Graphic Novel Review: 10 Billion is a sci-fi tale of astonishing scope and visual imagination

November 20, 2020

10 Billion
Adapted by Marcu Knoesen, based on an original story by John Michael Greer
Illustrated by Darryl Knickrehm
86 pp. – Sept. 2020. $27.95.

People in the modern industrial world tend to believe either that our current civilization is destined to advance forever, or that it’s imminently doomed to collapse. That is a longtime lament of author John Michael Greer, who rejects both views. The former is fallacious, he argues, because it ignores the fact that infinite growth of anything is impossible, whereas the latter flouts the overwhelming body of historical evidence showing that civilizations end gradually, not abruptly. In a 2013 blog post titled “The Next 10 Billion Years,” Greer outlined an alternative scenario in which our current society neither grows forever nor crashes spectacularly, but slowly runs its course. A brilliant critique of present-day human hubris, this scenario reveals our civilization to be subject to the same natural processes as all civilizations that have come before it.

10 Billion vividly reimagines Greer’s blog post as a graphic novel. Told and illustrated in an immersive comic book style, it gives potent visual form to the original text. Marcu Knoesen’s adaptation is completely faithful, using Greer’s essay as an almost verbatim script, but adds some elements out of narrative necessity. For example, Greer’s piece, being more of a scenario than a story, mostly lacks characters and interpersonal conflicts, hence Knoesen’s creation of determined billionaire businessman Mr. Davon. He’s bent on achieving immortality by transferring his consciousness into an artificial intelligence his company is developing. However, progress on this breakthrough has stalled, and Davon has decided to turn to the counsel of a famed oracle known as “the Master,” whose predictions have been astoundingly accurate. Upon journeying to the Master’s remote forest dwelling, Davon is permitted a glimpse into an unexpected, almost incomprehensibly strange future.

The divination ceremony takes place around a fire. The wizened Master sits in a lotus pose while robed priestesses sprinkle spiritual herbs into the fire. As its flames grow, they send vast smoke tendrils into the sky, and the Master into an otherworldly trance. Some of the book’s most captivating images show the Master entering into his prophetic state. As his mouth begins to gape and his eyes roll backward, his shift in consciousness is conveyed by illustrator Darryl Knickrehm through canted and low-angle perspectives, outward-rushing radial lines and washes of bright color.

As with Greer’s original scenario, the Master’s prophecy consists of 10 snapshots, each peering 10 times further into the future than the one before. The first one looks 10 years ahead. Consistent with Greer’s mantra that civilizational decline happens gradually, the world seems little-changed. Global population has peaked at around eight percent above what it is today. Oil companies have managed to keep liquid fuel production steady despite the relentless march of depletion. The ever-rising costs of weather-related disasters continue to pound the economy. As living conditions keep worsening across the developed world, politicians and the media continue insisting emptily that a return to prosperity is around the corner. Proponents of fusion power, artificial intelligence, interstellar migration and other supposed saviors of our modern way of life are no closer to realizing their dreams. Neither are those whose hopes for a better future lie in the prospect of a global cataclysm capable of wiping out the evils of industrial civilization.

Davon is initially unimpressed. “This is seeing the future?” he asks contemptuously, figuring he could have predicted as much. He demands the Master look further, whereupon we’re allowed a glimpse at life a century from now. The illustrations and captions here do a great job of showing how incremental changes pile up over time. We see that wars, pandemics and famines have ravaged the world; and that public health, civic order and the human population have all plummeted. There are images of hospitals and service stations turned to ruin, famous landmarks half-submerged by rising waters, shantytowns littered throughout the streets of forsaken cities and hillsides blanketed with headstones. The businessman now turns from dismissive to rapacious. Leaning in toward the Master with a conspiratorial grin—like Satan trying to tempt a monk—he exults, “A crisis is always an opportunity for those who take it!”

But the Master’s next set of predictions puts an end to Davon’s scheming. Davon is dismayed to learn that by the 3020s, the troubles of the early 22nd century will have been not a temporary crisis to be profited from, but one phase of a permanent decline. Not only will artificial intelligence never be invented, but the entire technological regime of our time will have long since disappeared in the course of a bitter dark age. A greatly reduced human population will be living lives very different from ours on a planet that hearkens back to the tropical, nearly ice-free Earth of 50 million years ago. Their technologies will reappropriate the remains of ours in ingenious ways.

Desperate for reassurance that the modern world will eventually return, Davon implores the Master to keep looking into the future. The Master does so, but his next few rounds of prophecies only further dispirit Davon. Ten millennia from now, industrial civilization has vanished from memory and five subsequent global civilizations have come and gone. One hundred millennia from now, the climate impacts initiated in our time have finally played out and humanity is on its 79th global civilization, which is no closer to fusion power, artificial intelligence or interstellar travel than we are today. A million years from now, humans live in aerostat cities on an ice age Earth. With the passing of more millions of years, humanity’s influence lessens and a series of non-human sentient species inherits the Earth. Billions of years hence, Earth succumbs to the expanding sun, and the remnants of her demise seed life elsewhere.

The wonders to behold in this grand exercise in speculative future history are a sci-fi illustrator’s delight, and you can tell Knickrehm is having a great time with them. The movie director, writer, magazine editor and illustrator is a sci-fi aficionado who has aptly branded himself “Creator of the Fantastic.” Greer doesn’t go into detail about the physical appearances of the various life forms he imagines succeeding modern-day humans, leaving Knickrehm’s imagination to run wild. Knickrehm dreams up creatures that look as distant in time from us as the alien-looking beings that inhabited the warm, shallow seas of the early Cambrian.

As fascinating as these windows into a possible far future are, they aren’t what 10 Billion is really about. What the book is truly about is the psychological journey of a man whose belief system is dashed by a look into the future. When Davon first meets with the Master, he does so fully believing in the conventional wisdom of our time. He believes technological “progress” to be impervious to ecological limits. He thinks nature is obliged to give humans all the resources we need to keep “advancing.” Most grandiosely of all, he assumes human prowess to be so indomitable as to render the very destruction of Earth by our sun a mere inconvenience, one to be skirted by simply growing out of our earthly existence and spreading across the galaxy. All these assumptions are upended.

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Knoesen could just as easily have had his main character be a doomsayer as an acolyte of faith in progress. This individual would go in expecting details of a near-term apocalypse of epic proportions, only to be disappointed. To this person, the oracle’s prophecies would reveal that while human activity is indeed having grave impacts on the planet, we flatter ourselves as a species to think that we’re mighty enough to destroy her. The doomsayer would be dumbfounded to learn of the innumerable ways in which humanity will come to flourish in the wake of our current civilization and its legacy of ecological impacts. The insignificance of industrial civilization would stand out just as sharply as in the existing version of the story. And the chief lesson also would be the same: namely, that since we can’t count on some almighty force—be it progress or apocalypse—to determine the future for us, we should all actively work to bring about the best possible future for our descendants.

Though I applaud the idea of using the graphic novel format to spread Greer’s ideas to a wider audience, I should note that those who aren’t already familiar with Greer’s work won’t be able to appreciate this book quite as fully as those who are. Like the blog post on which it’s based, 10 Billion mentions some important terms and concepts without defining or explaining them, since they had already been explored in depth in previous blog entries. Those who have been reading Greer for some time will immediately grasp these elements; those who haven’t, won’t.

Fortunately, this situation doesn’t arise often enough to affect the entire book. And Knickrehm’s fine illustrations are exemplary in their ability to convey the gist of a complex or unfamiliar concept through simple imagery. For these reasons, I recommend 10 Billion as an accessible introduction to Greer’s extensive body of scholarly writings on the future of industrial civilization.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: cultural stories, Future Scenarios, science fiction