James Howard Kunstler has written insightful analyses of the inefficient and asinine ways we organize our cities, made problematic predictions about disasters which (thus far) have not happened, and widely disseminated the idea we’ve reached Peak oil. He sets the fictional World Made by Hand, published in 2008, in a post-peak-energy future.
Title: World Made by Hand
Author: James Howard Kunstler
Original Publication Date: 2007
In a fragmented North America, post-peak-oil, post-plague, and post-war, the inhabitants of a small community rediscover the virtues and dangers of the homespun lifestyle as they try to maintain civilization.
In a moment I will critique Kunstler’s oft-ponderous politicking but I concede him persuasive– to a point. Our culture has lost touch with human beings and the natural rhythms with which we’ve evolved. We don’t look after each other very well. We have organized our cities for cars, not humans. Some of the nostalgia for the past with which he invests his future addresses aspects of society worth preserving or re-investigating. As protagonist Robert Earle’s narrative unfolds, we see the positive along with the negative aspects of this society. The novel at times sings hymns to human resourcefulness and spirit.
Kunstler also examines the resources we have readily available, separate of a global culture, and puts them to plausible use. I have some issues with his world-building, but many of his building blocks are solid.
Kunstler’s future society blends logical consequences of the various disasters and shortages with problematic politics. All right: it’s a political novel. Likewise, I can accept that a more traditional lifestyle might breed more traditional gender roles. However, a lot of women in these communities would have skills and training useful outside the home. At present, more than half the people graduating from North American medical schools are female. This novel has been set less than a generation from now, yet we see too few non-traditional contributions by women. Worse, Kunstler tells us, in case we missed it, that women under these circumstances would just naturally return to the roles they typically had in, say, the nineteenth century. Maybe this would happen– but not in a decade.
Then there are the three communities central to the story. We have the narrator’s Union Grove, a neo-old-fashioned and surprisingly undefended small town largely founded by middle class types, where people rely upon each other and rediscover the value of traditional values and community. The Grove coexists with Stephen Bullock’s estate, a benevolent feudal world run by a former industrialist. Nearby Karptown scavenges important material for trade. Its “misfits” and “former motorheads” (267) talk like Trailer Park Boys. Public entertainment consists of live sex shows, reenactments of Sopranos episodes, acoustic heavy metal, and brutal judicial corporal punishment. All of these communities could exist—but it’s difficult to miss the class implications, intended or not.
Originality: 4/6. Kunstler builds a plausible world, if one accepts his premises. Many of the ideas in the novel he has helped promulgate.
Story: 3/6. Kunstler is more interested in using his setting to explore the workaday implications of his predictions. His story wanders from one development to the next, leaves relationships underdeveloped, and then ends with a fantastic and arbitrary twist. The tales we encounter on the periphery of the story, the doomed old man with a still-functioning car and the troubled but useful gang from Karptown, interested me more than the central story Kunstler chose to emphasize.
Characterization: 4/6. The two main characters have some complexity, but they never seemed fully realized to me—not the narrator, a heroic stud whose name might have been “Mary Sue,” nor Brother Jobe, a resourceful cult leader whose personality defies expectations. Many of the remaining characters occupy a space between satiric caricature and broad type.
I understand why the characters in another, more recent, similar novel, Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock sound so nineteenth century, given the direction of the culture and the time that has passed since our day. World Made by Hand features people who remember our time, yet many of them talk like they’ve been time-warped. This particular stylization doesn’t entirely make sense.
Imagery: 5/6. Kunstler does a good job of describing the physical aspects of his world, and how people interact with it. His narrator observes the world of nature and the utility of objects with a sense lost to many of us in 2010. The world may be very dangerous, but things have meaning.
Emotional Response: 4/6.
Editing: 5/6. Kunstler has written several books, and the experience shows in his description and exposition.
Overall Score: 4/6.
In total, World Made by Hand receives 29/42