Archive for July 14th, 2008

Best Peak Oil Prose Award

Sharon July 14th, 2008

Ok, you all know that I’ve had my differences, some polite, some not so much with James Kunstler.  But I have to tell you that for sheer ferocious, delicious prose, there is no one like him.  There’s nobody out there in the peak oil movement, and precious few anywhere who can write like this –

“There’s a particular moment known to all Baby Boomers when Wile E. Coyote, in a rapture of over-reaching, has run past the edge of the mesa and, still licking his chops and rubbing his front paws in anticipation of fricasseed roadrunner, discovers that he is suspended in thin air by nothing more than momentum. Grin becomes chagrin. He turns a nauseating shade of green, and drops, whistling, back to earth thousands of feet below, with a distant, dismal, barely audible thud at the end of his journey. We are Wile E. Coyote Nation.
Is there anyone in the known universe who thinks that the US financial system is not fifty feet beyond the edge of the mesa of credibility?

 Nothing will avail now. Not even if Sirhan Sirhan were paroled at noon today and transported directly to the West Wing with a .44 magnum in each hand (and a taxi driven by the Devil waiting outside to take him to the US Treasury and the offices of the Federal Reserve).”

Kunstler is almost certainly right – the markets aren’t buying the bailout – so you get to have your pocket picked, your children impoverished and you get your Depression anyway.  Check the news out at   But more importantly, reading about your doom should always be fun.  As you hear the bad news, it is always good to be thinking “Shit, this guy can write” rather than “Well, I guess Mom will have move in with us and we’ll be giving up luxuries like meat and more than 1 pair of shoes each.”  And hey, we’ve got to take what pleasures are available to us.


The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club – Week 2 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Redux

Sharon July 14th, 2008

Hi Everyone – This will be the last week of the PA Book Club on Heinlein’s TMIAHM.  Next week we’ll be discussing Niven and Pournelle’s  _Lucifer’s Hammer_, and in August we’ll move on to _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer and _The Gate to Women’s Country_ by Sherri Tepper (who won the reader voting), so you can start getting those Inter-library Loan orders in. 

Last week we got into a fascinating discussion of revolution, and its possibilities – or lack there-of in both our present situation and in the novel.  We also talked a little bit about the idea of limits, and about family structures.  I really enjoyed the discourse that came out of this.

I thought it might be interesting to talk about the larger idea of an “apocalypse” as a subject for literary exploration.  One of the reasons I wanted to begin with Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle is that they come from two very different, but tied together periods of science fiction writing. Heinlein is a golden age author, one of the first people to bring science fiction out of the pulp era into the mainstream – and it isn’t an accident that this mainstreaming of science fiction happened shortly after World War II, and after the first uses of the atomic bomb, when it became possible to imagine a worldwide apocalypse.

Now the truth is, a true world-wide apocalypse is extremely unlikely – although lord knows, we are doing our damnedest to create one with climate change.  But I think it is important not to underestimate the sheer psychological weight of transitioning, as Heinlein did, from a world in which world-wide nuclear winter (or some similar Holocaust) was unimagined, to one in which it became possible.   It is, I think hard for those of us who grew up in the post-apocalyptically-conscious world to imagine the way that changes our thinking – I suspect I have few (probably not none, but few) readers who were old enough in 1945 to really have grasped the fact that our sense of our place in the world changed so powerfully.  Thus, for Heinlein (and often for Clark and Asimov the other most famous Golden Age writers), I think it makes a certain amount of sense that the apocalypse is always in the background, usually far less explicit than in TMIHM - instead of direct apocalypses, mostly (there are notable exceptions) the writers of this era give us apocalypses past or narrowly averted – instead of thinking about how we might go on after the disaster, they leap ahead to a distant future in which we’ve survived, or get us off one more time.  I wonder if perhaps this is because it is so hard to imagine the disaster itself striking – and so hard to shake it off.

Heinlein was 15 years younger than TS Eliot, and younger than most of the early high modernist poets (Pound, Yeats, Stevens, etc…), but I think broadly of the right age to be thought of as a modernist (more Bishop’s era though) - shaped by the first World War, and harrowed by the second.  In the study of literature, genre authors are fairly rarely thought of as part of high literary movements – I’ve often wondered what would happen if we integrated those movements, consider Pound next to Burroughs, the pulps of the 30s with the high poetry of the 30s (yes, there are some scholars who do just this).  Science fiction spends a great deal of time depicting passages like these in minute details:

What is that sound high in the air  
Murmur of maternal lamentation  
Who are those hooded hordes swarming  
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth  
Ringed by the flat horizon only  370
What is the city over the mountains  
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air  
Falling towers  
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria  
Vienna London  375

The tie between the destruction of the self and the destruction of the outer world will arise again and again, and I’m interested in the ways we imagine it, and how that imagination changes in different eras.

Pournelle and Niven, born in the 1930s, children during WWII, come from a later era – one in which science fiction was much more mainstream than when Heinlein began writing, and one in which the world of science fiction and the world of the present had surprising overlaps – both Niven and Pournelle have advised governments on terrorism, Star Wars and the real possibilities of science fiction technologies on the ground.  The lines between plausible and implausible are less clear than they were when a Heinlein story was turned down because the idea of someone going to the moon was too inconceivable. 

This is a question I’m going to be interested in as we talk about the next two books in the series – Sherri Tepper is a science fiction writer of a later era still, where as Susan Beth Pfeiffer isn’t a science fiction genre writer at all, but a young adult author.  It will be interesting to talk about the conventions of books for younger people – Heinlein wrote TMIAHM having more or less just shaken off his role as primarily a juvenile writer, barred from sex or anything too controversial.  And when Heinlein shakes something off, be it socialism (yup, he was a junior socialist in the 30s, like a lot of Americans), he shakes it off hard, reminding us that there is no more passionate advocate than a reformed whatever.

I’m curious what people think – to the extent that you’ve read books in this genre, and to the extent that my readers represent different genres, I wonder how much generation affects one’s relationship to the idea of disaster.  Born in 1972, I’m the daughter of baby boomers who grew up in the duck and cover era, and the child of Reagan’s defense shield ads and Cold warmongering.  For me the disaster was always possible.  What is it like for you?

The other subject that interests me is the question of freedom.  As I began writing this post, I came upon Kurt Cobb’s latest essay, which I think is intriguingly connected to one of the central questions that Heinlein is interested in – how do you make a livable, non-authoritarian society, particularly in a densely populated future.  One of the fascinating things about Heinlein is that he honestly seems not to think this is possible.  One of my favorite moments in the book is this one, in which Stuart proposes an alternative to democracy:

 Stu said, “Professor, I’m glad to hear that you are anxious to stop being President.”

“So? You share our comrade’s misgivings?”

“Only in part.  Having been born to wealth, stealing doesn’t fret me as much as it does him.  No, but now that Congress has taken up the matter of a constitution I intend to find time to attend sessions. I plan to nominate you for King.”

Prof looked shocked.  “Sir, if nominated, I shall repudiate it.  If elected, I shall abdicate.”

“Don’t be in a hurry.  It might be the only way to get the sort of constitution you want.  And that I want too, with about your own mild lack of enthusiasm.  You could be proclaimed King and the people would take you; we Loonies aren’t wedded to a republic.  They’d love the idea – ritual and robes and a court and all that.”


“Ja da! When the time comes, you won’t be able to refuse.  Because we need a king and there isn’t another candidate who would be accepted.  Bernardo the First, King of Luna and Emperor of the Surrounding Spaces.”

“Stuart, I must ask you to stop. I’m becoming quite ill.”

“You’ll get used to it.  I’m a royalists because I’m a democrat.  I shan’t let your reluctance thwart the idea any more than you let stealing stop you.”

“I said, “Hold it Stu.  You say you’re a royalist because you’re a democrat?”

“Of course.  A king is the people’s only protection against tyranny…especially against the worst of all tyrants, themselves.  Prof will be ideal for the job…because he does not want the job.  His only shortcoming is that he is a bachelor with no heir.  We’ll fix that.  I’m going to name you as his heir, Crown Prince.  His Royal Highness Prince Manuel de la Paz, Duke of Luna City, Admiral General of the Armed Forces and Protector of the Weak.”

 I stared.  Then buried face in hands.  “Oh, Bog!”

Besides being quite funny,  I’m fascinated by this idea that the people are, in many cases, the worst possible tyrants to themselves.  I think that’s a genuine insight, and while I agree with Heinlein about comparatively little,  I do think there’s a truth there.  Now Heinlein handles the question by treating this largely as a joke, and by the idea that there’s always another frontier out there – Heinlein thinks that most people, left to themselves, will ruin anything, and the answer is to go out to yet another unruined place in perpetuity. 

In the absence of a frontier to escape to, this becomes an urgent question, and one that I think the relocalization movement has somewhat elided (Cobb even gives us something of pass on the subject, which is kind of him, but maybe not merited) .  The truth is that if we are to live sustainably, we’re going to need strong mechanisms to enforce sustainability.  Societal and cultural pressures can do some of it.  But those cultural and societal pressures don’t honestly exist yet – and instituting them will take time.  If we are imagining a more democratic society, how do we get the democracy around to recognizing the need to do sustainable things even when they are painful and unpleasant? 

That is, the will of the people has its limits – sometimes the people are idiots.  The truth is, that without Brown v. Board of Education, integration wouldn’t have happened – most Americans were quite comfortable with segregation.  Without an autocratic order (based on constitutional principles, but we all know that Supreme Court justices can use constitutional principles to get all sorts of places) , we might not have gotten to anything but “seperate but equal” – the same could be said of the Massachusetts court decisions that legalized gay marriage.  Ultimately, the push of benign leadership is sometimes necessary to drive the people where they ought to have gotten on their own, but couldn’t. 

Now of course, we all know that autocratic leaders come in all stripes – benign, outright evil and all the blurry grey areas in between.  And yet, it is a little too easy to romanticize democracy – I’m all for it, but I don’t think that those who imply that democracy is a magic tool that gets us where we need to go in and of itself are right. 

So one of the questions that interests me in relationship to this book is whether the inevitable slight to a regulated, and (in Heinlein’s view at least) emasculated (literally in Farnham’s Freehold ;-) ), self-slavery is a likely result of any serious attempt to regulate ourselves.  I’m not so much interested in Kings here, as the ways we might regulate the tyranny of the people as we try and control ourselves?  Heinlein declines ever to consider the idea of controlling reproduction, for example – suggesting that doing so would be destructive to the very idea of freedom (and for Heinlein, freedom is largely personal – he may endorse freedom for a group, but he doesn’t seem to think that any group, other than the clan, perhaps, can hold on to it).  Is that true?  Can we have freedom and self-limitation together?  Thoughts?

Eliot, of course, plays with this question – for him, the question is in part whether it is possible for women to meaningfully self limit.  Twice we see a woman caught in a sexual bind – first there’s Lil, who is asked cruelly (and in one of the great all-time lines of poetry) “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” – she has five of course, and nearly died, but in saving her own life, she risks losing her husband.  In another, the secretary, who does not desire the caresses of the young man carbuncular, recognizes the inevitable (?) failure of resistance, and does not resist, playing with the blurry grey between date rape and thinking of England

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,  235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,  
Endeavours to engage her in caresses  
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.  
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;  
Exploring hands encounter no defence;  240
His vanity requires no response,  
And makes a welcome of indifference.  
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all  
Enacted on this same divan or bed;  
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall  245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)  
Bestows on final patronising kiss,  
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…  
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,  
Hardly aware of her departed lover;  250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:  
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’  
When lovely woman stoops to folly and  
Paces about her room again, alone,  
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,  255
And puts a record on the gramophone.

For Heinlein, people can’t self regulate because self-regulation is emasculating.  For Eliot, women, at least, can’t self-regulate because men aren’t quite emasculated enough by self-regulation.  It makes, at least for an interesting contrast, and I think, a useful way of thinking about the problem of self-regulation – it only works if everyone works together.  But how, how, do we achieve that?