After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis

Edited and introduced by John Michael Greer

(Founders House Publishing, January 2015, 288 pages, $17.99)

and

After Oil 3The Years of Rebirth

Edited and introduced by John Michael Greer

(Founders House Publishing, April 2015, 268 pages, $17.99)

This year saw the publication of not one, but two, more worthy additions to the After Oil science fiction anthology series. Like the original book, these two follow-ups showcase the latest round of winning entries into author John Michael Greer’s online contest for best post-collapse-themed short fiction. Their stories were all submitted last January during the contest’s second run, which to Greer’s delight drew far more publishable pieces than could be confined to one book. All three After Oil books to date have sold steadily, with the result that a third contest has taken place, a fourth book is pending and Greer has announced that from now on his contest will be held annually. In short, it seems Greer’s wager that sci-fi readers would be willing to embrace tales set in realistic deindustrial futures, rather than ever more grandiose excursions into techno-fantasy, has paid off handsomely.

As indicated by their respective subtitles, The Years of Crisis and The Years of Rebirth, the new anthologies are set during slightly different time periods. The stories in After Oil 2 take place in settings where the familiar fixtures of early 21st-century life are still present, but in diminished form, as resource depletion and ecological payback steadily exact their tolls. After Oil 3’s settings, on the other hand, are ones in which the technology of the industrial era has so little relevance to people’s lives that for the most part it is the stuff of foggy, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes bitter memories. The lingering harm wrought upon the Earth and human well-being by past generations’ reckless pursuit of this technology, meanwhile, is often the basis for draconian laws and mores against any activity–for example, digging up and burning fossil fuels–perceived as being a potential harbinger of the old ways.

Marching Gas Pumps Marching Gas Pumps

Because their focus is the near future, quite a few pieces in After Oil 2 are set in recognizable extensions of today. A prime example is Matthew Griffiths’ "Promised Land." Set a few decades from now in the Australian state of Queensland, the story features paved (albeit deteriorating) roads, luxury electric cars and mechanics who make their livings repairing such cars (but whose trade is beginning to meld with blacksmithing). There are also still functioning electrical grids, though due to the ever-rising cost of electricity, it is common for a mechanic’s tools to run on batteries charged by photovoltaic systems. A repair that can’t wait the hours it might take to recharge the tools’ batteries will cost a good bundle extra due to the expense of grid power.

Of all the far-future settings depicted in After Oil 3, the one that is perhaps the most alien to our own is that in which Catherine McGuire’s "Singing the World" unfolds. Possessing none of our modern "advanced" technology, the society imagined by McGuire uses songs and singing in ways analogous to how we use machines. For example, where people today would give little thought or ceremony to the task of lighting a fire, these far-future descendants of ours wouldn’t dream of attempting combustion unless they knew the appropriate "firemaking song" and could sing it flawlessly, because songs are deemed necessary to the completion of all daily tasks. People are taught from childhood that it is only "grateful, respectful singing" that permits the peace and abundance in which they’ve been fortunate enough to live to continue. The story’s conflict arises when one character accidentally discovers that a fire will start even if one hasn’t sung the firemaking song.

As with much traditional sci-fi, the After Oil stories regard technology with deep ambivalence. While it’s common, in most of the futures depicted, for people to despise industrial-age machines for the grievous damage they allowed humans to do to themselves and the planet, there are still people who miss and continue to collect things from the 19th through early 21st centuries. In Calvin Jennings’ "A Dead Art Form," movies and moviemaking equipment are museum pieces, and those involved in preserving them face a conundrum. They’re reluctant to show their movies because each showing weathers the reel, videocassette or DVD on which a film is stored, and replacement copies can no longer be made. Yet if no one is allowed to watch and thus appreciate movies, how can film enthusiasts expect support for their work?

Another piece that deals fascinatingly with future efforts to preserve industrial-age technology is "When it Comes a Gully Washer" by N. N. Scott. In this case, the prized artifacts are phonograph records packed into sediment amid the ruins of New Braunfels, Texas. Sadly, the records are easily broken and are thus often rendered unplayable while being dug up, so it is cause for celebration when one emerges intact. The records’ music enlivens the local culture and supplies material to this setting’s equivalent of cover bands. This portrait of technological rediscovery is as plausible as it is well realized. Given how swiftly cassettes and digital media deteriorate, it is doubtless vinyl records and their players that will be among the last surviving vestiges of recorded sound technology.

On a somewhat related note, Rachel White’s "Story Material" presents a probable scenario for the future of libraries and print literature. The piece consists largely of a librarian’s reverie about a time when reading was commonplace and library culture was vibrantly alive. Those days are long gone in the story’s present. The beginning of the 21st century saw a massive shift toward all-digital, bookless libraries. Not long after that, America’s cities were plagued by chronic blackouts as fossil fuels ran short, eventually causing the all-digital libraries to be permanently shuttered. All that electronic content became as lost to humanity as the print books it replaced. In the absence of books, our main character consoles herself and the children she mentors with the thought that at least people will always have their imaginations with which to fashion new narratives.

Librarians come in for an altogether different treatment in Troy Jones III’s "For Our Mushrooms." Here they’re a secretive, feared faction within an isolated village whose elder members have gone to great lengths to suppress much of the knowledge contained in books, particularly with regard to the existence of firearms. Aside from the librarians, no one among the younger generation knows anything of weapons more formidable than a crossbow, and the elders, who established the village as an experiment in utopian living, seek to keep it that way. The librarians, however, have managed to revive firearm technology and are planning to use it to take over the community. The ensuing confrontation makes for both exciting action and revealing drama.

A preoccupation shared by several stories is the possibility that belief in the paranormal, so long relegated to the margins of popular thought, might grow more widespread as the preeminence of science and reason wanes. This notion is by no means a new one in post-oil fiction (James Howard Kunstler memorably incorporated it into his World Made by Hand series as early as 2008), but one of the stories collected here handles it with particular skill and subtlety. In Grant Canterbury’s "Winterfey," a young girl enters a mysterious realm to visit an entity that she takes to be a fairy. The wish she asks of the fairy–that her brother be spared conscription into the military–is fulfilled in a way that is satisfying while still leaving open the question of whether otherworldly phenomena were actually involved.

Despite how determined their authors are to earnestly address the subject of decline, these stories do still possess the fascination with mechanical contrivance that has always been one of sci-fi’s main draws. Human ingenuity is just as much on display here as in the space-faring voyages that mark the more fanciful incarnations of sci-fi; it’s just applied toward different ends. Across the board in these smart stories written by bright, capable people, we witness an impressive resourcefulness on the part of future humans in salvaging and repurposing old building materials, maximizing garden yields, rediscovering preindustrial modes of medical care and developing rocket stoves and other energy-efficient methods of cooking.

My favorite piece in either of these books is "A Mile a Minute" by Walt Freitag. Though this one initially seems like just a whimsical, larkish adventure, it proves to have a surprisingly deep epiphany. The narrative centers on small-town handyman Slow Uncle (so named because he has only one good leg) and his attempt to win over a local widow named Jeanne, who famously vowed to marry the first man who managed the by-now unheard of feat of traveling a mile a minute. Slow Uncle and his assistant set to building an elaborate, somewhat comical-looking contraption that uses horses and pulleys to propel a sled (in which Slow Uncle will ride) over the ground. The scheme doesn’t come off quite as hoped; but as it turns out, Slow Uncle’s aim was never really to win Jeanne’s affections. Instead, it was to make a point about how "there’s still parts of the past we’re tangled up in without even noticing."

The fan base for Greer’s writings is a brilliantly diverse group representing nearly every geographic region and culture, so it’s fitting that the winning entries of the story contests would radiate this same diversity. The contributors to the two books reviewed here hail from mainland America, Hawaii, England, Scotland and New Zealand. They have backgrounds in history, engineering, physics, software development, Hollywood filmmaking, youth services, druidry and many other fields. Just about the only common trait among them, Greer has remarked, is that they all understand the harsh realities now facing industrial society. While there is a clear awareness of these challenges in all of the After Oil stories, each author’s unique background greatly enlivens his or her tale, keeping it from being simply a retread of familiar themes.

Greer is heartily encouraged by the success of the After Oil series so far, seeing it as proof that our collective imagination isn’t as restricted to the failed narratives of the past as it once was. As well he should be. Granted, the old narratives still do dominate the thinking of our time, as evidenced currently by the widespread, inane obsession with comparing the real world of 2015 with the goofy high-tech version of 2015 portrayed in the second Back to the Future movie (which came out in 1989). Yet the tide is shifting. It’s only a matter of time before fans of sci-fi literature begin reading tales depicting the challenges and possibilities of life in deindustrial futures as absorbedly as moviegoers of the `80s took in the flying cars, hoverboards and other gosh-wow gadgets of Back to the Future II.