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June 15, 2011

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Peak Everything

In her review of Embassytown, Ursula Le Guin makes a lovely point about the genre and its critics:

Some authors fill a novel with futuristic scenery and jargon and then strenuously, even stertorously, deny that it's science fiction. No, no, they don't write that nasty stuff, never touch it. They write literature. Though curiously familiar with the tropes and conventions of the despised genre, they so blithely ignore the meaning of terms, they reinvent the wheel with such cries of self-admiration, that their endeavours seem a doomed effort to prove that one can write a novel without learning how. ... Only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy minds. Where the complexity of realistic novels is moral and psychological, in science fiction it's moral and intellectual; individual character is seldom the key.
To put it another way, good science fiction is often sociological literature, as opposed to psychological. It is, as the argument goes, more about the concerns of the present than about any predicted future. And as Mieville himself has written, it lends itself to radical political thinking precisely because it jettisons the most basic bounds of possibility. That's a powerful tool, as Sam Thompson's review in the London Review of Books explains.

Lately I've been wondering if, after the genre gets over its twin infatuation with steampunk and the undead, we're due for another round of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. There's certainly cause for it--global warming, outbreaks of E. coli and bird-flu, and of course, worries over peak oil. The last is something I find particularly intriguing. Could we call it "peak everything?"

Peak oil, of course, is the theory that A) there's a limited amount of petroleum that can be extracted from the earth within our current geological span of existence, and B) we will soon pass, or have already passed, the point where we have extracted all the easy-to-find oil. That means it'll be increasingly expensive to run a petroleum economy--possibly too expensive. We'll have to find alternatives, or suffer serious political and economic consequences.

Peak everything, by extension, would be based on the idea that oil isn't the only exhaustible resource on which our industrialized society is based. Modern electronics are manufactured using a variety of rare materials like coltan, and they aren't inexhaustible (not to mention that they're mined from conflict areas, making their supply prone to disruption). The plastics used in packaging and components are petroleum-based. And some things that are technically renewable, like oil, might turn out to be refreshed at a rate so slow as to be non-renewable. In response, we'd have to drastically change our manufacturing and consumption, which would ripple through unpredictable parts of society: our labor economies, our politics, our communications, and our urban planning, just for a start.

Whether or not this is scientifically feasible, I don't know. It's largely irrelevant anyway, given the genre's loose relationship to its namesake discipline. Charlie Stross, for example, has written regularly about the impossibility of certain genre tropes--this post on the impracticality of interplanetary travel is a great example. Let's not even get started on things like telepathy, artificial intelligence, or functional libertarian governments. Eco-fiction, like other genre settings, is a tool for exploring more than just scientific theory.

But even if we don't see "peak everything" as a subgenre on the rise, I've enjoyed thinking about it this week when reflecting on my own life. After all, how much of a typical American lifestyle could be maintained if we imposed a strict renewables-only requirement? Would we see more bespoke manufacturing, more user-serviceable parts encased in renewable materials like wood and bone? Would we learn to value beautiful patterns of wear over shiny newness?

Despite what seems like obvious potential, I've only read one novel recently that really played with the idea of rampant resource depletion: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi sets the book in Thailand after the oceans rise and the oil economy runs down: coiled springs are revived as the main method of energy storage, and biotech is used as an imperfect replacement for now-defunct technology. I wouldn't say that The Windup Girl was one of my favorite books this year--it drags a bit, and some of its characterization is patchy--but I loved its willingness to interrogate contemporary economic breakdown without simply veering abruptly into Mad Max caricature. For a genre where "anything's possible," that kind of clarity is a bit too rare--and all too necessary.

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