The post-oil novel revisited!
Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason’s novel Ill Wind (Tor Books, 1995) is a masterfully wrought science fiction epic depicting a world after oil—and, in the process, touching on a number of peak oil-related themes.
However, unlike the other post-oil novels published so far, Ill Wind isn’t about peak oil. In those other novels, oil has gradually dribbled away while we’ve steadfastly ignored the warning signs. But in Ill Wind, the world’s oil vanishes suddenly after some bizarre, experimental oil-eating microbe is unleashed on a massive tanker spill, and then runs amok. What Ill Wind and those other novels do have in common, however, is that they imagine a future world without oil.
Ill Wind opens ominously, with an albatross of a supertanker known as the Oilstar Zoroaster plying twenty-foot waves in the dead of night during the final leg of its journey from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, into San Francisco Bay. Carrying upwards of 1 million barrels of crude, the supertanker is about to make the delicate passage through the narrow channel beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a procedure so fraught with peril that captains routinely refer to it as “threading the needle.”
Distracted by a disruption on another part of the ship, Captain Miles Uma returns to the helm moments too late, and can only watch in helpless horror as a collision between the ship’s starboard bow and an unyielding bridge support frees a rush of dire black bile into the Bay. Uma will eventually prove to be among the book’s truly heroic and moving characters; but for now, he retreats into a shamed hiding, even changing his name and physical appearance.
Faced with an oil spill unimaginably worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster, Oilstar executives gather the next morning in quiet despair. But the pall of gloom lifts when two mysterious visitors from somewhere within the company’s obscure “bioremediation research” department stride into the conference room. Microbiologist Dr. Alex Kramer and his assistant Mitch Stone have come to tout their so-called Prometheus microbe, an organism with an insatiable appetite for crude oil. They claim that Prometheus could reduce the amount of oil at the Zoroaster site by as much as two-thirds in just a few days. (It won’t eliminate all of the oil, however, since it breaks down only the octane component.) Its only byproducts would be water and carbon dioxide. It would also promptly die off once its food source was depleted—and it wouldn’t spread beyond the Bay, since it can’t become airborne. Utterly elated, Oilstar’s CEO is sold on Prometheus.
As the novel is laying this groundwork, it is also introducing us to an epic cast of characters. One of my favorites is cowboy Todd Severyn, a take-charge petroleum engineer from rural Wyoming who leads one of the cleanup crews at the spill site. Then there’s the woman with whom Severyn strikes up an unlikely but touching romance, a sharp-tongued, classic rock-loving Asian-American microbiologist from Stanford University named Dr. Iris Shikozu. She’s the scientist who’s been appointed to oversee the spraying of Dr. Kramer’s Prometheus microbe.
Also rather touching is Heather Dixon, a young woman with an inferiority complex who works as an insurance company office drone. When the world begins to come apart all around her, she sees it as her chance to make a fresh start.
Part of this fresh start is a passionate romance with a dangerous troublemaker named Connor Brooks. A former deckhand onboard the Zoroaster, Brooks is largely (if not wholly) to blame for the ship’s crash and the subsequent spill. But Heather knows nothing about Connor’s shady past, and the two quickly become inseparable companions in a cross-country journey in search of civilization.
Another crucial character is the rebellious, hot-shot lead scientist on an ambitious solar energy research project that takes on entirely new significance once all of the world’s oil is gone. And back in Washington, D.C., there’s the slimy, scandal-dogged speaker of the house who, rather against his will, becomes a singularly un-heroic president-by-death.
After a brief hullabaloo of public outcry and interference from environmentalists and government agencies, Oilstar sprays Prometheus on the spill. Almost immediately afterward, high-flying NASA planes confirm that the spill has in fact begun to shrink. But there’s also been a sudden epidemic of stalled-out cars that has snarled freeways throughout the Bay Area. And gasoline samples taken from these cars have tested positive for the Prometheus microbe.
It quickly becomes obvious that Prometheus is traveling by air, and that it is devouring not just oil but everything made out of oil. Within only a day, the “petroplague,” as it comes to be called, has spread across the nation, turning all manner of plastic objects into useless goop and rendering appliances utterly worthless. (One is reminded of the late Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, an extraterrestrial microbe—featured in the book by the same name—that comes to Earth on a downed military satellite and eventually begins breaking down our polymer plastics.) Electrical grids flicker on and off, the airline industry shuts down after a dozen major crashes, and news from other parts of the world becomes intermittent. The microbe is also gobbling up the world’s major oil fields, stoking intense anti-American feelings across the Middle East. (This is bad news for a president stranded there after heading off on a diplomatic tour to Qatar.) A force of destruction as awesome as a hydrogen bomb, the petroplague devastates our manmade landscape. And we have no more power to resist it than a hapless insect has to blunt the impact of an oncoming windshield.
Amid this insanity, our main characters manage to preserve some semblance of civilized life. Todd Severyn sets out on horseback from the Marin County countryside to help get Dr. Shikozu out of a riot-plagued Stanford. The solar scientists enlist the help of local ranchers in an effort to get their equipment back up and running by swapping out existing components with plague-resistant fiberglass and ceramic counterparts. (They also undertake the Herculean task of hauling twenty 300-pound satellites a distance of 800 miles using nothing but old-fashioned railway handcars!) The former Zoroaster captain takes the lead in revamping an antique, museum-piece locomotive for the delivery of food to the starving people of Los Angeles. The new president takes office and begins ruling with an iron fist, at a time when states are threatening to secede from the union. And Heather and Connor press on with their cross-country trek, Connor becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable; Heather, increasingly firm in her resolve to somehow slip away from him.
The authors skillfully weave these and several other plot strands into a suspenseful, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying story. Their writing is so visceral that you can feel the fumes of spilled crude oil burning your eyes and nose, or the spongy surface of a disintegrating asphalt road giving way beneath your feet. Some descriptions, however, are admittedly a bit overwrought. The pathos of tortured, oil-soaked sea animals, for example, takes no time at all to veer into blatant bathos.
What makes Ill Wind additionally believable, beyond its vivid descriptions, is the research that went into writing it. Anderson and Beason have done their homework on (among other subjects) microbiology, organic chemistry, solar satellite technology, jet fighter aircraft, and environmental activism—as well as on the daily lives of politicians, petroleum engineers, insurance adjustors, and government research scientists. They make their characters seem as real as your own acquaintances and neighbors, and the possibility of a microbe ravaging the planet’s hydrocarbons as plausible as the actual, indisputable fact of peak oil.
The book’s descriptions of government research laboratories are perhaps the most believable of all, owing to the fact that both authors have spent much of their lives actually working in these sorts of facilities. Indeed, it was at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that they met each other in the first place. (Anderson was working there as a technical writer and Beason as a physicist.1) They later incorporated their firsthand experiences into their fiction, coauthoring several smash-hit novels in which government labs are the sites of intrigue and high-tech suspense. Ill Wind, which came out roughly halfway into this fruitful collaborative pact, has its share of classified locations, including Livermore, Kirtland Air Force Base, and Sandia National Laboratories.
As befits a novel written by technothriller authors, Ill Wind is far more active and less reflective than most of the other post-oil novels published to date. And this unfortunately represents a missed opportunity. Simply put, the authors tell a good story, but that story is just too busy to really plumb the themes of a post-oil world to any great depth. What does it truly feel like to be an inhabitant of the post-oil world that Ill Wind depicts? How does it feel, for instance, to eat by the sweat of your brow and the fertility of the soil in your own front yard, or to adjust to the utter silence that pervades the air now that machines are gone? What is it like to contemplate all that our society has lost, and does it weigh heavily upon one’s soul to be among the survivors, when others weren’t so fortunate? Ill Wind—unlike John Seymour’s far-more-ruminative Retrieved from the Future and James Howard Kunstler’s breathtaking World Made by Hand—never breaks stride long enough to really meditate on these sorts of questions.
The book also never makes even a single veiled reference to peak oil. But peak oil is nonetheless part of what inspired Anderson and Beason to write it. The authors intended the book to be partly a comment on our society’s way of overreacting to disasters (would we embrace extreme, untried measures in trying to reverse the desolation of a major city coastline?), and partly an illustration of our utter dependence on petroleum. They wanted to stress that this dependence “isn't just tied to our need for fuel, but for the many other plastics, lubricants, synthetics all based on petroleum,” recalls Anderson. “Without petroleum, the whole world would fall apart. And, even back when we wrote the book, we were advocating innovative and alternative solutions to save our civilization—we find ourselves in a similar crisis now, and I hope we do come up with alternative solutions before the whole world falls apart.”2
Even though Ill Wind doesn’t deal directly with peak oil or probe the themes of a post-oil world as deeply as it could, it certainly does qualify as a post-oil novel, and a very good one at that. And if the miniseries or TV movie for which ABC has recently optioned Ill Wind3 actually gets made, it will be a rather timely one, coming when global oil production is dropping like a rock at several percent a year. Thus, it will have an immeasurably better chance than the book ever did of bringing the implications of peak oil into sharp relief for an as-yet-clueless public.
1 Kevin J. Anderson, “Kevin’s Biography,” Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, http://www.wordfire.com/bio-kev.html (accessed Nov. 13, 2008).
2 Kevin J. Anderson, personal communication with the author, Nov. 21, 2008.
3 “Kevin J. Anderson,” Macmillan Books, http://us.macmillan.com/author/kevinjanderson (accessed Nov. 13, 2008).