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Peak oil thriller hits German best-seller list

A peak oil thriller from a popular German novelist has hit the best-seller lists. The 750-page novel is written in a style like that of Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers, and covers many of the themes discussed in the peak oil community.

Ausgebrannt ("Burned Out" in English) was published in February and reached #7 on the Spiegel best-seller list (it's now #10).

German author Andreas Eschbach has written over a dozen novels, including several best-sellers. He is widely known as a German science fiction writer. Several of his books have been translated into English.

There is almost nothing written about Ausgrebrannt in English, and I've seen no mention of an English translation.

The Story

Ausgebrannt Imagine if a litre of premium fuel were to cost over 4 Euros. A nightmare? Yes, but it would only be the beginning. Because the Age of Oil won't end with the last barrel. It will end as soon as more oil is used than can be produced. And this moment is closer than most suspect. The problem: Nobody has a plan for what happens next.

Like everyone else, Markus Westermann knows nothing of all this when he finally makes it to the USA, hoping for a career that will fulfill all his dreams.

When he becomes acquainted with Karl Walter Block, Markus sees his chance. The petroleum engineer tells him that there's enough oil for a thousand years lying dormant in the depths of the earth - and that only he knows how to find it. Block only needs a competent business partner. Someone like Markus.

Only too readily the world believes the promises of the two. After the first successes, the talk is of a Renaissance of the Oil Age. But the promise is deceptive.

When in Saudi Arabia the largest oil field of the world runs dry and the Saudis risk everything to hush up the frightening truth, unrest comes -- and not only to the Mideast.

Mankind suddenly confronts its greatest challenge. The beginning of the end of the world as we know it. Only Markus is convinced that he is able to turn the situation around.

Translation of a summary from Der Spiegel's page on the book (where you can buy the book for 19.95 Euros).

Also on the page is a review by Sven Trautwein, which gives more details of the plot. Trautwein compares Ausgrebrannt to a Michael Crichton techno-thriller but complains that the suspense isn't maintained in the last 2/3 of the book.

Interview with the Author

Recently the German site, Das Peak Oil Portal and Forum published a long interview with Andreas Eschbach, conducted by Arvid Doerwad und Stefan Krüßmann. Below are translations of some excerpts.

...Do you expect Peak Oil soon?

We'll only know that we've reached maximum production in retrospect. "In the rearview mirror," as M. King Hubbert put it. At the moment it looks as if we are at least in a plateau, so that it could be that we have just passed the peak. ...

Did this realization [of Peak Oil] change the life of you and your family? If so, how?

The answer to this question is no, since we always try not to waste resources as a matter of principle. What has changed after this book is that I have a different feeling when I step into the car, and when I get a delivery of heating oil I feel relieved rather than frightened by the bill. As a writer I work at home and am seldom on the road with the car.

...Are you making appropriate preparations? If so, which?

I warn against the notion that there are individual solutions. Civilization is by definition a communal endeavor. If large numbers of people were to try to make themselves self-sufficient in energy, the result would be as devastating as Peak Oil itself.

In the power supply, it is easy to see the physical reasons for having a network. Just as one cannot make a mobile telephone call by oneself unless everyone else can; in the same way one cannot solve the energy problem for oneself alone.

Which is not to say that one shouldn't prepare for emergencies. ...

...Do you think that Europe will have a "soft landing" or -- independently of what happens in your novel -- is a hard landing more likely?

The kind of landing depends more than anything on the pilot, doesn't it? In energy issues, just as in political affairs.

... When I came to understand the consequences of Peak Oil, I felt the need to tell friends and acquaintences about it; however, I encountered only lack of understanding. Do you think that putting this topic into a thriller will lead to better acceptance?

In any case, it should be helpful to put a gripping book into someone's hand and be able to say to them, "Here. Read it. It explains it better than I can in three boring sentences." Many people have done the same thing with my novel, Eine Billion Dollar that dealt with a similarly explosive topic.

...[Do any of the responses that involve dropping out from society (German: Aussteiger)] represent a solution for you?

No, I don't think that is the right path. Dropping out -- that's the emergency brake. With it, one is saying, "I don't care what happens with the rest of the world." If we want to solve the problems of the future, MORE community is needed, not less.

...Again, to compare the USA and Europe. In the USA, the consequences [in the novel] are marked by chaos, scarcity, violence and religious sectarianism; one could speak of collapse. In Europe, the consequences are drastic -- naturally -- but the approach is "more civilized". Is this something to make European readers feel good or do you really see the cultural situations as so different?

It is less a question of cultural differences -- which doubtless exist -- than of the pressures at work. The USA is far more dependent on energy than Europe. We must keep in mind that the population density of the USA is approximately 10% that of Germany. It is also a large, spread-out country -- which means that commerce and transport are much greater factors. In addition, the USA has made some basic decisions [about infrastructure] differently than we have. There doesn't exist any railway system worthy of the name, and most cities are built so that one needs a car. In this comparison, Europe is in a better position.

The American mentality, however, recognizes problems faster and tackles them more decisively, while we Europeans are inclined to close our eyes and think that if we don't see an evil, it won't affect us. This characterstic could become a calamity for us in this case.

The original interview in German is much longer.

Editorial Notes: Other links not mentioned in the article: Authors website (English version available) Amazon entry Translation is courtesy of Babelfish and high school German classes from long ago. Better translations are always welcome. UPDATE (March 27): Andrew Leonard in his column at Salon gives the author of "Ausgegrannt" a thumbs up as an sf writer, and wishes that the rest of the German interview could be translated. Any takers? -BA

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