“After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World” is a collection of science fiction short stories book-ended by John Michael Greer and published by Founders House Publishing in 2012. This is a bit of a first for us as this is a review of the Kindle edition. This is also our first review of a work of fiction. John Michael Greer kicks off this collection of amateur science fiction stories with his own well written introduction and ends the book with his own short story. In between there are eleven tales of lives after oil. We are familiar with John Michael Greer through reading his books “The Long Descent” (2008) and “The Ecotechnic Future” (2009). If you are familiar with those (or his blog) then you pretty much know what you are in for here. These are stories about the world as it will be when the oil runs out. It is a post-peak universe vision of humanity in a world where climate change has wreaked its worse and we are paying for the mistakes of the past.
This is not a post-apocalyptic world however it is all too often a wistful and romantic view of human civilisation after the fall of technology. These are bitter-sweet tales that are not shy of dealing with the death of individuals but is too focused to deal with the deaths of billions. The tales are (with only one exception) set in a post-peak rural USA. Many of the themes are common between them as they deal largely with a future period of salvage. There are no happy endings but there is also hope amongst the tragedy. There is no bucolic fantasy at work here but it is very much a body of work set in a rural American mind-set. It all so much resembles Kevin Costner’s “The Postman”. In the US there is such vast tracts of land to hide in the European reader wonders what fate belies the over-populated areas elsewhere.
So although this is not a post-nuclear survivalist horror story or some zombie-apocalypse it is very familiar – as much the result of a mindset conditioned by Hollywood movies than any sort of utterly original fiction. For a cunning twist you would need to turn to that other great recent tome of post-apocalyptic writing: the Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey. The “After Oil” works explore a noble idea but they do not provide great inspiration. They fail to create a universe to explore in a genuinely original literary sense.
That is not to say there isn’t value in this exercise. Some of the individual works here show promise but together they didn’t capture my imagination. This is a pity because the post-oil world is certainly one worthy of exploration. All the writers here chose a time period within a hundred years of now. Only Greer himself chose to spin out the idea beyond 150 years from the present. His writing remains excellent and readable although I enjoyed his introduction more than his fiction. His non-fiction work rates highly with us as he has given as vision of a slow-unravelling of industrial civilisation that endures. He suggests that there will be no great single crash. At the end of oil our civilisation will simply and slowly become undone. There need be no one specific and total crash, just an endless series of small crashes.
This collection is worthy if lacking some greater purpose. There is little or no sense of the sweep of history. Each is a tiny tale leaving the reader with no great sense that they are wiser for the experience. However to expect more is to be optimistic. This is exactly what it says on the cover. Small stories chiselled from the future history that Greer has carved himself. The authors have taken small elements of what Greer has described and built small human-interest tales around these scenarios. So we shouldn’t complain. Each author has done a great job and each story is well written. I wish I could write as well.
Is there a take-away from this? If you are new to the Transition and popular Peak Oil theory then this sub-genre may mystify you as an art form. If you are not familiar then these little nuggets may offer more of an education. For those of us who have read about little else for six years we may feel that this is a bit of a lightweight diversion. It adds little to our understanding in the way that Greer’s non-fiction does. It may well depend upon the reader. I was expecting to see the world in a different way after reading these stories. However, being a European I found it hard to relate to this North American perspectives. Each tale read like some small chapter of a Hollywood post-apocalypse fantasy. Like episodes of The Twilight Zone without any twist in the tail. They lacked entertainment value.
So although highly worthy, and delivering exactly what Greer asked his contributors to provide, nothing here truly inspires like great science fiction should. So, if you like science fiction (as we do) and read a lot of it then this may fall a bit flat. If you are bit of a post-peak oil junky with the need to read everything on the topic then this is one to check off your list. The average European Transitioner may see little appeal. The messages here are ones we are already familiar with. We do need great stories for the Transition but these stories need to be positive tales of what can be achieved rather than just how a few small North American communities survived. We guess this new sub-genre remain a great setting for a truly original story. What we are lacking is that story.