. Like flying cars they can make for good fiction though.

"The other possibility is already a reality. I'm speaking of the future of high-speed sailing. There are sailboats that go fifty miles an hour, wind permitting, or even faster."

My understanding it is they make trade offs, not only in terms of carrying capacity, but also in terms of weather they can handle.
As far as I have read the big catamarans they use for the America's cup can handle only good weather and despite restricted operational conditions and massive use of composites they are a trifling mistake/accident away from tearing themselves apart.
Radio should make them redundant for both carrying despatches ad reconnaissance. What would be left is probably not enough to make them a worthwhile pursuit in times of scarcity.

1/25/14, 9:30 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Myriad, I'll look forward to your story! As for the advertisement, that's fascinating -- if ads are starting to make sidelong references to running out of energy, and even to the failure of the Star Dreck future, we may be closer to a flipping point than I realized.

Escape, I really need to catch up with Robinson's work one of these days. When I stopped reading new SF, he was just beginning to make a name for himself as a rising star.

Paul, many thanks for the link -- and the laugh!

Tranquillity, hmm. I also read The Sword of Shannara in my teens -- there can't have been much in the way of fantasy fiction that escaped my beady eyes in those days -- but it wasn't to my taste. Still, if it worked for you, by all means -- and you're right that it's postindustrial fantasy, of course.

Marcello, if I may interject here, the one use I can see for fast sailboats in a deindustrial future is military. Fast naval scouting craft would be a major asset to any maritime power, and the fact that they're vulnerable -- well, you might recall the book on PT boats in the Second World War titled They Were Expendable.

1/25/14, 11:09 AM

Diana Haugh said...
The Big Quiet at is available for your post oil reading pleasure. Dianamayor

1/25/14, 11:10 AM

DeAnander said...
And of course there is the undisputed (imho) contemporary king of Decline Lit -- Paolo Bacigalupi whose stories are almost too good. BTW, the fast sailing ships are in there (Ship Breaker) :-)

I was thinking that the fore/aft rig and cambered sail cutting are two semi-modern arts that I'd like to preserve; the junk rig with cambered panels is one that I've experimented with myself -- on the scale of a 40-footer -- and found quite powerful, if not as weatherly as the high-tech Bermudian. But unlike the Bermudian it does not rely on clever techno-sailcloth.

Captcha seems obsessed with 52: 85252452 ? if it were "42" I might be a bit worried ;-)

1/25/14, 11:28 AM

Ray Wharton said...

I am working on my submission. Here is a preview for anyone interested. As the world gets more foreign making it real with economical use of words becomes very subtle I am finding. A very good mental exercise though! Today is my day to write, I hope to get the whole thing drafted this weekend.

1/25/14, 12:10 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Diana, got it -- you're in the contest. If you could put in a not-for-posting comment with your email address, I'd like to get that filed with your story for future reference. (Same goes for everybody else who's submitting a story.)

DeAnander, there are 52 cards in an ordinary playing card deck, so maybe it's trying to work out an algorithm for blackjack. ;-)

Ray, good. I'll wait to download a copy until it's finalized -- and then you'll have another chance to edit before we go to press.

1/25/14, 3:00 PM

Kevin said...
Hi Glenn. Interesting you should mention proas, which I've been reading up on lately. What's noteworthy I think is that they were twice as fast as the imperial European vessels even though they were built with considerably more primitive technology - lashing, not nailing, dugouts not carvel construction. They suggest that it's the design concept that counts most, not the metallurgical quality of your fastenings or access to hempen fiber.

Marcello, ocean-going boats are also at the mercy of weather, and additionally at that of potentially dangerous tides, currents and waves, which airborne craft aren't. Yet this didn't stop oceanic exploration. People have circumnavigated the globe in balloons without even any steering gear. That would seem to demonstrate that though there are risks, they're not insuperable.

Admittedly, the America's Cup boats don't make a good example. They're basically just hopped-up Hobie cats. But l'Hydroptere, one of the boats I mentioned, is a robust ocean-going yacht that has sailed all around the Atlantic and is probably capable of circumnavigating without much difficulty.

Radio clearly will be most useful, if preserved. But by itself it can't scope out the activities of an enemy armada. That would take a sea-going scout, preferably equipped with radio (or maybe a dirigible with same?).

I guess my general point here is: let's not be over anxious to constrain the imaginations of science fictionists. Just because we're on the cusp of a dark age doesn't mean our descendants will be forever in its shadow. Ten thousand years hence may be long enough for some variant of the scientific method to be reinvented or rediscovered several times over, by as many different cultures. We don't know what our remote descendants will be getting up to. We can be pretty sure they won't have access to high octane fuels or petroleum-based plastics, and they'll probably bitterly resent the nuclear poisons we're leaving behind for them. But we don't know what their values will be. Just because we think that a given technique or project is too unfeasible or improbable for any possible future society doesn't mean that they will agree with us. If we were to project our values or expectations onto the past, we might conclude that no pre-industrial society would ever consider doing anything as economically unviable or insanely extravagant as, say, building gigantic complexes of colossal stone pyramids. And in the case of most societies we would be right; but there are some very noteworthy exceptions. The far future is to us an unknown territory and we don't know what our posterity will find there; except, of course, that it won't include huge deposits of cheap abundant fossil fuels.

1/25/14, 3:57 PM

dltrammel said...
We had a request from one of the authors to do what we did at the Green wizard site for the last contest and provide a common place to post your submissions.

"Space Bat's Story Contest Submissions"

Just make a comment there with your link and we will compile the list near the end of the contest for JMG.

Once the contest is over we will post a page to the new Green Wizard site's "Story Circle" section with links to everyone's stories, so even if you don't get chosen, you'll have a chance to have people read your stories.

As JMG has said, changing the narrative on how we see the Future is important.

1/25/14, 4:41 PM

My donkey said...
"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."

I wonder whether you're being too generous in estimating people's ability to think, period. In my experience, most people in today's industrial world think about the future as much as they think about the sun burning out, which is to say, not at all. They're not aware of our predicament's existence, let alone its shape and scale. And their "imagination" is limited to simple pondering (i.e. making decisions among a set of available choices, such as which clothes to wear to work tomorrow).

I'm not talking about City Planners here, or anyone else whose job involves thinking about the future of the general populace. I'm referring to the typical middle class citizen in industrialized society (and I think that the "typical citizen" is a crucial focal point because I believe that their thoughts, desires, and actions are accurately reflected in the elected politicians who represent them).

It doesn't depress me to think of the relative hardships of a future low-energy world; what depresses me is the inability of today's average person to think about that coming world. I say "inability" but that encompasses unwillingness, fear, disinterestedness, and whatever other reason that is currently preventing people from talking about where we're heading.

I keep hoping that society will experience the same sort of "Aha!" moment that I experienced in my first year of college physics: a few days after receiving a miserable 32 percent on my first mid-term test, some kind of brilliant revelation hit me while doing homework in my room. In that moment, all the formulas and equations that had previously baffled me suddenly -- and miraculously -- made crystal-clear sense, and everything that had seemed difficult immediately became ridiculously easy... and I went on to achieve a grade of 90 percent in Physics 101. Could something similar happen to society as a whole regarding the long descent ahead of us?

1/25/14, 5:28 PM

Karl said...
I haven't seen anyone mention this book yet but it is a fantasy series based around magic running out. See this page for more:

"Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away stories tell of an ancient civilization based on Functional Magic powered by "Mana", but there's only a finite amount present on Earth. That nobody seems to be aware of or acknowledge this fact causes the magi, magical creatures and gods that use mana to eventually "go mythical" (a very obvious allegory aimed at modern civilization's reliance on fixed resources)."

1/25/14, 6:48 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dltrammel, thank you!

Donkey, most of what passes for thinking among human beings consists of the mental replaying of sound bites extracted from familiar narratives. To judge by the comments of ancient philosophers, that's always been the case. This is why it's so important to get a different narrative out there; people don't think about the future because the myth of progress tells them "the future you're going to see will be just like the present, but with a few more nifty toys." Give people stories that explain why that's not happening, and isn't going to happen, and some of them may just manage to make the leap.

Karl, good call. I read that when it first came out, and you're quite right, it's an ingenious application of the logic of depletion. You'll notice that it came out in 1978, when such things could still be talked about!

1/25/14, 7:46 PM

Glenn said...
DeAnander said...

"I was thinking that the fore/aft rig and cambered sail cutting are two semi-modern arts that I'd like to preserve; the junk rig with cambered panels is one that I've experimented with myself"

Considering the antiquity of the Lateen rig (1st entury Greece), the Chinese Lug (2nd Century CE), the sprit rig (2nd Century BCE Greece) and the various crab claw and lateen rigs of the Pacific, all of which were developed in pre-industrial societies; there is no danger of the fore and aft rig going away. To be fair, a good many of the European small boat rigs developed simply because the wealth of fossil fuel civilization allowed experimentation in boats of a size formerly too small for their owners to afford rigs at all.

I also think that some sails, specifically the jib and the dipping and standing lugs which have highly stressed luffs couldn't develop until machine spun and woven cotton fabric was available. But this is an untested hypothesis purely of my own, and I could be dead wrong. Since in Scandinavia sails were woven of wool and nettle fiber right up until the early 20th century, the range of usable textiles for sails is much broader than those of us brought up on dacron, kevlar and mylar might expect.

And the square rig is quite useful, above a couple of hundred tons displacement it's the most practical way to rig a ship. You could make a long, skinny schooner instead; but you run up against structural problems in the hull, and the sails tend to backwind each other and reduce weatherliness to less than that of a square rigged ship.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

1/25/14, 9:01 PM

Marcello said...
"Marcello, ocean-going boats are also at the mercy of weather, and additionally at that of potentially dangerous tides, currents and waves, which airborne craft aren't."

Sailing ships can choose where to go,to an extent at least, balloons can't. Airships/blimps are somewhat more useful and have seen a fair amount of combat use for that reason.

"But by itself it can't scope out the activities of an enemy armada."

What I was getting at is that crafts that can report back instantly their findings have less of a need for ultra-high speed. Speed is still nice for breaking contact, increasing sweep rate and such but not as vital.
The hydroptere went turtle when they tried to push it a little at Force 8. I will still take a displacement boat for most tasks.

1/26/14, 1:17 AM

Mike Ulm said...
Thank you JMG for the another great post and for the suggested reading. I've read a lot of science fiction/ fantasy over the years yet missed all the books you mentioned.

Thanks to the posters here too for providing their favorites. I am going through all of the comments here to make a list of all the recommended books. I'll now have a lengthy reading list to keep me busy for a couple of years!

I've always loved the post-collapse types of stories because to me that possible future is a more tangible reality, versus flying space ships between planetary or galactic colonies (although I enjoy those stories too).

Someone above already mentioned Earth Abides by George Stewart, which is one of my favorites. Another favorite of mine is Watching the Marching Morons by C.M. Kornbluth. In that story I especially love how the intelligent people of the future have no respect for the present-day salesman who has awoken in their future.

I'm a long time reader, first time poster here and I wanted to say a final thank you to JMG and the others who post here for all of the interesting and thought provoking reading each week. Keep up the great work!

1/26/14, 7:45 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- I have a first draft of a story for your contest finished, and have some technical questions involving your publisher and copyright.

I'm in the process of putting together a collection of short stories (my own) to be self-published and sold through Kindle. I'd like to include this new story in my collection, AND submit it for the contest.

If that causes a copyright conflict for the publisher (First North American Rights issue, though maybe the fact that I'm self-publishing and will probably sell three copies, one to myself), I'd prefer to submit for the contest and not publish it myself. So I just need to know.

Please clarify.

1/26/14, 11:58 AM

DeAnander said...
I'm still peeling my jaw off the floor after reading the description of that Star-Trek-themed TV commercial for deep-ocean oil extraction. That is what I and my friends used to call a "meme-bomb" -- a packet of cultural myths and assumptions so dense your brain explodes trying to unravel it!

I want to hat-tip the Dark Mountain gang here, who are working in their own grim way on changing the narratives, telling a story different from the Heroic Saga of Civilisation and the Domination of Nature by Exceptionalist Man [sic]. I find them a little grandiose at times, but hey, they're challenging the predominant mythos.

1/26/14, 12:00 PM

Joseph Nemeth said...
@JMG -- Sorry, I'm under a lot of time-stress today, and am apparently no longer writing in complete sentences.

I don't see "previously unpublished" anywhere in the requirements.

Please clarify the publication status requirements of any submissions.

1/26/14, 12:53 PM

Diana Haugh said...
And now for something completely different:
Silver Survivor at

Do we sense a trend here? Mom oriented science fiction abhors fighting and breaking things (someone might get an eye poked out) It's all about 'Can't we all get along?'

1/26/14, 2:45 PM

Derv said...
I present to you all my second submission, "Nuala Thrives."

I described the idea in an earlier post here:

The general thrust of the story is about a semi-feudal town built around a post-crash religious order, whose code is more centered on preserving a sustainable lifestyle than anything else. There's more to it than that - for instance, they closely guard and control a small coal source - but I won't run off on it here. A young friar very close to swearing his oaths is caught with an old economics textbook in his possession, which is an offense potentially worthy of expulsion. I considered making the author Krugman, but have decided that there's no real need to ruffle feathers. Anyway, he and the abbot have a discussion about it, about the history of the order, and much else besides. The abbot must also confront the discovery of their coal by outsiders.

Feedback appreciated, once again.

1/26/14, 2:50 PM

Steve Morgan said...
"Moshe, no, that's next week. "Agency" -- as though we needed any more reminders that most of the people in these discussions are way too wrapped up in abstract conceptual schemes..."

This made me smile. It's a bit reminiscent of a flurry-in-the-blogroll I noticed a couple of years ago featuring Nicole Foss and Gonzalo Lira debating inflation vs. deflation. If memory serves there were many posts with rabid followers from both parties, they agreed to a debate (broadcast online for a fee, which I did not watch) and came out vigorously talking past each other. I got the impression from reviews and follow-up posts that the two main participants didn't even agree on the definitions of the words "inflation" or "deflation."

It reminded me of the old joke about debates between American communists being so fierce because the stakes were so low. It's also very interesting to see so much emphasis on the "right" way to discuss peak oil, economic contraction, and permaculture, etc. Constructive criticism has its place, but dissensus seems very appropriate here.

Anyhow, glad to see another story contest. The tales from After Oil were very enjoyable, so I'll be looking forward to the next batch.

1/26/14, 2:57 PM

C.L. Kelley said...
Wanted to second the recommendation that you catch up with at least some Kim Stanley Robinson - aside from being one of the few well-known non-white voices in SciFi, he tells a good story. His "three californias" trilogy is a pretty explicit rendering of the green/brown tech scenarios from holmgren that got so much attention, but several years older - two of the books qualify to me as different ends of brown tech, and its obvious the third is what he's personally rooting for. But he does get kudos for one of for his brown-tech futures bearing a very slick, shiny surface resemblance to the star-trek-bigger-faster-shinier future we're sure we want...

1/26/14, 2:57 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Mike, you're welcome and thank you.

Joseph, thanks for asking! I'm looking for original, not otherwise published stories, and the anthology will want first publication rights for the world, not just North America.

DeAnander, agreed on both counts.

Diana, got it.

Derv, got it. You're in the contest -- that one definitely fits within the boundaries I had in mind.

Steve, that's a common comment about academic infighting, too -- the struggles are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Trolling on the internet follows the same principle...

C.L., so noted. As time permits...

1/26/14, 4:57 PM

Andy Brown said...
I was hiking today in the Rhode Island woods and it got me to thinking about our stories of progress. I think one of the reasons that the hegemony of Progress never quite gained full hold on me has to do with walks like this. The Pocono mountains where I spent summers as a child - like the Rhode Island woods - are filled with the remains of old farms and houses, tanneries, quarries and forgotten cemeteries. You may feel like you are walking in the forest primeval, but then you notice a few scraggling branches of lilac and an elderly apple tree. Poke around and you are certain to find the foundations of a cellar overgrown. Obviously, these abandoned places could be folded into the story of Progress, but for me they never were. They didn’t give me an alternate story really, but I think they created a productive dissonance to the stories that I was being told.

1/26/14, 5:39 PM

Ray Wharton said...

First draft is up and ready. JMG, I think you have my email from a not for posting last week... if those data points are cached in you information handling way.

1/26/14, 11:07 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for the offer of a second anthology. Fiction is not my forte, but like any muscle, if it isn't exercised it doesn't improve!

I've been chucking around - over the past couple of days in my head - ideas for stories and think that I've settled on one providing a possible second religiosity. No teasers though.

It has been an awkward week of both wins and losses. Sort of like life really.

The new pump, sprinklers and taps worked a treat. The second hand stainless steel (why would people sell these things for little to no return?) fire shutters were installed over the shed windows in a custom built (solar powered welding of course!) frame. Tidy work.

Then one of my bee hives swarmed yesterday - we think - because the colony was a bit weak and the wax moths were attacking the frames. I (with local instruction) captured the swarm this morning, but it doesn't look good for the colony, and I just don't have enough experience to tell how it will end up.

Which, brings me to my real whinge. Living here is sort of like doing an apprenticeship by trial and error. I have local people to ask and turn to for help - like with the bees this morning, but it would be far easier to learn all of this stuff from a master/s of living this way. Sure books are very helpful, but sometimes you need people to hold your hand and guide you through the processes and tell it like it is. Pity they just don't seem to be around, anywhere. This lack of general skills seems to be a real systemic weakness to me and it makes me worried for the future. Everyone seems to just know a bit of this and a bit of that, but not many people can bring a broader perspective to the fore.

Anyway, I've been putting the place into drought mode so have been working quite long days sorting the various systems here. There is another heatwave coming through this week:

Australia's south set to roast in extreme heat again

Pah! What's going on? Nothing annoys me more than global warming/weirding deniers. They should spend the summer here and they'd be singing a different tune for sure.

The Aboriginals had it right when they consistently described European cultures as that of a plunderer culture and I reckon that culture will continue doing this plunderer activity right up to the last breath. I’m really working hard towards building a level of abundance here that is difficult for the untrained to understand, but easy for those that know, to live with.

Yours grumpily,


1/27/14, 1:16 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Andy, fascinating. It occurs to me that frequent childhood trips to the Gray's Harbor area of Washington's Pacific coast, where rotting pilings from long-defunct canneries stick up out of the water like decayed teeth and the ruins of dead factories are nearly as common as they are here in the Rust Belt, may have played a similar role in the shaping of my imagination.

Ray, got it! I'm sorry to say that I can't find your email address, though -- if you've got mine, please drop me a note, otherwise put a not-for-posting comment here with your preferred email address and I'll get it linked to your story.

Cherokee, I'm reminded of the concluding paragraphs of my post a while back about how we're all trapped in a trashy fantasy novel. Where are the masters of green wizardry who will teach critically important skills to the generations to come? They're fumbling their way through the learning curve with recalcitrant bees and stainless steel fire shutters right now, and bemoaning the fact that there are no such masters to teach them...yet.

1/27/14, 11:28 AM

Kurt said...
Hi JMG - long-time reader, first-time commenter.

It's almost too serendipitous to be chance but what else could it be? I've had a story idea kicking around a few weeks, and your story contest gave me the kick in the butt to get it on paper.

Having not read the first story collection (which I will remedy), I'm unsure if my idea will fit the criteria thematically. Though set in the decline of a post-industrial, post-oil Midwest, the conflict is driven by water crisis. Those "in the know" on energy and water issues both project timelines that suggest to me some mutually-reinforcing convergences, and certainly a future where society will only survive with a new narrative.

I'd like to explore that. Of course, if it's not appropriate for your collection, I can certainly explore it on my own time. Thanks for your feedback, and a long-overdue thanks for your work.

1/27/14, 12:24 PM

SLClaire said...
Since my last comment I thought about the stories that I have modeled my life after and realized most of them were from biographies and autobiographies. Reading about real peoples' lives has often proved much more satisfying than reading about fictional characters. With a few exceptions, fictional characters' actions don't make sense to me. You might be right about fiction abandoning me rather than the other way around.

I did remember that I've read one work of fiction that I liked that I think counts as post-peak fiction: Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing. Believable situation, believable characters and conflicts, and well written enough to keep my attention. The ending was perhaps a bit forced but I can overlook that. It was possible though improbable.

Thanks for your comment to btidwell. That will help me understand how to construct a story. I'm still not promising a submission, but I will play around with the possibility after I've read After Oil.

1/27/14, 1:39 PM

thrig said...
Also interesting might be "City of Illusions" by Le Guin, though that imagines a high-tech future (with an idle solar loom purring in the sunlight) in which humans are captive under the fear of what might just be space bats.

On the rope front, it turns out that cordage goes right back to the heart of the industrial revolution, transportation, and energy, with cottage production replaced by the spinning jenny, pack horses by canals and rails and turnpikes, and a slight uptick in Carbon along the way. Rope requires extensive fields from which to farm the fiber, and is now otherwise deeply tangled up in highly specialized machines and various petroleum products. Hemp production looks to resume in America, though the politics and money involved may make that restart somewhat risky and slower than desired.

1/27/14, 6:12 PM

Janet D said...
"Where are the masters of green wizardry who will teach critically important skills to the generations to come? They're fumbling their way through the learning curve with recalcitrant bees and stainless steel fire shutters right now, and bemoaning the fact that there are no such masters to teach them...yet. "

You have just described my life. I'm not even sure I'll ever make "green wizard". I'm just hoping for "green non-idiot". I sometimes feel that this is one of the hardest times to be alive if you are 'aware' - having to live life in & under the current system (attempting to make some money, raising children, meeting familial obligations, etc.) while trying to resurrect long-dead skills and knowledge, often solely from books and forums (which are great, but a much harder way to learn than from a skilled master).

One baby step at a time, and just hope it means something somewhere down the road....that's what I tell myself when I become discouraged at how looooonnnngggg it takes to build any type of expertise in some of these areas.

I do appreciate your work - it does help, very much!

1/27/14, 9:39 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kurt, that would be an appropriate theme for a story for the contest -- running out of water counts as one of the limits to growth, and if you factor in the lack of the cheap energy that now makes it (more or less) possible to ignore water limits temporarily, you've got a very nasty resource crunch. I'll look forward to your submission.

SLClaire, glad to be of help.

Thrig, Le Guin noted quite accurately in one of her essays that City of Illusions suffers from villain trouble -- her bad guys, the Shing, are heavies straight from central casting, with the sort of motiveless malignancy that's standard in tacky pulp fiction and otherwise fairly rare in Le Guin's work. Still, it's got some great moments and images.

Janet, understood -- I feel the same way fairly often. Still, it's not as though there are hordes of enthusiastic people leaping forward to take up the challenge, and if history shows anything, it's that even very modest and flawed contributions can make a real difference over the long run.

1/27/14, 10:01 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thank you for the thoughts and the timely reminder. That essay feels even more relevant today than back then. It has been an interesting and enjoyable journey over the years.

The temperature here reached 40 degrees Celsius in the shade today. As I'm about 5 weeks out from the summer solstice the heat only seemed to peak about 5pm and the chooks are now in bed just before 9pm as dusk is settling in earlier.

Acclimatisation is a strange process because I worked outside in the shade until about 3pm, not realising it was about 35 degrees. I was even thinking about how nice the cool breeze was.

I suspect living with air conditioning further detaches people from nature (disclaimer - there is none here). It is surprising just how resilient people can be if the changes come upon them at a pace dictated by nature.

I recorded a video update here this evening and will hopefully get to upload it tomorrow for anyone interested in what's going on at the farm here.

At the back of my mind a short article is also forming on the topic of collapse. Recently, I had cause to be much annoyed by two back and forth articles on the subject. It is not that they weren't well written or literate, it just somehow - from a position of having been through three (and still in the third) record breaking heat waves within twelve months - I found the arguments, almost spurious in that they were about something other than what the written words were purported to be about. Decline is a gritty subject that will sooner or later impact everyone and perhaps it deserves that sort of blunt delivery of spelling out the obvious without getting bogged down in the predictions? Dunno, but it is on the to do list.

PS: A new bird turned up here today, the yellow tufted honeyeater and I spotted it hanging off agapanthus flowers supping on the nectar. It is amazing that when you provide food, water and shelter they will come.

Hi Janet,

Good work. The skills will save you money too as your household economy grows.



1/28/14, 2:31 AM

The Croatoan 117 said...

The following quote sums up your concerns, and desribes what I think JMG has been trying to say throughout this blog:
“The little bit you and me might change the world," Malloy smiled, "it wouldnt show up until a hundred years after we were dead. We'd never see it."

"But it'd be there.”
― James Jones, From Here to Eternity

1/28/14, 11:12 AM

Janet D said...
Thanks, JMG, for the note of encouragement. There's one thing that keeps my plugging forward, day after day. I have two children, 11 & 8. Even though my efforts often feel laughable to me, I have to say I'm amazed at how quickly the kids pick up on it. Exposure is everything when you're young.

Thanks, also, for the thought, Chris. I figure you are a good 4-5 years ahead of me in terms of permaculture, but I'm aiming to get there. I appreciate all of your informative posts.

Oh - and don't let the heat worry you. MANY people (including some illustrious - cough, cough - leaders) in the U.S. have been loudly announcing that the recent cold weather here proves that AGW isn't real. Hope that helps you rest easier. :-P

1/28/14, 1:26 PM

C.L. Kelley said...
I'm certain that exposure to ruins in youth has a serious effect on one's ability to easily consider not-progress. In my conversations with poorly educated, apathetic underemployed retail workers on both coasts (near Seattle and now in rural Maine), I have found those in Maine FAR more willing to accept the fact of decline. I think much of it has to do with the fact that like the Rust Belt, Maine's economy *has collapsed*, in fact several times with the first coming long before there was a maine, or an America for that matter. Timber, ice, granite, grain, cod, lobster, timber again, land, tourism, and now shrimp - all of these have declined either in demand or straight-up resource collapsed and pulled the rug out from under Maine's economy. People here are sometimes more willing to accept collapse because it happened to their family almost in living memory. Being surrounded by collapsing barns, abandoned farmhouses, fields gone to forest for lack of grazing, and shuttered factories priced for a song and still not selling doesn't hurt either. Old stone walls and overgrown root cellars are a standing hazard in the woods around here - I can think of three just on the public land within a mile of where I'm sitting now. It helps to have visual aids when discussing decline, and maine is full of them.

Janet - you're not alone. If you haven't already, please join us at the greenwizards forums. Its no substitute for hands-on learning, but we can at least muddle along together in spirit, if not in person. Many of us experience the same frustrations from time to time...

1/28/14, 3:14 PM

latefall said...
I am excited to see what stories will sprout from this ecosystem!
In my opinion an appealing and wise narrative is of similar importance to a society as a good topsoil is to sustainable living :).

But what I'd really love to hear are motivations for picking certain plots or settings.
I am very much interested in the meta-level of this whole process. I have the vague feeling this might come up in a future post if it hasn't already been discussed. So I'll hold back with my ramblings on this for now...

I assume Spengler might be helpful in that respect as well, so I have started "Untergang des Abendlandes". I am not sure what to expect though.
Kurt Tucholsky, one of my favorite authors, was not amused by his work. Also, Spengler is criticized as excessively deterministic - which usually puts me off in the extreme...

By the way, Kurt wrote a slightly Cassandraesque "imminent-collapse" poem I read well before I found this blog. It was probably the one of the largest destabilization of my "Progress perspective" at the time, the other one was when they switched of half the street lights to save energy. The poem still makes my hair stand on end though. Do you know of other good "pre-collapse" poems that haunted you ever since (and maybe turned out accurate)?
I tried to improve the automatic translation for it a little but...

1/28/14, 4:38 PM

DeAnander said...
Bill said...
Bellingham represent!

Somehow, the first thing that popped into my head was "a source of innocent merriment, of innocent me-erriment!"

sorry, OT :-)

1/28/14, 4:38 PM

Phil Harris said...
A late offering.
I was inspired by comments on ocean going sailing canoes and reminded of Polynesia.

Similarly I was thinking how shortwave radio can give base time-checks worldwide.

Perhaps a poem to add to a story including the long distance canoe?
A message home?


Message home

We keep a sundial
Check the clock:
Time is enough
To know direction
But we need your anchor
Need your aerial gift.

Our joy is to know your day begins:
We travel in starlight to reach you.

1/29/14, 3:47 AM

Phil Harris said...
@ Cherokee
What a summer!
Another 40 degC in the shade.
I am looking forward to your pictures.Remind us of the link.

@ Janet D
I like "green non-idiot". In my case "less of an idiot" is aspirational! But kids can be so quick at learning - I can remember how reassuring it was when ours could do stuff that I could not. They still can.


1/29/14, 3:58 AM

Lance M. Foster said...
Are there limits on how far in the post-peak oil future they should be? 50 years? 200? 500? 1000?

1/29/14, 5:31 AM

Renaissance Man said...
Straw man dance? Hmm. Maybe with a broken fiddle, too...
With only limited comment space, much must be elided.
My point was the "Dark Ages" seems to me like Religion of Progress Apocalyptic Collapse fantasies mapped onto the past.
The High Middle Ages, while producing those magnificent cathedrals, was also a time of continual warfare between powerful nobles and most people lived in poor straits.
The Renaissance produced a burst of learning, art, literature, gorgeous architecture, even as the city-states of Italy were constantly at war and most people lived very simple lives.
According to archaeological and historical evidence, between 100 & 410, the Roman Army (which continually fought small border wars over the 500 years the Empire existed) came to depend on those same barbarian mercenaries, who eventually received land grants to settle their people, became small time local chieftains taking over from the dissolving centralized Roman government, sometimes revolting, eventually creating quarrelsome, independent polities who did not live in monumental stone cities. (And most people lived on small farms subject to occasional raids and violent rebellions and yet another Roman civil war.)
Yet the Visigoths built beautiful churches in Spain, Theodoric produced his Mausoleum, Charlemagne was able to build the Palatine Chapel in response to the Alhambra -- which all happened between 475 and 800. (Oh, and people also build forts and walled towns for protection.)
Funny that, while this population suffered in abject poverty subject to continual attacks by Savage Barbarian Raiders(TM), the people around the North Sea still developed enough wealth and complexity to support artisans who produced the grave-goods of Sutton Hoo and the pieces found in the Staffordshire Hoard, the exquisitely carved Gokstad longship. Central Europeans had artisans who found time and resources to create exquisite reliquaries, chalices, and church fittings using stones that were mined in Afghanistan and crucible steel from the Volga. (Oh, yeah, and most people lived on farms and had trouble making ends meet.)

I cannot write fiction worth spit, but I can see the future unfolding now, as the street-gangs take over the abandoned and decaying inner-cities and pockets of immigrants create new sub cultures, fusion art from multiple sources, very different from the degenerating mainstream art world. The people are having trouble making ends meet, and you might not like the graffiti, but that's what it is. Meanwhile, the Chairmen and Board members and Vice-Presidents of Corporations that are now building skyscrapers and vying for more control of land and resources protected by private security armies might as well become the next version of the Dux and Comes and Cynings who carved Europe into micro-states for a thousand years; Jennel Cobey might well be Veep Cobey of the House of Exon.

1/29/14, 6:57 AM

C.L. Kelley said...
Interestingly synchronous interview with Kim Stanley Robinson published recently in Boom! magazine.

There's a reasonable amount of that particularly Californian sense of hubris, but also some interesting and encouraging bits. He certainly understands the way we think with stories.

1/29/14, 8:11 AM

MPL said...
Janet, et al.:

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." -- Ernest Hemingway

1/29/14, 2:38 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
Let's see how I'm going with thesis writing. There's a little exchange you had with a reader just over a year ago:
"Irish, you've just drawn up a fascinating setting for a far future adventure novel. The Great Plains here in the US are at least as well suited to horse nomads as the Eurasian steppes, so you have the nomadic raiders of D'kotah up against a kingdom centered in the Ohio valley, let's say, with bicycle dragoons pedaling hard to get to the outpost-city of Meeyaplis..."

I've had this kicking around in the back of my head for the past few years, and may just see if I can turn it into a short story.

1/29/14, 5:13 PM

skinnermichael said...
Hi Archdruid, I've just seen on Sam Harris' blog that he's bringing out a book called Spirituality Without Religion, or something like that. I was wondering, in your capacity as a druid, if you'd write a review of it. Personally I like Druidry and I'm looking into Stoicism; but I think if I were going to reject religions outright I wouldn't want to just replace all those holy scriptures with, what I imagine will be, just another authoritarian text by some pseudo intellectual pseudo cleric.

1/31/14, 9:02 AM

Lance M. Foster said...
hi JMG. I made a stab at writing a short story. It's been a while since I tried fiction.

It's here:

Lance Foster

2/1/14, 11:17 AM

jansprite said...
Like Kurt, whose comment I just read, I have been reading your blog (is that how I want to say that?) for quite a while, but never commented.

I just finished a story for the contest, and posted it on WordPress (I'm new at that as well.)

Here's the link, and I hope I did all of this right!



2/8/14, 6:36 PM

jansprite said...
Sorry folks -- I still have much to learn, apparently.

Here is the correct link to my story on wordpress.

Thank you for your forebearance!!


2/12/14, 10:39 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
My first entry (I may revise it a bit) is a day in the life of a working man in post oil France.

I wrote this short story today after thinking about it for a while.

A longer, more involved piece is still in work. It involves the Settling of Tasmania 400+ years in the future and repairing the "Rats & cats" ecology there. Plus dealing with the aboriginies.

2/16/14, 3:33 PM

Evan Boyack said...

Hi Mr. Greer,
Above is the link for my submission for the anthology. I am a long time reader of your blog and books, but have thus far kept my comments to myself. I hope you like it.
Evan Boyack

2/19/14, 1:49 PM

Cnawan Fahey said...
Greetings, JMG,

Here is a link to my submission to be considered for the new anthology:

I'll continue to make small edits in the coming weeks, but thanks for reviewing it .

I greatly enjoyed "After Oil" and appreciate the inspiration this contest has given me to write a story of my own.


3/1/14, 5:23 AM

AlanfromBigEasy said...
I have a second story to submit.

It is in the near future and is about a hurricane evacuation from Houston after an Arab Spring Revolt in Saudi Arabia (that spreads to Kuwait and the Emirates)

I drew upon some of my personal experiences for this.

Any feedback would be appreciated.

3/1/14, 2:10 PM

Cnawan Fahey said...

I'm new to blogging. Not sure if I should have made my story a page, so I'm now also making it a post to the blog.

Here's the link:



3/3/14, 4:39 AM

jcummings said...

Here's my submission for this contest - thanks for the spark to get some creativity moving!


3/23/14, 8:08 PM

Brian Cady said...
From Frying Pan to Freezer

Brian Cady

4/1/14, 3:23 PM

hhawhee said...
Dear JMG,

Here is an entry for the story contest you announced earlier this year:

You can contact me at
hhawhee at hotmail dot com


4/8/14, 7:48 AM

Derv said...
Hi, not sure if I'm supposed to post here instead, so I'll post here too. Here is my third submission.

4/10/14, 6:23 PM

aglehmer said...
I'm working on a story that takes place in the early 22nd century in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What's the final deadline for submissions?

Thanks so much!

- Aaron

4/18/14, 11:00 AM

Kittric Guest said...
Thanks for the good weekly read over the years. Please see attached for consideration in your new SF anthology.


4/20/14, 7:08 PM

Patrick Cappa said...
Here's my submission for post-oil anthology number 2. It's a bit dark and violent, and deals with the bitter end of industry and the brutality of empire, but I think there's some hope at the end! Thanks, JMG and Founder's House for putting on this contest!

4/25/14, 11:41 AM

Marcu said...
Dear Mr Greer,

Here is the link to my submission for your next anthology of stories:



4/29/14, 2:48 AM

Tim Munro said...

Long time lurker, first time poster. Just finished this story, my first and only submission for consideration in the next anthology.

Though you have stipulated that we aren't to use existing characters in our stories, mine is about a stage production of a real-life film, and the characters I mention are treated -as- fictional characters. I hope that you consider that fair use.

Here's the link:

Thanks for your consideration.

4/30/14, 12:38 PM

eafreeman said...
Okay, hopefully I'm getting this in just under the wire.

A follow-up on (or, rather a continuation of) my previous story, The Lore Keepers.

This one's called The Lore Teller:

4/30/14, 9:43 PM

Jon said...
"The Backfire Effect" might help explain why you encounter resistance trying to explain your position on peak oil no matter how many facts you present.

5/8/14, 4:35 PM

Brian Cady said...
Oops. I thought the contest ended the end of May, so I prepared a major overall of 'From Frying Pan to Freezer',
now visible at:


5/29/14, 7:39 AM

Erik Wehler said...
Well I see that my story was due in May rather than August like my note said. In any case it was still a fun writing experience and thank you for the challenge. Should you have the time and inclination feel free to give it a look over.

7/23/15, 8:48 AM