Review: A History of the Future by James Kunstler
A History of the Future: A World Made By Hand Novel
By James Howard Kunstler
336 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – Aug. 2014. $25.00.
In the category of thrilling fiction about our post-industrial future, James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand novels have no equal. And much of their magic lies in the way they transport readers to a captivating, fully imagined world. They depict a future in which the fossil fuels that make today’s world possible have long since depleted. People have come to rely on physical labor instead of machines and local craftsmanship rather than far flung networks of production and exchange. The setting is a small community in upstate New York called Union Grove, whose inhabitants are forging this new mode of living as they go along. The third and most recent book in this absorbing series, A History of the Future, has been the longest in coming, but I’m glad to report that it’s finally out from Grove/Atlantic.
As always with Kunstler, the new book is an exciting, layered, atmospheric tale that makes pointed social commentary about the present through the framework of a fictional world. Its several interwoven plots deal with issues of class, justice and retribution, fanaticism, prejudice and the search for identity in a world turned upside down. The most revealing story thread involves a young man named Daniel Earle, who left home with another boy two years back to see what’s become of the nation, and hasn't been seen or heard from since. In the previous two books, we’ve known him only through legend, but in this one we finally meet him, when he stumbles back into town alone, half-dead from exposure and unable to speak for days. When he does start talking, he tells a harrowing saga of exploration, adventure on the Great Lakes, intrigue on land and a tragic accident that befell his missing companion.
His story is one of extraordinary bravery and determination. In an age when traveling from one state to another takes weeks of trekking through perilous terrain, he’s managed to go halfway across the continent and back. Through flashbacks, we see Daniel and his traveling partner, an impetuous younger boy named Evan, set out west. They meet a commercial boatman who agrees to let them tag along with him on his mule-drawn canal boat in exchange for their labor. But the boatman soon betrays them for his own personal gain, causing them to have to go on the run. It all culminates in a fateful sailboat trip on a stormy Lake Erie that constitutes one of the novel's most intense action scenes.
The nation that Daniel and Evan discover is one profoundly altered from its form during the industrial era. Parking lots turned pastures lie alongside derelict factory buildings. Huge mechanized operations like the Erie Canal Locks are being rebuilt to run on human and animal labor. The big cities retain the shells of their once-grand structures, but have gone from being exciting cultural and commercial centers to being places of desperation and death. Many of the consumer products that we enjoy today are still around, but they tend to be salvaged from landfills and repurposed for other uses. In short, this is an America unceremoniously upended, but one still, to quote Kunstler, “recognizably American.”1
Back home no one knows much of anything about what has become of the nation. Thus, it's a complete surprise when Daniel and Evan learn that America has fractured into three separate countries. The most colorful of these is a confederation of southern states called the Foxfire Republic, led by a former country singer named Loving Morrow. Described by Kunstler as a case of "Dolly Parton meets Hitler,”2 she preaches hatred of various minority groups that allegedly stand in the way of a return to progress. Kunstler uses Morrow to hilarious effect in satirizing the types of leaders we may be tempted to elect as our circumstances grow increasingly dire. He has long feared that we’ll look to anyone who promises to bring back the good old days of material abundance, by whatever means necessary.
Another major plot thread centers on a tragic young woman named Mandy Stokes. Mandy kills her infant child and husband during a temporary bout of insanity, and then finds her own life hanging in the balance after she is apprehended. A trial is in the works, and it’s generally assumed that if Mandy is convicted, there will be little choice but to execute her. For even if she’s found to be not guilty by reason of insanity, there simply aren't the resources in this austere future to house the mentally ill. The town magistrate, who is determined to reestablish a legal system in Union Grove, seems intent on making an example of her. Other community leaders, however, implore him to be merciful. The conflict is telling and masterfully handled.
Mandy’s story also touches on the theme of disability in a post-oil future, as the sole witness in her case is a man with Down syndrome. Semi-literate and able to do simple addition, he has a small, but to him seemingly fulfilling, world as an employee at the general store. He’s there after hours on the night that Mandy shakes her baby to death outside. He first tells of what he saw to a group of shoppers shortly thereafter. Up to that point, people have assumed that her husband killed their child and then she, in turn, killed him—but now they know differently. (We've known the full story all along, so I'm not giving anything away by sharing this.) Yet can the testimony of a developmentally disabled person be admissible in court? The situation represents an unprecedented milestone in the reinvention of law and order in Union Grove.
The presence of a disabled character mirrors a shift in emphasis by the author. A number of readers have criticized Kunstler for not having a diverse enough cast of characters in this series, and while he’s let it be known that he doesn’t exactly agree with this criticism, he shows here that he’s taken it to heart.3 Kunstler’s reasoning in rejecting such calls for diversity is that a future in which people conform to old ways would also be one in which diversity wouldn’t be celebrated like it is today. The author’s critics, however, argue that diversity won’t go away just because it’s no longer out in the open, and that it’s an injustice not to acknowledge it in whatever form it exists in the future. To be sure, each side has a point.
The gay community is another of Union Grove's demographic groups to make its first appearance in A History of the Future. I find this an interesting and promising new thematic direction to pursue, and I would have liked it if Kunstler had gone further with it. As it is, the story doesn’t give the character who’s revealed to be gay anything to do that is emblematic of his experience as a minority. In contrast, it does give the man with Down syndrome such a role: he must relate his eyewitness account of a homicide, despite a speech impediment that makes it difficult for him to communicate with others. Kunstler admittedly has a tough job in trying to dramatize the gay character’s sexual orientation, since the novel’s setting is one in which such things aren’t talked about—and I hardly know how he could have handled it better. At any rate, this missed opportunity for character development is my sole criticism of A History of the Future.
Kunstler has a gift for visual, tactile storytelling, and the World Made by Hand novels are a fine showcase for this talent. One area where it’s put to particularly good use is in describing characters’ memories about things that they miss from the past. During one such reverie in A History of the Future, a character longs for “the cheesy corn fantasy puffs of yore, factory-made cakes with creamy white centers, soda pops in every color from orange to brown to an unearthly phosphorescent chemical green, Mars bars, hamburgers on sesame seed buns, ramen noodles, corn dogs, egg rolls, pizza, marshmallow and chocolate Easter eggs, jelly donuts, ice cream studded with fragments of cookies or toffee or sugared nuts or an ingenious elastic confection called gummy bears.”
These novels are intentionally set during different seasons of the year, in order to provide a fuller portrait of the series' post-oil milieu. The three extant books cover summer, fall and winter, and the fourth and final one will bring the year full circle. I know that I'm hardly alone in eagerly awaiting what spring will bring to Union Grove.
1 James Howard Kunstler, interview with Charles Marohn, "Show 165: James Howard Kunstler,” Strong Towns Podcast, Minneapolis, MN, Feb. 6, 2014,http://www.strongtowns.
org/storage/podcasts/2014/ 020614_JimKunstler.mp3( accessed July 24, 2014).
2 James Howard Kunstler, interview with KMO, "425: A Cheerful Engagement with Reality,” C-Realm Podcast, Brooklyn, NY, Aug. 6, 2014, (accessed July. 29, 2014).
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