The post-oil novel began as a little-known aberration within the speculative fiction genre. But it’s now hitting bestseller lists, generating comment in major papers, and garnering increasing acceptance from the mainstream of speculative fiction. Frank Kaminski takes a spirited, authoritative look at this blossoming subgenre.
Frank gives an overview of the book:
by Frank Kaminski
Novels that deal with the collapse of our oil-based civilization undoubtedly belong under the heading of speculative fiction—and some even qualify as outright science fiction.1 But even so, there’s an inescapable irony to their being categorized as such. This is because, by and large, speculative fiction is an optimistic genre. It celebrates technological progress and often tacitly assumes a near-endless supply of both energy and human ingenuity. Peak oil, in contrast, casts a ruthlessly critical eye on technological progress, human ingenuity, and alternative energy sources. Indeed, it considers the entire technological age to be nothing more than a charade, enabled by the reckless over-consumption of nonrenewable energy resources.
Given how alien the assumptions of peak oil are to some of the most cherished ideals of speculative fiction, it is perhaps unsurprising that only four novels published thus far (at least, by major mass market publishers) have endeavored to tackle the subject head on. Similarly unsurprising is the fact that, out of this small handful of books, only one was written by an author previously known for writing speculative fiction—the German writer Andreas Eschbach, whose post-oil thriller Ausgebrannt (2007) wound up hitting the German bestseller list.
The other three books—the late John Seymour’s Retrieved from the Future (1996), Alex Scarrow’s Last Light (2007), and James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008)—are all the work of first-time speculative fiction writers inadvertently turning the genre on its head.
This essay examines these four extraordinary books and how they came to be. It also gives a brief nod to Caryl Johnston’s self-published After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era (2005), even though Johnston’s book isn’t strictly a novel (it combines fictional narrative with facts and endnotes). This essay does not, however, examine Steve Alten’s The Shell Game (2008), a daring political thriller that links 9/11 and peak oil, and dramatizes a future U.S. plot to invade Iran over oil. While Alten’s book certainly does justice to the basic concerns of the peak oil movement, it never addresses what a post-oil world might look like. Thus, it is probably better understood as a 9/11 Truth novel than as a post-oil novel.
Above all, this essay seeks to provide a detailed history of the post-oil novel, and to raise questions such as what a post-oil novel is and what it isn’t, what the future of post-oil fiction looks like, and how peak oilers can help ensure that their vision is realized faithfully.
I knew that I wanted to be a writer by the age of thirteen. While the other kids were playing outside, I was always holed up in my room working on my latest short story or attempt at a novel. I had other artistic pursuits as well—I did a lot of drawing, sculpture-making,...