Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007, 317 pages
In The Long Emergency, celebrated social commentator James Howard Kunstler explored how the terminal decline of oil production combined with climate change had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. In World Made by Hand, an astonishing work of speculative fiction, Kunstler brings to life what America might be, a few decades hence, after these catastrophes converge.
The electricity has flickered out. The automobile age is over. In Union Grove, a little town in upstate New York, the future is nothing like people thought it would be. Life is hard and close to the bone. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy, and the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president, and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren't sure. The townspeople's challenges play out in a dazzling, fully realized world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers, no longer polluted, and replenished with fish.
This is the story of Robert Earle and his fellow townspeople and what happens to them one summer in a country that has changed profoundly. A powerful tale of love, loss, violence, and desperation, World Made by Hand is also lyrical and tender, a surprising story of a new America struggling to be born - a story more relevant now than ever.
Set in Union Grove, New York, after bombs have destroyed most American cities and the government, the theme of World Made By Hand is how people would have to return to pre-modern methods of survival and relearn the skills that most modern people don't have in the event of a post-oil world. But this isn't a survivalist story or an ode to preppers. Most of the conflicts are social; the people of Union Grove have been getting by all right, but there's a colony of bikers and trailer trash down by the dump and general store, ruled by the sort of violent psychopath who always ends up being the Big Bad in these scenarios. There's a wealthy landowner setting himself up as a benevolent (for now) feudal lord, and meanwhile trade down the Hudson is becoming harder and more dangerous every year.
Then a religious cult comes marching into town. The New Faith Church, led by Brother Job, are nice enough folks, and they have skills and resources that Union Grove is badly in need of. But like any evangelical sect, they're bent on converting and dedicated to the moral improvement of their neighbors, for their own good.
Part one of the book is a journey to New York City, with the narrator accompanied by men of the New Faith Church to retrieve a boat and its crew that's been held hostage by an up and coming warlord. Part two is a confrontation with Wayne Carp, the trailer trash biker gang leader, after he starts stirring up trouble. At this point, the book stops reading so much like a pleasant Amish armageddon and more like every other post-apocalyptic thriller out there, where the Bad Things happen.
If the author seems a little too enthusiastic about going back to a way of life that involves churning your own butter, he does raise a lot of practical questions about how prepared the average American might be for the power going out and the economy becoming very, very local again. Makes you start taking preppers more seriously.
Mostly, though, the showdown with Wayne Carp reinforced the lesson I learned from The Stand, Swan Song, and all those other apocalyptic thrillers: know who's going to start shit as soon as law and order breaks down, and shoot those assholes first.
Even the final confrontation was a bit anti-climactic, though. Instead, the author seems to be hinting at involvement by higher powers. The tone is not so much Good vs. Evil as science vs. spirituality. I give this a bit of a side-eye, as well as the author's predictably hidebound view of a post-industrial society: race wars and the womenfolk all getting back in the kitchen where they belong.
It wasn't a bad book, but the World Made By Hand wasn't interesting enough for me to continue the series.
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