George R. Fehling’s DARK PEAK
(Founders House Publishing,
October 2015, 259 pages, $15.99)

George R. Fehling’s novel Dark Peak is both an effective thriller and a heartfelt eco-polemic. Set in rural Vermont a century from now, it portrays a community at war over the fate of the rich forest ecosystem that surrounds it. Oil has long since depleted to the point of being nonviable as an energy source, and technologies that once ran on oil—to the very limited extent that these still exist–now must be powered by biofuels. Up to this point, the community has produced its biofuels sustainably; but now rapacious outsiders have muscled their way into the local biorefining operation, intent on liquidating the forests in a futile bid to bring back the affluence of the industrial era. It’s a revealing conflict, and one that Fehling feels certain will play itself out in the future in many places where dense forestland is to be found.

The community described above is Pleasant Valley, and it’s northern Vermont’s largest producer of canola, soy and sunflower seeds. A company named Pleasant Valley Biofuels converts these seeds into liquid fuels for lighting, heating, transport and running heavy machinery. There are, however, no working automobiles in Pleasant Valley, and only a precious few airplanes. This is because the entire community lies within the estate of the biofuels company’s chief executive, Kenan Wales, and Wales has a strict conservation ethic. He remembers well the lessons of a recent historical interval known as “the Troubles,” when industrial civilization collapsed as a result of outstripping its resource base. Thus, he’s determined to see to it that production and consumption of liquid fuels within the region don’t exceed what can sustainably be produced. In his view, biofuels shouldn’t be wasted on joy riding, but should instead be reserved for critical uses like mail delivery, agriculture, commerce and medicine.

Marching Gas Pumps

The majority of Pleasant Valley’s inhabitants get around by foot or on horseback, and live without most of the modern-day comforts we take for granted. Like serfs on a medieval manor, they predominantly earn their livelihoods by tending the vast fields of oilseed crops around the Wales family mansion, or by working as servants for the Wales. Others are employed by a local military force known as the Northern Vermont Militia, which is led by the shady, opportunistic Captain Christopher Peck.

There’s also an underground rebel movement whose aim is to put Pleasant Valley Biofuels out of business before it can usher in a repeat of the ruin that attended humankind’s love affair with oil. With their unending campaign of sabotage attempts, these rebels have proven such a menace to the Wales family and the militia that a castle-like wall has been built to keep them at bay. The rebels live in subterranean hovels and fight with bows and arrows, but they nonetheless manage to inflict serious losses on their foes through their superior stealth and resourcefulness. My favorite trick of theirs involves using an old abandoned ski lift as a zip-line to quickly get from one place to another under the cover of night.

As for the villainous out-of-towners, they represent the leadership of a company called American Agrifuels. They’ve traveled all the way to Pleasant Valley from Albany, New York (hence their nickname, “the Yorkers”), ostensibly to celebrate their forthcoming merger with Pleasant Valley Biofuels. Yet all is not as it seems with these folks.

Our main hero is Amariah Wales, the son of the noble family. At just 19, he’s a brilliant chemist and the brains behind the R&D division of his family’s company, having made major breakthroughs in improving the energy density and winter performance of aviation fuel. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will one day lead the entire enterprise. Yet he’s unhappy. As good as he is at his job, he really doesn’t fit into the company culture, much less into the aristocratic social circle to which his parents belong. He finds it much easier to relate to the servants who prepare his meals and clean up after him. And he’s unmoved by the prospects of becoming the heir to Pleasant Valley Biofuels or wedding any of the well-to-do young ladies his parents keep sending his way, since either of these would put the kibosh on his dreams of traveling and seeing the world.

Thus, Amariah is less than pleased to learn that his parents intend for him to take over the company much sooner than he’d previously thought, which is to say immediately. His mother drops this news on him as the two prepare for a banquet they’re hosting for the visiting American Agrifuels execs. She says Kenan plans to announce at the banquet that Amariah will be chief executive going forward. Amariah is crestfallen at this but resigns himself to his parents’ decision. Little does he suspect the tragic turn to come, which will transform him into so much more than just the new company head.

For the sake of not giving away spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail about the above-mentioned tragedy, except to say that it occurs when the Yorkers double-cross their new business partners to seize control of operations at Pleasant Valley Biofuels. Bent on returning as much of the northeastern United States as they can to an industrial-era standard of living, the Yorkers plan to dramatically ramp up the company’s output using a brand-new process for converting trees into cellulosic ethanol. The only problem is that they require Amariah’s expertise to do this, and Amariah is now missing in action. The rebels, knowing that the fate of the forests hangs in the balance, have whisked him away to a safe house.

The remainder of the book’s plot skillfully alternates among multiple parallel plot lines, the most involving and interesting of which depicts Amariah’s integration into the rebel group. Prior to being thrust into their midst, Amariah has known of the rebels only from frightened accounts given by those who have faced them in battle. For their part, most of the rebels have loathed Amariah for his wealth and his involvement in making biofuels, so much so that their leader initially sees fit to have a guard accompany him at all times for his own protection. (While the rebels generally acknowledge that Amariah was at least committed to responsibly producing biofuels, this makes him deserving only of lesser-of-two-evils status in their eyes, since they’re against biofuels period.) However, as Amariah and his newfound companions get to know one another, a mutual fondness develops, and eventually Amariah finds himself becoming a key strategist behind an insurrection they mount against the Yorkers.

Fehling says a big part of what attracts him to science fiction is its potential to spark dialog about important issues facing humanity. And indeed, with Dark Peak he aims to get readers talking about one of the most vital, but also least understood, dimensions of our society’s energy situation: the issue of steadily declining net energy. With each passing year, we’re further exhausting Earth’s stores of the highly concentrated forms of fossil energy necessary for industrial economies, as well as further deluding ourselves into believing that the dregs left behind will be anywhere near adequate to power civilization as we know it. Fehling seeks to show why these “alternative” energy sources won’t be up to the task, and why even attempting the exercise could result in entire forests being denuded within a single human lifetime.

Dark Peak is Fehling’s first novel, and it’s a promising debut. The author succeeds in his stated goals of telling an engaging tale and warning of the ecological threat that he sees coming. The premise is original and intriguing; the plot, fast-paced and suspenseful. There’s a satisfying character arc for our protagonist and even a swell coming-of-age romance. My sole criticism is that the villains and the fictional world could have been more solidly developed. Still, it’s a measure of Fehling’s skill overall that I welcome the chance to see if he can improve on this in any follow-up books that he may publish down the line.