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.
“Richly imagined.” (O, The Oprah Magazine) “Far from a typical postapocalyptic novel…An impassioned and invigorating tale whose ultimate message is one of hope, not despair.” (San Francisco Chronicle) “Brilliant.” (Chicago Tribune)
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Among the many subgenres I have a weakness for, one of my favorites is the post-apocalyptic thriller. World Made By Hand is not a thriller, though there is some action and violence. It occupies some strange middle ground between The Stand and Earth Abides. James Howard Kunstler is more interested in telling a story about what people do when the lights go out and how they go back to churning their own butter and making their own candles than a broader story about the collapse of civilization. In fact, that theme (as indicated by the title of the novel) seems to be the reason why the author wrote this book. While the residents of Union Grove, New York now live hard, sometimes precarious lives, and Kunstler does not neglect to show people suffering trauma and not coping very well with the death of the world they knew, the subtext throughout the book seems to be "Maybe it's better this way." The narrator, who by virtue of being the only responsible adult who was too much of a sucker not to say 'No' is now the mayor of Union Grove, frequently ruminates on how much better and sturdier things are now when you have to make them to last, just like in the old days, and seems to regard his old modern consumer life with a mixture of yearning and ironic disdain.
So there is quite a bit of talk about how people have gone back to a primarily agrarian existence, without oil or electricity, and how they struggle to survive when most folks don't have the skills needed for a post-industrial society. It's one of those books that makes you think about what you would do: if all of a sudden we got knocked back to the 19th century by some sort of apocalypse, do you have any survival skills? Any useful skills that would make you valuable to a community. Well, I'm no prepper and I'm afraid my own skill set would probably prove a bit meager.
We aren't given many details about what happened in this world made by hand. There is talk of recent wars in the Middle East, and bombs took out Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and other cities (though apparently not New York City), and the U.S. government, and global civilization, seems to have essentially collapsed. The folks in Union Grove get little news from up the Hudson and even less from anywhere outside New York.
That said, they have been, as Brother Job of the New Faith Church points out, awfully lucky so far. They've managed to keep their town running with no major disasters, and their region has not yet reached the stage of feuding warlords and roving bandit gangs. However, lawlessness is certainly taking over the countryside, which causes most of the problems in the book as they have to deal first with a trade ship that was sent down the Hudson to New York City and never returned, and then with a local troublemaker who has set himself up as a feudal lord on the edge of town with a bunch of bikers, vagrants, and other ne'er do wells.
The New Faith Church, a bunch of healthy young evangelicals, show up in Union Grove and want to settle there, which proves to be a mixed blessing. They are (it seems) basically clean, decent, hard-working folks, and they bring fresh blood and, incidentally, a lot of combat vets. However, they definitely have proselytizing on the agenda, and being an instant power in the community, there are bound to be tensions.
It's a well-constructed story and the world, while light on details, makes sense. No major suspensions of disbelief, until the end, where Kunstler seems to be hinting at the encroaching of supernatural elements. As Brother Job says, "Science don't rule the roost no more." It's both odd given the straightforward, realistic style of the rest of the novel, and also seems to be in keeping with the idea of a "world made by hand" being somehow deeper and more spiritual.
Well, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't terribly exciting, and I'm not inclined to sign up for the rest of the series to learn just how religious the author decides to get. Yes, our modern consumer lifestyle probably is unsustainable and many things are lost when everything is commercial and transient. On the other hand, as the events in World Made By Hand show, it's not a great improvement to let the world be run by whoever has the most charisma and guns, and I have no faith in the nice folks of the New Faith Church not turning into witch-burning science-hating zealots given a generation or so to cement their power. So, while I feel a certain sympathy for the idea that the world would actually be a better place without Walmarts and reality TV, I'm not willing to throw out electricity, antibiotics, and indoor plumbing to get it.
Be prepared for a leisurely pace. The first 1/2 of the story is more of a sketch of a post-electronic world than an actual story. Built to be idealistic more than realistic, this dystopian world clearly depicts the author's preference for a world with less technology. He succeeded in making me imagine the beauty that could await us if we found ourselves back in synch with nature's rhythms, but the entire story softens the blows--until the strange and abruptly violent ending. The plot takes its time developing, then takes an ugly turn in a way that seemed incongruous with the Andy Griffith beginning.
An additional note of complaint is the author's treatment of women. Not only are they all emotionally weak, needy, manipulative or disturbed, they rely exclusively on men for their care and feeding. Kunstler's main source of differentiating between them is by remarking on their various breast sizes, which only exaggerates this misogynist worldview.
Before adding this book to my summer reading (& listening) list, I had just finished Alas Babylon (1959, Pat Frank). The similarities are abundant. The biggest difference is in the story telling. Babylon builds suspense while offering plenty of commentary, thus never feeling dull and weary. The narrator for Alas Babylon also kept the pace and intensity in a way that Jim Meskimen never mastered. I was also able to forgive Pat Frank for his 1950's treatment of women (pre-women's liberation). On the other hand, I could not get past Kunstler's apparent chauvinism .......and racism. Really? Are no minorities in all of upstate New York? In Kunstler's future they are entirely relegated to race wars in urban centers far, far away.