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Visions of the Afterlight

Player One: What Is to Become of Us: A Novel in Five Hours (CBC Massey Lecture)
By Douglas Coupland
246 pp. House of Anansi Press Inc. – Oct. 2010. $15.95.

At the age of 11, Vancouver, B.C., artist and author Douglas Coupland was forever changed by two experiences involving oil and humankind’s addiction to it. In late September 1973, a freighter spilled bunker fuel off the coast of West Vancouver, and Coupland volunteered mopping up tarballs on the beach. During interviews he still has trouble talking about it, especially when describing how a cormorant died right in front of him. And only weeks later came the first of the ‘70s oil shortages, inciting lines at gas stations and widespread panic. Coupland vividly remembers this wake-up call to a civilization dependent on a depleting resource.1

So it's quite fitting that when selected to be last year's Massey Lecturer, Coupland chose to speak on the world oil predicament. He wrote a novel titled Player One, in which a small group bands together to survive an oil shock, and presented it as five separate lectures. (Considered to be among Canada’s most important public lectures, the Masseys have featured some of the preeminent thinkers of the past several decades, including Northrop Frye, Barbara Ward, John Kenneth Galbraith and Martin Luther King, Jr.) Player One was a bold departure, the first Massey Lecture to have consisted of a work of fiction.2

The novel, like some others by Coupland, has its roots in a medieval novella collection titled The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, in which 10 people take refuge in a villa outside bubonic plague-ridden Florence, Italy, and tell stories to pass the time until it’s safe to go back outside.3 Player One’s characters take shelter in a seedy airport cocktail lounge in Toronto and debate the burning questions of our time as the oil crisis roils around them.

The tone ranges from serious and reflective to darkly comedic, as Coupland uses his farcical cast to explore the contemporary Zeitgeist. Rick, the bartender, is a down-and-out gardener who’s about to blow his savings on a self-help scam; Karen, a single soccer mom who’s flown many miles for an online date; and Luke, a pastor gone on the lam. Stranger still is Rachel, a beautiful young woman on the autism spectrum who makes her living breeding white mice. She’s determined to become pregnant so that she can prove to her dad that she’s capable of forming a meaningful emotional attachment. Lastly, there’s Player One, Rachel’s avatar in a virtual Internet world.

The first sign of oil trouble comes in the form of a news story on the lounge TV, reporting that the price of a barrel has surged to $250. Karen and her online date, Warren, who met in a peak oil apocalypse chat room, are transfixed by the news, and they try to enlighten the others about the gravity of the situation. But before they get very far, the price jumps again, this time to $900 a barrel. Soon TV stations and phones go dead, the taps run dry, the building falls under sniper fire and a noxious pink ash snows on everything. The group rallies to barricade the doors, inventory their food supplies and keep watch for marauders.

The novel’s deepest insights come from the omniscient Player One, who pities humans our brief lives, our curse of time perception and our “disastrous” DNA molecule. Humans, Player One explains, are caught in time's tyrannous thrall like a pebble in an ingot of lead, and we must imagine that our lives have some greater significance so that we don’t go crazy. We delude ourselves with talk of striving toward dreams and achieving immortality, when really it’s all we can do simply to keep entropy at bay. Indeed, as another character affirms, “a day in which nothing bad happens is a miracle—it’s a day in which all the things that could have gone wrong failed to go wrong. A dull day is a triumph of the human spirit.”

Even though they represent disparate backgrounds, the characters come to agree on some basic tenets of human existence going forward. They foresee that humans’ sense of individuality will fall by the wayside as cheap oil goes away. To quote Karen, there simply won’t be enough energy for people to continue “running around and being passionate about being alive.” Nor will money as we know it last much longer; in Luke’s words, money “needs sweet crude oil to survive.” And the world’s population will dwindle to a fraction of its current 7 billion, since the planet’s carrying capacity will no longer be artificially inflated by abundant petroleum. But we can’t allow ourselves to become demoralized by these stark realities. Player One insists that we’re going to have to “electively” evolve as a species if we’re to successfully address the ecological threats facing us.

Douglas Coupland is best known for being the voice of Generation X, beginning in 1991 with his debut novel of the same name (which also popularized the term “McJob”). But he’s since tried to show that he's capable of a wider range—and the bid has proven successful, with People magazine proclaiming, “Coupland, once the wise guy of Generation X, has become a wise man."4 He’s also a kindred spirit to anyone concerned about peak oil, to the literature of which his new novel makes a significant and swell contribution.

Ship Breaker
By Paolo Bacigalupi
326 pp., hardcover. Little, Brown and Company – May 2010. $17.99.

The author of this next book happens to be a fellow Gen Xer—and wouldn't you know it, he was born in the very same year as the spill and oil embargo that so profoundly affected the young Coupland. Coincidence, or a sign that his peak oil writing career was somehow preordained? Anyway, his name’s Paolo Bacigalupi (pronounced PAH-oh-low BATCH-uh-guh-LOO-pee) and he’s a gifted rising star within the science fiction community. His Ship Breaker is a young adult novel set in America’s Gulf Coast region amidst the ruins of the oil age, where peasants eke out an existence disassembling beached derelict ships for scrap.

The book was inspired by the lives of real-life ship breakers in Bangladesh, as depicted in the documentary Manufactured Landscapes.5 Its main characters are adolescent “duct-and-scuttle” workers who risk their lives scurrying around inside the ships’ passageways in search of wire and other scraps. Because the work requires small bodies, the crews are made up entirely of children. Eventually everyone grows too big to do the job, and when that time comes there are few other options. A lucky few have what it takes to graduate on to heavy crews—which shear the ships themselves into smaller pieces—but those who don’t usually end up begging on the streets.

Oil is so scarce in this future that every ship breaker dreams of stumbling upon a hidden pocket of it in one of the ships. Indeed, everyone knows the story of Lucky Strike, a prominent local businessman who began as a ship breaker and then won the oil-find lottery.

We’re given few clues as to how far in the future this is; but then, even the main character doesn’t know his age. Asked at one point, he pragmatically replies, “I made it onto light crew, and I made quota every day. That’s what matters where I come from. Not your stupid age.” His name is Nailer, and he lives with his abusive, alcoholic father, a much-feared local thug, in what today would be considered a tent city. Their home, hardly worthy of the term, is made of scavenged tin, palm sheathing and lengths of bamboo. It has to be rebuilt every time a storm comes through—and the storms that barrel through the Gulf these days are so violent that there’s such a thing as a Category Six hurricane.

Many of today’s technologies still exist in this post-collapse future, but they’re the exclusive privileges of the rich, or the “swank,” as they’re disparagingly known. For example, Nailer’s mother died from a curable infection because the family couldn’t obtain antibiotics. And one can still find clipper ships with GPS systems, fiber hulls and computers that can communicate with the weather satellites still orbiting Earth—though the only way that someone of Nailer’s lowly station would ever get to see one is if it crashed ashore.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what’s happened during the recent storm. Nailer and a friend spot a crashed clipper ship, and discover inside a veritable treasure of precious metal wares. Thinking that this is their Lucky Strike, they lavishly stuff their pockets. They’re about to amputate the waterlogged fingers of an inert young female body, in order to get her rings, when they realize that she isn’t dead. As she feebly stirs, Nailer assumes the voice of conscience, insisting that they leave her jewelry be and help her to safety. But Nailer’s friend accuses him of wanting to be her white knight, scoffing, “You’re just a beach rat and she’s a swank. She gets out of here, this ship’s hers and we lose everything.” It’s a telling conflict, and we feel torn during it. We know that Nailer is morally in the right, but we’re also pained by the bleak, impoverished existence that lies behind his friend’s us-or-them mentality.

Does Nailer win the girl and enough fortune to buy his and his friends’ way out of poverty? Does he have a climactic fight to the end with his diabolical dad? I could tell you, but that would be as pointless as a freight ship with no cargo hold. Suffice it to say that this first-rate piece of storytelling isn't nearly as predictable as you may think, packing plenty of surprise cliff hangers and closing with a tentative happy ending.

Starting with his debut novel of two years ago, The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi has hit the science fiction scene hard and fast. His ecologically themed fiction has won some of the genre’s most coveted awards: the Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, Nebula and Hugo. Ship Breaker garnered the Michael L. Printz Award for best young adult novel and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.6 Young adults may be its target readership, but it's sure to entertain adults in equal measure, just as Harry Potter’s adventures have delighted kids and their parents alike.

Afterlight
By Alex Scarrow
457 pp. Orion Books – May 2010. £12.99.

Also a fairly new writer on the scene is Alex Scarrow, a UK science fiction/crime novelist who started out as a rock musician and computer games graphic artist.7 His first and most impressive novel, A Thousand Suns, is an inventive historical thriller based around the premise that the Allies briefly—and secretly—surrendered to Nazi Germany on April 29, 1945. It’s a dark historical fact known by only an elite few, until a plucky present-day photojournalist begins poking around the story behind a sunken bomber and finds himself in mortal danger. Since that book’s release in 2006, Scarrow has generally been good enough to be a name worth watching.

His first post-oil novel, Last Light, came out in 2007 and depicts the total collapse of civilization within days after a breakdown in the world oil infrastructure. The novel is notable for being among the first to bring peak oil into the public discourse, but it’s also, at its worst, laughably clichéd and contrived. Well, now we have a sequel titled Afterlight, and I’m happy to report that it’s a definite improvement. It picks up 10 years after the first book and centers on the same English family, the Sutherlands, now head of a secluded, self-reliant community on an abandoned offshore rig complex. The rigs haven’t pumped oil in years, but they’re a perfect place to wait out the pillaging and violence back on the mainland.

The story opens with the rig community celebrating its first year of having electricity (produced by a generator that in turn is fueled by gas from decomposing refuse). Their food comes mainly from chickens and from gardens filled with vines and other “climber” crops to maximize space on these confined rigs. For whatever supplies can’t be obtained on site there are regular trips ashore.

The matriarch of the oil rig community, Jenny Sutherland, is tough and weary beyond her years and leads her people with a firm hand. She vigilantly enforces the community’s rules of conduct. For example, there’s no praying or ministering in public spaces, since that could easily lead to a slippery slope in which all religious faiths were vying for recognition.

The plot crosscuts among several parallel threads. In one of them, Jenny’s restless son Jacob runs away from home with another boy to see the world. But as the two of them soon discover, the monotony of life on the rigs isn’t so bad next to the threat of being eaten alive by feral child cannibals or shot to bits by an army of brainwashed adolescent warriors. Another plot thread centers on the manipulative mastermind commanding this last group—who buys their allegiance with access to booze, drugs, girls and arcade games—and his plan to use Jake and his friend against their own people in a plot to plunder the rigs’ resources. The final major plot strand concerns rig newcomer Valérie Latoc, a well-spoken Belgium man who disarms everyone with his debonair manner, but who harbors a secret, sinister agenda.

Overall, Afterlight is a readable tale set in a plausible post-oil future. It’s as gritty as its predecessor, but far more involving and less forced. It’s also seemingly final, though if this installment is popular enough, there’s every reason to believe that we could once again hear from the Sutherlands—just as surely as the venerable Sherlock Holmes returned after appearing to die in battle with his nemesis Moriarty.

1 Canadian Press, "Oil Spill Damages Sought,” Phoenix, Sept. 27, 1973, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=JEZhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=bnANAAAAIBAJ&pg=5... (accessed Mar. 29, 2011); Douglas Coupland, interview with Allan Gregg, "Allan Gregg in Conversation: Douglas Coupland on 'Generation A,’” TVOntario, Ontario, Canada, Apr. 24, 2010, http://www.podcast.tv/video-episodes/douglas-coupland-on-generation-a-12... (accessed Mar. 29, 2011); Coupland, interview with Gregg, "Douglas Coupland - Player One - Preview," TVOntario, Feb. 11, 2011, http://www.tvo.org/TVO/WebObjects/TVO.woa?videoid?774619199001 (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).
2 “The CBC Massey Lectures,” CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/masseys.html (accessed Mar. 29, 2011); “2010 Massey Lectures: Douglas Coupland's Player One,” CBC Books, Nov. 9, 2010, http://www.cbc.ca/books/2010/11/2010-massey-lectures-douglas-couplands-p... (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).
3 Coupland, interview with Gregg, "Douglas Coupland on 'Generation A.”
4 Kyle Smith, “Picks and Pans,” People Magazine, vol. 56, no. 12 (Sept. 17, 2001), http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20135339,00.html (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).
5 Paolo Bacigalupi, interview with Liz Burns, "Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi,” School Library Journal, New York, Dec. 6, 2010, http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/teacozy/2010/12/06/interview-paolo-... (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).
6 “Award-winning Books for Kids 2010,” Elmhurst Public Library, http://www.elmhurstpubliclibrary.org/Kids/AwardWinningBooksforChildren.p... (accessed Mar. 29, 2011); “2010 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature,” National Book Foundation, http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2010_ypl_bacigalupi.html (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).
7 Alex Scarrow, “Alex,” The Scarrow Brothers, http://www.scarrow.co.uk/page4.html (accessed Mar. 29, 2011).

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here.

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