This is my third and (for now) last exploration of a deindustrial future using the tools of narrative fiction. Fifty more years have passed since "Solstice 2100." Massive climate change, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, and the final stages of catabolic collapse have transformed the setting almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of these changes, new cultural forms are evolving to replace the last fragments of industrial civilization.
“Mes Joe? She kee.”
The old man looked up from his book, saw the boy’s smiling brown face at the door. “Da Manda Gaia?”
“Ayah, en da gran house. Habby Nawida!” He grinned and scampered off. Joe closed the book and rose slowly to his feet, wincing at the familiar pain, as the habits of half a lifetime picked at the boy’s words. Nawida, that was from old Spanish “Navidad.” Ironic that the name remained, when the faith it came from was no more than a memory now. Half the words in Alengo were like that, tenanted with the ghosts of old meanings like some haunted building in the old ruins.
He got his cane and a bundle wrapped in cloth, looked out the open door to make sure the rain would hold off a little longer. Out past the palms and mango trees, dark clouds billowed against the southern sky. Those promised another round of monsoon within a day or so, but overhead the sky was clear and blue all the way to space. He nodded, left the little thatched house and started down the broad dirt path that passed for the little village’s main street.
Ghosts, he said to himself as a pig trotted across the way, heading off into the rich green of the fields and the jungle beyond them. Alengo itself—that had been “our lingo” back when it was a makeshift pidgin born on the streets of a half-ruined city. Half Spanish, half English, half Mama Gaia knew what, that was the old joke, but the drought years turned it into a language of its own. These days people spoke Alengo all along the coast from Tenisi west to the plains, and only a few old fools like Joe kept English alive so that somebody could still read the old books.
He wondered what old Molly would have thought of that. She’d spent most of his childhood bribing and browbeating him into learning as much as she thought he could, and went to Mama Gaia convinced she hadn’t done enough. He hadn’t expected to step into old Tom Wu’s footsteps as the village schoolteacher, either, but somehow things turned out that way. Ghosts, he said to himself again. It wasn’t just the language that they haunted.
Off to the left a stream that didn’t exist at all in the drought years splashed its way between jagged lumps of concrete and young trees. There stood the grandest and saddest ghost of all, the little brick building they’d raised for the waterwheel-driven generator. What a project that was! Dan the blacksmith, ten years in the earth now, did all the ironwork just for the fun of it, and half a dozen others helped put up the building, craft the waterwheel, and wind the coils. Even the village kids helped, scrounging wire from the old ruins.
They got it working, too, turning out twelve volts DC as steady as you please. That was when reality started whittling away at the dream of bringing back Old Time technology, because they didn’t have a thing they could do with that current. Light bulbs were out of reach—Joe worked out the design for a vacuum pump, but nobody could craft metal to those tolerances any more, never mind trying to find tungsten for filaments or gases for a fluorescent bulb—and though he got an electric motor built and running after a lot more salvaging, everything anyone could think of to do with it could be done just as well or better by skilled hands with simpler tools.
Then someone turned up an Old Time refrigerator with coolant still in the coils. For close on twenty years, that was the generator’s job, keeping one battered refrigerator running so that everyone in the village had cold drinks in hot weather. That refrigerator accomplished one thing more, though, before it finally broke down for good—it taught Joe the difference between a single machine and a viable technology. It hurt to admit it, but without a fossil-fueled industrial system churning out devices for it to run, electricity wasn’t worth much.
When the refrigerator rattled its last, Joe bartered the copper from the wire—worth plenty in trade by then—for books for the school. He’d done well by it, too, and brought home two big dictionaries and a big matched set of books from Old Time called the Harvard Classics, mostly by authors nobody in the village knew at all. His students got plenty of good English prose to wrestle with, and the priestess borrowed and copied out one volume from the set because it was by one of the Gaian saints and nobody else anywhere had a copy. Still, he’d kept one loop of wire from the generator as a keepsake, and left another on Molly’s grave.
A voice broke into this thoughts: “Ey, Mes Joe!” A young man came past him, wearing the plain loincloth most men wore these days. Eddie, Joe remembered after a moment, Eddie sunna Sue—hardly anybody used family names any more, just the simple mother-name with a bit of rounded English in front. “Tu needa han?” Eddie said. Before Joe could say anything, he grinned and repeated his words in English: “Do you need any help?”
That got a ghost of a smile. “No, I’m fine. And glad to see you didn’t forget everything I taught you. How’s Emmie?”
“Doing fine. You know we got a baby on the way? I don’t know if you got anything in your books about keeping a mother safe.”
“Sharon should have everything I have. Still, I’ll take a look.” Sharon was the village healer and midwife, and all three of the medical books she had came out of Joe’s library, but the reassurance couldn’t hurt. Emmie was Eddie’s second wife; the first, Maria, died in childbirth. That happened less often than it used to—Sharon knew about germs and sanitation, and used raw alcohol as an antiseptic no matter how people yelped about how it stung—but it still happened.
“Thanks! I be sure they save you a beer.” Eddie grinned again and trotted down the street.
Joe followed at his own slower pace. The street went a little further and then widened into a plaza of sorts, with the marketplace on one side, the Gaian church on another, and the village hall—the gran house, everyone called it—on a third. Beyond the gran house, the ground tumbled down an uneven slope to the white sand of the beach and the sea reaching south to the horizon. A few crags of concrete rose out of the water here and there, the last traces of neighborhoods that had been just that little bit too low when the seas rose. Every year the waves pounded those a bit lower; they’d be gone soon, like so many of the legacies of Old Time.
Another irony, he thought, that what brought disaster to so many had been the salvation of his village and the six others that huddled in the ruins of the old city. It took the birth of a new sea to break the drought that once had the whole middle of the continent in its grip. Another ghost hovered up there in the dark monsoon clouds—the day the clouds first came rolling up out of the south and dumped rain on the parched ground. He’d been out in the plaza with everyone else, staring up at the clouds, smelling the almost-forgotten scent of rain on the wind, dancing and whooping as the rain came crashing down at last.
There had been some challenging times after that, of course. The dryland corn they grew before then wouldn’t handle so much moisture, and they had to barter for new seed and learn the way rice paddies worked and tropical fruit grew. Too, the monsoons hadn’t been so predictable those first few years as they became later: Mama Gaia testing them, the priestess said, making sure they didn’t get greedy and stupid the way people were in Old Time. Joe wasn’t sure the biosphere had any such thing in mind—by then he’d read enough Old Time books that the simple faith Molly taught him had dissolved into uncertainties—but that time, at least, he kept his mouth shut. People in Old Time had been greedy and stupid, even the old books admitted that, and if it took religion to keep that from happening again, that’s what it took.
He crossed the little plaza, went into the gran house. The solemn part of Nawida was over, the prayers said to Mama Gaia and all the saints, and the bonfire at midnight to mark the kindling of the new year; what remained was feasting and fun. Inside, drums, flutes and fiddles pounded out a dance tune; young women bare to the waist danced and flirted with young men, while their elders sat on the sides of the hall, sipping palm wine and talking; children scampered around underfoot, bare as when they were born. People waved greetings to Joe as he blinked, looked around the big open room, sighted the one he needed to find.
He crossed the room slowly, circling around the outer edge of the dancing, nodding to the people who greeted him. The one he’d come to meet saw him coming, got to her feet: a middle-aged woman, black hair streaked with iron gray, wearing the plain brown robe of the Manda Gaia. Hermandad de Gaia, that had been, and likely still was west along the coast where Alengo gave way to something closer to old Spanish; Fellowship of Gaia was what they said up North where something like English was still spoken. The Manda Gaia was a new thing, at least to the Gaian faith, though Joe knew enough about history to recognize monasticism when he saw it.
“You must be the schoolteacher,” the woman said in flawless English, and held out a hand in the Old Time courtesy. “I’m Juli darra Ellen.”
“Joe sunna Molly.” He took her hand, shook it. “Yes. Thank you for agreeing to come.”
“For three years now we’ve talked of sending someone here to see you.” She motioned him to a seat on the bench along the wall. “Please. You look tired.”
He allowed a smile, tried to keep his face from showing the sudden stab of pain as he sat. “A little. Enough that I should probably come straight to the point.” He held out the cloth-wrapped bundle. “This is a gift of sorts, for the Manda Gaia.”
The cloth opened, revealing a battered book and a narrow black case. She glanced at the spine of the book, then opened the case and pulled out the old slide rule.
“Do you know what it is?” Joe asked her.
“Yes.” Carefully, using two fingers, she moved the middle section back and forth. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one. Where did you find it?”
“It’s been in my family for around a hundred years.” That was true in Alengo, at least, where “mi famli” meant the people you grew up with, and “mi mama” the woman who took care of you in childhood; like everyone else, he’d long since given up using Old Time terms of relationship. “The book explains how it’s used. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve done some respectably complex math on it.”
“This thing is precious,” she said. “I’ll take it to our mother house in Denva, get it copied by our craftspeople there, and bring it back to you.”
“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think it’ll be possible, either.” He met her gaze. “Cancer of the bowels,” he said then. “Not the way I would have chosen to go, but there it is. It’s been close to three years now, and by the time you get to Denva and back I’ll be settling down comfortably in the earth.”
“Mama Gaia will take you to Her heart.” Seeing his smile: “You don’t believe that.”
“I think the biosphere has better things to worry about than one old man.”
“Well, I won’t argue theology.”
That got another smile. “Pity.” Then: “I have one other thing to ask, though. I hear quite a bit about the Manda Gaia these days. They say you have schools in some places, schools for children. For the last twenty years all my best pupils have gone into the church, and there’s nobody here to replace me. I’d like to see someone from your order take over the school when this thing gets the better of me. I wish I could say that’s a long way off.”
She nodded. “I can send a letter today.”
“Thank you. You’ve made a cynical old man happy, and that’s not a small feat.” The dance music paused, and in the momentary hush he fancied he could hear another, deeper stillness gathering not far off. He thought about the generator again, and the concrete crags battered by the waves, and wondered how many more relics of Old Time would be sold for scrap or washed away before the world finished coming back into balance.
- Christmas Eve 2050 The first of three glimpses of what life might be like for an average American family in the post-peak deindustrial future.
- Christmas Eve 2050: Q&A More about the post-peak scenario presented in "Christmas Eve 2050".
- Solstice 2100 A second narrative exploration of the future after peak oil, set fifty years and several cycles of catabolic collapse after "Christmas Eve 2050."
- Solstice 2100: Q&A Further explorations in the post-peak scenario presented last week in "Solstice 2100".