As a kid, two of the first adult books I read that made a deep impression on me were Neville Shute’s On the Beach and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, both of which portrayed the lives of everyday people in the aftermath of nuclear war. I found echoes of both in James Howard Kunstler’s new novel, World Made by Hand, which introduces us to the daily reality of life in upstate New York a decade or two after the trucks have stopped running and the electricity has gone off. There is a little post-nuclear flavor in Kunstler’s book, too. Part of his scenario involves terrorist nuclear detonations in Washington and Los Angeles, which delivered the coup de grace to the government and international economy that we take for granted now.
There are no newspapers in Kunstler’s world, no antibiotics, no rubber and not much plastic, but there are plenty of bullets left, and less inhibition about using them. The book starts on an almost idyllic note as it sets up a picture of clear-running, fish-filled streams, old railroad beds overrun with berries and strong, wild marijuana, and a slower-paced life reminiscent of the early 19th century, but we are brought back to earth with an unjust murder and a town left wondering how to deal with the powerful bullies who committed it.
The question is left simmering on a back burner as Kunstler introduces his other players: the dispirited townspeople, a wealthy, far-sighted landowner who has assumed a role not unlike that of a feudal lord, members of a Christian religious community who arrive in the area, fleeing the chaos prevalent in more urbanized areas to the south, and the lonely widow of the young man who was murdered, who seeks refuge in the home of Robert Earle, the story’s main character.
The “Christians” turn out to be more pragmatic and less sectarian than many who call themselves that today. They also have skills and deep pockets, and are willing to put both to use to help improve life in the little town of Union Grove, where most of the story takes place. After helping Stephen Bullock, the lordly landowner, recover a crew of traders who have been kidnapped on a trip down the Hudson, they gain the townspeoples’ trust enough to help them bring justice to the murder that began the book, and that is the point at which Kunstler brings our little tour of the future to a close.
Kunstler is best known for writing nonfiction about the circumstances of this novel. In The Long Emergency and the video The End of Suburbia he has laid out the facts, figures, and trajectories that lead to the world we inhabit when we read World Made By Hand, and it is this fact of fiction, as it were, this investment in believable human beings who inhabit the post-industrial, post-electrical America he posits, that brings the statistics and predictions to life. When we are told a story about what life after industrial collapse could mean for people like us, we have an easier time accepting the likelihood that the collapse of civilization as we know is going to happen to us and our friends, and this is just what Kunstler is trying to get across.
There were a few flags that went up for me in his portrayal. The denoument hangs on an act that seemingly can only be explained by some kind of supernatural occurence, a departure from the otherwise believable picture he paints. And somehow, there is no “alternative energy” technology in the book, either plain or fancy: nobody was smart enough to build a passive solar home, or a solar oven; nobody has any solar panels–but perhaps this is a symptom of Kunstler’s opinion that these artifacts are all too little, too late. And the occasional glimpses of what seem like magical powers by the Christian cultists? Perhaps Mr. Kunstler is going to tell us in a sequel. I would certainly read it, if civilization lasts long enough to get it in print.