Player One: What is to Become of Us?
By Douglas Coupland
Anansi, 246 pp, $15.95

Set in the cocktail lounge of a hotel at Toronto’s airport in the present day, Douglas Coupland’s fictional vision of an oil-crisis apocalypse is so frightening because it seems so plausible.

Make it a double

Player One starts out as an unremarkable meeting of middle-class North American types reminiscent of Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

They’ve assembled at that most generic of meeting places, a watering hole so devoid of appeal that it’s hard to imagine anyone but passers-through stopping there.

A featureless space characteristic of architecture for the Age of Oil, the cocktail lounge of the ironically named Camelot Hotel is “a defeated concrete satellite of the main hotel that resembled the third-best restaurant in the fourth-largest city in Bulgaria.”

Yet Coupland’s characters have each come to the bar on purpose.

Start with Karen and Warren who, after connecting on an Internet peak oil discussion forum, decided to fly in from different parts of the country to meet in person and see if there’s any spark there. Next comes Luke, a minister fleeing his rural congregation after absconding with the balance from the church building fund. Then Rachael, a beautiful but socially awkward girl who drove in from the city to get impregnated. Even the bartender Rick has come prepared to meet a high-priced self-help guru and hand over cash to join his confidence-building program.

And then there’s the con-man guru himself along with a pissed off guy on a shooting spree and a teenage boy who likes to sneak in-flight digital shots of hot older women.

A splash of eschatology with a crude twist

As these people size each other up, jockey for attention and grouse about what’s missing in each of their lives, the TV flashes regular news of an OPEC meeting in Brazil that day and its consequences for the world oil market. As the news escalates with rises in the price per barrel of crude oil from $250 to $350 and then to $900, the bar customers are pulled out of their private tableaux and into a collective drama whose stakes are their lives and the future of Western civilization.

When the power goes out, things get interesting. In the fog of war, Coupland’s characters begin to see more clearly through the illusion of what had been normal life. That’s when they start to grapple with the big questions: love, human nature, God and salvation.

If the bar started as a false Camelot that’s more like a ship of fools, later it morphs into a kind of Noah’s Ark, sheltering what feels like the last humans against a wicked storm of gunfire, explosions, toxic gas and civil unrest outside its glass doors.

Life on the rocks

Coupland peppers his eerily realistic scenario of the end of modern life told in five real-time hours with liberal exchanges among the characters who are trying to give some kind of meaning to their harrowing afternoon.

Perhaps the most articulate of the book’s philosophers is the citizen-sniper Bertis, who has taken refuge in the now-barricaded bar after a chemical cloud cut short his debut as a sniper. Like a character out of a Flannery O’Connor story, Bertis kills people to fulfill the Word of God, an idiosyncratic version of which he also preaches to his fellow refugees:

Take down the barricade and look out the door there. Look out into this terrifying and gleaming new century, where the sun burns the eyes of innocents, where the sun burns whenever and wherever it wants, where night no longer provides respite. Where are you to find mercy in a place like that? Where will you find the correct path? There will be anarchy. Office buildings will collapse, and when they dig through the rubble, the people who were inside will be found compressed into diamonds from the force. The diamond is your soul.

Like many who predict the collapse of the economy, of global order and of Western civilization after peak oil, Bertis foresees a future of only harsh light where darkness would be a blessing.

If the last two centuries since the Enlightenment have been lit by the fire of reason and its practical application in fossil-fuel powered technology, Player One leaves the reader wondering if all of us might soon be blinded by our own light.

— Erik Curren