World Made by Hand
James Howard Kunstler, 2008

Around the time I read Jared Diamond's Collapse I also read a blog post by a guy named James Howard Kunstler predicting all sorts of dire things for 2006. They didn't come true then, but a number of them (e.g., burst of the housing bubble, $100+/barrel oil, potential collapse of GM and Ford) did shortly thereafter. Kunstler went on in other posts to predict that the end of cheap oil and the economic shock thereby produced would knock the world back into a patchwork of localized agrarian societies. So I thought it might be interesting to read his novel based on the same premise.

Nope. Kunstler skips over the interesting part — the transition from the world of today to the "world made by hand" — and opens the book in a Hudson Valley town that has already settled into a standard of living roughly equivalent to that in the year 1800. Same technology, same population levels, same social structure — Kunstler casually avers that basically as soon as the electricity went out women silently stepped back into basket-weaving and butter-churning and let the menfolk run things. There are a number of problems here. One is that the characters, even the younger ones, are set up as being issei: they were big-city software engineers and corporate executives and things as recently as fifteen or twenty years ago. Now they're farmers and carpenters and things — fair enough — but we're supposed to believe that this automatically turns them into rustics? There are several conversations that go something along these lines:

"Say, you remember that there Mountain Dew?"
"I surely do. Had it in the break room back at Centrex Systems."
"Mountain Dew'd go down real smooth about now."
"You said a dadgum mouthful. Even if it was full a' chemicals."
"Reckon that attitude got us in this fix, though."
"Maybe so. Could be we're better off now."
"Leastwise there's no grunge music. Pass the applejack."

That's not the only thing that's screwy about the timeline, though. For a while I thought that this must be some kind of alternate history rather than a tale of the future, but no, Kunstler establishes that the timeline is the same as ours up until at least 2006, so that means this novel takes place in the 2020s at the earliest. That means the oldest of the main characters are around my age. So why do they all sneer condescendingly at my generation's cultural touchstones?
James Howard Kunstler, 1948–
Seriously — if you're a Baby Boomer, and you can only write Baby Boomers, then maybe the future is not the best time frame for you to be working with.

Ultimately, World Made by Hand is standard post-apocalypse fare. You've got nukes going off, a small community of survivors banding together around our protagonist's reluctant but steady leadership, gangs that have reverted to tribal savagery, weather anomalies. It's also a Pattern 15 book: cardboard protagonist, major supporting character whose entire personality boils down to "he tells bad jokes," female character whose sole purpose is to provide healing sex to a man twice her age. Most tellingly of all, World Made by Hand has the same sort of reactionary, Revelation-inspired agenda as Alas, Babylon and Tomorrow! and the Unabomber manifesto and the rest — the idea that, yes, burning everything down sure will suck for those caught in the flames, but if that's what it takes to return to a simple world of honest toil, living life according to the seasons, entertaining yourself not by watching DVDs in your living room but by getting together with the same 50 neighbors you'll be spending your entire life with, playing folk music (as opposed to that horrible, horrible grunge rock) and getting drunk/stoned/laid... well, then that's what it takes! Pass the fiddle!

Return to the Calendar page!