(Founders House Publishing, December 2016, 254 pages, $15.99)
With his novel Retrotopia, John Michael Greer seeks to challenge the perceptions most people have of technology. His aim is partly to spur awareness about what “technology” actually is, since we’re so used to seeing it equated with electronic gizmos that we tend to have a limited sense of it. (How many people realize that stone tools and study circles are every bit as much examples of technology as are computers?) On another level, Greer wants to make the point that individuals, as well as whole societies, can and do make conscious choices about which technologies they wish to use (the Amish being a particularly apt case in point). You need not own a TV, a car or a smartphone just because everyone says you should. By that same token, an entire nation need not follow the same technological path as the rest of the industrial world, especially when there’s another, more sensible way.
Greer walks his talk on the issue of technological choice, having happily lived his entire adult life without a TV, an automobile or a mobile phone. Now he’s attempting to use fiction to dispel some of the strangeness that still, in most people’s minds, attends the notion of rejecting modern-day innovations in favor of things from the past. To do so is what Greer calls “retrovation,” which, as its name suggests, is the opposite of innovation. Whereas the latter involves coming up with new technologies, the former consists of rediscovering old ones. For it happens that many past technologies are superior to their modern-day equivalents. It’s often been the case that the inventions that won out did so not on their own merits, but because of sheer circumstance or the machinations of those with an interest in seeing them succeed. (Consider the General Motors streetcar conspiracy of the 1920s to ’40s, which gave automobiles a monopoly on surface transportation in America.)
Greer’s novel is about a future nation in what is now the American Midwest that has managed to prosper by going backwards technologically. It’s 2065, and the United States long ago descended into civil war and dissolution as a result of having continued down the same shortsighted trajectory it’s on today: namely, the pursuit of infinite growth on a finite globe. Most of the handful of post-U.S.A. American nations remain fixated on this unachievable goal. However, one country, the Lakeland Republic, has chosen an alternate course. It has decided to discard the ideal of growth for its own sake as well as any technologies aimed at achieving that goal. From the perspectives of those in surrounding nations, an aura of mystery surrounds the goings-on in the Lakeland Republic. And first-time visitors often find that the mystery only deepens once they’ve set foot within the Republic’s borders.
How can it be, they wonder, that this country is able to enjoy such prosperity and internal peace while embracing such counterintuitive policies? Unlike most other nations, the Republic refused to accept conditions laid out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for economic assistance following the war. As a result, it defaulted on its debt, lost access to world credit markets and had an international trade embargo imposed on it. Yet by nearly every measure, it’s faring better than any other nation on the continent. It has none of the war wreckage that continues to litter other lands, its towns are in markedly better shape and its working class has such a high standard of living that a tide of hopeful immigrants pours in from elsewhere.
It turns out that the Republic became such a success story precisely because it chucked the conventional wisdom on how to rebuild a national industrial economy. The embargo, together with the Republic’s decision to stop throwing good money after bad in terms of its debt, allowed capital to accumulate inside the country. Three decades later, the nation has succeeded in rebuilding its economy from the bottom up, taking care to avoid the follies that threw it into the abyss in the first place.
Retrotopia‘s plot concerns the journey, both physical and psychological, of a newcomer named Peter Carr. The neighboring country of the Atlantic Republic has just had a presidential election, and Carr is an advisor to the president-elect. In the novel’s opening scene, he’s traveling to the capitol of the Lakeland Republic, Toledo, where he is to spend the next two weeks helping draft a set of key agreements between the two governments. As Carr goes about his daily business in Toledo, we’re provided a comprehensive tour of how things work in this bizarre new land.
From the moment he crosses over into Lakeland (via a 1950s-era diesel-electric locomotive run on used frying oil), Carr is dumbfounded by the seeming technological backwardness he encounters. He’s horrified to learn that the country wants nothing to do with the metanet (this future’s Internet) and uses jamming stations to keep out the satellite transmissions on which metanet access depends. Carr is also baffled by the chaotic technological bricolage he observes everywhere. He sees farms worked by draft horses just as commonly as those boasting tractors. He also passes through city neighborhoods in which streets populated by cars and trucks exist right alongside those where horse-drawn carriages and streetcars predominate. And he sees much more in the way of handcrafted everyday goods than he’s used to, an indication that the household economy has made a comeback here. What’s more, the average Lakelander gives no more thought to the disparate technological choices others have made than most people today give to the supposed need to own a smartphone.
The Lakeland Republic is divided into counties, with each county free to fashion its own unique technological landscape. There’s a tier system of technological development, with the highest tier, five, representing 1950s-era infrastructure; and the lowest, roughly that of the 1830s. A lower tier means a lower tax burden for the county’s inhabitants, but also a more rudimentary infrastructure. The citizens of each county vote to determine which tier best suits their needs. This does not mean, however, that individual residents of a lower-tier county are prohibited from having higher-tier technologies if that’s what they wish. On the contrary, they’re quite able to do so–but they must pay out of their own pockets for the privilege. Because of this system, there’s significant incentive for people to eschew the latest and greatest in favor of the ever-more-old-fashioned.
Over the course of the plot, Carr has a series of errands to run, each one bringing to light some new aspect to life in the Lakeland Republic. For the first time in his life he pays for things with checks and paper money, rather than electronically. When he tears one of his shoes and has to buy a replacement pair, he learns the difference between the shoddy plastic footwear he’s accustomed to and the quality, handcrafted shoes Lakelanders wear. He also falls ill for a couple of days, and in the process receives a lesson in how much better healthcare is in Lakeland than in the Atlantic Republic. (What he’s used to is basically an even more extreme version of what Americans have today. Lakeland healthcare, in contrast, is all about affordability, access for all and the use of natural remedies rather than industrially produced pharmaceuticals.) And as Carr endeavors to keep up on current events, he has his first exposure to long-form print journalism, a far cry from the 140-character metanet articles he’s used to reading.
Carr’s visits to various cultural, economic and governmental establishments provide another means of introducing both him and us to the workings of the Lakeland Republic. His destinations include an energy plant, a public school, a library and a military outdoor shooting range. During his tour of the energy plant, he’s impressed to learn of the enterprising scheme Lakelanders have developed for turning sewage into electrical power. While visiting the school, he gets to witness an education system focused not on preparing kids for meaningless standardized tests, but rather on teaching them how to think for themselves and directly apply what they’ve learned. The library’s ambiance is disconcerting at first: “In place of the clatter of keys and the babble of voices that gave the libraries I knew their soundtrack,” Carr recounts, “the room was as hushed as a funeral parlor.” (I chuckled at this description, sensing that it was Greer’s way of grumbling ironically about the sad state of the modern-day library experience.) As for Carr’s time at the shooting range, it provides an eye-opening object lesson in the astonishing edge that antique weapons can have over the most state-of-the-art drones.
It’s while visiting a streetcar factory that Carr sees perhaps the most poignant example yet of how radically different the rules of Lakelandian economics are from those of his country. During his tour, he notices that the production line workers are using hand tools rather than machines, prompting him to ask why the company hasn’t automated its process. His tour guide is aghast at the suggestion. “If we tried to automate our assembly line, given the additional costs,” she explains, “the other two firms would eat us alive.” This is because the Lakeland Republic has laws that make it cost-ineffective to employ machines rather than people. These laws impose steep taxes on businesses that choose to automate, as a way of compensating the greater society for the resultant increases in unemployment and pollution. Such costs can no longer be written off as externalities.
One part of this book that I particularly admire is its satire directed against the existing order. In so many ways, Carr embodies how reliance on modern-day technology has dulled people’s innate abilities. Like most people in America today, he depends on gadgets to carry out nearly every activity of daily life–and as a result, he struggles to do math in his head, write legibly and in general work with his hands. These deficiencies are brought into sharp relief during his time in the Lakeland Republic, where he suddenly has to write things down, do math without a calculator and track down books in a library.
My favorite thing about Retrotopia is the way it overlays modern progressive ideals onto a world of retro technology. Since the Lakeland Republic has traveled back in time technologically, one might assume it has also done so socially–yet this is not so. During his time there, Carr becomes involved in an intimate romantic relationship, witnesses a same-sex wedding and meets a prominent public figure with a spouse of the same sex. Thus, while Toledo may have 1950s technology, it has in no way returned to that era’s social mores. Greer says he made it this way specifically to drive home the message that historical periods aren’t indivisible units that must be accepted or rejected wholesale. In his experience, this point is lost on most people. “I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told,” he reports, “that rejecting the latest new, shiny, and dysfunctional technology, in favor of an older technology that works, is tantamount to cheerleading for infant mortality, or slavery, or living in caves, or what have you.”*
Given its title, one obvious question many readers will have about Retrotopia is whether it’s at least partly an homage to Ecotopia, one of the great eco-novels of the 1970s. The answer is that, yes, Greer deeply admires this seminal work by the late Ernest Callenbach, and he includes nods to it in his own tale. Most crucially, both books use the device of a first-person narrator with whom the reader is meant to identify. In Ecotopia, this character is a journalist rather than a government official, but he serves exactly the same function as does Mr. Carr: to provide readers an up-close, outsider’s view of an unfamiliar world. Another similarity is how meticulously realized both books’ settings are. Greer and Callenbach both go into such detail that it’s as if they’re describing real places.
Yet there are also some notable departures from Ecotopia. The most important of these has to do with Greer’s concept of retrovation. The appeal of retrovation seems to have been lost on Callenbach, since he saw future technological advances–for example, improvements in solar photovoltaics and other renewable energy technologies–as having the potential to rescue us from our impending energy descent. Greer, who is nothing if not a realist, sees no such potential. In short, Callenbach maintained his faith in innovation, whereas Greer sees continued innovation as the exact opposite of what’s needed, hence the Lakeland Republic’s decision to look to the past for workable answers to humankind’s crises.
Another big difference between Ecotopia and Retrotopia lies in their differing character arcs. Ecotopia‘s main character comes full circle, abandoning his life back home to become an Ecotopian. Without giving anything away, I’m happy to say that this isn’t the choice Greer makes for his character. Greer decides instead to take things in a less predictable, more ambiguous–and more interesting–direction, in keeping with his view that there isn’t one be-all-and-end-all response to the challenges before us.
This book is yet another solid entry in the oeuvre of a profoundly accomplished author. In writing it, Greer drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of history and a wide range of other fields to create a fully realized, believable world that deftly turns the assumptions of present-day industrial society on their ears. While I don’t have any major complaints about the job he’s done, I did find myself yearning for more detail on some of the other post-U.S.A. nations besides the Lakeland Republic. However, since Greer’s main purpose is to show us a portrait of the Lakeland Republic, this isn’t so much a criticism as a testament to how thoroughly he drew me into his fictional world.
*John Michael Greer, “A Time for Retrovation,” The Archdruid Report, Sept. 21, 2016, https://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.de/2016/09/a-time-for-retrovation.html?commentPage=2 (accessed May 24, 2017).