Casaubon's Book

PANRC: Prelude, Part I

Just an update – all the copies of Prelude in circulation are presently going ’round, but if past experience is any guide, the books should have at least one more cycle before the end of the month. So watch here for the next announcement.

In some ways I’m not the optimal audience for Kurt Cobb’s _Prelude_ in that I generally hate thrillers. I find the “ordinary person caught up in a chase sequence” thing silly, and while I can read science fiction and suspend belief long enough to believe in wormholes and colonization, or mysteries, and believe that the town of Whateverville experiences a murder rate that makes Detroit look like Mayberry, and that the local private detective also owns a quilt shop, bakes elaborate wedding cakes and picks locks on the side, and happens to be dating a retired police officer/opera singer, I have more trouble with thrillers. I guess I’m a coward, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the tendrils of power are so secret and universal that you can buy off every cop anyone might tell a story to, every reporter, every everyone, ensuring that you have no choice but to solve the mystery yourself while running for you life. When the black copters start chasing me ;-), I’m calling the cops and going home and pulling the covers up over my head. This, however, would make a boring book.

Perhaps that’s why I actually liked _Prelude_ – mercifully, Cobb spares us the rooftop helicopter chases as the vision of a unified government in which local, state, federal and civil figures all conspire collectively. Cassie and Victor, the protagonists, have encounters that are almost plausible in the era of Wiki-Leaks – almost.

The biggest reason I liked _Prelude_ though, is that it fills a major gap in the peak oil oeuvre. Here’s a light, plausible, fun, short read that you can hand to someone who has never heard of peak oil. Cobb’s mastery of the thriller conventions is sufficient that everyone who encounters it will recognize themselves as on familiar ground, and by telling the story as a high-tension mystery to be solved, gradually unfolding the information about peak oil to a reader, Cobb may have done one a greater service to the larger community of activists than almost anyone else. We all know people who will never touch a non-fiction book with the word “oil” in it – but who devour light novels like candy.

Think about how important this is – we all know how meaningful fiction is in these roles. The obvious example is the degree to which Michael Crichton’s revolting garbage about climate change framed and shaped the denialist debate for so many. Now imagine Crichton’s evil powers turned to good – instead of denying the material and technical limits that we are encountering, imagine someone wrote a popular thriller about how climate change – or in this case, peak oil – was real? Think about how much that matters.

Because Cobb is working towards a particular kind of genre, with a particular kind of audience, it can be hard to review this sort of book. The book is not heavy, it doesn’t take long to read, it isn’t subtle and if you are longing for the kind of complexities that Kunstler’s work brings up, you won’t them. The only complex parts of the book are those where Cobb explains the technical limits of energy production. He makes this as light and accessible as possible, and the explanations are extremely well done. Cobb’s gift is his gift for clarity, and he manages to make explanations of shale gas and oil reserves readable enough that I think the majority of his target audience won’t simply skip over them. Even those fairly familiar with the subjects might learn something new as well – but what’s most appealing to me as a writer is to watch Cobb’s grace at dispensing technical knowledge to an audience that may not be per se interested in oil – the audience seeking simply to escape into a familiar sort of a book.

Cobb’s is a novel of pre-apocalypse, and that’s interesting because he leaves open the question of outcomes. When Cassie is brought to a group of peak oil true believers, they debate how the outcomes might play out and what the time frames might be. Victor, who is pretty clearly a younger and slightly hotter Dmitry Orlov (actually, his cover pic looks rather like the author photo of Orlov on _Reinventing Collapse_) summarizes Orlov’s position – the collapse will be financial and political, but the cause won’t be the same, and the US will in many ways not fare well because of the heavy debt obligations and dependencies built up by fossil infrastructure.

Other peak oil theorists show up in the background of the writing – Cobb seems to have taken the best ideas liberally, and laid them out for his readers, for which I give him credit. As Eliot put it, immature poets borrow, mature poets steal. Cobb is a mature poet who rightly takes the ideas he needs and inserts them into his fiction so as to present a whole picture. I’m just sad that Greer’s problem vs. predicament distinction didn’t come with a long-bearded Druid character to accompany it – sadly, the peak oil believers are a polite, dull bunch. I suppose this adds to the overall credibility of the issue, but what’s funny about the real peak oil movement is that its strangest figures (me included) aren’t really nearly as strange as the truth.

I know that most of us reading this were searching for fun parallels to people we know/know of, and there are quite a few, but I’ll let you find them yourself. Looking for thinly fictionalized familiar people is a great party game, and I’d spoil it if I mentioned the ones I spotted. It does make a good parlor game.

It isn’t a perfect book – some of the transitions are a little heavy handed, and almost all the supporting characters are dull, and hard to tell apart from one another. In many cases, though, these are conventions of the thriller, which bring to life only a few real characters and leave the rest as background and cannon fodder. Most of the things that I don’t love about the book are not bugs, but features – that is, this is a particular kind of book written in a particular kind of genre and it uses the conventions of those genres well. For the same reason you can’t add Russian-novel complexity to teenage romance, you can’t slow down a fast-paced thriller with pesky details like secondary character development, and plenty of thriller writers (even though I dislike the genre, I went and read a few just to make sure that Cobb really did have the genre down) like Grisham or Hoban are much heavier of hand than Cobb.

In some ways, I have to imagine that writing this kind of book is harder than writing a Great American Novel about peak oil – or at least it would be for me (note, I don’t claim here that I wouldn’t write a crappy example of a Great American Novel, just that that genre seems more accessible). The kind of writing that Cobb has to do to make the peak oil story available to people is *hard* – you have to be concise, light of hand and engaging with difficult technical concepts to an audience that may have the faintest understanding of the issue. Even if I didn’t like the book – and I do – I’d be awed at what Cobb has accomplished.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Don
    January 10, 2011

    I approached this novel with a bit of trepidation. Novels that are written specifically for a didactic or pedagogical purpose usually leave the fiction writing as second-rate. I was a bit pleased that this one at least had an engaging story and was fun to read.

    I read the book in about two days. It certainly was light reading and it was also informative–I learned a few new things, such as what the Bakken oil shale really is. As fiction, though, I would still give it a somewhat mixed review. Although the plot was engaging as far as thrillers go–and my wife and I like to listen to Grisham novels in “books on CD” format when we travel, so I’m a little familiar with the genre–I thought the dialogue was wooden. It seemed like when the characters spoke, it was out of obligation to speak rather than a reflection of what was really on their minds. The dialogue did get a little better as the novel progressed.

    But it wasn’t bad for a first novel. I’m sure I couldn’t do so well, so I don’t want to be too negative. And would be a good book to give to someone who wonders what peak oil really is all about and who wants to know more. Will it convince the cornucopians? Probably not.

  2. #2 GS
    January 10, 2011

    See if you can spot a doomer archetype in this video, part of a series that I’m working on:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8HFLrD9JyI

    A little hard to follow beause it’s out of context, but I think you’ll recognize what this guy has to say in exchanges you’ve probably had with doomers.

  3. #3 Brandie
    January 11, 2011

    I purchased this book as a Christmas present for my novel-a-week-reading, non-PO-aware mother, and sent it to her only slightly used :-) I also don’t read thrillers and I’m not able to compare it to the rest of the genre. I did learn something from the technical information, without my eyes glazing over like they often do. For what it is, I think it is a fine book. I love that it has a glossary.

  4. #4 Tegan
    January 11, 2011

    I found that my biggest problem with this book was that I had zero respect for the main character (or any of them, but I should feel something other than contempt for the main character at least!). There also was a great deal of un-stated inner dialog.

    At the concert hall, when doing some small talk with her boyfriend’s boss’s new wife, she basically rolls her eyes, says that she could see where THIS was heading, and walked away. … where was it heading? Into a conversation? The only conversation that I found interesting in the book? C’mon, PDQ Bach and Phillip Glass discussions were far more entertaining than our heroine flipping her hair in disdain.

    I hate also how she was immediately all “dismiss dismiss dismiss” on Victor (but then did such a flipflop), and he was so heavy handed a stereotype. I mean, going on and on about growing tomatoes, the CSA, it was too overt. Your average doomer in the city isn’t as blatant especially before the crash, especially in front of people who have already told you that they don’t respect it.

    Loved the bimbo in Texas (“so happy to see another woman in oil! Let’s be bosom friends”) — the whole convo of “do you know anything” “well not really… it’s classified… oh ok here’s the dirt on my company that NO ONE ELSE KNOWS.” Funniest part of the book.

    Also, all of her going on and on about how she should be really happy with what she has with her guy, but then sad because they don’t have a relationship — but then cutting him out of her life! His whole purpose was to get her to the concert hall, and break up with her (after yelling at her for screwing up their chance of future happiness by putting herself in jeopardy).

    Basically, all of the characters were one dimensional. I appreciate the message the book was giving and how it handled that for the most part, but you can use actual characterization and writing to do so.

  5. #5 Liz
    January 11, 2011

    If you are interested in a really good fantasy novel (well, series of short stories) about depletion of a resource that an entire society depends on, try Larry Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away”. It’s 1970′s vintage but wears extremely well today and is interesting even without realizing that their magic functions much like our oil.

    Once you do notice that, it gets even better. The complexity of people’s reactions to magic depletion, the crazy lengths they go to to try to perpetuate that which is not perpetuatable, the official government denials, the criminal waste of magic by those with power, the sinking of Atlantis and the lack of realization by the protagonists that a world worth living in can be built without magic are very well done. It’s more a novel of ideas than one of characterization or plot, but well worth a read.

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    January 12, 2011

    Tegan, I agree with you – I just think that’s pretty typical of the genre. I do have to say that Cassie’s taste for Philip Glass seemed totally in character with her basic emptiness – wow, contentless music, contentless character ;-).

    Sharon

  7. #7 Kurt Cobb
    January 12, 2011

    Thanks to all for reading “Prelude” and for taking the time to comment on its strengths and weaknesses.

    Liz, I think, hits upon a very important point applicable to “Prelude” as much as it is to “The Magic Goes Away.” At its root “Prelude” is a novel of ideas. As such the characters become exemplars of those ideas more than the kind of subtle and complete characters one expects in a literary novel. If you as a reader find yourself disliking a character in such a novel, ask yourself if you disagree with the views the character espouses. That will likely be at least part of the reason, if not the primary reason, for your dislike.

    Think of a novel such as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. We learn a lot about the views and attitudes of Tomas, the main character, from interior dialogues. (Do not confuse the novel with the movie version which had as much similarity to it as a ham sandwich does to an elephant.) But we learn very little about Tomas’ background and history. He represents certain ideas and philosophical positions. (Someday I hope to be as profound as Kundera!)

    “Prelude” is also a book about relationships: between friends, co-workers and lovers. However, the main relationship in the book may not be apparent if one thinks in terms of characters. But if one thinks in terms of ideas, it will stand out. It is the relationship between Cassie and oil. As the book proceeds, that relationship changes and changes drastically. And as Cassie’s relationship to oil changes, so does her relationship with everyone around her. This should sound familiar to those who are peak oil aware. I know of marriages that have been put under terrible strain when one spouse embraces the peak oil thesis and the other does not. And, of course, many people have had the experience of discussing peak oil with co-workers only to be dismissed.

    Now, as for Sharon’s taste in music, I’ll take exception. I do agree and we see in the novel that people either really like Philip Glass’s music or they just hate it. I don’t think of Glass as being contentless. Perhaps some of his imitators, but not Glass. There is some profound philosophical and aesthetic content in that music whether you like or hate it.

    Finally, there used to be a distinction between a book of entertainment and a novel. A novel was considered to a serious work, what we call literary fiction today. An entertainment was really meant as a diversion, not something meant to challenge the mind, but rather an escape.

    “Prelude” is a piece of fiction with two minds. As work of ideas it is quite serious-minded in its attempt to get the uninitiated thinking about oil and energy. In that respect it resembles a novel. As an entertainment it distracts the reader with a travelogue of sorts covering the tar sands, offshore oil and Washington, D.C. It employs the conventions of the thriller. No thriller reader expects thoroughly fleshed out characters or an entirely plausible plot though I have tried to construct one that is not so outlandish as to be dismissed as mere fantasy.

    As Sharon notes, I am trying to reach a fiction-devouring public that would never touch a book of nonfiction about oil. And, that audience is both enormous and vital to the success of the peak oil movement.

    Will “Prelude” succeed at reaching that audience? It might if activists feel that the book is a good tool for introducing people to the peak oil issue. It might if mainstream fiction readers simply enjoy it as a thriller and thereby accept the limitations of the genre.

    My thesis when starting out on my journey to write what would become “Prelude” was that ideas only become widely dispersed in the public mind when they are infused in the arts. This is my attempt to do just that. There need to be many others in all manner of arts–painting, plays, dance, song, poetry, decorative arts and so on–if we are to succeed in making the public aware of the difficult road ahead.

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